As the government shutdown grinds into its second brutal month, it is fair to ask if the media are doing enough to help citizens understand the harm being done to federal workers and the nation.
On the plus side, cable TV and newspapers in cities like Washington, Baltimore and New York with large populations of federal workers are filled with stories of pop-up food pantries, empty bank accounts, stress-related illnesses and furloughed employees and their family members going without medicine and medical care. From reports on TSA airport workers to FBI agents, many media outlets are making a consistent effort to chronicle the pain felt by federal employees as the White House and the House of Representatives stand toe to toe waiting for the other to blink.
But so far, the coverage has not been enough to move the dial in the direction of a deal that will put those employees back to work. While it's not the job of the media to do what citizens elected the president and members of Congress to do when it comes to keeping the government up and running, it is the media’s job to explain the causes of a breakdown when it happens in ways that are understandable and can lead to informed action at the polls, online or in the streets, if that seems the only way to make leaders act.
One of our biggest media failures so far has been in the way we are framing the shutdown and, as a result, leading citizens to think about it. In short, we are again taking a hugely important and complicated story of American life and reducing it to personalities embedded in a conflict-driven narrative: Trump v. Pelosi.
In part, we can thank TV for that — using prime-time entertainment and sports story lines to frame coverage of complicated cultural issues. But almost all of us, me included, are guilty here.
Prime-time TV shows have worn grooves into our brains with their entertainment formulas and narratives. We learned them by watching the story lines of certain genres over and over for decades starting in childhood. And we now use those grooves to process and make sense of new information from all parts of our lives.
I have been writing and talking for 19 months about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign in the 2016 election as Trump v. Mueller. I’ve used the split-frame image of their two faces time and again to illustrate my columns.
And that’s not all bad, as Trump and Mueller are two opposing sides of the American character: private gain v. public service and transgressive behavior v. rule of law, for instance. That framing device does help us understand how the Russia probe and Trump’s resistance to it signify nothing less than a battle for the soul of the nation today.
But it simplifies the larger issue of how one of our most important civic acts, electing a president, has been attacked on several fronts in the 2016 election — from social media manipulation to cyber-hacking and classic disinformation campaigns possibly directed by a longtime enemy in Russia.
That kind of assault on democracy is far more complicated than the differences between Trump and Mueller. But putting it in the Trump v. Mueller shorthand story line makes it instantly accessible to a wide audience as it taps into emotional responses to the two men. It also amps up the conflict as it reduces the protagonists to warring TV types.
An example of the Trump v. Pelosi framing from the earliest days of this story can be found in a Dec. 13 editorial in the Sacramento Bee headlined “Pelosi makes clear why she’s the boss.”
It was written in reaction to a televised meeting Dec. 11 at the White House with Pelosi, Trump and Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Trump allowed cameras in for this discussion about a possible shutdown, and many analysts thought Pelosi won the day when Trump boasted about his willingness to own a shutdown.
“She approached Trump like a grandmother patiently cajoling an unruly child into eating his veggies,” the editorial said of Pelosi. “She knew how to wind him up, framing any future government shutdown over border funding as his choice alone. She even brought along a hashtag-ready label to drop on him: #TrumpShutdown.”
As for the president: “Trump snapped at the bait like an angry trout. Pelosi calmly asserted her co-equal authority as a congressional leader and interrupted when necessary to school him on the basic facts,” the editorial writers asserted.
I enjoyed watching Pelosi hold her own and then some in that made-for-TV trap set up by Trump. And it is obvious that personal antipathy between the two is definitely a significant part of the shutdown story.
But I also thought this kind of personality framing right off the bat was a mistake. It made the shutdown talk feel like an episode on a reality TV show instead of giant step in the direction of an action that would have harsh consequences for 800,000 real-life Americans and the quality of life for almost every citizen as air travel, law enforcement, national parks and food safety became affected.
Much like Trump’s transgressive words and actions as he ran for president, that TV moment led some of us into watching the shutdown negotiations as entertainment — something we could be engaged with onscreen and then turn off, instead of something that would affect our lives in myriad ways.
Furthermore, looking at an event of this magnitude through that kind of lens ultimately tends to politically serve Trump more than his opponents. Remember how he used “Little Marco” (Rubio) and “Low-energy Jeb” (Bush) to diminish his rivals in the GOP primaries?
Calling the Senate minority leader and Speaker of the House Chuck and Nancy, as he now does, attempts to diminish Schumer and Pelosi in the same way, making them sound like characters in a comic strip from the 1950s.
So, what should we in the media be doing that we aren’t?
For one thing, more coverage should be devoted to helping audiences understand the larger forces involved in this story and our lives.
NPR offered a rare example of doing it the right way in a Jan. 19 report on “All Things Considered.”
After a series of sound bites from federal workers talking about how they are affected, host Melissa Block interviewed Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz about the reasons so many federal workers and other Americans in professional jobs are living paycheck to paycheck.
In easy-to-understand language, Stiglitz took viewers through the housing bubble, wage stagnation starting in 2000 under George W. Bush and the 2008 economic meltdown — all of which “had a significant effect on the increase in the number of Americans without reserves and with very low net worth,” he said.
In 5 minutes and 51 seconds of radio, I got more context than I did in hours of prime-time cable news viewing.
This is not to say cable news, which plays as large an agenda setting function as the New York Times or Washington Post, has whiffed on the story. The sheer volume of reporting has been hugely important in making us aware of the mounting toll of the shutdown.
And there have been moments of insight.
Tuesday, on Jake Tapper’s “The Lead” on CNN, there was an excellent discussion about how the shutdown is negatively affecting federal investigations of groups like MS-13, the very kinds of criminals Trump claims his border wall will keep out. The irony was lost on none of the analysts in the conversation.
But cable needs to do more.
Monday night on CNN, we will have our first prime-time town hall on the 2020 election. OK.
But what we really need right now are prime-time town halls on the shutdown. We need them not only to create a sense of crisis and to put pressure on the president and Congress, but also to have a wider and deeper discussion of what’s going on with this shutdown and our national life.
Instead of looking at dueling tweets or TV moments between Trump and Pelosi or Schumer, let’s use cable TV with its hours of programming time to analyze how this historic shutdown might be further diminishing the federal government in the minds of its employees and eyes of the general public.
In the last two years, Trump has made no secret of his contempt for the federal government in numerous ways — from appointing agency heads bent of dismantling their departments to his repeated derogatory comments about the FBI and Justice Department. Might a deeper analysis find that every day this drags on causing more and more suffering, Trump is winning — no matter how much it looks like Pelosi took him to “school” in front of the TV cameras?
We in the media don’t run the government. But we do own the cameras, websites and front pages. Let’s use them to try to create a will and demand for action instead of entertainment, bickering and back-and-forth put-downs from our elected officials.