Has bogus “he said-she said” reporting led to the impending shutdown?


Salon tries to offer examples: Has bogus “he said-she said” reporting led to the (impending) government shutdown?

That’s what it says in the headline to a new piece at Salon. The piece, which strikes us as very weak, is reprinted from BillMoyers.com.

The piece is lousy work. It’s the kind of work in which liberals copy Fox News techniques while lacking the skill of Fox News.

Without any question, the coming shutdown is idiocy in action. That said, should “Beltway reporters” be blamed? This is the way Joshua Holland begins his piece:
HOLLAND (9/30/13): It’s almost certain that we’ll see the government shut down on Tuesday. The last time that happened, in 1996, it cost $2.1 billion in today’s dollars. Breaching the debt limit would be far, far worse—nobody knows how bad, exactly, but everyone agrees that it would be really bad. The risk of finding out has never been greater. This showdown is by far the most dangerous of a series of fiscal “crises” that have been contrived during the Obama presidency.

Beltway reporters who see their professed neutrality as a higher ground bear an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance. With a few notable exceptions, the media have framed what Jonathan Chait called “a kind of quasi-impeachment” in typical he said-she said fashion, obscuring the fact that the basic norms that govern Congress have been thrown out the window by a small cabal of tea party-endorsed legislators from overwhelmingly Republican districts. The media treat unprecedented legislative extortion as typical partisan negotiations, and in doing so they normalize it.
That sounds bad—real bad. With only “a few exceptions,” the media have obscured the nature of this lunacy. According to Holland, “Beltway reporters...bear an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance.”

That sounds very bad, and the indictment is sweeping. But when Holland gets around to giving examples, he only gives three from “Beltway reporters,” though you might think you’re seeing four. And if you actually click his links, two of his three alleged examples turn out to be very soft:
HOLLAND: In the past, a few minor sweeteners have been tacked onto debt-limit hikes. Debt limit increases have also been added to budget bills negotiated separately by the parties in order to avoid a vote altogether. What makes the current ploy novel is they are offering essentially the entirety of Mitt Romney’s agenda—in essence, a demand to do over the 2012 election and, while they’re at it, 2008 as well.

Yet you wouldn’t fully appreciate the audacity of this tactic by reading standard Beltway coverage. As Brian Beutler notes in Salon, Time Magazine reporter Zeke Miller calls this “negotiating technique...is by no means novel. Hostage taking—by promising harm if you do not get your way—has long been a standard way of doing business in Washington.” James Fallows, decrying what he calls a “failure of journalism,” flagged the headline, “Parties Digging in Their Heels as Hourglass Empties.” (The Courier-Post, a Gannett paper, similarly went with, “Lawmakers dig in their heels; government shutdown nearer.”) And Politico’s Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan described the ransom note as simply a set of “demands for reform.” All of this coverage reeks of false equivalency, implying yet again that “both sides do it.”
Let’s run through these alleged examples, in which “Beltway reporters,” through their “standard Beltway coverage,” must be assigned “an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance.”

First example: The piece by Miller at Time is fairly lame. It’s also a four-paragraph blog post. Somehow, we don’t think the public discourse was deeply affected.

Second example: The headline cited by Fallows isn’t from Miller’s piece, although you might think so from Holland’s remarkably hazy writing. According to Fallows, the headline “is from a proprietary newsletter I read this morning, and about which I am leaving off the identifying details.”

That headline certainly isn’t false; nor is it part of the “Beltway reporting” to which the public has access. Beyond that, it’s impossible to evaluate the work which ran beneath this headline, in part because Fallows wouldn’t say who the newsletter came from. Darlings, it just isn’t done!

Two examples are left. Holland cites a headline from a news report in a (relatively insignificant) Louisville paper, the Courier-Post. The headline sits above a report which seems unobjectionable to us. Indeed: right in paragraph 3, the Courier-Post reporters pin the blame for the impending shutdown where it belongs, on John Boehner. Just that quickly, they go beyond normal press conventions in telling us who is at fault.

That leaves a single three-word phrase from a lengthy Politico report—a report which is very uncomplimentary about the ongoing Republican tactics. By the way:

In the course of that unflattering report in Politico, how does a single reference to “demands for reform” (in paragraph 15) “reek of false equivalency, implying that both sides do it?” Like you, we don’t have the slightest idea. To us, that report in Politico seems rather uncomplimentary regarding the GOP’s conduct.

Are there any major examples of this sort of Beltway reporting? According to Holland, almost every Beltway reporter has engaged in this type of reporting, with only a few exceptions. And yet, with the exception of a four-paragraph blog post, he doesn’t seem to have examples from any major news org.

If everyone has been doing this, where are the major examples from our major news orgs? All reporting matters, of course. But this list of alleged offenses is pathetically thin.

Holland’s piece represents complaining for complaining’s sake. It’s lousy, lazy work. It strikes us as an embarrassment to Moyers and as an indictment of our lazy, floundering tribe.

After all these miserable years, is this the best our team can do? Sadly, indications keep suggesting the answer is yes.


  1. He-said-she-said reporting is either 1) a consequence of a misguided sense of "fairness" where both sides are painted as equally wrong/culpable on a given issue even when they aren't; or 2) the ultimate cover-your-ass writing move. Whatever the motive, it's lazy reporting because it frees the journalist from having to use their brains and critically evaluate policies. One can simply act as stenographer for each side and leave it at that.

    I agree with Mr. Somerby that Mr. Holland hurts his case by using weak or easily refuted examples. Holland should take a look at Dean Baker's blog (http://www.cepr.net/beat-the-press/) to see how this line of criticism is done effectively. And Baker focuses his critique on the influential Washington Post and New York Times to boot.

  2. Courier-Post is not Louisville, KY's newspaper. Louisville, KY's newspaper, and hardly a "insiginifigant" paper is the Louisville Courier-Journal http://www.courier-journal.com/

    1. I've tried to impress upon Mr. Somerby that there are a whole bunch of newspapers in America besides the NYT and Washington Post, and they are all doing quality reporting on issues he believes are being ignored or misreported in the only two he thinks are of "significance.

      That he doesn't even know the Courier-Journal's name, and considers it "insignificant" says much about our tribal leader, doesn't it?

  3. The Republicans may be in the wrong on the debt limit issue, but it's just foolish to call their effort a "perversion of democratic governance." The current debt limit is the law of the land. Either house of Congress or the President has the Constitutional right to decline to approve a change in the legal debt limit.

    1. Also the "law of the land" are the duly passed spending bills that require the raise in the debt limit, David. Not to approve a change in the debt limit to meet the spending that has already been passed will bring disastrous results for both the national and global economy as the U.S. falls into default.

    2. You think the government isn't bringing in enough money to service the debt??? Hardly seems likely.

    3. "Default" (as in on the debt) and not meeting the spending that has already been passed aren't the same thing. I understand they've passed bills, signed into law, to build that fence on the southern border and funded it and hardly any of it has been built.

  4. Bob has been arguing himself into this corner for some time now. So he continues. One keeps hoping he will stop wasting his talents, but at some point, why? There are lots of other truly insightful and thoughtful bloggers to learn from.