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Circles within circles in coverage of the debt ceiling

Eighteen months ago, I wrote in this newsletter about coverage of Senate Republicans’ obstructionism over the debt ceiling, an artificial borrowing cap that Democrats were then trying to raise. At the time, various media critics had taken the political press to task for “both-sidesing” the story, covering it as a “showdown” for which both parties bore responsibility rather than a cynical and hypocritical GOP gambit. (Hypocritical because Republicans voted repeatedly to raise the debt ceiling under President Trump while also running up more debt.) James Fallows, a longtime journalist for The Atlantic, was particularly prolific on the subject, writing a six-part Substack series on debt-ceiling coverage that he littered with good and bad examples as well as references to The Great Gatsby and the Cynic-aligned philosopher Bion of Borysthenes. (“Boys throw stones at frogs in fun,” Bion once said. “But the frogs do not die in fun, but in earnest.”)

Senate Republicans eventually allowed the Democratic majority to kick the can down the road for two months, through December 2021, at which point Congressional Democrats voted through a longer-term hike to the debt ceiling. Earlier this year, however, the issue came around again, with Janet Yellen, the treasury secretary, informing Congress that the debt limit had been reached; the government was able to enter special measures to keep paying its bills, but officials and experts warned that it could soon default, with cataclysmic consequences not just for the US but for the global economy. An estimated “X-date” of sometime in early June soon swam into focus. Cue another round of Washington psychodrama—this time with Republicans in the House majority and demanding sharp spending cuts in exchange for a vote on the debt ceiling. Cue, too, another round of media criticism of the coverage of the psychodrama—including from Fallows, who again urged reporters not to take a “both-sides” approach, and pointed back to his work from 2021. “The issues,” he wrote, “are the same.”

This time around, many liberal media critics have taken issue with coverage that they have seen as normalizing Republican “hostage-taking” over the debt ceiling, the raising of which is a matter of meeting financial obligations that Congress has already authorized (not a question of approving new spending) and has usually been handled without much drama. Jonathan Chait, of New York magazine, accused several reporters and analysts of conflating “negotiation” over the debt ceiling (which has happened in the past) with House Republicans’ current “extortion” tactics, and singled out one article in the New York Times as the “Platonic ideal of ‘both sides’ reporting” (a strong charge, since Chait generally considers “bothsidesism” to be an “abused cliché of progressive media criticism”). Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group, analyzed coverage in five major newspapers and found that relatively few of their articles mentioned Republicans’ role in hiking the debt while voting to raise the debt ceiling under Trump. The American Prospect, for its part, specifically criticized insidery DC publications—and one in particular, Punchbowl News—for laundering Republican talking points around the debt ceiling. (Punchbowl has been accused before of an overly cozy relationship with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. If you’re interested, Adam Piore profiled the site for CJR last year.)

Also among the liberal critics of the debt-ceiling coverage: the White House, which, according to Politico, griped to reporters that they were failing to frame the debate as one in which Republicans were using “the possibility of economic catastrophe to force policy concessions.” Officials, Politico noted, have long criticized the media for focusing on gossip and drama over substance, but saw the failures this time as being of a greater magnitude, “because the stakes are so incredibly high and because—as they see it—the spin is so obvious.” Officials went so far as to circulate media criticism, including by Chait and the Prospect, to reporters.

This criticism of the coverage has faced pushback, and not only from predictable quarters: some progressive Democrats have argued that President Biden himself normalized Republican tactics by eventually agreeing to negotiate with McCarthy having previously said that he would not, then ceded narrative ground to the GOP by staying relatively silent as Republican negotiators dished frequently to the reporters covering the talks. Indeed, the idea that McCarthy was winning the media war congealed into a sort of meta-narrative, not least in the press itself. Last week, Punchbowl wrote that House Republicans had been “surprisingly successful at setting the overall public narrative for the negotiations as the endgame unfolds.” House Republicans then blasted this line out in a press release, characterizing it as mainstream-media praise.

