Et Tu, FT?

One newspaper, straddling two different worldviews

A few hours ago I suggested a primer for media coverage of the impending budget and debt-ceiling votes. Main point: the real reason we're contemplating another government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis is the titanic struggle within one party, the Republicans, rather than the normal tussles between parties in familiar R-vs.-D mode.

Therefore any story that sheds light on the varying factions and interests within conservatism generally -- Paul and Cruz and Rubio and Cantor and DeMint; Boehner and Rove and McConnell and the Kochs; Hannity and Limbaugh and Ailes; Newt and Jeb Bush and Kristol; plus whoever else -- helps us understand what's happening.

And any story that presents this as a normal "both sides are to blame" recurrance of bipartisan gridlock, or as the object of rational-actor negotiation between Obama/Reid on one side and Boehner/McConnell on the other, says more about journalists' reflexive fear of not seeming even-handed than about the reality we should be trying to describe.

The headline writers at the Financial Times today marvelously illustrate the uneven ways in which mainstream journalism is adapting its (our) conventions to these new realities. The screenshot at the top was from the FT's home page a little while ago. The two headlines boxed in red are classic "gridlock in Washington" / "everyone to blame" old-think formulations. Yet right in between them, conveniently highlighted with the green arrow, is a story by the FT's Stephanie Kirchgaessner whose headline boldly refers to the "Republican civil war" and whose opening clearly draws the connection between the GOP's inner struggles and the nation's fiscal fate:

Idaho Falls lies more than 2,000 miles from Washington. But a local political fight that has gripped this community explains in large part why the US is once again teetering on the edge of a government shutdown and even default.

The primary election fight, described by some as a battle for the soul of the Republican party, has pit congressman Mike Simpson, a longtime personal friend and ally of John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, against a newcomer named Bryan Smith, who has won the backing of the most powerful conservative groups in Washington....

Far from being a one-off phenomenon, the Idaho race shows why conservative but pragmatic Republicans like Mr Simpson, who are from districts where Democrats are almost irrelevant, have been pushed to the sidelines.

Anyone who reads the story will understand that whatever the Obama and the Democrats are saying or offering is essentially irrelevant to the inner GOP drama. So the paper's headline writers are describing a world -- parties are "poles apart" and cannot "bridge the divide" -- that the same paper's reporters say no longer exists. Split-consciousness specimens like this will be great time-capsule elements to illustrate how rapidly the politics of our time is veering away from our familiar ways of understanding and describing it.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

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.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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