Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 4, 2023

Legislators are drawing battle lines. The news media struck the match.

By RUHIKA CHATTERJEE | October 23, 2021



Chatterjee reviews the role of media in the Democratic Party’s recent display of infighting, pointing out that oftentimes healthy negotiation is sensationalized.

Journalism has long been classified as a utility that provides information and facts to the public. However, with the advent of 24/7 news and the internet, the focus now seems to be on virality and maintaining constant attention from viewers. This causes much of the news to be sensationalized so that readers will click on, skim through and possibly share the story.

Over the past few months, there have been four big bills moving through Congress: the raising of the debt limit, a stopgap funding bill, a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Democrats Build Back Better social spending bill. Passage of these bills has been complicated by the slim majorities present in Congress. Looking at the demographics of the U.S. legislature, all 50 Democratic senators in reconciliation and all but a few of the 220 Democratic representatives are needed to pass any bill.

The infrastructure and Build Back Better bills contain key parts of Biden and the Democrats’ agenda. Although the infrastructure bill has passed in the Senate with Republican support, the House hasn’t passed it in response to the Senate stalling on the more comprehensive and progressive Build Back Better bill.

Both bills together would improve the quality of life of Americans, with funding addressing a laundry list of issues such as hard infrastructure, child care, prescription drug cost, family and medical leave and many more programs over the next 10 years. These programs will have tangible impacts on the lives of Americans, make the country more resilient and show voters they made an effective choice in the 2020 elections. In fact, when polled on the contents of the bills, a sizable majority of people already supported them.

Yet throughout this process, the news media have been focused on covering infighting and assigning blame rather than on reporting the contents of the bills and how it will benefit Americans.

The Progressive Caucus in the House has made it clear that its almost 100 members will not vote for the infrastructure bill until the Senate passes the Build Back Better bill as was previously agreed upon. The infrastructure and Build Back Better bills were always intended to be tied together. They were only legislatively separated to allow Senate moderates to get a bipartisan win on the infrastructure bill.

At the same time, eight moderates in the House have been pushing for the infrastructure bill to be passed as soon as possible; meanwhile, their Senate counterparts have continued to refuse negotiations on the Build Back Better bill.

Leaders of the Democratic Party and progressives knew that the Build Back Better bill would never pass if they gave up leverage on the infrastructure bill. Yet moderates are calling progressives the obstructionists on the infrastructure bill when the moderates themselves are obstructing both bills being passed together.

When this issue is covered in the news cycle, it seems like media networks want to accept this narrative, drawing lines in the sand and pitting legislators against one another instead of allowing for posturing and negotiations to happen within the party. Coverage has focused on the price tag of the bills and who may or may not support them instead of the substantive issues addressed in each bill and the stakes for Americans.

The other two bills, raising the debt ceiling and the stopgap funding bill, are crucial to pass on a recurring basis in order to avert an economic meltdown. In this, the media have, again, created divisive lines between the Democratic and Republican Parties, portraying that this debate has two valid and bickering sides.

The real story goes that Republicans refused to help Democrats pass the bills until it became clear that not doing so would make Republicans culpable for ruining the economy. Realizing this, they agreed to pass the stopgap funding bill and a few stopped blocking the debt-ceiling raise, providing an extension for both bills until early December. However, Republicans are already assigning responsibility and blame to Democrats in anticipation of December, when Democrats will be forced to find a solution alone.

This debt-ceiling raise has nothing to do with future spending. It is to pay for bills that have been passed by former Democrat and Republican presidents. If the debt ceiling is not raised in time, the government will default on its loans and not be able to borrow any more to pay its bills, leading to another recession. Approaching the latest deadline caused stock markets to roller coaster, showing the possible impacts of a stalemate.

This, along with annual government funding bills, is a critical part of legislation that has been used as political theater. Delaying the votes until the last minute and having bad faith negotiations play directly into the media’s hands.

Republicans play with fire all the time, threatening the health and economy of the country for their political posturing. And the media obliges time and time again, covering every back and forth of negotiation, neglecting to focus on what actually matters: holding politicians accountable for showing up to the table with ridiculous demands or not coming at all. Politicians are responsible for taking care of Americans and avoiding these dire circumstances, not for using these situations and the media as a tool for reelection.

News media, for many years, have been spinning a narrative written by the obstructionists against the legislators in Congress that is a danger to the legislative process and our government at large. It is a simple but attention-grabbing story. Even moderates have succeeded in being heard through the media by doing interviews and writing opinions pieces constantly.

Nevertheless, what Republicans do with the media is much more nefarious. They manipulate the story to paint Democrats as the bogeyman coming for your money and way of life. Their propaganda is spread easily by buying up local media and utilizing social media algorithms to radicalize people in covert ways. When anyone threatens their systems, they cry foul by saying the mainstream media have a bias against them, even for something as innocuous as fact-checking.

Journalists believing they cannot be perceived to have a pro-liberal bias leads to the mainstream media bowing down to this propaganda. It allows Republicans to shape the views of this country, which has led to many falsehoods being accepted as fact. Journalists must begin covering the truth and investigating, a lost art. Otherwise, these bad actors will never be held accountable. 

Ruhika Chatterjee is a junior from Princeton, N.J. studying Molecular and Cellular Biology. 

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