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Covering the Stakes
The press favors political conflict over impact of decisions until the very last minute
My title is a direct reference to something New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been arguing. With specific reference to how media should cover the 2024 presidential campaign, he says this on Twitter:
Not the odds, but the stakes, That’s my shorthand for the organizing principle we most need in news coverage of the 2024 campaign. Not who has what chances of winning, but the consequences for American democracy. Not the odds, but the stakes. You may find me repeating this.
This reflects a major challenge to business-as-usual in the media world. Commitments to “objective journalism” that focus on the political arguments being made by political actors in DC (or State Capitals) form the basis of too much media coverage of Very Important Issues. In the Columbia Journalism Review this morning, former New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger defends this practice.
First and foremost, journalists should remember that our core purpose, as I have been saying, is to follow the facts wherever they lead, even when we would prefer for them not to be true, and to fairly represent people and perspectives, even when we disagree with them. Any compromise on this is likely to further erode the public’s already shaky confidence in journalism and ultimately hobble the ability of journalists to serve a society desperately in need of reliable information.
Sulzberger’s comments are all good as far as they go but they suffer from a crucial flaw. Namely, they focus on the work of the journalist and not the consumer of their product. The reader/viewer/listener has a different set of needs: Why does this story matter?
It’s standard practice for stories about major policy issues to meet journalistic integrity while failing to serve the consumer. Far too many stories report what political leaders (or their press shops) have to say, provide a little context, and then recast a prior story for background.
Sometimes, though, a story attempts to explore the impacts of policy initiatives. When these stories show up it’s such a sharp contrast to regular reporting (and opinion writing) that it causes one to pay attention. They raise the important question that Rosen asks: what is at stake?
Two current examples show this move toward identifying stakes rather than reporting process: The end of Title 42 at the border and the need to raise the debt ceiling.
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The policy known as Title 42 ended at 12:00 AM on Friday. This policy ostensibly argued that the health crisis created by COVID required us to close the border for safety concerns.It was used by the Trump administration to make it harder to seek asylum while simultaneously allowing border crossers to try again at future dates.
Coverage of “The Crisis at the Border” followed a standard template. Conservative critiques of current administration policies drew on cherry picked dataand distorted practice. Almost none of these stories describe what a comprehensive immigration policy might look like or why, in its absence, the executive branch is limited in what it could do.
But sometimes, there’s a convergence of pieces that highlight stakes rather than process. I saw this happen over the weekend. First, I heard a podcast from Pod Save America where Dara Lind described to Dan Pfeiffer what the circumstances of asylees looked like. The same day, Lind wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that gave a glimpse of what a sane immigration policy would look like (without any “both-sidsing”):
There are other ways to measure the health of our immigration system. A system that cared about maximizing orderly asylum claims would focus on scaling up the capacity at ports of entry to conduct orderly asylum interviews rather than forcing people to use Customs and Border Protection’s notoriously buggy CBP One app in the hopes of setting up scarce appointments.
A system that cared primarily about processing people quickly and safely would invest in facilities to house them that weren’t effectively jails. A system that cared about ensuring no one skipped out on a court date would guarantee clear communication from the courts — and maybe even lawyers to help immigrants navigate the system. A system that cared about executing removal orders would station Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in courtrooms.
The same day, a story in the Washington Post described the challenges for migrants looking for asylum in the US. While affirming the Biden administration’s attempt to improve the process through the use of the new border app, the authors observe
With the end on Thursday of Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that the Trump and Biden administrations used to expel immigrants who entered the United States illegally, migrants’ WhatsApp and Facebook groups have been flooded with conflicting intelligence about what might await them at the border. Voice memos from family members and friends and friends-of-friends added more grist to the rumor mill.
Yesterday, Giovanna Dell’Orto wrote for the Associated Press on the struggles of one family to make their way from Venezuela to the US border.
After the threats expanded to his sister, his ex-wife and their two children, López sold his truck company and set off through Colombia and then Central America. A smuggler who took their entire savings in exchange for ferrying them by boat to avoid the Darien Gap instead led them straight into it.
They encountered dead bodies and armed robbers, and tried to comfort four women they found crying near the path because they had just been raped, López said.
Lost on the path, they were redirected back by other migrants who were hidden by the cloak of thick vegetation but responded to their cries for help. López confronted the smuggler and went into shock, passing out by a stream.
“The children were screaming, ‘Mom, my dad!’” Oriana Marcano, 29, recalled. “My only solution was to get down on my knees — ‘My God, don’t take him from me.’”
Once they made it out, they still faced robberies, extortion and pushback across Central America and Mexico. “Unfortunately, the jungle is not all,” López said.
These three stories manage to communicate the issues of the border in new ways. Rather than process stories about claims by politicians or pundits or network producers searching for ratings, they describe the stakes of our inaction for the very people for whom international asylum laws were created.
The Debt Ceiling
The government’s need to increase the debt ceiling is not a surprise. When prior spending bills were approved by congress and signed into law by the president (both of them), it set things in motion that would cause us to bump up against the debt ceiling. The standard practice is a new piece of legislation to raise it (eliminating would be better).
