Media Bias and Conservative Setbacks in the Federal Shutdown

Staunch support from major news organizations was a trump card held by Obama and the Democrats throughout the dispute with congressional Republicans. They recognized early on, if not before the fight began, they could completely refuse to negotiate.

By Andrew Thomas | October 23, 2013

Following a fortnight of partial federal government shutdown, as Washington returned to business as usual, media and political analysts took the news space and air time formerly ceded to reporting the situation to assessing winners and losers in the national confrontation. Few had little good to say about Republican leaders in Congress, and just as few judged their efforts successful. Rush Limbaugh and other conservative media opinion leaders, in particular, roundly condemned the agreement to reopen federal agencies and institutions without concessions from President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress.

Many average conservative citizens around the nation echoed these beliefs and conclusions. The New York Times conducted man-in-the-street interviews of conservatives around the nation and reported a combination of anger, discouragement and bemusement over what had happened. One man in Cleveland, Tennessee, believed “the premise was good,” but found no payoff ultimately for the nation or supporters of the shutdown. A cabdriver in Colorado Springs and a homemaker in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, both bemoaned the impact of the shutdown on the military and local businesses. Fueling this sense of collective letdown were leaders who saw little benefit gained from the previous two weeks of fiscal battles. “Among commentators on the right,” the article noted, “the reaction has been less driven by despair than by anger. In heated language on talk radio and on conservative blogs, many spoke of a winning if difficult strategy sabotaged in the end by weak-willed leadership.”

Ironically, the pages of the Times provided their own compelling and direct explanation of why the shutdown failed to advance Republican aims. In assessing how and why the dispute ended with no substantive progress on debt reduction or limitations of Obamacare, one needed to look no further than the coverage and behavior of the dominant news media themselves to see why the deck was stacked so decisively against the forces of reform.

Conservative advocates of ‘Obamacare repeal’ and ‘debt reduction’ took on powerful figures and institutions that banded together to defend the status quo at essentially all costs and lost. Yet one actual dividend of the standoff was the growing, helpful realization, among the rank-and-file Republicans and citizens interviewed by the Times and other media outlets, that the federal leviathan has grown all but impervious to substantial reductions in size or scope, or even effective measures to hem in growth. This knowledge is critical to future success for these reformers. The news media, in turn, proved themselves to be a mighty bulwark against such efforts.

Summing up the formidable batteries arrayed against the reformers was a study of major TV news coverage done shortly after the reopening of federal agencies. The Media Research Center analyzed the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC. Despite the rise of alternative news channels and the Internet, the three networks transmitted news to more than 20 million viewers over the two-week period in question. The Media Research Center concluded that the news coverage of the three major networks “could easily have emanated from Barack Obama’s own White House.” They noted the broadcast networks “invariably blamed Republicans for the impasse; spotlighted dozens of examples of how Americans were being victimized; and ran scores of soundbites from furloughed federal workers and others harmed by the shutdown — even as they ignored examples of how the Obama administration and Senate Democrats were working to make the shutdown as painful as possible.”

Of the 124 full stories and brief items about the shutdown or the pending debt ceiling deadline, 41 blamed Republicans or conservatives for the impasse, 17 blamed both sides, and none specifically blamed Democrats. This followed the pattern of the two weeks before the shutdown, when those same broadcasts ran 21 stories blaming Republicans, four blaming both sides, and none blaming Democrats.

Examples ranged from NBC anchor Brian Williams’ assignment of blame to the nation’s tea-party extremism, to regular soundbites of furloughed federal workers and others excoriating the shutdown which blamed congressional Republicans over Democrats by an almost six-to-one margin. Stories highlighting closed national parks and suspension of death benefits for the families of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan were part of a common theme and drumbeat.

Rare to nonexistent were reports probing the Obama administration’s bare-knuckled tactics, such as using national parks as public-relations weapons and stonewalling Republican overtures at compromise. While eight stories talked about the barricading of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., an open-air site that is normally accessible 24 hours a day, no report from any of the three networks challenged the need for blocking access to the memorial in the first place.

Staunch support from major news organizations was a trump card held by Obama and the Democrats throughout the dispute with congressional Republicans. They recognized early on, if not before the fight began, they could completely refuse to negotiate. They also could stiff Republican attempts to restore piece by piece parts of the federal government that had been shut down. As the impasse wore on, Republicans followed a policy of selective funding of components of the federal government that had been shuttered. These included national parks, veterans’ services and the National Guard and Reserves, District of Columbia government functions, and Head Start. President Obama and the Democrat leadership in Congress ignored these gestures with impunity, drawing virtually no tough media coverage or scrutiny of their hardball tactics.

Polls showed greater public blame of Republicans in Congress than of either Democrats or the White House. This contributed to Republican capitulation, as did the knowledge things would not improve as the standoff continued. Supporters of Obamacare and previous federal funding levels exploited their advantage to the hilt, recognizing that if they stuck together and held out, they would win.

The outcome was, in retrospect, all but inevitable because of the imbalance of forces in play. It was also a sobering reminder of the power of the institutions, interest groups and news media that defend the federal behemoth and Obamacare and how difficult it will be to reverse this state of affairs. Those who would win in a future battle must learn to refine their tactics and choose a battlefield more conducive of success.

Andrew Thomas is a graduate of the University of Missouri and Harvard Law School. Twice elected as Maricopa County Attorney, the district attorney for greater Phoenix, Arizona, Thomas served a county of four million residents and ran one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the nation. He established a national reputation for fighting violent crime, identity theft, drug abuse and illegal immigration. He is the author of four books, including Clarence Thomas: A Biography and The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech. Mr. Thomas is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.