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Media Blows Debt Crisis Coverage With Balance Bias

The idea that both sides in any given political fight are equal and deserve equal consideration is skewing the mainstream media's coverage of the debt ceiling fight.

Balance Bias (bal-ance bi-as) 

1. The assumption that there is truth and legitimacy to both sides of every dispute. 
2. The iron law in political journalism that one side in a debate can never be exclusively right, or have a monopoly on the facts.

This increasingly disorderly fight over raising the debt ceiling has not only exposed the petty dysfunctions of the US Congress, it has also revealed a core failure of American political journalism. The press has made the debt fight the top story for the last  two weeks —even accounting for  half of all stories on radio and cable news—but much of the coverage has failed to tell the very basics of what is happening.

I don’t mean how this deficit was created (by  tax cuts, Medicare and recessions ), or why the debt ceiling gets raised (in response to past decisions by Congress). That stuff matters, but at bottom, this is a story about politics, not the bond market.

This fight started with a partisan threat to sabotoge the economy in order to extract policy concessions, but then, when Democrats offered most of the concessions, it ricocheted and morphed into something else: a high-stakes lightning round of intramural GOP posturing. Right now, we are living through a Republican primary for economic policy. The results may  hurt  the nation—an externality that Republicans have widely acknowledged, lending bite to their bark—and no one seems to know what you do with an army that wants to keep fighting after there’s no land left to conquer.

One might quibble with some details and word choices, but that’s the basic story. It’s gripping, it’s scary, and it’s not anything close to the press’s story about this debt fight. Take this headline, running at the top of CNN a day after President Obama’s national address:

“They’re all talking, but no one is compromising, at least publicly. Democratic and GOP leaders appear unwilling to bend on proposals to raise the debt ceiling.”

Journalist Josh Marshall confronted that bizarro narrative with evidence of what’s actually happening. “By any reasonable measure, this [CNN headline] is simply false, even painfully so,” he  notes , adding, “even the firebreathers on the Republican side" are not suggesting otherwise. Marshall reports that over $2 trillion in cuts is the current offer from Senator Reid, which is actually larger and more “Republican-leaning than what Speaker Boehner was demanding a few months ago.” And the Reid plan—which could just as accurately be called the  Super Sized Boehner plan—does not include any revenues, which was “the primary demand of Republicans from the beginning.”

Whether you think it’s good or bad, we have just seen one party’s leadership embrace the platform of the opposing party, only to watch that party apparently back off its own original position. That’s news! Marshall  continues :

It is not partisan or spin to say that the Democrats have repeatedly offered compromises. The real driver of the debate is that the fact that Republican majority in the House can’t agree to win... The real problem at the moment isn’t that neither side’s caucus can accept the other side’s ‘plan’ - [it's] that Speaker Boehner  doesn’t have the votes  in his caucus for  his own ‘plan’ .

That reality, however, is deeply uncomfortable for reporters nursing Balance Bias. Saying that “Washington is broken” or “both sides are squabbling” is easy. It is safe.  And it’s often true, since structural problems hinder our democracy regardless of which party is in power, and politics is full of petty, meaningless bickering. But not on this one.  New York magazine’s Jon Heilemann, an accomplished author and astute political analyst, fell into the habit this week, when he was asked why there’s still no debt deal. The “ideological convictions of two sides have proven to be unshakable,” he observed. It was as if Reid and Boehner were at opposite ends of the table, when Reid actually took Boehner’s seat. Over at  The Times, Economist Paul Krugman  observes that most news accounts portray this “as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent—because news reports always do that.” This conventional wisdom was sealed a few weeks ago by Jon Stewart, who  gingerly knocked both parties , with false equivalency, for stoking their own equally horrific political endgames. (Never mind that only one party was making threats; the video is below.)

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