Journalistic balance vs. truth

The Washington Post's congressional reporter describes objective facts regarding the GOP's filibuster as the "liberal" version of events.

Published December 20, 2007 6:41PM (EST)

(updated below)

As Steve Benen detailed yesterday, a new study from the Campaign for America's Future found that Republicans have broken the single-term record for filibusters this year already, with more than a year to go in the session:

The 62nd cloture vote of the session is more than any single session of Congress since at least 1973, the earliest year cloture votes are available online from the Senate. Republicans are on pace to force 134 cloture votes to cut off a filibuster, according to the Campaign for America's Future analysis, more than double the historical average of the last 35 years.

As Benen notes, the GOP has used the filibuster as a common tool on virtually every piece of significant legislation, all part of what Trent Lott described as their strategy: "The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail . . . and so far it's working for us."

But this extraordinary obstructionist behavior has hardly been highlighted at all by most journalists covering Congress. Part of the reason for that is the fault of Senate Democrats, who have, in essence, allowed Republicans to filibuster without forcing them actually to filibuster, thus removing the theatrical display of the obstructionism. But the obstructionism is the same, and it ought to be reported as such. But it isn't.

The new CAF study led to this exchange during the chat of Washington Post congressional reporter Paul Kane today -- a perfect museum exhibit for the journalistic fetish for "balance" at the expense of truth:

Prescott, Ariz.: I saw at the Center for American Progress website that yesterday the Republicans in the Senate broke all previous records for obstructing legislation (the metric was cloture votes). The current Senate is only halfway done, that means they Republicans in the Senate could double the previous mark for obstruction when all is said an done. . . .

How can you guys not mention this obstruction rate in every single story about the Senate? You wouldn't have written a story about Barry Bonds earlier this year without mentioning he was chasing the home-run record would you? Can you reporters at The Washington Post show some respect and give credit where credit is due?

Paul Kane: This is a running theme among liberals who are defenders of Harry Reid and Senate Democrats, blaming Republicans and filibusters for everything that's gone wrong with the Democratic agenda. Yes, the Senate has essentially set a record for the number of votes to cut off filibusters in 1 year, already breaking the record for a 2-year Congress. In almost every story we write in the Post, we talk about the need for 60 votes to break GOP filibusters. Do we need to cite this statistical record in every single story we write? I think not.

And here's why -- the reason for the record is highly mixed, it's not just because of Republican obstruction. Reid has been accused, by Republicans and Democrats alike, of filing these so-called cloture motions to cut off debate very, very quickly, rather than letting the Senate continue to work its will through debate and amendments. This is a "record" that Reid and Republicans both should take "credit" for.

Here we have the paramount principle of the Beltway religion: blame Democrats and Republicans equally even when it is Republicans who are at fault. Here is a partial list, compiled by Bill Scher, of the bills which the GOP Senate has filibustered:

* Ending the disastrous occupation of Iraq.

* Providing health insurance to millions more kids.

* Empowering Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

* Taking away handouts to Big Oil so we can invest in renewable energy.

* Repealing the effective ban on embryonic stem cell research.

* Investing more in health research.

* Making it easier for workers to join unions.

* Investing more in fighting poverty and training workers.

Whereas filibusters were previously used as an extraordinary tool to preserve minority rights in the Senate, and were routinely depicted as "obstructionist" by the press when wielded by Democrats, they have now become the standard course for Republicans. Yet Kane, and most other Congressional reporters, simply refuse to point that objective fact out -- that Republicans are using this obstructionist tool on virtually every issue at a record rate -- because to point that out would be to violate the Sacred Law of Balance, even though it is true.

Indeed, Kane, amazingly, goes so far as to describe the objective facts as nothing more than the "running theme among liberals who are defenders of Harry Reid and Senate Democrats." Thus, because it is "liberals" who point these facts out, Kane can't report them that way, lest he be accused of being unbalanced and "biased." Here we have the perfect expression of the mockery Stephen Colbert delivered to the White House press corps: "reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Worse still, Kane defends himself and this fact-free reporting by noting that "we talk about the need for 60 votes to break GOP filibusters." But that's not a defense of the reporting; it's an indictment of it.

As I've documented before, the media -- with the filibustering GOP in the minority -- now routinely refers to the "60 votes required to pass a bill in the Senate," as though that's the most normal and natural state of affairs in the Senate, rather than what prevails only when a filibuster is invoked. It's precisely because Beltway reporters slothfully refer to the "60-votes required to pass," rather than making clear that Republicans are engaged in a filibuster to obstruct legislation, that such a misleading picture has been created. Thus, they endlessly depict these filibusters as noting more than a "failure on the part of Democrats to obtain the 60 votes required to pass."

Because of that, the public is largely unaware of just how obstructionist the Republicans have been because most Beltway journalists haven't reported it. And they haven't reported it because the rule they follow most religiously is that they never will describe the facts as they are if those facts reflect poorly on Republicans, because to do that means that they are "unbalanced" and "biased" and will be attacked as such. In Beltway journalism circles, misleading though balanced accounts are always preferred to factually truthful, "unbalanced" ones. Republicans always have a valid point, their version is always reasonable and worthy of respect, even when false.

UPDATE: Steven Greene of North Carolina State University's Department of Political Science emails as follows:

A quick and dirty Lexis/Nexis search reveals that in 2007 the Times had 83 stories with the term "filibuster" and the Post had 187. Over the same period in 2005 (seemed like the first year of a Congressional session was the fair comparison), the term "filibuster" appeared in 358 Times stories and 407 Post stories. The data therefore totally back you up on this.

Those facts are, of course, just "the liberal version."

As several commenters have noted, and as I alluded to but didn't state quite as clearly as I should have, Kane's claim that reporters typically "talk about the need for 60 votes to break GOP filibusters" just isn't true. As the collection of articles I gathered here demonstrate, the standard formulation doesn't even include the word "filibuster" at all -- just as those LEXIS figures also reflect -- but simply notes that Democrats "failed to obtain the 60 votes required for passage." The picture that has been presented, then, almost entirely excludes the chronic obstructionism via filibuster which has defined the Senate GOP's behavior all year.

By Glenn Greenwald

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