The rocky rollout of Obamacare has prompted commentators to attack the president and his team for having three years to plan for the launch and still not getting it right. That's a legitimate critique as problems persist. But the same can be said for an awful lot of reporters doing a very poor job covering Obamacare. They also had three years to prepare themselves to accurately report the story.
So what's their excuse?
The truth is, the Beltway press rarely bothers to explain, let alone cover, public policy any more. With a media model that almost uniformly revolves around the political process of Washington (who's winning, who's losing?), journalists have distanced themselves from the grungy facts of governance, especially in terms of how government programs work and how they effect the citizenry.
But explaining is the job of journalism. It's one of the crucial roles that newsrooms play in a democracy. And in the recent case of Obamacare, the press has failed badly in its role. Worse, it has actively misinformed about the new health law and routinely highlighted consumers unhappy with Obamacare, while ignoring those who praise it.
As Joshua Holland noted at Bill Moyers' website, "lazy stories of "sticker shock" and cancellations by reporters uninterested in the details of public policy only offer the sensational half of a complicated story, and that's providing a big assist to opponents of the law."
It's part of a troubling trend. Fresh off of blaming both sides for the GOP's wholly-owned, and thoroughly engineered, government shutdown, the press is now botching its Obamacare reporting by omitting key facts and context -- to the delight of Republicans. It's almost like there's a larger newsroom pattern in play.
And this week the pattern revolved around trying to scare the hell out of people with deceiving claims about how Obamacare had forced insurance companies to "drop" clients and how millions of Americans had "lost" their coverage.
The latest Washington Post poll released this week surveying the race for governor in Virginia found what virtually every poll has this season: Democrat Terry McAuliffe has amassed surprisingly large lead in a "purple" state and in a race that was supposed to have been a toss-up between the two parties.
McAuliffe's impressive campaign run represents what appears to be a certain Democratic victory and may be a bellwether for the 2014 midterm elections. But as a longtime confidante of Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe's imminent win can also be seen as yet another political triumph for the former president and first lady.
Yet that's not how the October 24 issue of The New Republic played the unfolding campaign. In a cover story that stressed McAuliffe's ties to the former president (he's "the consummate Washington insider, Clinton vintage"), the Beltway magazine presented an amazingly snide and insulting portrait of the Democratic candidate.
Depicted as shallow, dishonest rube who fit right in with his Clinton pals, the derogatory language used to describe McAuliffe was startling: He represents "so much of what some people find gross about the subspecies" of the Washington insider; the "shamelessness," and the fact he's "so ardent in his lack of earnestness." He's a man who "managed to sell a used car - himself - to the voters of Virginia."
Imagine the tone of the coverage if the Clinton intimate were losing the Virginia race?
The New Republic's nasty piling-on of McAuliffe is just more evidence that the press, once again, may be starting to declare something of an open season on the Clintons, and those who inhabit their political universe. As Hillary Clinton segues from Secretary of State to possible presidential candidate, the Beltway media, after focusing on the rise of Barack Obama and his administration for the last six years, is also transitioning.
Unfortunately, instead of new insights and fresh perspectives, we're seeing a new generation of writers adopt the same tired, cynical tropes that the Clintons, and news consumers, have been subjected to for two decades running: Bill and Hillary are phonies who keep fooling the American public. They're relentlessly selfish people, obsessed with lining their own pockets and the source of non-stop "personal dramas."
Of course, the "drama" surrounding the Clintons often springs from the media's endless obsession with the couple, married with today's click-bait business model for news.
When he announced hearings this week into the troubled launch and implementation of President Obama's health care reform, Rep. David Camp (R-MI), Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, demanded to know why "after spending over $600 million" the online health care exchange portal, healthcare.gov, doesn't work properly.
In light of the site's systemic failures, that bulging nine-figure price tag ($634 million, to be exact) has produced endless guffaws within the conservative media, where the figure has been adopted as evidence of a policy debacle.
