Coverage of the Shutdown Reminds Us That Spin Rules the Day

By News on the Record Archives
Cover image for  article: Coverage of the Shutdown Reminds Us That Spin Rules the Day

On Sunday, January 27, the president took to Twitter, unexpectedly criticizing his favorite network.  "Never thought I'd say this but I think @johnrobertsFox and @GillianHTurner @FoxNews have even less understanding of the Wall negotiations than the folks at FAKE NEWS CNN & NBC!"  As the dust settled after 35 days of a partially-shuttered government, the media began to tell its version of events.

No matter how one spins it, though, the shutdown wasn't exactly great for the president's approval ratings.  (In fairness, Gallup has suggested that the shutdown did little to affect his support among Republicans or Democrats, only among the mystical segment of Americans who identify, truthfully or otherwise, as "independents.")  But according to FiveThirtyEight, perhaps the most reliable polling aggregator, the president started the week after the shutdown with an approval rating of 39.4%, the lowest any president has faced this early on since reliable polling began.

Echoing this point, the next morning The Hill ran a story with the headline: "Nearly half of Americans say they have no confidence 'at all' in Trump: poll."  Citing an ABC News-Washington Post poll, The Hill explained that only 35% of Americans trust the president "to make the right decisions for the country's future."  Conspicuously absent from The Hill's reporting, however, was the next line of the actual text of the ABC News-Washington Post poll:  There was a near-identical lack of trust for Democrats in Congress (34%), Speaker Pelosi (30%) and Republicans in Congress (30%).

This is similar to the more anecdotal segment run by CNN in the midst of the shutdown where furloughed government workers blamed both the president and Congress for the standoff.  So, there might be a fairly widespread sense of dissatisfaction with the political system, but if you watch Fox News, the Democrats get the blame.  And if you turn on MSNBC, the story is nearly the opposite.

As David Greenberg might have put it, it was just another week in the "Republic of Spin."  In Greenberg's book, the story, however, is that of the presidents, the staffers and pollsters -- and how they have spent decades perfecting the art of getting a more objective media and a more impartial electorate to see things as their bosses do.  Nowadays, they barely have to do the legwork.  In a polarized media environment, there's hardly a need for the middleman.  The network hosts do the job for them.  And if that fails, they just bring in the backroom strategists themselves.  Instead of Karl Rove working behind the scenes to get the media to see things the conservative way, now he's sitting, clear as day, behind the news desk himself.

When it comes to the end of the shutdown, Sean Hannity told us that, "A deal has been reached to reopen the government temporarily ... [The president has] given Congress three weeks now to agree on legislation to build the wall [and] secure our borders."  Jake Tapper on CNN put it a bit differently:  "The government has been shut down for absolutely no reason."  MSNBC's coverage was peppered with the words "capitulated" and "surrendered," a far cry from what Fox News would have you believe.

HuffPost, in solidarity with MSNBC, released a compilation video of the president's collective interviews with Fox News in which reporters can be heard taking a break from discussing policy to provide the softballs:  "It was your birthday, get any good presents?"  "How are you going to celebrate Father's Day?"  "Chuck Schumer, the president of CNN and Alec Baldwin.  If you had to fire one person right now, who would you fire?"

There's always something cringeworthy about an overly obsequious reporter, whether it's ESPN's Jeff Darlington's recent starstruck sit-down with Tom Brady or a nominally objective political reporter cow tailing to the most powerful person in the room.

But the left-leaning outlets do the same.  As former New York Times editor Jill Abramson suggested last month, much of the media is markedly anti-Trump.  Why?  For the same reason that Fox News does what it does.  It helps their bottom lines.  New York Times readers and MSNBC viewers want to see the president bashed, just as Fox News viewers want to see him exalted.  Perhaps it's no coincidence that the two most popular cable  channels in number of prime time viewers are the two most polarized: Fox News and MSNBC.

This is a point articulately made by economists Antony Davies and James R. Harrigan in their August 2018 Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, "Fox News, MSNBC make the world seem scarier than it is."  The authors, who noted that "Fox News and MSNBC agree on one thing: The United States is going to hell in a handcart," go on to suggest that "major news media have become machines that convert bad news into profits."  When push comes to shove, perhaps we don't actually like objectivity as much as we might say we do at dinner parties.

Americans might claim not to like the direction the country is heading, Congress or the media.  Yet, despite the griping about the press, they're Johnny-on-the-spot to consume the spin.  Turning on the networks these days is almost like asking an establishment politician what he believes ought to be done about education reform; you can predict 80% of the words of his answer before he even opens his mouth.

Photo credit: Andy Feliciotti / Unsplash

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