Did this dynamic of media balance play out in the healthcare debate?
Obama’s healthcare proposals were designed to avoid the pitfalls of past failures by negotiating with many of the healthcare stakeholders and embracing ideas that had been the centerpiece of past Republican proposals. These included state exchanges to foster competition in private insurance, subsidies for low income households, significant insurance reforms including guaranteed issue and affordability for those with pre-existing conditions, and an individual mandate to encourage universal coverage. But once Obama was for them, Republicans turned against them. They refused to negotiate on the contents of a health reform plan, and characterized their old plans as socialistic. Whatever Obama’s messaging failures, the press itself failed to inform the public of the disingenuousness of the Republican opposition and the inaccuracy of much of the rhetoric leveled against the Affordable Care Act. It was safer to cover the politics of health reform and avoid making judgments that were tougher on one party than the other.
Does this apply in other situations?
It applies in many situations. You see it in healthcare and on taxes. Reporters should be examining, is it plausible to hold to a no new taxes pledge and be responsible to the issues of the deficit and the debt? What the no new tax pledge has done to the Republican Party is to limit its ability to deal with the problem. Instead they say let’s talk around it. What are the implications in the Ryan budget? Do you ever see that laid out in a television show or a major print piece? Once in awhile the Times or The Wall Street Journal will have something. But most of the time you don’t get this.
So how should reporters cover this?
Help audiences understand asymmetrical polarization. Document, and report on it. Who’s telling the truth? Who’s taking hostages?
Can we really expect this to happen?
That was one of the reasons we wrote the book. We have learned our book has led to heated discussions in some newsrooms. We know there are enormous challenges. Our goal is get into the discussion within media organizations.
Is the press innately defensive?
Yes. It’s getting harder and harder to take risks. That’s part of the argument we’re making. In the face of these partisan wars, the press has become even more defensive and looks for safe harbors. One of these is to treat both sides as equally implicated. It was probably easier to cover things when both parties were operating in the mainstream of American politics. When one party has moved off track in such a breathtaking fashion, he said/she said serves to obscure the underlying reality rather than expose it.
What would be ideal for the press right now?
The key thing is not to try to return to some imagined golden age. It’s to try to make sure there is a mix of reporting and writing that is a description of the political and economic reality—and get that to the electorate. It means going beyond the fact checks, whose results seldom make it to the front page and are routinely ignored by candidates, and get to a point in which telling lies is punished and not rewarded in the political arena.
Can the media alone help change the discourse?
The media has to have help from other leaders in society speaking the truth. There once were voices in the business community. You need voices that support the commonweal. The press can’t do it alone.
What are the consequences for democracy if this does not change?
They are enormous. It’s concern for the wellbeing of our democracy that motivated us to write this book. The war between the parties is being waged in a way that does serious damage to the country. It’s not the reporters’ fault but it’s their job to clarify for the public what is happening in our public life—who is responsible, and how we might overcome these problems. They are constrained by professional norms and by the expectations and demands of their supervisors. I want to be clear we’re not attacking reporters.