"Who pays $634 million and has three years and screws it up that bad?" asked Fox News' Sean Hannity on October 18. Added Rush Limbaugh: "That website, by the way, the original projected cost: $93 million. The end cost: $643 million. I kid you not."
Wow, $550 million in cost overruns for healthcare.gov since 2010 when the health care reform law was passed?
The life of the $600 million figure appears to be the latest example of how misinformation is fermented within the right-wing media and then adopted as quasi-policy by the Republican Party. After all, Rep. Camp is holding a hearing specifically to determine why the government's $600 million health care website doesn't work, even though the site didn't cost $600 million.
Just days after the government shutdown came to an end, and with public opinion polls continuing to show that the Republican Party paid a grave price for its radical and shortsighted maneuver, Meet The Press host David Gregory wanted to discuss President Obama's failure to lead.
Pointing to a mocking National Journal piece by Ron Fournier, that was headlined "Obama Wins! Big Whoop. Can He Lead?" Gregory pressed his guests about when Obama would finally "demonstrate he can bring along converts to his side and actually get something meaningful accomplished." Gregory was convinced the president had to shoulder "a big part of the responsibility" for the shutdown crisis, due to the president's failed leadership. New York Times columnist David Brooks agreed Obama is at fault, stressing "The question he's never answered in all these years is, 'How do I build a governing majority in this circumstance?'"
Gregory, Brooks and Fournier were hardly alone in suggesting that Obama's a failed leader. Why a failure? Because a Democratic president beset by Republicans who just implemented a crazy shutdown strategy hasn't been able to win them to his side.
In her post-shutdown New York Times column, Maureen Down ridiculed Obama, claiming he "always manages to convey tedium at the idea that he actually has to persuade people to come along with him, given the fact that he feels he's doing what's right." (i.e. Obama's too arrogant to lead.)
And in a lengthy Boston Globe piece last week addressing Obama's failure to achieve unity inside the Beltway, Matt Viser wrote that Obama "bears considerable responsibility" for the Beltway's fractured, dysfunctional status today (it's "his biggest failure") because "his leadership style" has "angered countless conservatives, who have coalesced into a fiercely uncompromising opposition." That's right, it's Obama's fault his critics hate him so much.
Talk about blaming the political victim.
As an example of Obama's allegedly vexing "leadership style," Viser pointed to the fact Democrats passed a health care reform bill without the support of a single Republican. That "helped spur the creation of the Tea Party and a "de-fund Obamacare" movement," according to the Globe. But that's false. The ferocious anti-Obama Tea Party movement exploded into plain view on Fox News 12 months before the party-line health care vote took place in early 2010. Obama's "leadership style" had nothing to do with the fevered right-wing eruption that greeted his inauguration.
The GOP just suffered a humiliating shutdown loss that has its own members pointing fingers of blame at each other. So of course pundits have turned their attention to Obama and pretended the shutdown was a loss for him, too. Why? Because the Beltway media rules stipulate if both sides were to blame for the shutdown that means both sides suffered losses. So pundits pretend the crisis highlighted Obama's glaring lack of leadership.
But did it? Does that premise even make sense? Isn't there a strong argument to be made that by staring down the radicals inside the Republican Party who closed the government down in search of political ransom that Obama unequivocally led? And that he led on behalf of the majority of Americans who disapproved of the shutdown, who deeply disapprove of the Republican Party, and who likely did not want Obama to give in to the party's outlandish demands?
Doesn't leadership count as standing up for what you believe in and not getting run over; not getting trucked by hard-charging foes?
How out of whack, at times, was CNN's coverage of the GOP's radical move to shut down the government and to flirt with defaulting on American's debt? So puzzling that when news broke on October 16 that a deal would be struck to avoid a catastrophic default, CNN's Ashleigh Banfield turned to her guest, Democratic Congressman James Clyburn, and blamed him for the two-week shutdown [emphasis added]:
BANFIELD: Forgive me for not popping the champagne corks, because while we're celebrating this breaking news that there's a deal, it's just a temporary deal. We're still nowhere near a solution to the crisis that the United States of America finds itself in because of people like you and your other colleagues on the Hill.
