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“Both-sides”ism is rampant. And it’s seriously misleading the public.

Robert Reich

Jan 24



Few things make me as furious as the mainstream media’s reluctance to tell the public what the Republican Party is doing — and instead hide the truth behind “both sides” rubbish. How the hell can democracy work if The New York Times, CNN, and even National Public Radio obscure what’s really going on?

Let me state five central truths about the pending fight over the debt ceiling and show you how the mainstream media is distorting each of them.

Truth #1: The fight is being waged solely by the Republican Party. The Democrats did not pick this fight. When Trump occupied the White House, Republicans voted to increase the debt limit three times without incident. Over the last quarter century, it has been raised over a dozen times.

You wouldn’t know this from the way it’s being covered. Last Thursday’s Times, in an article titled “Months Before a Potential Crisis, Both Parties Kick Off a Fiscal Blame Game,” leads with the wildly false equivalence that:

“Members of both parties are intent on painting the opposition as culpable for the turmoil that would result from a catastrophic default on the debt this summer….

Administration officials say Republicans are provoking an unnecessary crisis by insisting on deep spending cuts …. [But Kevin McCarthy] has started early trying to lay the blame at the feet of Democrats instead. As Republicans vow to extract spending cuts in exchange for an increase in the debt limit, Mr. McCarthy insists it is Mr. Biden and his allies in Congress who are acting cavalierly by refusing in advance to negotiate on such reductions, and they who are risking upheaval if they do not shift their position. The clear inference is that whatever happens will be the fault of Mr. Biden and Senate Democrats.

CNN is no better. Anchor Erin Burnett has framed the fight as “a dangerous game of chicken,” in which “Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling without any strings attached,” while “the White House — well, they are going to the opposite extreme.” 

White House going to the opposite extreme? Hello?

CNN congressional correspondent Lauren Fox even describes Republicans and Democrats as “retreating to their corners” and “sticking to their political talking points.”

Truth #2: The fight has nothing whatever to do with controlling the national debt. It has to do with paying the nation’s bills. The “debt ceiling” is merely an accounting convention. The national debt is comprised of obligations already incurred. If Republicans were serious about controlling the national debt, they’d be willing to consider tax increases — including repeal of the giant Trump tax cut that went mostly to big corporations and the very rich. But the national debt isn’t on their minds.

Yet the mainstream media is intent on treating this as a fight over the national debt.

On CNN’s major political talk show last Sunday, anchor Jake Tapper suggested to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) that it would be “irresponsible” for the GOP not to force a fight over the debt ceiling, saying, “We have these crazy deficits, crazy national debt. It’s $30 trillion right now … Isn’t it time that Congress takes this seriously? And would the Republicans be irresponsible for not forcing this conversation?” In an interview with the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Tapper said that it’s “a problem” that “the U.S. government spends a lot more money than it takes in” and that Democrats are unwilling to negotiate. “Republicans say they are willing to come to the table to discuss raising the debt ceiling but they also want to discuss negotiations to reduce future government spending. … Are you willing to at least sit down and see if there is a deal to be made in any way?” 

Truth #3: For the last half century, Democratic administrations have been more fiscally responsible than Republican ones. I was part of Bill Clinton’s administration, which balanced the federal budget after Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had racked up record deficits. Obama cleaned up after George W. Bush’s runaway spending and tax cuts. The Trump administration added a whopping $7 trillion to the national debt.

Yet if you watch or listen to the mainstream media, you’d think that the two parties are equally fiscally irresponsible and will be equally at fault for whatever happens next.

Introducing a pair of segments, CNN anchor John Berman said “Republicans refuse to budge on demands and Democrats refuse to budge on negotiations.”

Truth #4: The real reason Republicans are waging this fight is they see it as a backdoor way of attacking the two most popular (and largest) safety nets in the federal government: Social Security and Medicare. They dare not take on these programs directly. But the GOP believes that negotiating over the debt ceiling gives them an opportunity to begin to shrink these programs.

The mainstream media barely mentions this underlying strategy. Politico refers to raising the debt limit as a “political stalemate” and describes the positions as: “Conservatives want a deal that includes spending cuts, but the White House says meeting the country’s obligations should be non-negotiable.” 

Truth #5: The act of holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage is the economic equivalent of aiming a nuclear missile at the American (and world) economies and demanding concessions. It’s not a bargaining tactic. It’s a terrorist tactic.

Yet the mainstream media makes it sound as if Republicans have long used fights over the debt ceiling to counter Democratic spending. Consider this, in last Friday’s The New York Times, in an article titled “A Political Fight is Again Putting the Economy at Risk.”

Republicans, in particular, have used the passage of bills increasing the limit as leverage to try to force spending cuts on Democratic administrations …. If lawmakers have a problem with spending, the debt ceiling offers a way to protest….

The media are even blaming Democrats for not negotiating over the debt ceiling. On NPR’s Morning Edition, political correspondent Susan Davis said, “For now, McCarthy is the only leader at the negotiating table.”

Of course McCarthy is the only one at the negotiating table. The Biden administration and the Democrats are not negotiating because raising the debt ceiling should be non-negotiable.

Friends, I’m not even talking here about Fox News or its many far-right imitators. I’m referring to the so-called “moderate” mainstream media that most Americans rely on for their news.

The pending fight over raising the debt ceiling is complicated. If the mainstream media gets it wrong, how do we expect most Americans to get it right?

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