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The "Gridlock" Story: Why Media Balance Is Broken

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In their struggle to preserve balance in covering U.S. politics, mainstream reporters have long since gotten used to tying themselves in knots. How else to maintain even-handedness while the right offers creationism against evolution, energy company propaganda against climate science, and trickle-down economics vs. actual economics?

Now, though, growing Republican extremism has stressed media balance to a breaking point -- with reality.

The latest case in point is an Associated Press think piece titled "Congress' dysfunction long in the making", by Charles Babington. Babington explains the "unprecedented... level of dysfunction and paralysis" on Capitol Hill like this:

There's no single culprit, it seems. Rather, long-accumulating trends have reached a critical mass, in the way a light snowfall can trigger an avalanche because so many earlier snows have piled atop each other.

At the core of this gridlock is a steadily growing partisanship... Unswerving conservatives and liberals dominate the two parties' nominating processes, electing lawmakers who pledge never to stray from their ideologies.

The "on the one hand, on the other hand" conclusion has become as much of a journalistic trope as a dateline. But in pasting it in here, Babington is forced to ignore much of his own reporting. Seeking to cite "unswerving" politicians, he can find plenty of conservative names, such as Gingrich, Hastert and Limbaugh. But the liberals are scattered and nameless -- including members of a mythically powerful left that supposedly threaten moderate Democrats the same way the Tea Party threatens Republicans.

This is not to argue that there's no partisanship on the Democratic side; of course there is. But the difference in degree has become a difference in kind. The unhappy reality now is that when it comes to moderate politics, America is a one-party state.

The Democratic Party spans the spectrum from mid-left to mid-right, while the Republican Party has shrunk to only its hard right. It has given leadership roles to extremists like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist, explicitly dedicated itself to the failure of a presidency, and risks economic collapse rather than accept compromise. Because of its radicalism, the GOP exerts the power it does only through the gridlock the media keeps trying to blame on both parties.

Meanwhile polls consistently show that the views of the supposedly partisan, left-wing Democrats are shared by the majority of Americans. In other words, in order for the mainstream media to claim that their version of balance reflects the moderate middle, they're forced to ignore the actual moderate middle. Take a look at a snapshot of recent data (numbers are percentages):

CNN/ORC Poll. Sept. 23-25, 2011: "Do you think the policies of Barack Obama and the Democrats or George W. Bush and the Republicans are more responsible for the country's current economic problems?"

BUSH & REPUBLICANS: 52

OBAMA & DEMOCRATS: 32

BOTH: 13

NEITHER: 2, UNSURE: 2

ABC News/Washington Post Poll Poll, July 14-17, 2011: "Overall, what do you think is the best way to reduce the federal budget deficit - by cutting federal spending, by increasing taxes, or by a combination of both?"

CUTTING SPENDING: 32

INCREASING TAXES: 4

COMBINATION: 62

NO OPINION: 3

CBS News Poll. June 3-7, 2011 (PDF): "Overall, do you think the benefits from Medicare are worth the cost of the program for taxpayers, or are they not worth the cost?"

WORTH IT: 68

NOT WORTH IT: 28

UNSURE: 11

Gallup Poll. Aug. 11-14, 2011: "Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions?"

APPROVE: 52

DISAPPROVE: 42

UNSURE: 6

ABC News/Washington Post Poll. July 14-17, 2011: "Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases?"

LEGAL IN ALL/MOST CASES: 54

ILLEGAL IN ALL/MOST CASES: 45

UNSURE: 2

ABC News/Washington Post Poll. July 14-17, 2011: "Do you think it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian couples to get married?"

LEGAL: 51

ILLEGAL: 45

UNSURE: 4

The reason those crazy, wild-eyed Democrats won't move to the moderate middle? They're already there.

If anything, Democrats may compromise too much. To go further, they'd have to compromise their way towards extremism.

I support the principle of balance in journalism, and I sympathize with the urge to preserve it. But Republican extremism has changed the context in which balance operates, and reporters can't truly be objective if they don't recognize that. It isn't balance to pretend that left and right share the blame for partisan gridlock, it's false equivalence pushed to the point of fiction.

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