Responsibility for shutdown is a crucial journalistic question
Media like to dismiss the partisan “blame game,” but accurately placing blame can be a crucial journalistic function. After all, nothing promotes political irresponsibility more than the knowledge that whatever you do, media will blame both sides equally.
Republicans refused to budge on their demands to delay parts of the president’s healthcare law. Democrats remained adamantly opposed to those demands.
On NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams (9/30/13) reported:
The simplest way to put it is this: The Republican-controlled House is passing bills the Democratically controlled Senate keeps rejecting. The bills would keep the government operating while stopping aspects of the new healthcare law. And that’s where we are.
USA Today’s Susan Page (10/2/13) observed that the shutdown was “the latest and most dramatic demonstration of an increasingly dysfunctional capital” where “the traditional ways of reaching compromises no longer apply.” She explained that
House Republicans have insisted on defunding or delaying Obamacare, a demand the White House and Senate Democrats have flatly rejected. Rock, meet hard place.
You can see why the press likes this explanation for the shutdown, with its clear centrist moral. Why can’t the extremists in both parties put aside their differences for the good of the country? But it’s also deeply misleading.
A majority of the Senate wanted to pass a “clean CR”—a continuing resolution that would fund the government without defunding the Affordable Care Act. A majority of the House did too. What prevented the House’s Democratic minority from joining with some of the Republican majority to pass such a bill was House Speaker John Boehner’s insistence that he would only allow a vote on a bill that a majority of Republicans would support (Reuters, 10/14/13). (After Boehner finally agreed to allow a vote, on October 16, the CR passed with support of all the Democrats and less than two-fifths of the Republicans.)
Following the lead of a minority of his own party, Boehner had embraced a strategy of shutting down much of the federal government unless the Senate agreed to gut a law that had been passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the president and upheld by the Supreme Court—an approach to getting one’s way in Washington that was literally unprecedented (Huffington Post, 9/25/13).
This hardly got the attention it deserved. USA Today (9/30/13) made this admission near the end of a front-page piece about the then-looming shutdown:
Boehner could put the “clean” Senate-passed funding bill on the House floor, where it would likely pass on the support of House Democrats with some Republicans, but he is under political pressure from conservative lawmakers and allied outside groups to hold the line.
Making this clear, though, would have challenged media to declare one side more responsible for the crisis than the other—something establishment news outlets are disinclined to do. There were some exceptions —like a Huffington Post report (10/2/13) bluntly headlined “John Boehner Could End Shutdown Today if He Wanted To.”
Much more common were stories and commentary criticizing both parties for playing the “blame game.” Pundit Stuart Rothenberg on the PBS NewsHour (10/1/13), for instance, lamented that “both sides have just staked out a very extreme position, portraying the other side as full of ill will and anger and extreme and uncompromising.” The Washington Post had an article (9/30/13) about the partisan messaging war: “In Shut-down Blame Game, Democrats and Republicans United: It’s the Other Side’s Fault.”
The Post explained that there was a “heated back-and-forth” about who was at fault, acknowledging that “the challenge is steepest for the GOP, which faces a hardening public perception that it is primarily to blame for setting the crisis in motion.”
That “perception” happened to be reality. But insider journalists were mostly unwilling to say so. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz (10/1/13) wrote that the “two warring parties…had a similar message: The fault lies elsewhere for the disruptions that the closures will produce.” For his part, Balz seemed to find fault mainly with President Barack Obama, who was lobbing “rhetorical grenades” at the GOP: “His healthcare law…is the sole reason the government is partly shuttered and the political system in the capital paralyzed.” That’s true in the sense that John Dillinger robbed banks for the sole reason that they were full of money.