by Jonathan Bernstein
Matt Yglesias is frustrated by the ability of the opponents of health care reform to scare up a "controversy" about reconciliation out of whole cloth. As he notes, reconciliation is over thirty years old, and has never been considered controversial in the past. That's true. He continues:
This is a reminder, first and foremost, that the nation’s prestige political journalists aren’t very good at their jobs. You always have the option of not giving in to the power of the right-wing noise machine. But time and again reporters and editors choose, as autonomous moral agents, to do so.
But of course it’s also a reminder of the continuing power of the right-wing noise machine. The ability of talking points to go through the Drudge/Limbaugh/Fox conveyor-belt means that while conservative claims may not always carry the day in the public discourse, the right basically gets to decide what the debate is about on any given day...And since we’re having the debate, it becomes true to call it a “controversial” process.
I think this is a bit more complex than that. It's true that one of the jobs of the press is to evaluate the truth of claims made by government officials, including the minority party. But a more basic job of the press is simply to let people know what political actors are saying. The New York Times and the Washington Post can't -- shouldn't -- ignore a party's talking points just because they're nonsense. And while I do think reporters should be straightforward about factually dubious claims, it is also is, for better or worse, important that those claims are aired.
The key for the press, it seems to me, twofold. First, there's a huge difference between the claims of, say, Republican leaders in the House and Senate on the one hand, and claims of Glenn Beck or backbenchers in the Hose on the other. This often calls for judgment -- is Michele Bachmann an obscure backbencher, or is she a Republican leader in the House -- and there are no hard and fast rules, but the basic idea is that major points of view should be heard. The other side of it is what to do with claims that pass that first test, but are nevertheless nonsense. Unfortunately, that situation leaves the press with few good options. On the one hand, factually wrong assertions need to be treated as factually wrong...but it's awfully hard for reporters to know, in many cases, what things are simply factually wrong, and which are in a gray area in which responsible experts disagree. Or, to put it another way, it is clearly not true that the reconciliation patch is an unusual use of that procedure, but it does appear to now be true that reconciliation is controversial, since Republican leaders say it is. I'm not a journalist, but I find the choices they have to make in dealing with this sort of thing difficult. I suspect that there are no good solutions for how to accurately report talking points of a major political party that are based on nonsense and hokum.
While this is frustrating, I'm not sure it's a grave threat to the republic. Yes, Republicans have successfully managed to convince people that there's a Serious Question of whether reconciliation should be used for health care reform. But in doing so, they've crowded out other potential points they might want to make about the bill. In other words, the media does allow them to "decide what the debate is about" to some extent (although not just Republicans -- after all, this takes place within a debate over health care reform, not over tax cuts or deregulation or why Obama is soft on terrorists because he keeps killing them). That's not a Republican choice. Both parties can influence what the debate is about. And in my opinion at least, parties that use their window to elevate phony issues tend to suffer.