Debt Ceilings and the ‘Balance’ Bias

There’s been plenty written about how reporters skew reality by treating “both sides” as equally intransigent or inflexible when it comes to the budget deficit battle.

Another example, from the L.A. Times today (8/2/11):

For Republicans, it was preventing any tax increase to upper-income families.

For Democrats, it was ensuring no cuts to Social Security, Medicaid and a handful of other programs that aid the elderly and the poor.

And for Obama, it was getting a deal that would end the threat of an economy-shaking default until after the 2012 presidential election.

None of the key players was willing to go all out to actually solve the nation’s long-term financial problems. As a result, the deal doesn’t.

The implication of course, is that opposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare is in some waycomparable to opposing any tax increases anywhere under any circumstances. This glosses over the fact that the Bush tax cuts played a large role in creating the current deficit problem. And it evades the fact that it is certainly possible to fix the budget problem without cutting Social Security and Medicare. It is much more difficult to imagine how to do the same without raising revenues.

But the real lesson we must be taught over and over again is that both sides are to blame for not fixing the nation’s problems.

Or consider this exchange from the July 31 NBC Nightly News:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Andrea, you’ve seen them come and seen them go. This has hardly been a profile in courage. Have you ever seen anything like this?

ANDREA MITCHELL: I actually never have. We’ve had crises before, political crises. We’ve had in our lifetime 9/11, Katrina, other national emergencies, tragedies. And in one case or another, in all of those cases one branch of government at least, if one failed, the other would step in. In this case, all branches of government, our entire government seems to be dysfunctional. And it’s even questioning in people’s minds the checks and balances that was the genius of the framers because now it’s stalemate, it’s gridlock.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. On one level, you sense that Beltway fixtures like Andrea Mitchell have so much invested in the status quo that they cannot fathom how or why the system cannot produce even the appearance of ‘bipartisan compromise’ they find so important to a functioning democracy. That’s the crisis.

More concretely, one has to wonder what she thinks should have been done differently by one of the branches of government. The White House backed a “compromise” that gave Republicans much of what they wanted. They balked and demanded more–which they got. If she means that the Republicans were unusually resistant to compromise, she should just say that–and not blame it on “checks and balances.”

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.