It's well known that when confronted with political turmoil created by Republicans, the Beltway press prefers to blame both political parties. (i.e. "Congress" is dysfunctional!) That way journalists are not seen as taking sides, and they're inoculated from cries of liberal media bias. But if ever there were a test case for when it was plain both sides were not to blame, the shutdown was it.
Engineered entirely by Republicans, Democrats like Clyburn were forced to become spectators as they watched a civil war unfold within the Republican Party between its far-right Tea Party allies, who insisted on adopting a radical strategy, and the rest of the GOP. Or course, several prominent Republican politicians pinned blame squarely on their colleagues for the recent mess.
The shutdown was a crisis orchestrated by Republicans. Period.
Congressional Democrats played virtually no role in the procedural sabotage, except as shocked observers. Yet there was Ashleigh Banfield blaming a Democrat (as well as all Democrats and Republicans) for causing so much turmoil inside Washington, D.C. The skewed commentary fit in with the fact that CNN regularly suggested President Obama was a central cause of the tumultuous shutdown because he wasn't willing to just sit down and work out a deal with his political foes.
CNN occupies an important place within the media landscape. Priding itself on a down-the-middle approach to news and political commentary, the channel helps shape conventional wisdom and sets the common boundaries for news events. But by so effortlessly adopting the Republican spin that Obama and Democrats shouldered all kinds of blame for the shutdown, CNN became part of the media problem.
Over the weekend, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the architect of the Republican effort to shut down the federal government, spoke at a Washington, D.C. rally, hosted by activists who were angry that the nation's memorials had been closed as part of the government shutdown. Sarah Palin also addressed the crowd.
Soon after Cruz spoke, and after Palin handed out small American flags, organizers turned to Freedom Watch founder Larry Klayman. Best known in recent years for his evangelical pursuit of birtherism and all half-baked conspiracies related to the debunked claim that Barack Obama wasn't born in America and that he's an undercover Muslim, Klayman told cheering activists in Washington that the president "bows down to Allah." He announced that Obama's "not the president of 'we the people, he's a president of his people," and that Obama needed to "put the Quran down."
The Obama's-a-foreigner ugliness fermented by Klayman was soon showcased after shutdown protesters marched to the White House where, according to the conservative Washington Times, the crowd numbered "about 200," including curious onlookers. Outside the White House gates, one conservative protester waved a Confederate flag, and when local police arrived to secure the area they were greeted with calls of "brown shirts," while one demonstrator commented the scene "looks like something out of Kenya."
Note also that the recently failed right-wing truck rally in D.C. was organized by a proud online birther, and that attendees to the far-right Value Voters Summit in Washington over the weekend were invited to hear addresses by birther exhibitionists Joseph Farah and Jerome Corsi.
If anyone's surprised that a proud and unapologetic birther (in 2013!) was front-and-center at a right-wing anti-Obama rally this week, or that the birther charade plays a central role in government shutdown activism, then they haven't being paying close enough attention to the conservative movement in America.
And that includes most members of the Beltway press corps.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow recently addressed the birther issue and stressed the importance of it in terms of understanding today's radical Republicans in the House:
MADDOW: They have a different sense of what is normal. They have a different sense of what counts as reasonable politics in America -- and failing to appreciate that, means that we fail to develop reasonably accurate expectations for their behavior. And that has become really important.
That failure to appreciate helps explain why the shutdown to defund a three-year-old health care law remains so perplexing to most outside observers. Viewed through the prism of traditional partisan politics, it doesn't make any sense. It's a shutdown about nothing. It's a shutdown devoid of content or purpose. (Defunding was never a realistic outcome.) It's certainly a shutdown that was executed without any clear goals by Republicans, or anything that even resembled an endgame strategy.
