< Why the Press Can't Play Referee, and Why they Should


Friday, February 22, 2013

BOB GARFIELD:   The Atlantic's James Fallows believes that the failures we’re seeing in the sequestration coverage bespeak a larger problem with our political system and the press that’s supposed to cover it. Jim, welcome back to OTM.

JAMES FALLOWS:  Thank you very much. Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:  You say the political system is broken in a historically unprecedented way. You know, McCarthy era, the abolitionist struggle, more than that?

JAMES FALLOWS:  I am careful [LAUGHS] always to say that [LAUGHS] the Civil War was worse than anything else you want to put up. And I think the excesses and failures of the Gilded Age match up in many ways with the problems in the United States in the early 21st century. The structural breakdown of the Senate, in particular, is unusual in the history of modern times in that the polarization has become so great that what had always been a theoretical right of individual senators in the Senate minority, which is to stop anything in its tracks, has become a routinely used and abused habit. And so, the Senate works differently from the way it did 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 80 years ago.

BOB GARFIELD:  You’re describing political gridlock. What are the markers?

JAMES FALLOWS:  You would see a very steep rise in the proportion of Senate action that is stopped by a filibuster, which we have, indeed, seen. You would see great slowness in confirming nominees, not simply the lifetime appointments like judgeships but any sort of routine appointment necessary to stuff the Executive Branch. We've seen that too.

We’ve seen a Supreme Court whose votes seem more and more like those that the Senate casts on party lines, and that was the significance of Chief Justice Roberts as having the ruling in favor of the Obama medical care system last year was the first sort of step away from that. You would also see, particularly in the Senate, essentially a vanishing middle, where the most  conservative Democratic senator is more liberal than the most liberal Republican senator. When the Senate has gotten most things done, there was a sort of overlap of the Venn diagram, with people who were either Republicans or Democrats who sometimes went the other way.

BOB GARFIELD:  A-ha, but we have a robust and aggressive press that is uniquely qualified to identify the problem and to lead us to solutions, right?

JAMES FALLOWS:  [LAUGHS] As always, you’ve helped us look on, on the bright side. I think the problem for most of the established press – it has, of course, its business problems we’re all coping with and, and everything else, but its model of covering politics is matched to a kind of politics that doesn't exist right now. Its model of politics is essentially that of being a referee, where you assume the two competitors have equal motivations and you’re there simply to call balls and strikes, again, as Justice Roberts said.

If you have a situation where the two parties are disagreeing on basic facts, as was, for instance, the case about the Barack Obama birth certificate nuttiness a few years ago, or if you have one party that believes its essential political mission is to obstruct things from getting done rather than to find some compromise that will allow them to be done, which I think was the case during the debt ceiling showdown in 2011, it’s very hard for the mainstream press to cover these things because its instinct is never to say this side has the more rational case. It can do that when endorsing presidential candidates every four years, but there is almost an atavistic horror at doing that among many mainstream reporters. And so, I think that's why the press’ instincts in saying what is going on are mismatched to the reality of what is going on.

BOB GARFIELD:  I’d delighted to see balls and strikes being called, but what I’m seeing is the umpire goin, “Strike! On the other hand, the batter believes it’s a ball, so –


- let’s hear what he has to say.

JAMES FALLOWS:  Yeah, who, who can say? And I think that that actually is – I’m glad to have this analogy from you, which I’ll use in my feature discussions [LAUGHS] of this topic because there was a time – and, again, there's never been a golden age in American history - but a generation ago, you could say that the two political parties were sort of equally committed to presenting a rational version of their case, and then the press would say, well, here is – is how we see it. The, the Republicans say this but the Democrats say that. You, the informed readership, judge for yourself.

In cases like the birth certificate controversy and everything thereafter, the press was saying, well, the registrar in Hawaii says Barack Obama was born there, that’s what Obama says too and his parents always said, but Donald Trump thinks they’re all making it up, judge for yourself. It's very, very hard to referee these fundamental conflicts over what is the nature of reality.

BOB GARFIELD:  Jim as always, thank you.

JAMES FALLOWS:  My pleasure, Bob.


BOB GARFIELD:  James Fallows is national correspondent for The Atlantic. 


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