campaign desk

Does journalistic ‘balance’ hurt America?

What if Washington's dysfunction was mostly one party's fault: A Q&A with Thomas Mann
July 31, 2012

Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, are savvy political scientists who know Washington politics well. And they have been regarded as middle-of-the-road guys, centrists, for a number of years in DC. That is why their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, published by Basic Books in May, has startled some media types with its thesis, which argues, in a nutshell, that the core of Washington’s political dysfunction lies with the Republican Party. As they put it in The Washington Post:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Along with their criticism of the GOP, Ornstein and Mann had some harsh words for the press. As they wrote in their book:

Because of the partisan nature of much of the media and the reflexive tendency of many in the mainstream press to use false equivalence to explain outcomes, it becomes much easier for a minority, in this case the Republicans, to use filibusters, holds, and other techniques to obstruct.

CJR’s Trudy Lieberman sat down with Mann to explore where he and his co-author think the media have gone awry. First the politics, then the press:

The Politics

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Why is the GOP to blame for political stalemate you describe in your book?
They are now the primary source of the stalemate. At the very beginning of the Obama administration, they made an explicit decision—now well documented—to eschew any policy negotiations with the newly elected president and Democrats in Congress. It’s a strategy of total political opposition—to avoid sharing any responsibility for the performance of the economy and to do nothing that might improve its performance, because that would boost the electoral prospects of President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Their motivation goes beyond differences on the issues. It’s an aggressive, non-negotiable stance, illustrated by the no-new-tax pledge of Grover Norquist, that makes any real constructive policy making impossible.

What’s in it for Republicans?
The worse the economy is, the better their chances of gaining control of the White House and both Houses of Congress and putting in place a radical view of policy that goes well beyond anything Republicans have proposed in the past.

As you see it, is this driven by ideology or the goal to control government?
It’s both. The ultimate objective is ideological, but the means to achieve that objective are very strategic.

Explain a little more about the strategy.
It involves abandoning and denigrating policy proposals you once supported as soon as the other party embraces them; denying the efficacy of governmental actions to deal with the economic crisis; threatening a public default, by holding the need to raise the debt ceiling hostage to non-negotiable demands to cut domestic spending, in the midst of a weak economy; using the Senate filibuster routinely and ruthlessly to deny sizeable majorities an opportunity to put its program into place; delaying or denying the confirmation of presidential nominations even when you approve of the nominee. The list goes on. You do everything you can to inflict political damage on your political adversary.

Are you saying the Republican Party has changed?
The result of all this is the transformation of the Republican Party into a radical party—not really a conservative party—that no Republican president in the modern era would have felt comfortable being a part of.

It’s a democracy—Isn’t it okay for one party to do this?
Of course, it is perfectly legitimate for a party to propose a radical change of policy course. But it is essential that the public have some grasp of what that party is proposing and what its likely consequences would be. Public opinion research suggests that citizens have little knowledge or understanding of either the source of our dysfunctional politics or the nature of the Republican policy ambitions.

In your book, you say that democracy’s ultimate weapon—the ability to throw the bums out—has proved wholly inadequate. Why?
The public can certainly get upset with the status quo and throw incumbent officeholders and parties out of power. Obama was the beneficiary of that in ‘08. The trick is figuring out whom to hold responsible for unsatisfactory conditions in the country. The most common target is the president and his party in Congress. But what if that president’s program has been weakened or subverted by the minority party in Congress? And who does one blame under divided party government, as we have in the 112th Congress?

In other words, Who are the bums?
Some voters think any politician in office is worthy of being punished and any new candidate who claims not to be a politician is seen to have virtues—for example, Tea Party candidates who denounce the system and promise never to compromise have an appeal. But this often leads to less genuine deliberation, bargaining, and compromise, thereby reinforcing the public’s unhappiness with the system.

The Press

Where do the media go wrong, in this scenario?
There is a strong tendency on the part of the mainstream media to avoid taking sides—in other words, to avoid reaching conclusions that put the onus of our dysfunctional politics on one party or another or on one candidate or another. This can be strength in an era in which the partisan and ideological media have grown in size and importance. But it can also be a trap that does a disservice to the citizenry.

Can you explain a bit more?
Reporters admirably embody professional norms favoring fairness and nonpartisanship. But too often even the most talented and dedicated reporters, especially in these partisan times with media watchdogs on the constant lookout for bias, retreat to a formulaic “he says/she says” or “both parties are to blame” that imposes a false equivalence on the underlying reality. Reporters don’t want to be charged with partisan bias, and their editors and producers have strong professional and economic incentives to avoid such charges. The safe response is to insist on “balance,” even if the phenomenon is clearly unbalanced. In their quest to be fair and balanced, they misinform and disarm a public trying to fix our dysfunctional politics.

Can you give a concrete example of this political asymmetry?
Our book contains many such examples. One is the widespread belief that both parties are equally to blame for budget deficits and debt. As the story goes, Republicans won’t raise taxes and Democrats won’t cut spending, especially on so-called entitlements. The reality is different. Almost all Republican candidates and officeholders have signed Grover Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge and impose fealty to it with political committees, threatening primary challenges. As far as they are concerned, tax increases are off the table. Democrats are willing to deal with everything as long as everything is on the table, and deficit reduction is not used as a cover to achieve broader ideological objectives.

How do reporters and columnists write about this?
They mainly say both parties are equally implicated in the failure to tame deficits—even though recent fiscal policy history and current negotiating positions suggest otherwise.

How have the media, in their drive for balance, prevented the breakthrough discussion you think needs to happen?
To be sure, all of the blame cannot fairly be placed on the media. President Obama has fallen short of a clear and forceful explication of this difference. The silence of the business community on the fantastical nature of the Republican position has been deafening. Most of the nonpartisan/bipartisan groups working on fiscal policy challengers have avoided speaking this truth. But the press has largely mirrored rather than corrected and supplemented the others.

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.

What’s the fallout for you of this book?
We built some capital over four decades, based on straight shooting, nonpartisan political analysis and commentary. The new reality of American politics compelled us to spend some of that capital. Neither of us has any regrets. Nor do we believe we’ve become partisan in any way. We reached a conclusion we believe is accurate.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.