The ominous threat of a government shutdown dominated the news last week. The media weren't wrong to cover it as a dramatic debate, but all of the hype and horror looked a little bizarre by the weekend -- like wide-eyed, screaming hurricane warnings on the Weather Channel followed by a sunny calm.
When the deal was struck, the TV pundits quickly moved on to how there were sharper, harsher battles ahead over much larger chunks of federal spending. That's true. But in hindsight, the entire shutdown fight looks by comparison like a war over who was splitting the pizza delivery bill tip. The $38 billion in spending cuts is a bit of an achievement when Obama didn't want to cut anything -- but it's still the drop in the proverbial $3.7 trillion bucket.
Instead of fighting over who's the "winner" in this small skirmish, let's just focus on a few obnoxious shutdown spins.
1. Obama the adult vs. tea party brats. CBS reporter Chip Reid summed this up helpfully: "One thing the White House is hoping to do is have the president appear like an adult breaking up a childish battle." CNN analyst Gloria Borger: "Politically, what he's trying to do is to be the grown-up."
This is the media trying to help the president triangulate out of owning any of this deficit mess. This is about spending for the fiscal year that began last October more than six months ago when the Democrats controlled everything. Back then, the supposed "grown-up" Obama didn't lift a finger to stop kicking the can with continuing resolutions. He was too busy blaming Republicans for driving the country into a "ditch."
Then after the GOP took over the House in January, Obama refused to participate in negotiations. In the closing days, the Reids and Borgers pretended Obama was not a partisan leader who would stand with the Democrats. The media didn't want him to be an architect of gridlock, just an aggrieved party who was the only "adult" in the room.
2. The Democrats were right to confront "extremists." On this score, it was impossible to distinguish reporters from liberal ideologues. NBC's Matt Lauer seemed to be making a rhetorical ice cream cone for Chuck Schumer: "When you look at some of the things the tea party and others on the far right are asking for -- no funding for Planned Parenthood, no funding for climate control, public broadcasting -- does it seem to you, senator, that this is less about a fiscal debate or an economic policy debate, and they are making an ideological stand here?"
Schumer replied like a pleased teacher to his student: "That's exactly right, Matt. You've hit the nail on the head! ... They're saying no, not because they care about the deficit, but they have an ideology just to get rid of all government."
Of course Schumer would agree. These are his talking points! But look at that labeling. Fact: Far more people in American identify themselves with the tea party than they do either party. But Lauer sees them as "far right."
No wonder Lauer failed to confront Schumer with the leaked tape where the senator instructed fellow Democrats on the talking points. "I always use the word extreme," he said. "That is what the caucus instructed me to use this week." Apparently, the Democratic caucus also instructs supposedly nonpartisan journalists.
3. Parading victims in advance. It's fair for journalists to wonder which government employees or services would be affected in a government shutdown. But just like 1995 and 1996, reporters sure can shovel a thick layer of hype on it. Take ABC's Jake Tapper, who warned, "The shutdown will stop new funding for medical research and hope for desperate patients," including a trial for a new cancer drug that could help children.
Then there were sixth-graders from a school in Massachusetts who'd traveled to Washington to see museums. A girl complained, "The government is mean." A boy added, "It's not really fair they get to choose how and when stuff doesn't open and stuff."
At least during the Clinton years, the media waited until the government actually shut down before the parade of victims really began, with uninspected Christmas toys and federal employees who suddenly couldn't afford a Christmas tree.
Network reporters think these are just "facts" and emotional reactions to facts. But the fact in 2011 is no shutdown happened. What's left is the lingering notion that the "victims" are just dramatic players in a political narrative, helpful in threatening Republicans with what spin they'll see if they don't compromise.
As the fiscal debate turns to extending the debt limit and Paul Ryan's budget proposal, media consumers should have a sinking feeling that more of these emotion-laden pleas are being manufactured on an assembly line to keep anything, anything from being cut.