The Media Today

The shifting floor in debt ceiling coverage

October 8, 2021
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is surrounded by journalists as he walks to the Senate Chamber for a vote as Democrats look for a way to lift the debt limit without Republican votes, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Over the summer, Republicans in the Senate issued a threat that was really a promise: that they wouldn’t vote to raise the US debt ceiling, an artificial borrowing cap that is a peculiarly American tradition. They cited Democrats’ current spending plans, which was disingenuous, given that the need for a hike was a function of debt already incurred—not least in the Trump era, during which Democrats repeatedly joined Republicans in voting to raise the ceiling. At the end of July, a 2019 agreement to suspend the ceiling expired, forcing the Treasury Department to use extraordinary measures to meet America’s obligations, and raising the specter of default sometime in October or November. The story was quickly subsumed by the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Congressional negotiations around Biden’s agenda, and other big news; then, last month, it inched up the news cycle again, as Republicans not only refused to vote to raise the debt ceiling but also blocked Democrats from doing so unilaterally without resorting to reconciliation, a time-consuming budget process involving big numbers that might look scary on campaign literature. This week, with other Congressional business stalled and the default date pegged at October 18, coverage again kicked up a notch. CNN put a “COUNTDOWN TO DEBT LIMIT CLOCK” on screen. The 2013 energy was off the scale.

As the story intensified, numerous media watchers savaged major news organizations for framing it not as a Republican-contrived crisis but a “showdown” or “stalemate” for which “both sides” were responsible, including coverage that lamented President Biden’s failure to negotiate with Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, even after McConnell explicitly told Biden that Republicans “have no list of demands” apart from that Democrats “handle the debt limit alone.” On his blog, Press Watch, Dan Froomkin wrote that such coverage itself channeled 2013, when major outlets indulged similar false balance (“bitter budget standoff”; “failure to reach agreement”) in coverage of a government shutdown; numerous observers, meanwhile, took particular issue with a headline in the New York Times asserting that “America’s Need to Pay Its Bills Has Spawned a Political Game.” Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, took aim at the media assumption that “Republicans break things and Democrats clean up after them.” He elaborated on CNN: “None of us tend to focus on the things we take for granted… This happens every few years, so it’s taken for granted.”

ICYMI: Whistleblower turns up the heat on Facebook and Instagram

James Fallows, a longtime press critic and contributing writer at The Atlantic, was so concerned by the prospect of a default and the media’s framing of it that he posted regular updates on Substack in which he assessed the clarity of coverage in asserting Republican culpability for the situation, linked to good and bad examples, and quoted from The Great Gatsby and Plutarch to underscore his point. (The latter quoted the philosopher Bion of Borysthenes as saying: “Boys throw stones at frogs in fun. But the frogs do not die in fun, but in earnest.”) As September came to a close with Republicans still dug in, Fallows observed, in hopeful terms, that media framing appeared to be “edging away from presenting the debt-limit prospect as ‘Oh, another impasse in Washington’… toward ‘this is an intentional Republican threat.’” But his optimism wouldn’t last. Yesterday, after McConnell agreed to let Democrats vote to raise the debt ceiling, but only through December, Fallows criticized swathes of the press for responding with a sigh of relief to the “standoff” being “resolved”—a framing that, in his view, risked “normalizing” the Republicans’ tactics. Again, Fallows wasn’t the only critic of such coverage. “We are *this* close,” Froomkin wrote, “to headlines declaring ‘McConnell, Democrats, save nation from crisis.’”

The deal—and the vote yesterday to execute it, which saw eleven Republicans vote with every Democrat to overcome a filibuster and no Republicans vote with every Democrat to raise the debt ceiling itself—was also framed, in much coverage, as “the Senate” taking action following a climbdown from McConnell, who, we were told, had “blinked,” “caved,” and other verbs to that effect. This notion trickled down, in part, from a political narrative with bipartisan backing, as Democrats lined up to claim victory over McConnell, and hostile Republicans—led by, who else, Donald Trump—lined up to ridicule McConnell for capitulating. According to various news reports, McConnell may have allowed a vote primarily out of concern that the conservative Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who are normally staunch opponents of filibuster reform, were prepared to abolish its use for debt ceiling votes; Politico said that “the politics of filibuster preservation enticed McConnell to play dealmaker rather than obstructionist” for the second time this year, the other being his support for Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill as he tried “to show anti-filibuster Democrats that bipartisanship was still possible.” Some of this framing, too, was questionable: it was Senate Democrats, not “the Senate,” that raised the ceiling; all Republicans—and a minority of them at that—did was get out of the way. And the vote served only to kick the can not very far down the road, with McConnell still insistent that Democrats must use reconciliation in the longer term. Some dealmaker.