Even before the midterm elections, stories would appear asking what would happen if the Republicans won the House. They asked what the Freedom Caucus would demand from Speaker McCarthy. They covered the posturing around the passage of the budget proposal, which occurred on a party-line vote and will not be taken up by the Senate. Way too many stores quoted McCarthy’s comments about household budgets. Way too many have pondered how McCarthy and Biden could solve the impasse, perhaps by two separate but parallel actions that raise the debt ceiling while promising spending cuts in another bill. Then there are the fun thought pieces about the 14th amendment or the trillion dollar platinum coin.
So, lots of stories about personalities and processes but not much about why it matters. Well, now that we’re within a couple of weeks of what Secretary Yellen says in the crisis date, we’re starting to see different stories.
Late last week, the Washington Post had an interesting interactive piece asking readers how they would go about reducing the national debt. It provided a range of options from cutting spending in various areas to raising additional revenues. I confess that my admittedly progressive solutions didn’t make that big of a dent but neither did exclusively conservative solutions. I still found this to be more helpful than most of the debt ceiling stories because it at least presented the magnitude of the challenges and why solving the national debt (assuming you don’t buy Modern Monetary Theory) is a multi-decade process.
Even better are the stories that begin to outline what the downstream impacts would be if we hit the debt ceiling. Short version — it’s bad. Yesterday, another Washington Post story (written by economic and not political reporters) identified seven “doomsday scenarios” that would result.
Something more fundamental may also be at stake. Governments’ credibility is tied in part to their ability to respond to a crisis. A debt ceiling breach would cast doubt on the federal government’s capacity not only to respond to an emergency, but also to fulfill one of its most elementary functions — paying the bills. If the United States can’t do that, citizens and leaders in other countries might wonder, what else can’t it manage anymore?
NPR had a similar story this morning. Through a series of interviews, they note that hitting the ceiling would be worse than the Lehman collapse in 2008. They quote Moody’s analyst Mark Zandi:
"Don't worry about your stock portfolio, worry about your job," he said. "Because a lot of jobs are going to be lost. Unemployment is going to be a lot higher. Is the economy struggling already trying to avoid recession because of high inflation, high interest rates? This will certainly push us and, you know, it's going to be about layoffs. Stock portfolios will be the least of people's worries."
John Stoehr of The Editorial Board highlighted the problem I’d addressing earlier today. He focused on how questions are posed in public opinion polling. Because questions are framed in process terms or in a ‘who’s right” stance, reasonable people respond to the questions they are asked. But they are the wrong questions:
Common sense also tells us that most people most of the time are not idiots. They may not understand the subject of the controversy. They may not understand the consequences of failing to take action. But they can glean information from the questions that they are asked. How a question is asked is therefore as important as the question. If the consequences are spelled out, responses are commonsensical. If they are not, they are insane.
Most of us get this.
What most of us do not get, however, is that even when the consequences are spelled out concretely, the question itself can distort reality. That’s my thesis for today – that polling and news reporting (or news reporting on polling) can distort reality, especially when the debate is already distorted.
I know it’s a counterfactual to argue this, but I keep thinking about the significance of Jay Rosen’s mantra. What are the stakes?
What do discussions about border policy really mean? Are they about border security in the abstract without appreciating the stakes for those fleeing oppression and hunger? What about the stakes for labor intensive industries that depend on immigrant labor? What about the inhibited economic growth that goes alongside “closed borders”?
What are the potential stakes in failure to raise the debt ceiling? Not just in terms of “the government’s full faith and credit”, but in terms of real people who won’t get paychecks or medical care or housing assistance?
In my imagined universe, every story about border policy would address impacts for people on both sides of the border. Every grandstanding politician making claims about border security should be asked concrete questions about the impact on the stakeholders. In terms of budget negotiations and the debt ceiling, the same applies. Rather than claims about cuts to veterans benefits (which are not stated in the Republican bill but a natural implication of their policy of across-the-board reductions), we should have more stories about the people dependent upon the federal government retaining its credit rating and what happens to them if that changes.
Just imagine if that had been the substance of media stories (and polling) around these topics from the beginning and not just when we start getting close to the crisis!
As a news junkie, I can often skip the second half of a story because it’s rehashing prior stories. I mean people need to hit their word count, but I’d grade down a student paper that repeated prior stories without advancing understanding.
I learned on a podcast today that when Title 42 was invoked in March 2020, the primary path of COVID infection was from the US to Mexico. I also learned how COVID exacerbated the existing economic crises in countries in Central and South America.
Ted Cruz released a video this week talking about how much better the migrant issue was in the summer of 2020
Other conservative social media voices like to cite a dramatic increase in apprehensions at the border or confiscation of fentanyl as evidence of an out-of-control border, while apparently not understanding the words “apprehension” or “confiscation”.
McCarthy keeps saying that this is analogous to running up the family credit card and refusing to cut household spending in response. Thats’a false analogy. Hitting the limit on your credit card because of past spending doesn’t have anything to do with the household budget. You can’t refuse to pay the credit card until you figure out the budget or the interest fees kill you. You pay the credit card charge or, if your credit is strong enough, ask for an increase in your card’s limit.
Actually, this story does some of the “rehashing” I was talking about earlier and also repeats some of the “gimmicks” for solving the problem.