Some of the coverage of the sequestration has been characterized as a "pox on both their houses" attitude towards the Democrats and Republicans who are, once again, inching us closer to the edge. Brooke speaks with New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait who says that sticking to that approach despite the facts can lead reporters and Op-Ed writers to mislead readers about what's really going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Basketball legend turned broadcaster Walt “Clyde” Frazier has turned courtside commentary into pure poetry.
WALT FRAZIER: Erratic, dramatic, charismatic, acrobatic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: His flashy rhymes and dazzling suits express one side of the man called Clyde but obscure the other, the entrepreneur, gardener, yoga aficionado. Join me on March 8th at New York Public Radio’s Jerome L. Greene Space for a chat with Walt Frazier about his life in basketball and broadcasting - and those suits. For tickets, go to onthemedia.org.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. News of the sequester was inescapable this week, sweeping budget cuts, which, if they're allowed to go through on March 1st, could seriously damage the economy. Who's to blame? Everybody!
MAN: Both sides are responsible for it and both sides seem resigned to it.
WOMAN 1: You have a set of politicians who – on both sides – who are unwilling to deal with something that they created, because it was a way for them to kick the can down the road.
WOMAN 2: Now the only question is who's gonna get the blame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This all feels very familiar. Last month it was the looming debt ceiling disaster, this month the sequestration - different names, same ominous rumblings of financial ruin. In his State of the Union address, President Obama made reference to the syndrome.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.
[ADDRESS/UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: But that’s just what we seem to be doing. This latest crisis began in 2011, when, as you’ll recall, Republicans demanded huge cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit, which Democrats wanted to do. They hammered out a compromise that would raise the debt ceiling, while the so-called Super Committee found ways to cut spending and raise revenue agreeable to both sides. But the Super Committee failed. So next month, sequestration will kick in - $1.2 trillion of cuts over ten years that would hurt everyone. And everyone’s to blame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mainstream media are happy when they can point fingers at everybody. Nonpartisan blame has no political downside. The problem with the shame on everyone false equivalency is that it doesn't answer basic questions you might have about the sequester. New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait says he's found a perfect example of this phenomenon, a Washington Post op-ed that dismissed the Republican position on the sequester, argued against the feasibility of the Democrats’ position, even though the paper had previously supported it, and omitted the President's position altogether. All this, says Chait, was in the name of appearing nonpartisan.
JONATHAN CHAIT: I know that the Post agrees with Obama’s general position on the deficit. The proposition that there needs to be some balance between revenue and cuts to retirement programs is exactly the stated position that the Post has. Omitting this is bizarre. It sure seemed to me that the Post was caught between its desire to be nonpartisan and the fact that on this issue it happens to agree with President Obama, and so was forced to work away this contradiction by just ignoring Obama’s actual position.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This need to appear nonpartisan, is this more common in some areas than in others?
JONATHAN CHAIT: It’s extremely common on the deficit. The problem is this: Neutral reporters and self-styled centrist commentators almost uniformly agree that the deficit is a vital, urgent problem and that it’s crucial to address this problem through a combination of higher tax revenue and lower spending in retirement programs and end up advocating for a position thinking that they’re not actually advocating it because it’s merely a sort of public good that everyone who knows anything understands must happen.
The problem is that their position is embraced by one of the parties and not by the other. They’re caught in a quandary. They can’t concede that one of the parties actually agrees with them. So to maintain their nonpartisanship, while advocating for a position in the debate that one of the parties has taken, they have to conceal the fact that one of the parties actually agrees with them -
- and misleadingly present the issue as one where neither party agrees with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A news consumer that wants balanced news doesn’t want to go to partisan to go to partisan news sources, so they go to nonpartisan places. And then they get nonpartisaned to the point where they aren't being informed?
JONATHAN CHAIT: Well, I think that can actually happen. Partisanship can infect news coverage and it can infect opinion commentary and introduce a bias. The problem is if you only correct for that bias and you go so far as to define nonbiased in a way that prevents you from accurately describing differences between the parties, then you’ve not corrected the bias. You’ve simply replaced it with a different kind of bias.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The other kinds of biases have to do with?
JONATHAN CHAIT: A priori centrism that defines the correct position as necessarily being the middle ground between the two parties at all times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, exploring this conundrum with you leaves me open to charges like the one that was hurled at me by conservative John Sununu prior to the election –
[AUGUST 2012 CLIP]:
JOHN SUNUNU: As usual, you, part of the liberal press that will cover this President’s butt across the board, you’re going to lose in November.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do I say to Sununu?
JONATHAN CHAIT: Well [LAUGHS], my answer here isn’t that neutral reporters should advocate Obama's position, because the problem is once they’ve advocating a position, especially on this issue, then [LAUGHS] they’re caught in a trap where they can’t describe the positions of the parties honestly without seeming biased. But I think it’s worth noting that if you’re dedicated to stopping that kind of bias but not aware of the other kind of bias, you can make equally ridiculous mistakes in the other direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan, thank you very much.
JONATHAN CHAIT: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jonathan Chait is a writer for New York Magazine.