False Equivalence Watch, at (sigh) the WaPo Again

(See update below.) Sorry to seem to be picking on one publication, but it is supposed to be a leading political journal. Here is how this morning's Washington Post played the latest setback for the Obama "pass this bill now" jobs plan.


Headline: "Where job measures go to die"
Subhead: "Another bill fails in Senate"
What actually happened: The bill got a majority in the Senate, 51-49.

But because Mitch McConnell's GOP minority has resolved to filibuster everything the Administration proposes, the measure never came to a vote on the merits. The Democrats, with "only" 53 votes (including 2 Indeps), cannot get 60 votes to break a filibuster, since the Republicans with 47 always-unified pro-filibuster votes, can stop anything they choose.

Through most of American history, the filibuster was a once-in-a-blue-moon rarity. Now, in a shift so profound as to constitute a de facto amendment to the Constitution, it has become a routine obstructionist tool. And our leading journals have so internalized this process that in a story like today's they:
  - report a 51-49 vote as a failure;
  - suggest a vague, caused-by-no-one "where bills go to die" systemic dysfunction; and
  - do not even use the word "filibuster." This latest story contains the word near its end, but in a different context and not applied to what just happened. For two previous illustrations of similar presentation by the Post, see this and this.


On the bright side, Greg Sargent of the Post has an online item that treats the same event in a far more sophisticated way. Summary: Yes, this is deliberate filibuster obstruction by the GOP; such "party of No" behavior is hurting the Republicans' reputation; but it is still worth it to them, because inability to get things done inevitably hurts a sitting president more.

And Ezra Klein, also of the Post, has a first-rate review of Ron Suskind's Confidence Men, covering many of the same themes, in the NY Review of Books. This piece does an excellent job of connecting the underlying economics (the main millstone around the Administration's neck -- and the country's), with the long-range partisan politics (paired Republican and Democratic strategies), with the personality-politics (Obama, Geithner, Boehner, who is "strong," who is "weak," et al) that dominate much day-to-day news coverage. It is no "softer" on the Administration and the Democrats than the Post piece is -- if anything, the reverse. But it explains what is actually going on.

Of course Klein's piece is much longer than a daily news story -- but Sargent's is quite short and still gets across its idea. In any case it wouldn't take any more space to use the word "filibuster" and avoid headlines like "Another bill fails."

Maybe Sargent or Klein could have a word with the Post's political desk? Just an idea.
UPDATE A friend in the Pacific Northwest writes:
I have been doing an experiment for the last few months: When I'm in the car, I listen to AM talk radio. The Seattle station has hourly updates from Fox News. Anyway, they reported the recent "Jobs Bill" vote in the senate as defeated by "threat of filibuster". Yes, FOX NEWS!

So, Fox News can call this legislative tactic by its name, but the Washington Post...

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James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

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