It happens all the time, of course. The "liberal" media, in its effort to be even-handed and to inoculate itself from the dreaded slander that it is liberal, engages in he-said/she-said journalism. This is at the expense of actually getting the story right, providing useful context or more generally providing the information necessary for individuals to make informed decisions about politics.
As but only the latest instance of this endless abdication of journalistic responsibility concerns coverage of the debate about the use of reconciliation to pass health care reform. As Jamison Foser detailed at Media Matters, when the GOP used reconciliation to "ram through" the Bush tax cuts of 2003 (at a cost of $1.8 trillion), the media barely mentioned the term.
The Senate reconciliation vote occurred on May 23, 2003. In the month of May, only one New York Times article so much as mentioned the use of reconciliation for the tax cuts -- a May 13, 2003, article that devoted a few paragraphs to wrangling over whether Senate Republicans could assign the bill number they wanted (S.2) to a bill approved via reconciliation. The Times also used the word "reconciliation" in a May 9, 2003, editorial, but gave no indication whatsoever of what it meant.
And that's more attention than most news outlets gave to the use of reconciliation that month. The Washington Post didn't run a single article, column, editorial, or letter to the editor that used the words "reconciliation" and "senate." Not one. USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press were similarly silent.
Cable news didn't care, either. CNN ran a quote by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley about the substance of the tax cuts in which he used the word "reconciliation" in passing -- but that was it. Fox News aired two interviews in which Republican members of Congress referred to the reconciliation process in order to explain why the tax cuts would be temporary, but neither they nor the reporters interviewing them treated reconciliation as a controversial tactic.
And ABC, CBS, NBC? Nothing, nothing, nothing.
Note that the discussion here refers almost exclusively to the "liberal media" - the New York Times, Washington Post (That the Washington Post is still considered "liberal" has become something of a sick joke, of course), the major networks and CNN.
Speaking of the Post, Rachel Maddow called out Orrin Hatch for an op-ed he wrote last week for the Washington Post. That op-ed, decrying the Democrats' potential use of reconciliation to finish the job of reconciling the health care reform bills that have already passed both houses of Congress, was simply full of falsehoods.
Hatch wrote, in part:
"The use of reconciliation to jam through this legislation against the will of the American people would be unprecedented in scope. And the havoc wrought would threaten our system of checks and balances, corrode the legislative process, degrade our system of government, and damage the prospects of bipartisanship."
Since Hatch himself has voted for reconciliation-passed bills numerous times, he did feel compelled to add:
"Both parties have used the process, but only when the bills in question stuck close to dealing with the budget. In instances in which other substantive legislation was included, the legislation had significant bipartisan support."
This is, as Maddow pointed out, simply 100% false.
In 2003, Republicans used reconciliation to get the Bush tax cuts passed, the tax cuts that exploded the deficit. They did not get significant bipartisan support for that. They passed it with 50 votes (and, as Foser pointed, two were Democrats, and one of those two was the un-hinged and already Democrat-hating Zell Miller). Dick Cheney had to come in as vice president and president of the Senate to break that tie to give them 51.
Two years later, another reconciliation vote, this time, on Medicaid. Republicans were only able to get that one passed using reconciliation, too, because they only got 52 votes for that one -- significant bipartisan support.
When Orrin Hatch says, hey, we never use reconciliation for big substantive bills when the vote was going to be close, and when he says that would be unprecedented, he is not telling the truth. It is a lie. Health reform passed the Senate by 60 votes. It passed the House by a majority. And now, Democrats are going to pass the last fixes to align the two bills using reconciliation.
Republicans used reconciliation a lot, for major legislation. They did it all the time, and they're now lying about that record. Orrin Hatch, in particular, has been there voting with them while they did it, just about every single time. And now, Orrin Hatch is lying about that in "The Washington Post." And "The Washington Post" is just printing the lying.
That Republicans repeatedly lie and adopt positions that directly contradict positions they've previously adopted (as with their condemnation of the stimulus package while simultaneously scurrying to their home districts to take credit for its beneficial effects) is bad enough. Much worse, however, is that the liberal media continues to treat falsehoods as if they're merely just a "side" in a two-sided debate about politics.
But not only is there the problem of repeating deliberate and outright falsehoods as if they're credible positions. There's also the repeated willingness of the media to frame issues in a way that facilitates the lying. Republicans want nothing more than to pull their usual black-is-white, up-is-down act by somehow arguing that it would be undemocratic, elitist, and a usurpation of the principle of representative government to allow legislation that has already passed both houses of Congress to be finalized according to majority rule.
And how better to allow that idea to gain meaningful traction than to harp endlessly on the "complicated" "parliamentary" "gimmick" of reconciliation, but only when Democrats are planning to use it, rather than to report that it's a common enough procedure that has been used to enact major, and contentious legislation for decades?
Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com.