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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is a journalist, media critic and founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College

July 30th, 2011 12:56 PM

Mainstream Reporters: Too Close to the Field and Teams to Get the Debt Story

If you were a spectator in a sky box seat looking directly down on the Washington debt debate, you’d be seeing a contest both narrow and off to one edge of the field -- like watching a football game being played entirely between the 10-yard line and the goal line.

The big items that added trillions to the debt are not even on the field of debate. Because the two teams are not contesting them.

** WARS:   When Obama expanded the Afghan war and asked for the largest military budget in world history, the GOP largely applauded.  It was bipartisan.

** BUSH TAX CUTS FOR THE WEALTHY:  Obama extended them in December

** BANK BAILOUTS:  Bipartisan. 

** DECLINING TAX REVENUE:  Resulted from recession and financial meltdown caused by years of bipartisan (Reagan/Clinton) deregulation of Wall Street. And by big companies like General Electric (whose CEO is Obama’s jobs chairman) dodging their taxes.

That’s the broad view -- a perspective that sees our country in extreme debt and extremist “debate” because the leaders of the two teams collaborated in putting it there.

But this would NOT be your view if you were a mainstream reporter. Because reporting in elite U.S. media is not so much about relaying obvious and important facts as it is about positioning.

It requires placing yourself equidistant between the two opposing teams.

It means your vantage point is not an elevated or broad view, but down on the field. At the 5-yard line.

From down on the field, you easily miss how the two teams had collaborated to push the game toward the edge. Instead, you see real rancor and animosity between the two teams.  You see differences in rhetoric and strategy.

From down on the field, you wouldn’t want to irritate either side or you might get hurt yourself.

With you in the middle of all the heated rhetoric flying back and forth, you might believe you’re somewhere in middle of the field and not off on the right edge.

In fact, you’d be writing headlines like this one from AP that so annoyed economist/columnist Paul Krugman: “Obama, Republicans Trapped by Inflexible Rhetoric.”

You’d be reporting claim and counterclaim over whether Reid’s Senate plan or Boehner’s House plan cuts spending by a couple hundred billion more than the other (neither gets tax revenue from the wealthy).  But you’d be unlikely to step back to report on how bipartisan consensus, compromise and corruption racked up the trillions of debt in the first place. 

In his column (“The Centrist Cop-Out” attacking mainstream journalists for “the cult of ‘balance,’” Krugman says: ”Writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties is a big cop-out -- a cop-out that only encourages more bad behavior. “

He concludes: “The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse.”

Krugman is correct that the main problem in politics is Republican extremism. That extremism has been abetted by Democratic corporatism and appeasement.

It’s clear that the Republican leadership has been moving rightward for decades -- from Reagan in the 80s to Gingrich in the 90s to W in the 00s to the Tea Party today.  On the Democratic side, one could also argue that Obama is governing to the right of President Clinton, who governed to the right of President Carter, who governed to the right of LBJ.

Given trends like these, is it asking too much of mainstream reporters to look around and realize they’re nowhere near the 50-yard line anymore?

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