The Media Today

How old, bad choices weakened coverage of a crucial week in Congress

October 1, 2021
Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

This week, Congressional wrangling once again rose to the top of the news cycle. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi intended to hold a vote Monday on a bipartisan infrastructure package (known in DC parlance as the “BIF,” leading to excruciating headlines like “Damned BIF you do, damned BIF you don’t”) that already cleared the Senate, but delayed it after Democrats failed to agree on a more expansive, party-line bill (which has variously been referred to as “social spending” and “human infrastructure,” neither of which really captures its breadth or importance) that Democratic leaders promised to pass in tandem. The vote was rescheduled for last night, when it was delayed again. Media coverage has (sometimes literally) clustered around two Democratic senators who are crucial to the second bill’s prospects: Joe Manchin, who wants to make it much smaller, and Kyrsten Sinema, who wants… well, the press is still trying to work that one out. (On Wednesday, when a reporter asked where she was on the legislation, Sinema, who was standing in front of an elevator, replied, “I’m clearly right in front of the elevator.”) Together, the pair have ascended to the media-portmanteau tier—though, even there, consensus has proven elusive, with journalists variously calling them Manchema, Manchinema, and Manch-enema, “because they are really sticking it to their party.” (The latter suggestion came from Chris Cuomo, as if you needed telling.)

As coverage of the wrangling has proceeded, media critics have made familiar complaints about it, decrying its excessive focus on procedural jargon (reconciliation!), personality clashes (the Dems are in disarray!), and price tag (three-and-a-half trillion dollars!), and insufficient focus on policy. “The kind of media coverage we’ve been getting doesn’t really explore whether the kinds of things that are in this bill are meritorious or not,” Catherine Rampell, a columnist at the Washington Post, told CNN’s Brian Stelter over the weekend. “Instead, it’s the number.” As well as saying nothing about the content of the second bill, the three-and-a-half-trillion headline, Rampell noted, says nothing about how it will be paid for, and is thus misleading; on Twitter, Steven W. Thrasher, a journalism professor at Northwestern University, noted that the number also says nothing about the timeframe for the spending, calling it a “catastrophic failure of US journalism and politics” that “something like Biden’s 10-year, $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill is not called a $350 billion annual bill… but the Pentagon’s budget, which will exceed $7.5 trillion over a decade, is called a $750 billion annual bill.” Ultimately, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy put it yesterday, “There are a lot of cable news chyrons this week that assume viewers are following what is going on in Congress minute-by-minute. They appear written for DC audiences and fail to explain to the general public why certain developments are important.”

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As several current and former Congressional reporters have pointed out, the policy details and political prospects of the second bill are both extremely complicated and still in flux; on Tuesday, Seung Min Kim, of the Post, asked for patience, noting that the situation in Washington this week has been hard to understand even for those “whose full-time job is to pay attention to things. It’s THAT complicated.” (It’s not even clear that members of Congress really know what’s going on.) Some observers have suggested that the failure to elucidate policy is partly on President Biden, whose efforts to define his agenda for the public have been interrupted by events; the Associated Press noted that the second bill has been “framed by supporters as such a high-stakes endeavor that it’s ‘too big to fail,’” but it may also be “too big to describe.” On Monday, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, opened her briefing by running down some details: lower drug costs, lower childcare costs, greater climate investment, and so on. “Even as we’re having important debates about timelines and reconciliation processes and parliamentary processes,” she said, “I just wanted to take a moment and remind everybody what this is all about.”