News coverage of the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis has prompted widespread criticism about how Beltway journalists unnecessarily include Democrats when assigning blame for a shutdown strategy that has been methodically plotted by extremist Republicans for months; a strategy built around making unprecedented demands on the president in exchange for Republican votes for a policy they say they already support.
Eager to maintain a political symmetry in which both sides are responsible for sparking conflict, the press effectively gives Republicans a pass for adopting truly outside-the-norm behavior, such as when senators suggest the United States defaulting on its debt is not cause for concern.
But both-sides-to-blame reporting is really just the public symptom of a larger media malady; the refusal to acknowledge the proud extremism of today's Republican Party. Both-sides-to-blame analysis is a fallback position. It's a soft landing spot for journalists who aren't confident enough to accurately report what's unfolding politically.
The signs of radical change are everywhere inside the Republican Party. The change is being driven by a group of hardcore members and their attempt to grind Obama's presidency, and the federal government, to a halt by refusing to not only compromise with Democrats, but refusing to even speak to them about the federal budget. They include members with an almost evangelical fervor for defaulting on the debt ceiling and who describe it as their defining "Braveheart" moment; their chance to do something "big." They're extremists trying to make governing impossible via procedural sabotage.
Yet many reporters and pundits remain blind to the obvious GOP transformation, or are too timid to spell out the details for news consumers.
As irresponsible Republicans in the House detonate one blockbuster crisis after another, it's becoming clear that the press doesn't know how to deal with this; that it doesn't have the right tools for the job. Most journalists have never seen anything quite like the purposeful dysfunction and chaos that Republicans have plotted, and therefore remain timid and unsure about acknowledging what's really happening.
So instead of clarity, we get the endless regurgitation about how the nation's capital has been paralyzed by a "partisan logjam" (Wall Street Journal), and suffering from "an inability to come together" (NPR contributor Cokie Roberts). See? Both sides are to blame.
According to press accounts, one of the universal truths about the current government shutdown is that more Republican members of the House have adopted increasingly brazen political strategies because they're elected from safe districts.
Due to the growing polarization of American politics and its voting patterns (along with gerrymandering), Tea Party-aligned Republicans from deeply red districts have embraced unorthodox behavior and unprecedented strategies because local voters staunchly support them even if their agenda is unpopular nationwide. It's that electoral freedom that's produced a new breed of Republican congressmen and women, according to this press telling.
That storyline is deeply flawed, however. It leaves out crucial context, like the simple fact that for decades a huge number of congressional Democrats have enjoyed safe seats. Yet they never equated comfortable victory margins with permission to adopt the extremist measures now displayed by Republicans as they provoke crisis after crisis. The safe seat spin also gives Republicans a pass as they continue to steer the country towards dangerous territory.
Still, that narrative remains a constant.
Explaining the disconnect between the public dismay over the shutdown and stubbornness displayed by GOP politicians, political scientist Larry Sabato told CBS News, "The vast majority are in heavily Republican districts, so general public opinion may be completely against them, but this is actually good for them."
The New York Times explained Republicans face "little personal political risk" for backing the extreme measure of shutting down the government, "because they are elected in overwhelmingly Republican districts." And the New York Post announced that "Until a sufficient number of Republicans start fearing that the blowback threatens their own political skins, the shutdown won't get solved."
Over and over, this account has been embraced by reporters and commentators as they try to explain the increasingly radical, hostage-taking behavior of Republicans who have already forced a government shutdown and who are now threatening to allow the United States to default on its debts; a move that could cause catastrophic damage to the global economy.
Media message: If politicians don't have to worry about re-election, naturally they're going to act more extreme.
Journalists seem to like the 'safe seat' explanation because on the surface it appears to make sense,. (Oh, that's why Republicans are acting so outlandishly.) And journalists also seem to be searching for a quasi-rational explanation or justification for why Republican anarchists in the House are behaving the way they are. But that's the wrong way to approach the story.
Like a little kid counting down the days until Christmas, Fox News' Sean Hannity was giddy with anticipation in recent weeks and months. As the threat of a federal government shutdown drew closer, he casually dismissed any concern about its impact and welcomed its arrival.