If all this seems frustratingly circular to you, you wouldn’t be the only one—indeed, it’s possible to see the McCarthy-narrative narrative as one of a number of concentric circles here, with the outermost being the circular nature of the debt-ceiling question itself. Each circle could usefully be broken. On messaging, those at the heart of a story making themselves available to the press is usually a good thing—but availability is not an adequate shortcut to accuracy, and reporters should be doubly careful not to become vessels for talking points because, as various critics of recent coverage have pointed out, what we say about ongoing negotiations can help frame the scope of the negotiations themselves. Widening the lens slightly, there has been a lot of coverage of the debt-ceiling issue of late, and some of it has effectively communicated the stakes. But I would agree that too much of it has fallen into the—again, circular—traps to which critics have pointed, and that have become sadly familiar to American political journalism: triangulation between “sides,” an apparent lack of willingness to call asymmetrical partisan approaches for what they are, and an obsessive focus on “deal-making” process that has too often muddied the bigger picture. (Footage of a throng of Congressional reporters walking in lockstep to keep up with a negotiator was an on-the-nose visual metaphor for the latter.)

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Over the weekend, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, offered a unified explanation for these failures. “Journalists are supposed to be world class crap detectors and realists who do not take sides,” he wrote. “These things can come into conflict. When the GOP uses the debt limit as leverage—that’s some world class crap. But saying it feels like taking a side. Which cannot be. And so realism has to bubble up from a different source, because the policy is surreal. It happens through the focus on parliamentary maneuvering and one of the savvy style’s go-to rejoinders. ‘You may not like it, but it’s smart politics.’ Voila! Realism relocated.”

This, too, is frustrating because there is another important source of realism available to the press here, which also dodges the perception of taking sides and which sits within the outermost—and, I think, most important—of the concentric circles I mentioned above: the irrationality of the debt ceiling itself as an instrument of policy. No other major democracy has one—save for Denmark, and there it is a mere formality—and, in and of itself, it is really incidental to the wide-ranging debates over public spending and debt that politicians and the press should rightly convene; it merely creates a setting, from time to time, that allows for legislative hostage-taking. The clearest coverage I’ve seen recently has interrogated this fundamental context, rather than dwelling in the weeds of who won the horse-trading.

This isn’t to say that the weeds don’t matter—over the weekend, Biden and McCarthy arrived at a deal that, if passed, will suspend the debt ceiling through 2025 while instituting real-terms cuts to non-defense spending and tightening work requirements for some Americans who receive food stamps, among other policies. Reporters must scrutinize what these changes will mean for those affected; some are already doing so. But we also need to keep an eye on the bigger picture—establishing consistently, in the short term, that there was nothing inevitable about these spending policies being handled in this particular way, and, in the long term, continuing to devote some portion of our attention (and questions to lawmakers) to the broader problem of what to do about the debt ceiling itself. It might feel as if 2025 is a long way off, but it will quickly come around—and, if we can collectively find the time to obsess over an election that is almost as far away, we have the bandwidth to talk, too, about the prospect of yet another circular policy psychodrama, and how it might be averted before the cliff’s edge. We don’t have to be cynics.

Other notable stories:

  • In recent times, Vice and Media Matters have both published embarrassing unaired footage from Tucker Carlson’s show at Fox News. (Carlson was ousted in April.) Last week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the Justice Department is investigating whether the footage was hacked, and recently executed a search warrant at the home of Timothy Burke, a journalist turned media consultant, in connection with the case. A letter that prosecutors sent to Fox stated that Vice and Media Matters are not accused of any wrongdoing. The letter did not mention Burke, who has not been accused of wrongdoing.
  • For the New York Times, Jane Bradley reports that Nick Cohen, a former columnist at The Observer, The Guardian’s sister paper, resigned following “years of unwanted sexual advances and groping of female journalists,” and that the Financial Times subsequently spiked a story about Cohen. The paper’s editor reportedly said that Cohen was not an “FT story” because he lacked a business profile, but journalists there saw the decision as part of “a wider reluctance to expose bad behavior within its industry.”
  • This week, Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, two journalists in Iran, went on trial over their coverage of Mahsa Amini, whose death last year, following her arrest for allegedly violating Iran’s dress code for women, sparked widespread protests. Hamedi and Mohammadi have been charged with propaganda and conspiring against national security, which could carry the death penalty. (CJR’s Feven Merid wrote about Amini.)
  • In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reelected as president after being forced into a runoff against an opposition candidate. Erdoğan, one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, assailed the international press in his victory speech, asking “Didn’t German, French and English magazines throw their covers to demolish Erdoğan?” (CJR’s Pesha Magid recently assessed what the election would mean for the Turkish press.)
  • And Steven Portnoy looked back on the career of George Polk, a CBS correspondent who was killed seventy-five years ago this month while covering a civil war in Greece. Polk had been investigating whether the right-wing Greek government, which was supported by the US as it fought communist guerillas, had hoarded US aid. US officials later conspired to suppress doubts as to the guilt of a communist jailed for Polk’s murder.

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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.

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