Posted on Thursday Dec 19th at 11:00am
By Brendan Nyhan
How should the United States choose among the difficult tradeoffs it faces in setting the federal budget? There’s no one correct answer, but you wouldn’t know it from coverage of the budget deal between Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan, which passed the Senate last night and will soon be signed into law.
Under the norm of objectivity that dominates mainstream political journalism in the United States, reporters are supposed to avoid endorsing competing political viewpoints or proposals. In practice, however, journalists often treat centrist policy priorities–especially on fiscal policy–as value-neutral. That’s wrong. While it’s widely accepted that the federal government faces limits on what it can borrow in the financial markets, there is significant disagreement, including among experts, over the priority that should be given to reducing current deficit and debt levels relative to other possible policy objectives. It is, in other words, a political issue. Reporters often ignore this conflict, treating deficit-cutting as a non-ideological objective while portraying other points of view as partisan or political. That’s why it’s not accepted for reporters to explicitly advocate, say, abortion bans or recognition of gay marriage, but criticism of the president for not advocating entitlement cuts with sufficient fervor can run in a “factcheck” column.
This confusion between centrism and objectivity cropped up again in coverage of the budget deal, which often portrayed the fact that the agreement did little to cut the federal debt as a failing. The Washington Post‘s Lori Montgomery, for instance, was implicitly critical, writing that “the deal would do nothing to trim the debt, which is now larger, as a percentage of the economy, than at any point in U.S. history except during World War II.” McClatchy’s David Lightman also suggested that the lack of more aggressive deficit-cutting was a flaw. The bill is “likely to still increase the federal deficit, if only slightly, this year and next,” he wrote, and is “hardly the grand bargain that’s eluded Washington for years, much less a plan to make a serious dent in the government’s $17.2 trillion debt.”
Stories in the Associated Press and Christian Science Monitor opined even more directly about the bill’s supposed merits. The AP’s Charles Babington tried to take a value-neutral perspective by aligning himself with “[p]eople hoping for a government that works better.” These people, he writes, “can’t decide whether to cheer or lament a bipartisan budget bill,” noting that it “should avoid a repeat of this fall’s government shutdown and flirtation with default” but “comes nowhere near the more ambitious efforts to address long-term spending and debt.” He again reiterates later in the article that the deal “does little to dent the nation’s $17 trillion debt.” The CSM’s Mark Trumbull similarly wrote that “Congress can postpone a grand bargain that reforms the tax code and restrains the growth of entitlement spending, and the economy won’t collapse,” but added that “delay isn’t a good thing for the economy.”
The same pattern often crops up in the sourcing for budget stories. I’ve questioned the media’s insistence on “he said,” “she said” reporting about matters of fact, but there’s no reason to think that centrist deficit hawks have a monopoly on wisdom about the nation’s federal budget priorities. So why are the claims of groups like the Concord Coalition or the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget presented in articles like Montgomery’s and Lightman’s as neutral, non-ideological perspectives that don’t need to be balanced with offsetting quotes from other points of view? The same deference is rarely given either to conservatives who want more aggressive cuts in the size of government or liberals who would give greater priority to public spending.
The root of these problems is the philosophy of “objective” journalism itself, which forces reporters to try to draw lines between opinion and fact that often blur in real life. But even if reporters aren’t willing to rethink objectivity, they should try to understand why prioritizing deficit reduction over other competing values is a kind of ideology of its own.
This post has been updated for clarity.
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