Could TV have a done a poorer job of covering sequester?
Polarized, sensational and focused on personality rather than flawed policy
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media after meeting with Congressional leaders at the White House, March 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama said that no agreement was reached with Republicans to avoid the sequester that will trigger automatic domestic and defense cuts. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images / March 1, 2013)
Television news has been polarizing, sensational and mostly focused on personality rather than the policy behind the $85 billion in federal spending cuts that has come to be known as sequestration.
President Obama went into full campaign mode weeks ago, warning of massive disruptions in American life if the cuts were enacted — and blaming them solely on Republican members of Congress. GOP legislators, meanwhile, fired back by painting a picture of a president unwilling to meet with them — even as he had time for a Florida golf trip with Tiger Woods.
The polarization in Washington was not only reflected but also magnified on cable TV. The two worst offenders, Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left, have been in overdrive taking the politicians’ daily spin and revving it even higher for their partisan presentations.
Last week on “Fox & Friends,” Andrew Napolitano, Fox News senior legal analyst, suggested Obama’s handling of the sequester could lead to impeachment.
Steve Doocy, one of the show’s hosts, teed it up for the ex-judge by saying that instead of effectively leading the nation through its economic difficulties, Obama was “scaring the living daylights out of people” with his warnings as to what would happen if Congress didn’t act. Obama was doing this, Doocy said, even as the president had the power to make the 2 percent cut in federal spending far less onerous if he wanted to.
“This is almost an impeachable offense,” Napolitano said. “If the president is deciding how to spend money in order to hurt us, rather than in order to provide us with the services for which we have paid and for which we have hired him, he is doing the opposite of what he has taken an oath to do.”
MSNBC, meanwhile, was showcasing its two most recent analyst hires, long-time Obama loyalists Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod, talking about the sequester. Gibbs was presidential press secretary, while Axelrod was senior campaign strategist in 2008 and 2012.
“Remember,” Axelrod said to host Andrea Mitchell in his first appearance as an MSNBC employee, “The cuts put into place were so odious it was thought no rational legislator, no rational government official, would allow it to happen.”
But now, he said, some Republicans were liking the sequester and the way it would put the brakes on spending — even if millions of American suffered.
“There is a belief among some Republicans in Congress that maybe this sequester’s all right,” Axelrod said. “Maybe this is another way of shrinking government in a dramatic way. That’s a dangerous idea, but it’s not uncommon in some quarters on Capitol Hill.”
In other words: Republican members of Congress are not rational, they have “dangerous” thoughts and they do “odious” things to the American people.
And here’s Gibbs doubling down on Thursday with Mitchell: “The problem, again, from the Republican standpoint with their message … is you’ve got Republicans that say, ‘These [sequester cuts] will hurt the economy, they will hurt our military readiness, and they should go through,’” Gibbs said.
And while loyalists like Axelrod and Gibbs were voicing White House talking points on cable TV, Team Obama was working overtime to have local anchormen, like Baltimore WJZ’s Vic Carter, use their hometown credibility to sell the president’s point of view at the grassroots level.
On Feb. 20, anchorpersons from eight stations were invited to the White House for brief interviews with Obama. The stations were selected from areas with large numbers of federal employees. The idea was for Obama to bypass the White House press corps in getting his “Doomsday” message on the sequester out.
One WJZ report on the 20th opened with Carter on the White House lawn telling viewers, “More than 12,000 people in Maryland could lose their jobs. Education could lose $55 million in funding.”
Meanwhile, he continued, “At the White House, the president and senior staff continued to warn Congress” of the danger if it doesn’t act to stop the sequester.
Obama was then given the chance to speak directly to Marylanders via WJZ’s Carter.
“What I would say to them is that there is no reason they should lose their jobs or be laid off,” Obama said. “This is a problem Congress can solve.”
Finally, the White House spin that it’s all the fault of Congress was underlined in the report with Carter telling viewers, “The ball is clearly in Congress’ court with Maryland jobs and services in the balance.”
The figures that Carter quoted came from the Obama White House and Maryland Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, WJZ spokesman K.C. Robertson said last week.
WJZ General Manager Jay Newman said that other versions of the report I quoted aired in other newscasts, and they included Maryland Republican Congressman Andy Harris and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor countering the White House claims.
The version that has been online since Feb. 20 included only what I quoted — not anything with Harris or Cantor. But the station did send two videos. One shows a 15-second WJZ interview Harris saying he disagrees with Obama, while the other includes Carter reading a statement issued by Cantor saying Obama is overstating the effects of the cut.
But even if Harris and Cantor were part of the mix in some versions of WJZ’s coverage, how could anyone who was following the story primarily on TV not be confused as to what would really happen when the sequester kicked in -- and who was to blame for it?
Typical of the topsy-turvy state of media affairs, by mid-week, Fox News was singing the praises of Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward, one of the two reporters who brought down President Richard Nixon with his reporting during and after the 1972 election of White House activities that came to be known as Watergate.
Suddenly, Woodward, who had long been seen by Fox as part of the shamelessly liberal mainstream media, was the darling of the right for his documented report that Team Obama, not Republicans in Congress, was responsible for introducing the idea of a sequester to last year’s budget talks. Woodward’s claim went dead against the White House strategy of trying to blame sequestration solely on congressional Republicans — as Obama did in his interview with WJZ’s Carter.
And left-leaning MSNBC was now leading an onscreen charge of show hosts and analysts trying to discredit Woodward’s report, while mocking the Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter for saying he felt threatened by a call from a senior White House staffer who told him he would “regret” insisting sequestration was Obama’s idea.
By Thursday, the eve of the doomsday Obama had been warning Americans about for weeks, Woodward and the aide who was said to have issued the warning of “regret” were the focus of the sequestration story on most channels. Personalities, after all, are a lot easier to present than analyses of federal fiscal policy and the deeply grounded failings of both the Congress and White House when it comes to doing the basic jobs they were elected to do.
But just because government has clearly become dysfunctional, that doesn’t mean the TV press corps, anchors and show hosts should sink to Washington’s level in covering it during these troubled times. In fact, now is the very time for all good men and women in the TV press corps to come to the aid of their country.