Much of this week’s coverage has emphasized the short-term nature of the vote. Rachel Martin said on NPR that she didn’t understand “why delaying this whole thing for a couple of months is helpful”; Alayna Treene, a Congressional reporter for Axios, described the deal on Twitter as a “temporary bandaid,” to which Seung Min Kim, a White House reporter at the Washington Post, responded that it was more like “the scrap of kleenex that you found lying around that you have to use because you can’t find a band-aid anywhere in your house.” (Kim was also overheard near the Senate chamber saying, “Everything about this is so dumb.” No disagreement there.) Not that such acknowledgements fixed the framing issues identified by Fallows et al; ultimately, the deal probably just kicked those down the road, too. I suspect I’ll be seeing you all again in December.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

For now, McConnell himself has suggested that Democrats shouldn’t celebrate the debt vote; if anything, he just pushed a reckless anti-Democrat stunt closer both to the holidays and next year’s midterms, neither of which are synonymous with public tolerance of perceived dysfunction. In the immediate term, it might be true that McConnell blinked, but it’s a stretch to characterize this as a defeat for him—he contrived a crisis practically from thin air, succeeded in wasting our time with it, and got to keep the filibuster, which is one huge, ongoing Republican victory. This, of course, is not a new playbook for McConnell; the press can’t stop it, but it could stop covering for his contrived stances by framing them, as Fallows notes, as things that just kinda happened. Each time we do, the ground underneath political journalism shifts in a direction that, ultimately, favors Republicans. The relevant frog parable here is the one where they boil.

Below, more on the debt ceiling and coverage of Republicans:

  • “Hurricane season”: In 2017, Brooke Gladstone, of WNYC’s On The Media, spoke with Zachary Karabell, an analyst of economics among other topics, about press coverage of the debt ceiling. This week, the show re-aired the episode in light of the current news. “For years, the media have treated the perennial debt ceiling debate like hurricane season,” Gladstone said. “When will calamity strike? What’s the projected damage? Why do we have to keep reliving this crisis in the first place?
  • The audience: Neal Rothschild, of Axios, mapped public interest in the debt ceiling over time by analyzing search trends on Google; interest spiked in 2011 and 2013, and was on its way to matching the latter year’s level when McConnell allowed a vote. “This week, debt limit stories have generated more social media interactions (likes, comments, shares) than those about the California oil spill, Squid Game and Tom Brady, per NewsWhip data,” Rothschild added. “Over the last couple days, the story has attracted as much interest as the Gabby Petito case.”
  • The coup: Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee published a report on Trump’s coup attempt after losing the election. It concluded that Trump tried nine times to get his Justice Department to undermine the results; Republicans on the committee rebutted this finding on the grounds that a coup didn’t end up happening, a stance the political journalist Olivier Knox likened, on CNN, to the “Sideshow Bob defense.” Also on CNN, Jake Tapper pressed Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, on what Democrats plan to do to avert the possible threat of a coup in the future. Durbin’s answers, as Tapper suggested, were not especially reassuring.
  • In Windsor, Veritas?: Trip Gabriel, of the Times, profiled Lauren Windsor, a liberal activist who approaches senior Republicans posing as an ideological ally and films the resulting exchanges. Windsor “calls herself an ‘advocacy journalist,’ though her methods fall beyond the pale of mainstream journalism, where reporters generally shy away from assuming false identities and secretly recording conversations,” Gabriel writes. “She says her stings are justified by Republicans’ efforts to spread disinformation about the election.” Windsor also defended herself against comparisons to the right-wing sting group Project Veritas; indeed, Project Veritas once infiltrated a liberal group tied to her.

