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The Cult of Personality: How National Coverage of the Shutdown Was Done So Horribly Wrong


I try to leave the television set to an innocuous channel. Sometimes I forget.
Last Tuesday, I unsuspectingly turned the television on to an immediate and unsuspected assault from Al Sharpton’s lack of volume control. He reminded me just how much disdain I should feel for all Republicans. Clearly, I should be offended by their existence. All of them.
The same day, Newt Gringrich lectured me on the art of negotiation. Because 1996 is not the droid I’m looking for.
Thursday, I unwittingly jumped into a panel discussion on Piers (why, God, why?) Morgan featuring disgraced former U.S. representative, disgraced New York mayoral candidate person, Anthony Weiner.
Clearly these are the most qualified people to offer an appropriate debriefing of the government shutdown.
Fox, MSNBC, and CNN led the way to covering the national, 16-day-moment-of-fail like they were competing network dramas during sweeps.
Last week’s entire national news cycle was anchored in one overarching theme: Who “won” the debt ceiling fight: Republicans or Democrats?
As if those are the most important metrics.
Why was the focus on the political futures of 162 lawmakers and not the 800,000 furloughed workers, the $24 billion price tag, the 20 percent slowdown in economic growth next quarter, the threat to our credit rating, or the further disenfranchisement of a public mostly out of faith in democratic governance?
Headlines like CNN’s “15 winners and losers from the shutdown crisis,” Politico’s “Shutdown Winners Club,” and “USA Today’s “Winners and losers? The early line after an epic battle” (because this is Game of Thrones) spilled all over the internet. Each instructed the thousands of Americans, who had been sent home without pay, what their takeaway should be.
The talk shows and articles read more like day-after reviews of Dancing with the Stars. “Who put on the best performance?” “Who’s coming back next week?”
Even when the politicians themselves tried to make clear that there were no winners in the situation, the media was there to immediately correct them.
“Every politician spent Wednesday insisting that there were no winners in the deal to avert the debt ceiling deadline and reopen the government,” Chris Cillizza wrote in the Washington Post. “That is, of course, something that politicians say.”
Isn’t it something they should say?
While local coverage did a commendable job, national coverage of the shutdown was almost universally about the politicians causing it and the politicians seeking to avoid it. The aftermath coverage has, so far, centered around how they will fare in the midterms and beyond.
That is madness.
Prioritizing the political calculations over the hell that we just drug our workforce and economy through, for shares on social media, should be considered the journalistic equivalent to shutting down the government over politics. It’s putting an individual’s immediate professional considerations above the thousands of people being put through long-lasting pain.
We obviously need to fix our governing-by-crisis problem. That won’t happen if the coverage revolves around personality and not policy. Very little of note, other than maybe happier legislative staffers, happens if the writers crank out enough articles to force Senator Mike Lee to be less grumpy. Political coverage needs to put an emphasis on policy. Tell us what proposals will do; how they will affect us and why you think a certain proposal is a good idea. Examine strengths and weaknesses in bills.
There’s a very understandable reason why Congress has been allowed to do less than any other Congress that has come before them. We haven’t spent much time talking about the stuff they should be passing, or not passing, or improving and then passing. We’ve been talking almost entirely about the people not passing anything. And that kind of nonsense greases the wheels that lead to legislators believing a shutdown is a good idea. It gives them more on-camera opportunities, which brings in more campaign cash for the next election, and frees up a lot of sausage-making time.
News coverage needs to get out of the business of the cult of character. I care much less about Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and much more about his magical ability to almost melt down the global economy.
So here’s an idea: we should stop incentivizing that sort of behavior.
There’s already a healthy market devoted to selling partisan candidates. Voters have no shortage of emails, pundits, and phone calls forecasting which political party is winning or losing. I generally learn in the first ten minutes of my day sorting through my inbox what ten hours of cable news spends repeating. The daily “who’s up, who’s down” mantra is as superfluous as it is unhelpful.
Electoral politics have a time, place, and purpose. They’re called elections.
Coverage of massively important historical events (and, sadly, the tragic 16-day congressional act of stupidity may have been one) can be done better. It has to start with a conscious decision, by the people providing coverage, to push rhetoric aside and abandon the politics of the individual. Let the horses race on their own time and on their own dime. Concentrate on the policy. Let elections figure all the rest out.


  1. The kind of journalism suggested here would require that media hire actual journalists. But when the person reading the script on TV gets paid more than the combined wages of the people who pulled the material together for him or her to read, we have a problem. When major newspapers cut their reporting staff to the point where all they can do is quote dueling press releases, we have a problem. Luckily, we do have a potential solution.