Does the Media Cover Government Shutdowns Right?

Late Sunday evening, congressional leaders unexpectedly compromised on a budget deal that will fund the federal government through Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year.

Before the deal passed, there was serious talk among political elites that the government would not be able to pass legislation by the April 28 deadline, creating a “funding gap” that would shut down the government indefinitely like it did in 2013.

In response, the media attempted to address the facts and potential impacts of a government shutdown.

Spoiler alert: They fell short.

What even is a “government shutdown?”

One of the most problematic things about the government shutdown coverage was disagreement about the term itself.

A “government shutdown” is what results when Congress fails to pass funding legislation. In effect, it would impose unpaid furlough days for “nonessential” federal employees while still maintaining “essential” programs like law enforcement and the military.

But calling the funding gap a government shutdown implies that the entire government will stop functioning completely, even though vital agencies would remain untouched.

“The government shutdown impacted so few people that the Obama administration was relegated to generating nasty headlines by forcibly shutting down open air national monuments,” Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro wrote, arguing against the mainstream notion that a government shutdown would mean chaos. “So Obama had to craft a bad narrative out of whole cloth, then use his media lackeys to promulgate it.”

In the most recent 2013 shutdown, an estimated 850,000 employees out of the 4.3 million full-time government employees were affected. In addition, many writers have criticized the term’s inherent partisan leanings.

“What we are really facing is a liberal government shutdown — which is to say programs designed to help the vulnerable and poor are gutted,” wrote The Nation’s Adam H. Johnson.

He continued to emphasize that a government shutdown would have benefited a Republican agenda, and thus preferred to call it a “‘Republican government starvation” and an “attack on liberal programs.’”

Johnson’s language, as he sarcastically points out in his piece, proves problematic by journalistic standards because it abandons objectivity by automatically assigning blame and further ostracizing Republican and Democratic leaders from compromise.

Casting such a negative light on government shutdowns could also imply that they are more dangerous and rare than they actually are. Since the implementation of the modern congressional budget process in 1976, the government has officially shut down 18 times.

The blame game

In an era of increasing political polarization, it is no shock that conservative and liberal analyses of a potential government shutdown differed. But in this debate, partisans haphazardly cast blame on the other side instead of engaging in a substantive conversation.

“If Republicans moved forward with money for Trump’s wall,” Jennifer Bendery wrote for the left-leaning publication HuffPost, “it would likely tank the bill and potentially shut down the government.”

USA Today congressional reporter Erin Kelly also implied that the Trump administration would be to blame for a shutdown, noting that the White House “opting instead to fight for money in the 2018 budget” would “make it easier for Congress to avert a government shutdown.”

This assertion sparked direct conservative backlash.

“Instead of presenting the issue as one where Democrats issued the threat,” wrote T. Becket Adams for the Washington Examiner in a direct response to Kelly’s article, “USA Today suggested Thursday that talk of a government shutdown has been primarily of the president’s own doing.”

“Americans are told that ‘anti-government’ Republicans were shutting down the government over the objections of Democrats,” Daily Caller’s Brian Reidl wrote about the House Democrats, blaming them and condemning the prevalence of media frames blaming Republicans for recurring government shutdowns. “Rather than fight shutdowns, they bait Republicans into them.”

The takeaway?

While a government shutdown has been momentarily averted, given the country’s current and ever-increasing party polarization, another scare will almost certainly be in America’s future.

It might come sooner rather than later if President Trump has his way. On May 2, he tweeted that “our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix” the congressional negotiating process.

If Trump’s tweet turns out to be prophetic, hopefully the media will learn from its mistakes and attempt to more thoughtfully analyze the issue rather than assign blame.

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