Some news from the home front:
Steve Coll will step down as dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism at the end of this academic year, after nine years in the role. “When I joined the J-School, Facebook seemed benign if disruptive; BuzzFeed and Vice looked like juggernauts of news; and many of us worried about the future of public interest reporting,” Coll said, in a note to staff. “We’ve been on quite a journey since then.” Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, praised Coll as “an enormous advocate for CJR,” adding that “having someone with his journalistic chops as our enthusiastic adviser has been invaluable. All of this to say that I, and CJR, will miss him.” 

Other notable stories:

  • Breaking this morning: the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Maria Ressa and Dmitri Muratov, two journalists who were recognized for “their courageous fight for freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” Ressa, who is the executive editor of Rappler, in the Philippines, has written for CJR on the threats to her work; Muratov is the longtime editor of Novaya Gazeta, in Russia, where press freedom is increasingly under assault. Yesterday was both Vladimir Putin’s birthday and the fifteenth anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, who worked at Novaya Gazeta. RSF released black balloons wishing Putin an “unhappy birthday.”
  • For CJR, Navneet Alang explores moves in the food-media world to address systemic racism in recipe archives. “The recipe is the fundamental vessel for cultural exchange. It is, itself, a movable archive—a repository of history, culture, and personality,” he writes. “And yet recipes have a sort of ambivalent cultural status because they are also, in part, just data—a collection of ingredients and instructions. The utility of a recipe has always required the latter; it does not necessarily require its reader to consider the former. But if food, of all things, isn’t connected to cultural identity, then perhaps nothing is.”
  • In 2016, the Times started publishing original content in Spanish under the rubric “NYT en Español.” In 2019, it stopped featuring original news stories, citing a lack of financial viability; it continued to run original op-eds, but those have now stopped, too. Recently, Jon Lee Anderson, who covers Latin America for The New Yorker, coordinated a letter, signed by over a hundred regional luminaries, urging a rethink. The Times will continue to translate English-language content into Spanish; Oriana Gonzalez has more for Axios.
  • A new report from the Black Media Initiative, at the City University of New York, found that Black media outlets have written “five times more than mainstream media on the disproportionate racial impact of the pandemic, and nearly twice as much as mainstream media on frontline and essential workers.” Black media was also found to have covered voting access and other issues related to racism at higher rates than mainstream outlets.
  • A new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, at Columbia, surveyed staffers at small local papers about the pandemic and other challenges to their work. Nearly half of respondents said they felt less secure in their jobs than they did prior to COVID; the survey also found that national-level discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion in media have not always permeated local newsrooms. CJR published the report here.
  • The Ranger, a student newspaper at San Antonio College, is shutting down after nearly a hundred years of publication; leaders at the college promised that student journalism will continue there, but have yet to say how. “You’re not only working for a grade, you are putting news out there that benefits the community around your college,” Sergio Medina, The Ranger’s top editor, told Texas Public Radio. “What is actually the plan to do this?”
  • According to Ben Hunte, of Vice, the BBC is set to withdraw from a diversity scheme for employers run by Stonewall, an LGBTQ+ charity in the UK. One source told Hunte that “BBC bosses feel that they can’t allow the organisation to be connected to Stonewall in any way, because the BBC needs to be ‘impartial on LGBTQ lives.’” Another said that the BBC has become a “hostile place for any trans person or trans supportive person.”
  • This week, staffers at a state-owned bank in Ukraine attacked two investigative reporters affiliated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US-backed broadcaster, while they were interviewing Yevgen Metsger, the bank’s leader, in his office. Metsger ordered security personnel to seize the reporters’ cameras and delete footage, but they were able to record the incident and it went viral online. Metsger has since been suspended.
  • And Andrew Beaton, of the Wall Street Journal, profiled D.J. Byrnes, an electrician’s apprentice and blogger on Ohio politics who recently posted viral videos showing Urban Meyer, the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars football team, dancing with a woman at a restaurant and appearing to touch her backside. Byrnes still has contacts from his days writing about Ohio State, the college team Meyer once managed. “I do have a reputation as somebody who enjoys serving the rich and powerful shit cocktails,” Byrnes said.

ICYMI: Watch the 2021 Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards

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.