The New York Times yesterday published an article that illustrates as obviously as is possible the phenomenon of “stenography journalism,” to the extent that it almost borders on parody. You know the Bush-era joke about Bush claiming the Sun rises in the West, Democrats correcting him, and the next day’s headline reading “Dems Claim Sun Rises In East”? Well, our press is still that broken.
Yesterday’s headline reads “Republicans Block Start Of Debate On Financial Reform,” which is fine. Much better than the name the Times‘ website gives the article — “Start Of Debate Blocked On Financial Bill.” How wonderfully passive, Times‘ website.
The piece begins well enough, but the fifth paragraph is an actual example of the “rising sun” joke above:
At the Capitol, Senate Democratic leaders stepped up pressure on Republicans, and at an unusual news conference, they showed video clips of Republican leaders leveling what the Democrats said were false criticisms of the bill.
What!? The Democrats said the Republicans were lying!?!?!? WELL. That sounds like the same old Washington Bickering that I’m sick of hearing about. If only there were some sort of institution that would tell me who — if anyone! — was telling the truth. Someone who could, URM, investigate the competing claims and evaluate their truth value. Boy, I would pay money for a service like that.
Oh, hello, the Internet. Is there any way to discern whether or not the Republicans were actually lying? Yes, there is, and yes, they were. The GOP was lying, and although it’s technically true that the Democrats accused them of that, it’s far more correct to use just three words: Republicans were lying.
Here’s how MSNBC reported the press conference:
One clip featured Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying that “this bill not only allows for taxpayer bailouts; it institutionalizes them.”
(As a quick side note, their headline was “Dems accuse GOP of ‘lies’ on bill,” which, as I mentioned above, is completely misleading. But OMG MSNBC is so liberal, guys. )
So, McConnell says the bill institutionalizes bailouts. He was referring to a provision in the bill that would tax large banks to create a fund that would give the government capital to use to liquidate the bank in the event that it failed. Put simply: bill would tax banks so that if they failed, there would be some money set aside to use to shut them down. McConnell’s characterization that the bill institutionalizes bailouts is completely false.
Which is exactly what the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact reported a full two days — years in Internet time — before the Times piece was published. They conclude:
In ruling on McConnell’s statement, that financial reform “actually guarantees future bailouts of Wall Street banks,” we base our ruling primarily on the legislation. It clearly states that the intention is to liquidate failing companies, not bail them out. To do that, it creates a fund with contributions from financial firms, not from taxpayer funds. We do not see any element of the bill that expressly permits ongoing, “endless” outlays from the federal treasury. Is it possible that liquidation may cost the government money, potentially more money than is allowed for in the bill? Yes. But even so, McConnell is using seriously overheated rhetoric. Nothing in the bill “guarantees” future bailouts of Wall Street banks. We rate his statement False. [emphasis added.]
After reading that, does the Times’ framing — that Democrats said Republicans had “false criticisms of the bill” — seem adequate? Not in the least. That framing is just as helpful as writing “Dems claim gravity reason for falling objects,” as though it’s just another example of that partisan bickering that everyone in Washington claims to hate so much.
The casual reader would take away from the Times‘ piece that the GOP and the Democrats disagreed on the bill, not that the GOP were making false claims and the Democrats were calling them out on it — which is also what the Times should be doing to both parties.
Further down, the Times quotes a back and forth between McConnell and Dick Durbin in which Durbin accuses McConnell of misrepresenting the bill, but, again, the Times give the reader to idea which party is being forthcoming.
Then, just to show that they are capable of wild speculation, the Times gives us this wonderfully unhinged prediction:
Voters, often frustrated by the acrimony in Washington, could decide that Democrats, who control Congress and the White House, are being arrogant by refusing to make concessions. [emphasis added.]
Hahahah, what? Now, I find the Democratic Party, as an institution, to be vile, corrupt, and more concerned with maintaining power than helping its constituents. BUT. When they start to play a little bit of hardball, rhetorically at least, that should be praised as welcome change from the standard roll-over-and-play-dead approach that party is used to. Indeed, the GOP strategy of weakening this already weak bill appears to be working. So for the Times to speculate, without quoting any sources, that the Democrats finding a spine is a bad thing is bizarre and amateurish on the paper’s part.
That’s why unhelpful framing from the Paper of Record is so damaging. These lies — death panels, permanent bailouts — get lodged in our collective consciousness like a sesame seed in a bicuspid, or better yet, like an occupying power in a Middle Eastern country, and removing the lies proves to be next to impossible. And for anyone out there still operating from a “the media is so liberal” mindset, this event should show how false that is. Yes, Krugman has an Op-Ed in the Times today, and that’s very influential, but their “objective reporting” still suffers from the same idiotic “he said, she said,” laziness that got us into the Iraq war, and continues to make any progressive change in this country virtually impossible.