As shutdown pauses, coverage focuses on partisan polarization

January 25, 2019

As the longest-standing government shutdown in United States history comes to a tentative, temporary pause, the nonstop coverage can feel dizzying and sometimes contradictory. On the one hand, outlets emphasize the impact the shutdown has had on many furloughed workers—who are working without a paycheck—which led to protests on January 23 at the Senate Office Building. On the other, the neverending stalemate, which began on December 22, is depicted, per Mark Landler in The New York Times, as partisan “squabbling.”

As Maggie Astor and Michael M. Grynbaum wrote in the Times, “Americans following local and national media coverage would be forgiven for thinking they had fallen into a parallel universe—with the episode being presented both as a moment of crisis and hardship, and a curiosity that mostly registered as a politically motivated annoyance.”

The blame game is par for the course when it comes to coverage of a shutdown, but the news media is signaling to the public that the US is more polarized than ever—a claim that does not necessarily reflect the reality. Katie Rogers, a White House correspondent at the Times, suggested, “If we turned off cable and internet for one day this shutdown would end.”

RELATED: The challenges of covering a shutdown marked by lies

This certainly feels like the case when it comes to media’s focus on right-wing commentators such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter—all of whom have become players in the shutdown by backing Trump and reminding him of his campaign promise, relayed via cable news networks and Twitter, to “to build a wall.” When these commentators criticized a compromise package Trump proposed on December 20—which didn’t include wall funding—he backpedaled, saying that he wouldn’t sign the deal he’d settled on with Congress after all. This sequence of events became a churn of even more hyper-focused news stories about right-wing media, and their sway over Trump’s political decisions, as seen in CNN, Politico, and The Washington Post.

When media magnifies the antics of partisan players, consequential facts about the repercussions for furloughed workers and budget negotiations take a backseat. Last week, when Nancy Pelosi asked Trump not to deliver his State of the Union address in Congress while the government was shut down, and Trump responded by grounding a military fight to Afghanistan she planned on taking, news organizations like HuffPost and NBC pounced at the opportunity to highlight the clash—a relatively banal one—in their headlines.

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Pinpointing public opinion in the news coverage, specifically how Trump voters feel about the shutdown, has proven thorny. Outlets appear to be amplifying a small group: on January 20, for instance, USA Today published a piece on Republicans in a northern Colorado coal town who aren’t bothered. (Lucky them!) The following day, The Washington Post came out with a story about Trump voters in Michigan who were angered by the president’s hardline approach on the border wall. Matt Viser, the Post’s national political writer, reported, “The shutdown fight, as it has played out over the past month, is further eroding the president’s support among voters who like the idea of beefing up border security—but not enough to close the government.”

Just last week, Vox published a story with the headline “Poll: Americans are becoming more polarized on the border wall,” based on a survey by the Pew Research Center. When you look at the Pew survey, the topline results show that 58 percent of Americans oppose the wall, and oppose ending the shutdown by funding it. But rather than focus on the persistent lack of support for a wall, the Vox headline zeroed in on partisan opinions. It’s true that polarization between Republicans and Democrats may be increasing in the short term; a Gallup poll released Wednesday, the number of Americans who cited the government and poor leadership as the most important problem facing the country today went up from 19 percent in December to 29 percent in January. But, according to Gallup’s polling data, the nation is no more politically divided than it was in the 1970s.

Americans actually agree with each other more often than not, according to Morris Fiorina, a political scientist and author of the book Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate (2017). He says that the polarization we so often hear about is  limited mostly to political activists and elites who use media as a way to tout their own extreme views and mistake those of common citizens. “You can look at the usual right wing and left wing sites,” Fiorina says. “People like Ann Coulter, who is an idiot, are doing the usual in trying to hype their ratings.They are sort of hyping this whole polarization thing.”

From what Fiorina gathers, the public perceives the shutdown’s key players as behaving like children. Hyping up the coverage on what commentators are saying, as he points out, can erode the already low trust the public has in the government.

Matthew Levendusky, a political scientist and author of How Partisan Media Polarize America (2013), says that the difference between this shutdown and the one during the Obama administration, in October 2013, can be attributed to the fact that an incentive to compromise seems to be missing. “Much of the public would accept a compromise solution—border security, not a wall—but especially for the Republican base, this has become a potent symbol,” he says. “Likewise, activists Democrats make it hard for Pelosi to give on the wall.”

Levendusky believes this is an example of Trump taking advantage of the media’s affinity for conflict. “He’s figured out a way to drive the conversation. I think Trump knows he’s losing in the status quo framing of the shutdown, with the public blaming him, hence the pivot to missile defense,” he says, referring to the president unveiling a Pentagon report on the morning of January 17th outlining what officials there believe to be a growing missile threat.

Because the news media has the ability to tell the public what matters most, should we be giving more weight to timely topics—such as the effort in several states to ease limitations on child sex abuse cases or that the Pentagon said it would not implement any changes to its transgender policy, despite last week’s Supreme Court ruling? It’s hard to imagine a time when partisan bickering won’t dominate the news cycle.

RELATED: A maddening shutdown story turns silly

Natalie Pattillo is a multimedia journalist based in New York City.