In an opinion-editorial published by junior news outlet Al Jazeera America the day after the first federal government shutdown in 17 years, Dan Froomkin took on the American media. Froomkin, a long-time Washington political reporter, accused his colleagues of enabling politicians’ extremist actions and taking “the path of least resistance” by placing the blame for the shutdown equally upon the shoulders of President Obama, and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
“This sort of false equivalence is not just a failure of journalism. It is also a failure of democracy,” Froomkin charged. It is often surprising to hear a journalist accuse his colleagues of being too unbiased, asking them to seemingly take sides in a contentious political issue. However, Froomkin posits that an oversized focus on objectivity can come at the expense of portraying a story with accuracy.
“Journalists have been suckered into embracing ‘balance’ and ‘neutrality’ at all costs,” he said. “The political media’s aversion to doing anything that might be seen as taking sides – combined with its obsession with process – led them to actively obscure the truth in their coverage of the votes,” he added.
In today’s polarized media climate, the threat of being labeled as biased is too great for some media outlets to “tell it like it is.” And by avoiding doing just that, Froomkin argues, the political press is enabling politicians to continue to engage in “aberrational behavior” and “extreme and potentially damaging action.”
But what is the media’s role in covering our nation’s politics and government? Are they to present only the facts and let citizens judge for themselves, or are they expected to carefully curate information and present what they deem an accurate portrayal of events?
Jacobs and Townsley have argued that the media’s role in the public sphere is two-fold: to provide an institutional framework for public communication for all citizens and to provide a space where citizens can publicly make arguments about matters of public concern. Although there are numerous theories regarding the media’s role, most all of them hold that the press should be “thoughtfully discursive and not merely factually informative” (Jacobs, Townsley).
But many media outlets today are afraid that “thoughtfully discursive” will be perceived as “purposefully biased.” Reporters struggle to balance their dedication to journalistic standards of objectivity – portraying both sides of a story fairly and equally – and the responsibility to depict an issue or event accurately. Although it is important to portray both sides of a story, each side does not always warrant equal weight or prominence, but media outlets run the risk of being labeled as biased when they deviate from this norm. However, many of the key roles the media fulfills – framing issues and setting the public agenda – in acting as a space for public argument and communication could be considered inherently biased.
Robert Entman, professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University, has taken on the task of empirically defining what bias is. He holds that the media’s influence on public discourse lies in its power to assemble a narrative that works to alter interpretations and preferences towards an issue (priming and framing) – exactly what American news outlets seek to avoid being accused of. His arguments echo that of Cohen, who observed that “the media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but is stunningly successful in telling its readers who to think about.” However, it can be argued that the media’s power to shape what people think about inherently influences how they think about it (Entman).
Recent polling would indicate that this logical conclusion may be correct. In the most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey, 53 percent of respondents believed Republicans in Congress were to blame for the shutdown. Additionally, 70 percent of respondents believed Congressional Republicans were putting their own political agenda ahead of what was good for the country (as opposed to only 43 percent who believed the same for President Obama.)
Although early news coverage leaned on the side of caution in blaming all parties equally for the shutdown, many media outlets have more frequently begun to portray the Obama administration as the “winning” camp in this battle. However, this isn’t surprising given that the standards the media traditionally use to evaluate political performance “include a tendency to slant news favorably toward the side regarded as most powerful, popular, and unified” (Entman).
Additionally, political performances abound on both sides of the aisle in the government shutdown, attempting to swing the media narrative in the favor of Democrats or Republicans. Entman echoes Alexander’s take on the need for political performances to influence the media narrative, stating that “because facts rarely speak for themselves, strategic actors must deploy such assets as charisma, a delicate balance of intimidation and flattery, and rhetorical proficiency to promote favored framing.”
Often, it is these political performances and process that are the focus of media coverage. What Froomkin praised as accurate coverage of the shutdown from The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, focused primarily on process and procedure when assigning blame for the shutdown. In this case, the House Republican performances aimed at changing the media narrative actually perpetuated one that was not in their favor. The Guardian characterized the shutdown as a result of House Republicans’ efforts to stage “a series of last-ditch efforts to use a once-routine budget procedure to force Democrats to abandon their efforts to extend U.S. health insurance” (Roberts). Not only does this focus on process, but it clearly places blame for the shutdown on the shoulders of House Republicans. Juxtaposition of this British perspective to the shutdown – where taking sides has no negative repercussions – highlights the focus on objectivity in initial American news coverage of these events.
However, as the shutdown lingers on, it appears (based on poll results cited above) that the media narrative has begun to shift from balanced and objective to “thoughtfully discursive,” increasingly portraying House Republicans as those to blame and holding them accountable for the shutdown, fulfilling what Froomkin would deem to be the media’s journalistic and democratic responsibilities to the American people.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
Entman, Robert M. “Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power.” Journal of Communication 57 (2007): 163-173. Accessed 8 October 2013.
Froomkin, Dan. “Shutdown coverage fails Americans.” Al Jazeera America, 1 October 2012. Accessed 2 October 2013.
Jacobs, Ronald N. and Eleanor Townsley. The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere. Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Roberts, Dan. “US government shuts down some services as Congress exceeds deadline.” The Guardian, 1 October 2013. Accessed 4 October 13.