The U.S. deficit debate: lopsided stories make balanced reporting tricky

It's hardly pre-election posturing. A potential economic disaster is at stake.

The ideal of balanced reporting, which in its classic formulation goes back to Walter Lippmann,  serves us well in most cases. The general notion is to seek to report from neutral ground. That doesn’t mean, of course, that journalists should suppress their own sense of judgment. But in conventional reporting of clashes between legitimate actors, the journalist tends to toward giving roughly equal weight to the opposing camps.

That usually works fine. Let’s say you’re covering a labour dispute. Rarely is either the employer or the union so clearly in the right that it seems fair for the reporter to emphasize the merits of one side’s bargaining stance over the other’s. In an election campaign featuring competitive parties with proper platforms, reporting generally should give the rivals’ policy positions similar emphasis. (Of course, columnists and editorial writers and partisan pundits needn’t feel any such constraint.)

But what is the reporter to do when a story might appear to call for that sort of coverage, but the facts don’t sort themselves out that way? This was, for example, the dilemma many Ottawa journalists found themselves in during last summer’s flap over the Canadian government’s decision to cancel the long-form census. An overwhelming consensus emerged against the change, and it didn’t follow partisan or ideological lines. Writing a story that felt balanced required an awkward exercise in hunting for any plausible quote in support of the government’s census-scrapping policy, while dozens of reputable  experts and respected organizations lined up to be on the record opposing the move.

In other words, any story on the census that looked balanced on the page was, in fact, conveying to readers a symmetry that simply didn’t exist in the real world. I’m starting to see the same problem emerging in the much more serious context of coverage of Washington’s debt-ceiling negotiations. Many stories frame the bargaining as mere partisan political theatre meant by the two intransigent sides to set the stage for the 2012 U.S. elections.

From an Associated Press story: “Unspoken, yet unmistakable in all the brinkmanship was the 2012 election campaign, still 18 months away, with the White House and both houses of Congress at stake.” And also from AP: “Aides said the two sides were not able to bridge their differences over the triggers designed to force Congress to enact both tax changes and cuts to Medicare and other benefit programs by early next year.”

Or consider the Globe and Mail‘s account today: “In duelling news conferences, Mr. [John] Boehner accused the President of moving the goal posts in seeking bigger tax increases; [President] Obama countered that the Speaker was unwilling to lean on his no-compromise caucus.” And more: “What the President is really fighting for now is a deal that spares him the unpleasant chore of having to ask Congress to raise the borrowing limit once more before the 2012 election. Republicans would love nothing more than to force him to go through this all again during high campaign season.”

Not one of these sample sentences is flatly wrong. There is, no doubt, some political theatre in all this. And the election timetable is bound to be in the minds of Democrats and Republicans. But reporting the story in this way suggests to a fair-minded reader that what’s really going on here is that Obama and Boehner are both worried about re-election, and so are being about equally mule-headed. It’s just theatre. One of those one-guy-said-this, the-other-guy-said-that stories.

But it’s not that sort of confrontation at all.

What’s at stake is the prospect of an economically destabilizing calamity should the U.S. government become unable to pay its bills. This is hardly mere pre-election posturing. And the two sides are not similarly unwilling to bend. Obama was willing to infuriate his base by cutting hundreds of billions from medicare, medicaid and social security, starting almost immediately, while Republicans weren’t willing to eliminate tax breaks for the wealthy, even though the resulting hikes wouldn’t start biting for many months.

Of course, reporting the story this way would, to many readers, suggest that a journalist wasn’t being fair. (Coverage of the census story last summer that reflected the preponderance of informed opposition also drew angry email and letters from readers who thought this couldn’t possibly be balanced.) Yet reporting the debt-ceiling bargaining as an even give-and-take is plainly misleading. It’s really a story of give-and-not-give.

I’m pretty old-fashioned about the news. I’m willing to read a story that feels a bit bland if I also sense that I’m getting both sides. But in this case, I’m afraid the news accounts, and even some of the mainstream news analysis, isn’t capturing what’s unfolding. So I’d suggest reading the better editorials and columns instead. The New York Times does a good job summing it all up here.

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