How the Press Helped Cause the GOP Shutdown

Journalists continue to invoke the inapplicable "both-sides-are-to-blame" angle—they should know better.

Photo Credit: By Monika Flueckiger, World Economic Forum [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

And now, rather than seeing the health care obstructionism as part of an obvious Republican continuum, and rather than noting it followed the gun law obstructionism, which followed the sequester obstructionism, which followed the Chuck Hagel confirmation obstructionism, which followed the Hurricane Sandy emergency relief obstructionism, which followed consistent obstructionism on juridicial nominees, the press remains reluctant to connect the obvious dots that help paint the portrait of a truly radical Republican party.

Indeed, if ever there were a scenario where it was blindly obvious both sides are definitely not to blame, this would be it. In this case Democrats have mostly been forced to be spectators as they watch a civil war unfold within the Republican Party between its far-right Tea Party allies and the rest of the GOP that wants to keep the government running. It's a rump faction of as few as 30 hardcore House Republicans who refuse to support a clean bill funding the government (and the GOP leadership which has refused to stand up to them) that precipitated the shutdown.

Unfortunately, old press habits die hard and the "both-sides-are-to-blame" angle continues to be invoked by journalists who should know better.

Writing at The Atlantic, James Fallows warned news consumers to be on the lookout for bouts of phony false equivalence in shutdown coverage and commentary:

As a matter of journalism, any story that presents the disagreements as a "standoff," a "showdown," a "failure of leadership," a sign of "partisan gridlock," or any of the other usual terms for political disagreement, represents a failure of journalism and an inability to see or describe what is going on.

By that measure, there have been lots of newsroom failures lately.

ABC News' Jonathan Karl last night reported the pending government shutdown represents "Washington dysfunction at its absolute worst," not Republican dysfunction. Meanwhile, CBS posted the headline, "Yet Again, Congress Searches For a Short-Term Budget Fix," while NBC's First Read went with "Congress -- Playing With Fire."

Hint: "Congress" is not to blame for the current debacle.

On CNN, anchor Chris Cuomo announced "Both sides seem to be saying, forget that constitutional responsibility to pass laws to fund the government. Let's just take a pass on it this time," while an ABC News shutdown dispatch reported that "neither side appears willing to compromise to reach middle ground."

Middle ground? Obama's health care reform bill was passed into law three years ago and Republicans have since voted more than 40 times to try to repeal it. They're now shredding Congressional tradition by holding the federal budget hostage if the president doesn't agree to repeal his own landmark legislation. Does that sound like a party interested in reaching "middle ground"? What exactly would the White House's "middle ground" be in this situation? What kind of 'compromise' can be made when one side is demanding concessions in exchange for something both sides want? And doesn't it seem the Republican strategy is designed specifically so there is no middle-ground option for Obama to take, making compromise impossible?

On and on it goes. A September 20 editorial in the Washington Post cast a wide net in terms of who was to blame, pointing the finger at unnamed "mischievous legislators," "Congress," and the "people who run this town." While noting that House Republicans had initiated the shutdown, the Post warned that "both sides are inordinately concerned" with the politics of the situation and will need to "compromise[e] for the common good."

Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal newsroom has been working overtime to make sure readers think Democrats and Republicans share the blame, publishing generic "Washington" headlines, claiming the "increasingly dysfunctional Congress" is to blame for the shutdown threat (not Republicans), and falsely reporting the GOP's radical health care maneuvers really just represent "a debate over the scope and size of government."

The fact is, reporting on the story is not that difficult. On September 17, the Associated Press' David Espo filed an update about the unfolding Capitol Hill maneuvers; an update that was both straightforward and accurate:

Time running short, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed urgent legislation Friday to avert a government shutdown early next week, and President Barack Obama lectured House Republicans to stop "appeasing the tea party" and quickly follow suit. Despite the presidential plea -- and the urgings of their own leaders -- House GOP rebels showed no sign of retreat in their drive to use the threat of a shutdown to uproot the nation's three-year-old health care law.

Do you see? The shutdown story is not about "Congress," and it's not about "Washington," the favorite safe harbor phrases for too many journalists these days. The story at the time, as the AP correctly pointed out, was about how Republicans were trying to shut down the government and how Democrats were trying to stop that from happening. Period.

More to the point, as The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza recently noted on CNN's Reliable Sources, "What we are witnessing in Washington to a large extent is an internal fight within the Republican Party." He added, "I think it's hard for mainstream reporters to sort of say that because we want most issues to be nice and tidy. Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame."

It does seem hard for mainstream reporters to drop the "both-sides-are-to-blame" angle. Yet every one of them must understand that that tired old trope doesn't apply to this weird Republican crack up.

Eric Boehlert is is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. He's the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006) and Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press (Free Press, 2009). He worked for five years as a senior writer for, where he wrote extensively about media and politics.