News Media and Making Government Work


“This is so asinine, the Washington Post should be embarrassed it wasted anyone’s time with it.”

Those are the words of Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner reacting recently to a Post thing—I’m not sure what to call it– by Juliet Eilperin and Zachary A. Goldfarb fantasizing about Boehner becoming a bipartisan coalition speaker.

Buck’s understated reaction underscores a troubling reality in media today. They, the infotainment media complex, are as dysfunctional and as lacking in meaningful contributions to public governance as the politicians who they spend so much time second-guessing and ridiculing.

Now, when we need responsible, dependable media more than ever they just aren’t there.

The Eilperin and Goldfarb fantasy piece illuminated the media problems, from political and ideological bias, to their penchant for gross oversimplification of conditions and issues, to their inability to understand or explain the currents of contemporary politics, how decisions are really made and why some decisions, which seem to make sense, are just not within the realm of the possible.

The article (or whatever it was in this new world of journalistic elasticity) suggested Boehner should seek out House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and fashion some kind of grand alliance. Pelosi, among House Democrats, would be among the last to approach, of course. She is as much to the far left of the political spectrum as Boehner’s nemesis, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas is to the right. Ideological purists and righteous partisans who roam the political fringes are not those generally recruited to forge alliances or create coalitions. That is the work of those whose passions are tamed by political realities and pragmatism. Congresswoman Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership have shown little inclination to negotiate a grand alliance, something for which she would have to have buy-in from at least Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama. Not likely. Both of them are having great success just saying no.

So, any accommodation across this vast ideological iceberg on which we are now afloat, would, theoretically, not come from leadership, but from rank-and-file.

Eilperin and Goldfarb must then ponder the words of that wise philosopher, the late  former House Speaker Tip O’Neill:  Remember grasshopper, he lectured, all politics is local.

Truer today than in his day. Too many of those rank and file, on both sides of the aisle and at both ends of the political spectrum are too safe in their own political cocoons, thanks to years of gerrymandered congressional districts, to be party to a coalition. They are not incented to think from a national perspective or wander too far from their roots. A cab driver told my wife, they aren’t even sent here to talk anymore.

It is a shame that more journalists don’t get out into the country as David Broder did or as Richard Fenno described so well in his work, Congressional Travels. If they did, they would appreciate more what Dan Balz wrote about in his piece on the shrinking middle (actually the middle is not shrinking, only its leverage) and why members of Congress when weighing their dual and often conflicting responsibility to serve both local and national interests, lean back toward home, where regrettably today, governing is desired, but the compromise required to govern is not.

The writers see value in an attempt by Boehner to forge a coalition with the left because it would improve his “narrative” and make the press “go wild,” Media Gone Wild, coming soon to a theater near you. I know how much Speaker Boehner must agonize over his narrative while facing up to the Herculean challenge of harnessing the internal dynamics and culture of an institution in absolute upheaval. They say it would ensure his re-election as Speaker in 2015, too, yet another prospect on which he does not dwell. I would suspect he would much rather find himself in January 2015 swinging an oversized driver on the first tee rather than sitting in the Speaker’s chair, swinging that oversized gavel.

Not to belabor the critique, but I must.

The writers suggest that a “grand coalition” could be constructed on “a budget deal that raises a little bit of tax revenue and reforms entitlements.” There is no such thing as a little bit of revenue and the best that will be done on entitlement reform in coming days and weeks is to promise to do entitlement reform, not actually do it. It is the most vexing and complex problem facing the country, bar none.

There is no need to keep picking at this journalistic anomaly, but I can’t help myself.

The Eilperin in Wonderland fairy tale would not be worth comment except that it is in some ways, more the norm than the exception in media coverage of complex and controversial public policies. The government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis are the most recent examples.

The media have fixated on politics and inflammatory rhetoric rather than the substance of the many–not just two–sides and the intricacies of the solutions being offered. The press, for example, hasn’t really delved much into the so-called clean Continuing Resolution advanced by Senate Democrats as the end-all, cure-all, over easy, way out. The clean CR is really a stalking horse for repeal of the infamous budget sequester, an important element that has always lingered in the background of the discussion.  Senator Tom Coburn said on CNN we need to understand the difference between default and increasing the debt ceiling.  There was no follow-up question from Carol Costello, no explanation of his statement, an important one, and nothing in follow-up but more of the same quotations from Obama and Boehner.

Inaccuracies abound. Chuck Todd of NBC reported just Tuesday night, that Speaker Boehner is insisting on a health care fix to any debt ceiling compromise. Not so. The bias is incessant, reflected in two Washington Post headlines, one declaring “Boehner is defiant”, the other, “Democrats push bill to end logjam.”

The pattern of media coverage is pervasive across the landscape of national issues: immigration, education, energy, food stamps, roads and bridges and financial institutions. The intricacies of these issues, what the public needs to know in order to make intelligent decisions about their outcomes, are smothered in high drama and political theater, the baiting of one foe against another and the playing and replaying of mindless, numbing, dumbing-down messages. How many times have we heard President Obama say he won’t negotiate under threat and how many times have we heard Speaker Boehner say all he wants is a “conversation?” It is really not okay for journalists to report that which is not news.

So when these crises are past us and we hopefully can devote needed time and attention to what’s wrong with politics and why government is dysfunctional we must not exclude the media from the conversation, the blame or the need for change. We are up a creek and we need every paddle we can lay our hands on, including those of serious reporters, editors, producers and executives.

A young person whose opinion I respect, my daughter, said of the government shutdown fiasco: “It’s not that I don’t care about government, it’s that what’s happening right now isn’t government, or governing. It’s the absence of it.”

Most people just want their government back. It would be nice to have the news media back, too.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.