The government shutdown, together with the propaganda battle that led up to it, has revealed a number of ugly truths about the current political climate. One that is particularly shocking—no matter how many times I feel compelled to write about it—is the lengths that reporters will go to create a sense of false equivalence between the right and the wrong, the guilty and the innocent, and the intelligent and the idiotic. I call it “On the One Handism.”
Today’s example is Politico’s coverage of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) 21-hour speech on the Senate floor leading up to the vote on the budget bill. Politico’s Dylan Byers rounded up right-wing complaints about the coverage and passed them along to his readers—remarkably sympathetically, as though they made perfect sense—even though judging by the evidence he presented, no such case could be made.
Byers’ point of comparison was Texas Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis’ June 2012 filibuster of that state’s proposed draconian abortion restrictions. Byers began his article by correctly pointing out that Cruz’s talk was “not technically a filibuster.” Nevertheless, he insisted that “symbolically, it’s more or less the same thing.” The words “symbolically” and “more or less” do an awful lot of heavy lifting. According to Byers’ remarkably elastic criteria, one may:
… forgive conservatives for being upset with the mainstream media’s coverage of the Cruz affair. When a Democrat like Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis filibusters against abortion restrictions, she is elevated to hero status, her tennis shoes become totems. When Cruz grandstands against Obamacare, he is a laughingstock in the eyes of many journalists on Twitter, an “embarrassment” in the eyes of The New York Times editorial board.
Just a few lines later, however, he allows that “the difference between filibustering and grandstanding plays a part.” But he argues that:
… part of the disparity in coverage is due to the fact that the mainstream media, generally speaking, don’t admire Cruz the way they admired Davis—or rather, they admire him only insofar as he makes for tragicomic theater, whereas they admired her on the merits.
Finally Byers cannot bring himself to take a position on whether the harsh coverage of Cruz is “accurate or inaccurate.” He argues that it isn’t the point; instead the point is that:
… the coverage of Cruz has been critical, and in some cases unforgiving, from the outset. At least initially, Davis wasn’t viewed through a critical lens at all. Her willingness to stand for 11 hours was evidence of the American dream in action. Period.
Byers’ piece is an almost too perfect an example of the kind of coverage that led Michael Tomasky to write in The New York Review of Books, “If Politico had existed in Berlin in 1933, it might have been capable of producing sentences like ‘Even the new chancellor’s harshest critics agree that his recent moves, whatever their legality, have been politically masterful.’”
What were the actual differences, accounting for accuracy?
First, let’s get past the actual filibuster versus fake filibuster problem. State Sen. Davis’ filibuster was taken under extreme and extraordinary circumstances. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) had called a special session of the legislature to pass a remarkably restrictive abortion law. State Sen. Davis’ filibuster succeeded and forced Gov. Perry to call two more special sessions: one to pass the law and one to deal with legislative business that was left undone during the abortion arguments. Sen. Cruz’s talk-a-thon did nothing but eat up time in the Senate. When he was done, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) offered him another hour, as there was nothing going on anyway.
Second, there was the “green eggs and ham” difference. While State Sen. Davis filibustered a bill restricting a woman’s right to choose, she spoke exclusively about—you guessed it—a woman’s right to choose. Her speech brought the issue of the Texas law and similarly restrictive state reproductive laws, which, according to the Guttmacher Institute, have become an epidemic across much of America, to the forefront of political discourse. Abortion-rights advocates seized on the moment to force people to pay attention, while anti-choice activists did their best to ignore and marginalize her and her arguments. Before State Sen. Davis’ filibuster, these restrictions hadn’t received nearly as much attention.
With Sen. Cruz’s marathon talk, the opposite was true. The news that Tea Party extremists don’t like Obamacare is not exactly news, especially given the House of Representatives’ 42 attempts to repeal.. Sen. Cruz did not address the law he sought to oppose—a law that, unlike the one State Sen. Davis had filibustered, had already passed. Because he did not even have his own Senate colleagues on his side—to say nothing of the likes of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page—his talk looked more like a circus act than an attempt to educate or galvanize a debate. As Salon’s Alex Pareene rightly observed, “Everyone knows this fun talk was entirely a waste of time. Everyone besides the people it’s actually aimed at: Right-wing Obamacare-hating Fox viewers who don’t understand how the Senate works.”
Then there’s the fact that when Sen. Cruz wasn’t quoting noted leftist Dr. Seuss, he was making stuff up. As The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein pointed out, while Sen. Cruz went on and on about the sanctity of public opinion, he failed to notice that poll after poll demonstrated opposition to the position for which he was arguing:
A recent CNBC poll asked whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act should be defunded. By 44 percent to 38 percent, Americans said no. Then the pollsters asked specifically about Cruz’s plan: forcing a shutdown to defund Obamacare. The public rejected that idea 59 percent to 19 percent. But Cruz isn’t listening.
A poll by the Pew Research Center discovered that of Americans questioned, fully 69 percent—consisting of 42 percent who approve of the law and 27 percent who do not—want Congress to “make the law work as well as possible.” Only 23 percent shared the view of Sen. Cruz and company that Congress ought to “make the law fail.”
The odd ability to use journalistic weasel words to attempt to equate unrelated and different phenomena—remember “symbolically” and “more or less”—has become a habit at the trend-setting Politico. As I noted in The Nation during the 2012 presidential campaign, Politico’s executive editor Jim VandeHei and chief White House correspondent Mike Allen complained about two negative stories on the Romneys and the lack of similar stories about the Obamas. As I wrote back then, they made their argument by pretending that the press was treating the Obamas with kid gloves while doubling down on its harsh treatment of the Romneys with examples that could hardly have appeared more ridiculous if taken from a Politico parody issue
To top it all off, as Slate’s Dave Weigel noted, “Cruz’s filibuster was actually covered more than Davis’ in real time. Davis’ filibuster only became a story as social media, mostly Twitter, started discussing it.” In The Verge, Carl Franzen reported that:
… viewers of the major national cable and broadcast networks would be forgiven for not knowing who she is or what she did on Tuesday night. After all, during the filibuster’s momentous conclusion, CNN aired a repeated segment of Piers Morgan and Anderson Cooper discussing the calories in a blueberry muffin.
Sen. Cruz’s filibuster was covered heavily in real time by the Capitol Hill press corps. Byers’ piece, as it happens, was actually posted while Sen. Cruz was still speaking.
Same difference, I suppose, “more or less.”
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.