The Next Real-Time Test for the Press

The "debt limit" is a serious threat. It's not a serious issue. This will be a chronicle of whether media can remain clear about the difference.

The reading on this thermometer, two months ago in Death Valley, did not “cause” the extreme heat. It recorded it. The federal “debt ceiling” is essentially similar. It records what is happening with the federal budget—and trying to limit it is as pointless as trying to limit readings on a thermometer or a bathroom scale. (Photo on July 11, 2021, David Becker / Getty Images)

I believe in real-time chronicles of aberrant moments in our national life.

During the 2016 campaign I published a “Trump Time Capsule” series, documenting what was becoming normalized by a party, by the public, and—crucially—by the national press, as events occurred. That series grew to more than 150 installments at the end. I believe it stands up. I also did a similar, shorter series during the 2018 mid-terms.

One through-line theme of the coverage was the way a Republican party that had ridiculed, condemned, and attacked Donald Trump made its peace with him, at first grudgingly and then with gusto.

The other main theme was the difficulty most “normal” news organizations had in adjusting to a man like Trump.

News organizations, and their editors and reporters, feared that it would sound “biased” to say that a political candidate was lying. So instead we became familiar with terms like “claimed without evidence.” Or, “gave rise to criticism.”

Newspapers, plus TV and radio outlets, had spent decades framing public issues as a contest between reasonable propositions, representing “both sides” in the public fray. So we got panel discussions and “news analysis” shows that paired up people doing actual analysis, with those committed to defending whatever their candidate had just said or done. As the new administration began, this started on Day One with “the largest audience ever to witness an Inauguration” and went on from there.

Trump himself appeared to cross some line with his “very fine people on both sides” response to the white-supremacist and anti-Semitic violence in Charlottesville in 2017. (For the administration’s defense, see this.)

The reality is that “very fine people on both sides” is the most comfortable position for most people in mainstream journalism to occupy. We’d like to think of ourselves as referees at a tennis match, impartial judges in a court case, moderators at a high-minded Lincoln-Douglas-style debate. We don’t want to say: This person is cheating, or lying. It’s uncomfortable when that is the truth.


You’ve heard about ‘both sides’ before

It’s a well-plowed field, this flailing of the “both-sides” press in a “one side doesn’t care about truth” era. For more, I direct you (for starters) to: Eric Boehlert; Judd Legum; Margaret Sullivan; Greg Sargent; Jennifer Rubin; Jay Rosen; Brooke Gladstone (and her former on-air partner Bob Garfield); Brian Beutler; Dan Froomkin; and many many more. Including my own 25-year-old book, Breaking the News.

But I venture back into this territory because a real-time experiment is unfolding before our eyes. It is the “political showdown” over the debt ceiling.

In reality, as nearly everyone reporting on this issue understands, this is not a “showdown.” It is not even a “disagreement.” Those terms might apply to questions like the size of the infrastructure-spending bill, or prospective judicial nominees, or what to do about Haitian refugees.

Instead, this is a naked threat. It has exactly zero legitimacy as a “policy” for either party to espouse. I’ll explain why in a moment—in the course of arguing that reporting that fails to convey the fraudulence of the issue, is diminishing rather than increasing our awareness of the truth.

How can I say this? Let’s review briefly.

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Why the debt limit is a problem, but not an ‘issue’

Here are the basics about the “debt limit”:

  • The annual U.S. government deficit, and the cumulative U.S. debt, are the results of decisions Congress and an Administration make, not independent variables.
    Congress votes to authorize spending, and to raise or reduce taxes. The debt and deficit reflect these decisions, rather than controlling them, or being subject to outside dictates about their size.
    The check you get at the end of a restaurant meal reflects what you have ordered and eaten. The number you see on a bathroom scale reflects calories in, versus energy out. The reading on a thermometer reflects outside heat.
    In just the same way, the annual deficit-and-debt totals indicate what Congress has already decided on. They’re a measure, not a control. Putting limits on them is like limiting what the bathroom scale can show.

  • Until World War I, there was no such thing as a federal “debt limit.” Congress voted to spend, and to tax. The deficit, or the rare surplus, was the mathematical result.

  • Through the early 1990s, public policy was generally aligned with these realities. First the Congress voted for spending and taxes. Then the debt limit was adjusted in accord with what Congress had already done. To use one more homely analogy: In household terms, you buy things and charge them to your credit card. Then you pay the bill when it arrives. The debt limit is the counterpart of that bill. You’ve already spent the money.

  • But starting in the 1990s, then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich began “weaponizing” the debt limit as a political tool. He recognized that there was no “rational” reason to refuse to raise the limit, for spending Congress had already approved. But the threat of doing so would be a serious problem for whatever president was in power—because in practice it would mean that for some time the Treasury would have to stop issuing bonds and notes, which are the backbone of international finance.
    It is like threatening to blow yourself up, or shoot a hostage. There is no “good” reason to do so. But despite your irrationality, responsible parties need to make sure it doesn’t happen.

  • Final point: Why is a refusal to raise the debt limit a problem? It is not because anyone thinks the U.S. will ultimately default on its Treasury bonds, bills, and notes. It is because, as a technical matter, the Treasury would have to suspend issuing these financial instruments—which are a staple of international finance and trade.

What the press should be telling us

What is happening right now is an important litmus test, and moment of truth, for the press.

There are differences between the Biden administration and the Republican party that you can classify as actual policy differences. Take your pick, from the environment to public health.

However you define policy disagreements, the debt limit is not one of them. No rational person can believe, first, that the debt ceiling controls public spending (rather than vice versa); or, second, that freezing Treasury operations would be good for anyone in the United States, or in the world.

A “showdown” over this issue is like a showdown over one party saying that if it doesn’t get its way, it will blow up the Grand Coulee Dam.

And the test for the press is whether it conveys that blunt fact—or whether, by contrast, it portrays this threat as one more “both sides have a point!” disagreement.

I’ll update this post day-by-day, with reportage that is conveying, or obscuring, these realities.

-An example of how major media should write about the issue comes from Jackie Calmes, in an opinion column this week for the Los Angeles Times. She goes through the realities of the debt-limit charade and says, “Given the bipartisan responsibility for the debt, here’s a bipartisan solution for avoiding these fights over the borrowing limit: Get rid of it.”

-An example of what major media should not do is this terrible headline on the front page of today’s New York Times.

If you can’t see the image, the headline says: “Debt Debate Forces Yellen to Play Politics.” That is: this is one more round in the endless slugfest of politics, where both sides are making their case.

But it’s not a “debate.” It’s a threat. And Yellen—the Treasury Secretary—is not “playing politics.” She is trying to avert an entirely needless crisis. This is not a policy disagreement. It’s the cynical exercise of the power to do harm—and an offsetting effort to minimize that harm.

To be clear, I’m calling out the headline, not the story. But more people see the headline. (And for the record, in the online version the Times has changed the egregious headline to “As potential debt default looms, Yellen faces her biggest test yet.”)

Seeing things steady, and seeing them whole: that’s the public function of the press. I’ll record how we all do, during this latest aberrant episode.