Could TV have a done a poorer job of covering sequester?

Polarized, sensational and focused on personality rather than flawed policy

  • WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media after meeting with Congressional leaders at the White House, March 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama said that no agreement was reached with Republicans to avoid the sequester that will trigger automatic domestic and defense cuts.
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 01: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )
March 03, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

There is no excuse for the kind of coverage TV has delivered the last two weeks on the sequester.

Television news has been polarizing, sensational and mostly focused on personality rather than the policy behind the $85 billion in federal spending cuts that has come to be known as sequestration.

President Obama went into full campaign mode weeks ago, warning of massive disruptions in American life if the cuts were enacted — and blaming them solely on Republican members of Congress. GOP legislators, meanwhile, fired back by painting a picture of a president unwilling to meet with them — even as he had time for a Florida golf trip with Tiger Woods.

The polarization in Washington was not only reflected but also magnified on cable TV. The two worst offenders, Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left, have been in overdrive taking the politicians’ daily spin and revving it even higher for their partisan presentations.

Last week on “Fox & Friends,” Andrew Napolitano, Fox News senior legal analyst, suggested Obama’s handling of the sequester could lead to impeachment.

Steve Doocy, one of the show’s hosts, teed it up for the ex-judge by saying that instead of effectively leading the nation through its economic difficulties, Obama was “scaring the living daylights out of people” with his warnings as to what would happen if Congress didn’t act. Obama was doing this, Doocy said, even as the president had the power to make the 2 percent cut in federal spending far less onerous if he wanted to.

“This is almost an impeachable offense,” Napolitano said. “If the president is deciding how to spend money in order to hurt us, rather than in order to provide us with the services for which we have paid and for which we have hired him, he is doing the opposite of what he has taken an oath to do.”

MSNBC, meanwhile, was showcasing its two most recent analyst hires, long-time Obama loyalists Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod, talking about the sequester. Gibbs was presidential press secretary, while Axelrod was senior campaign strategist in 2008 and 2012.

“Remember,” Axelrod said to host Andrea Mitchell in his first appearance as an MSNBC employee, “The cuts put into place were so odious it was thought no rational legislator, no rational government official, would allow it to happen.”

But now, he said, some Republicans were liking the sequester and the way it would put the brakes on spending — even if millions of American suffered.

“There is a belief among some Republicans in Congress that maybe this sequester’s all right,” Axelrod said. “Maybe this is another way of shrinking government in a dramatic way. That’s a dangerous idea, but it’s not uncommon in some quarters on Capitol Hill.”

In other words: Republican members of Congress are not rational, they have “dangerous” thoughts and they do “odious” things to the American people.

And here’s Gibbs doubling down on Thursday with Mitchell: “The problem, again, from the Republican standpoint with their message … is you’ve got Republicans that say, ‘These [sequester cuts] will hurt the economy, they will hurt our military readiness, and they should go through,’” Gibbs said.

And while loyalists like Axelrod and Gibbs were voicing White House talking points on cable TV, Team Obama was working overtime to have local anchormen, like Baltimore WJZ’s Vic Carter, use their hometown credibility to sell the president’s point of view at the grassroots level.

On Feb. 20, anchorpersons from eight stations were invited to the White House for brief interviews with Obama. The stations were selected from areas with large numbers of federal employees. The idea was for Obama to bypass the White House press corps in getting his “Doomsday” message on the sequester out.

One WJZ report on the 20th opened with Carter on the White House lawn telling viewers, “More than 12,000 people in Maryland could lose their jobs. Education could lose $55 million in funding.”

Meanwhile, he continued, “At the White House, the president and senior staff continued to warn Congress” of the danger if it doesn’t act to stop the sequester.

Obama was then given the chance to speak directly to Marylanders via WJZ’s Carter.

“What I would say to them is that there is no reason they should lose their jobs or be laid off,” Obama said. “This is a problem Congress can solve.”

Finally, the White House spin that it’s all the fault of Congress was underlined in the report with Carter telling viewers, “The ball is clearly in Congress’ court with Maryland jobs and services in the balance.”

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