Audit Notes: The Debt Ceiling Blame, Murdoch’s Meddling, Thou Shalt Not Autoplay Videos

Frustrated with the debt-ceiling coverage, which is far too even-handed, I wrote this last night on Twitter:

it’s very simple: if one party would pay our bills, while the other won’t (without) meeting its demands, then the latter is to blame for any mess.

This phenomenon has upset Paul Krugman too, sending him into full-on Shrill mode, in which he calls it “The Cult That Is Destroying America” and “the clearest, starkest situation one can imagine short of civil war.”

But look past the hyperbole and it’s hard to argue with what he’s saying.

Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

If you’re not reporting that the Republicans are ultimately to blame for the crisis here, then you’re not reporting the truth. The Democrats would vote to up the debt ceiling—which pays for bills we’ve already accrued (mostly under Republican presidents)—in a straight-up vote. Republicans want to attach stark conditions to the vote and risk defaulting on our obligations. Even beyond that, the Democrats have made trillions of dollars in concessions to the Republicans, and it still hasn’t been enough.

This doesn’t absolve Democrats from blame for playing politics with the debt ceiling, as Harry Reid did back in December. But doing that eight months out, on the mistaken calculation that any reasonable Congress would dutifully pass the increase and share the political blame, is orders of magnitude different than doing it days out, much less giving off the real possibility that you’ll actually call the other side’s bluff and let us default.

The lopsided blame here is not partisan. It’s not right or left. It’s the truth. Report it.

The New York Times has a very good examination of how Rupert Murdoch runs his newspaper empire. Here it is on his doings when competitor The Telegraph broke the Parliament expenses scandal story two years ago:

At News International, Mr. Murdoch’s British newspaper arm, executives scrambled to deflect responsibility. The blame fell largely on an in-house lawyer who had cautioned against paying some $450,000 for a stolen disc containing the parliamentary expense records. (A few months later, the lawyer was asked to leave News International, where he had worked for 33 years, apparently after another disagreement over advice.)

While it is not clear whether Mr. Murdoch played a direct role in the matter, there is little question that The Telegraph’s scoop remained a sore point for him and that his feelings seeped down through various layers of his company. Soon afterward, The Wall Street Journal, his flagship American newspaper, did its own investigation of American lawmakers’ expenses.

That series of Journal stories was sensationalized with multiple days of page one placement, despite not finding much of anything (it went for a round two with a hyped congressional jets series). I noted at the time that you “can smell more than a whiff of Rupert on these stories.”

But, for what it’s worth, here’s editor Robert Thomson commenting on his relationship with the boss:

But for all their personal closeness, Mr. Murdoch makes no effort to influence the news coverage, said Mr. Thomson, The Journal’s top editor.

“We simply do not discuss details of coverage,” Mr. Thomson said via e-mail. “Not once. Never. There is a clear, distinct, very honorably observed demarcation line. Rupert respects the independence of the editor and my autonomy, and to suggest that we skew coverage is an insult to all of The Journal’s journalists, who person for person, pound for pound are certainly the best in the world.”

— Everyone who spends a lot of time reading news online will identify with this post by web designer Brad Colbow called “This is Why Your Newspaper is Dying.” That’s hyperbole too, of course, but it’s surely a factor in why newspapers aren’t flourishing online.

Here are a few issues he raises: not linking to stories you cite, autoplaying videos, cluttering up the page with share buttons, content that takes up less than a fifth of the page.

I visit The Oklahoman a lot for OU sports coverage, and I can’t tell you how irrationally angry I get when I forget to push mute and that used-car salesman from Reynolds Ford starts yelling out of my laptop speakers and slowing down my browser. One of the first rules of business is: Don’t piss off the customer.

One problem with Colbow’s post: he violates his First Commandment by not linking to the examples he cites. But news site designers ought to pay heed to this post.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,