The policies Biden hopes to pass are indeed both complicated and still taking shape, and in recent months, we have seen some good coverage laying out the stakes, particularly around America’s transportation-infrastructure needs. Still, in a great deal of coverage, the stakes have gotten lost in a procedural thicket, and the political press as a whole clearly carries some blame for that; the framing problems outlined above collectively reflect a dominant, longer-term way of covering legislative politics that is, at root, a choice. The stakes are, if anything, even higher than is usually the case in Congress, given that the bills touch almost every aspect of America’s social-safety net at a time when it is being tested like never before; the climate stakes should speak for themselves. Yet these have rarely been made tangible in coverage of the wrangling, and often haven’t even been mentioned—Evlondo Cooper, of the watchdog group Media Matters for America, found that between September 9 and 28, top cable networks aired just twenty-two segments that substantively tied the bills to the climate crisis. (MSNBC’s Chris Hayes has been among those to get it right, saying at the top of his show Wednesday, “It is not an exaggeration to say that Democrats might have one chance, one shot to pass legislation to prevent a climate catastrophe.”) As I’ve written before, the stakes for American democracy are high, too; its erosion is evident not only in Republican election lies, but the detachment of the political process, as a whole, from people’s lives. The coverage I’ve seen has rarely made that explicit.

Again, this isn’t a new observation. The bigger problem here, perhaps, is that the press seems trapped in a vicious cycle: as is also true of policy challenges like climate mitigation and democracy protection themselves, the longer we go without changing our own bad habits, the harder changing them becomes. Media framing is not the only, or even the primary, reason that Washington doesn’t get things done, but our failure to center the costs of inaction gives cover to politicians for whom inaction is just fine. The more that we fail to explain the stakes, the likelier it is that nothing gets done; the more that nothing gets done, the more the next bill will have to solve the generational crises facing America; the more the next bill has to solve, the more complicated it will be; the more complicated it is, the harder it is to explain in policy terms; the harder it is to explain in policy terms, the likelier it is that media coverage will center process and personalities. And so on.

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None of this is to say that process and personalities don’t matter at all; without them, you don’t get policy. The question, rather, is one of proportion, and that’s out of whack right now. We should want diligent Congressional reporters to get into the weeds. But every movement of every weed doesn’t need to drive its own, frenzied news cycle. The best coverage of Congressional wrangling is that which takes a step back and places it in a broader context and chronology—both longer-term, by centering the likely effects of the policy changes under consideration, and shorter-term, by keeping the procedural steps toward those policies in perspective. The path to passing Biden’s agenda looks thorny—but the press often declares ambitious bills to be dead a hundred times over before, suddenly, they’re passed. This morning, the top headline on the New York Times’s homepage declared the delayed infrastructure vote a “big setback” for Biden. The vote was rescheduled for today.

Below, more on a week in Washington and political journalism:

  • Funding and debt: Yesterday, both chambers of Congress did pass, and Biden signed, a stopgap funding bill averting a government shutdown, which would otherwise have kicked in at midnight—but the bill did not raise America’s debt limit, as Democrats had wanted it to, after Republicans refused to play ball. Earlier in the week, numerous media watchers took news organizations to task for framing the debt limit as a political game for which both sides bear responsibility. “Walking away from what had been a long-standing tradition of bipartisan votes in order to ensure a functioning government, regardless of which party was in power, the GOP is purposely creating a looming economic crisis for the Biden administration, and for America,” the press critic Eric Boehlert wrote Tuesday. “And the press, led by the New York Times, is helping the GOP get away with it.”
  • A reappraisal, I: On his blog, Press Watch, the media critic Dan Froomkin interviewed Andrew Taylor, a longtime Congressional reporter for the AP who took a leave from his job in January and decided not to go back. “Fifteen years ago, there was a far higher percentage of members of Congress, particularly Republicans, who were more serious about legislation and policy,” Taylor said. He also took the press to task, decrying a “scoop culture” driven by insider news outlets and the deluge of newsletters they send out every day. “They send you those newsletters regardless of whether or not Capitol Hill or Washington in general are delivering the goods,” Taylor said.
  • A reappraisal, II: In a widely-shared Twitter thread, Mark Jacob, a former editor at newspapers in Chicago, explained how “the media (including me) have been unintentionally complicit in the rise of fascism that threatens our democracy.” When Jacob edited political stories, he “went so far as to count the quotes from Republicans and Democrats, thinking an equal number would make us fairer,” he wrote. “I didn’t think I was helping either party. I thought I was helping the readers. I was wrong.”

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.