Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
the national interest

Hostage-Takers Not to Blame for Killing Hostage, Reports New York Times

The Platonic ideal of “both sides” reporting.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

“Both sides” has become an abused cliché of progressive media criticism. The term has come to serve as an all-purpose dismissal of any reporting unfavorable to Democrats or the left and the expression of an implicit and false belief that the mainstream media tilts rightward. It is a phrase I generally associate with Twitter addicts who believe that Maggie Haberman is complicit with fascism because her article did not explicitly state “this is bad” while reporting that 37 eyewitnesses saw President Donald Trump running through the halls of the West Wing stark naked and muttering Adolf Hitler quotes in the original German. And yet every cliché corresponds to some actual version of it somewhere in the universe. That item, the purest distillation of the “both sides” trope, can be found in Carl Hulse’s analysis in the New York Times of the debt ceiling.

The main premise of Hulse’s article is that the public will blame Democrats and Republicans equally in the event of a debt default. (Whether it is actually possible for both parties to lose in a two-party system, Hulse does not contemplate.) And as a description of public opinion, that is perfectly true. People believe all sorts of ridiculous things. But it becomes clear that Hulse is not merely describing public opinion but actually endorsing it as correct.

Hulse’s story takes the form of alternating quotes from Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for the impasse. But Hulse slips in his own commentary, asserting that the two sides are both at fault.

After quoting a poll showing that the great and good American people don’t know which party to blame, Hulse writes that they are correct to think this: “And some on Capitol Hill say the political backlash will be well deserved if Congress and the White House manage to mangle the situation so badly that public officials careen into a completely avoidable crisis and send both the economy and the retirement accounts of millions of Americans reeling.”

Hulse does quote Democrats pointing out that Republicans are extorting them — only to assert that Democrats have done the same thing: “Democrats say they refuse to reward Republicans for what they view as highly irresponsible actions that are putting the nation’s economy at risk — even though both parties have used the debt limit for bargaining leverage over the years.”

It is true that both parties have used the debt ceiling as “leverage,” if you define leverage as “posturing about the deficit” or “a vehicle to move bipartisan legislation.” But Democrats have never made demands or threats attached to the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling is always raised without drama under Republican presidencies or when Democrats control Congress. Debt-ceiling hostage crises only occur under one specific combination: a Republican-controlled House and Democratic presidency.

Everybody in Washington, D.C., including Hulse, understands this fact on some level. The debt ceiling has been lifted 42 times since the start of the Reagan era. There was little to no drama surrounding those episodes. During the vast majority of those times, Hulse was not writing articles wondering whether the debt ceiling would be breached, because nobody was threatening default to force the opposing party to give them concessions.

The only time there is genuine uncertainty as to whether the debt limit will be breached is when Republicans in Congress use it to extort a Democratic president. Hulse understands perfectly well that the risk of a default has never occurred during a Republican presidency or a Democrat-controlled House. But rather than incorporate this reality into his analysis, he returns to the form of alternating quotes from the parties pointing fingers at each other, ultimately winding toward his conclusion:

The two parties can continue to trade shots. But until they trade negotiating positions they can come to terms on, the threat of default hangs over Washington and the nation. And if that happens, those involved may find that the public won’t distinguish between who did or said what when, but will hold them all accountable.

Hulse’s story is a classic of the old Washington reporting school. It reifies the conventional wisdom, transmogrifying the opinions of the business lobby and official Washington into undeniable truths. It treats the existence of disagreement between the parties as metaphysical proof that reality must lie in between. It takes a studiously uninterested perspective on policy substance — the story quotes Democrats calling Republican demands unreasonable — but it makes no effort to evaluate this charge. Indeed, the article does not even bother to inform readers what the Republican demands are. The audience is left to assume that whatever it is Republicans want, Democrats should meet halfway or thereabouts.

The old school of Washington reportage may be in decline, but it is not gone altogether. Even as highly opinionated left-leaning reporting overtakes other forms of news and analysis, coverage of Capitol Hill remains dominated by the genre.

I think this story is best understood as Hulse absorbing the beliefs of the Washington Establishment and turning them into an opinion story masquerading as news. The Establishment believes that Republicans have the right to use their power to extort concessions from Democratic presidents as long as the concessions aren’t too extreme. Insiders, like Hulse, understand that Democrats don’t do the same thing to Republican presidents, and since this imbalance is a fact of life, the two sides need to simply compromise somewhere between “huge ransom demands” and “no ransom at all.”

It follows from this premise that the media’s role is to scold Republicans who demand too much of a ransom and Democrats who indignantly refuse to pay any ransom at all in order to coax both sides to the bargaining table. The cajoling involves some white lies — like pretending that the white-knuckle showdowns that inevitably arise from Republican hostage-taking are somehow no different than the drama-free deals to lift the debt ceiling that normally occur.

I am not a skeptic of the journalistic value of objectivity. But Hulse’s article is a reminder that, in its most superficial form, the convention of rendering truth between the two parties permits wildly inaccurate pontification in the guise of neutrality.

NY Times: Hostage-Takers Not to Blame for Killing Hostage