Hannity was just one of many voice joining the right-wing cacophony, as Obama's fiercest critics eagerly touted the shutdown, cheered the GOP's radical strategy, and vowed to support the obstructionism. ("Hold the line," the talker recently urged.) The shutdown was to be celebrated and Republicans who engineered it were commended for their accomplishment.
Not everyone on Fox News agrees with the strategy. But the cable channel has certainly served as a generous source of cheerleading, as have lots of Tea Party-aligned media outlets. Dutifully praising the unprecedented move of tying a bill funding the government to the demand that a previously passed law (Obamacare) be defunded, the GOP Noise Machine eagerly rushed into battle on behalf of the party's shutdown wing, convinced that a major political victory was at hand.
But it hasn't worked out that way.
Dealt an incoherent hand by Republican activists in Congress who seem to jump back and forth between proudly defending the shutdown's continuation and demanding Obama and Democrats end it immediately, the party's press allies have been caught up in confused messages and jumbled, often contradictory, talking points. (It's not really a shutdown, it's just a "slimdown.")
And this time Democrats aren't the only ones lashing out at Tea Party-leaning House members and denouncing them as radicals. So are other members of the Republican Party. That ongoing intramural skirmish is trampling any rational messaging the GOP might have hoped would shift public opinion. After all, if even some Republicans think their colleagues botched the shutdown ("The entire effort has been totally disingenuous"), voters are likely to agree.
That contradiction has been mirrored on Fox News and throughout the right-wing media since the shutdown went into effect. The Noise Machine that cheered the GOP's shutdown strategy is now powerless to help the party recover from an unfolding public relations debacle.
With the Republican Party playing defense in the face of overwhelming polling results that confirm the shutdown is deeply unpopular and that Republicans are getting blamed more than Democrats for the impasse, the right-wing media megaphone Republicans rely on has stumbled badly this week.
Appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe just days before the looming deadline for a federal government shutdown, Politico's Mike Allen was assessing the politics of the controversy and predicting which Beltway players would get tagged with the blame for the intentional legislative debacle. Despite the fact that Republicans were refusing to fund the government if the White House balked at the demand to essentially repeal its 2010 health care law, Allen suggested President Obama would be the real political loser.
Why Obama? Because he's more famous than the GOP congressional leaders whose actions are causing the impasse.
"A lot of people in the country don't know John Boehner. There's no one in the world who doesn't know Barack Obama," Allen explained. "So when Washington is not working, it's going off the rails in a very visible way, a way that is vivid and touches people, that's not good ultimately for the president."
That's an awfully tenuous path to blame Obama for the Republicans' proudly obstructionist strategy to stop funding the government.
Yet so it goes within portions of the Beltway press corps who are straining to include Democrats in the shutdown blame game; to make sure "both sides" are targeted for tsk-tsk scoldings about "Washington dysfunction," and that the Republicans' truly radical nature remains casually ignored. This media act is getting old. And this media act may be emboldening the Republicans' extreme behavior.
Note that unlike the government shutdowns during the Clinton administration, this one was not prompted by a budgetary disagreement between the two parties. It was provoked by the GOP's unheard of demand that in order to vote for government spending they agree is necessary, the White House had to strip away funding for its health care law. Also note that the looming showdown over the debt ceiling represents another orchestrated crisis in which the GOP is making unprecedented demands on the president in exchange for their votes for a policy they say they support. Both cases illustrate the folly of trying to blame the White House for failing to engage with Republicans, who have embraced a path of purposefully unsolvable confrontations.
What's been clear for years is that the press clings to its preferred storyline: When Republicans obstruct Obama's agenda, the president's to blame for not changing the GOP's unprecedented behavior. In other words, "both sides" are to blame for the GOP's radical actions and the epic gridlock it produces.
The media lesson for Republicans? There's very little political downside to pushing extremism if the press is going to give the party a pass.