Why the Media Got the Story About this Week All Wrong

The failure of many in the political press to check their blind spots caused them to misunderstand what happened in Congress.

This critical week ended with neither a bipartisan infrastructure bill nor Biden’s American Jobs and Families Plan. It was a setback, but hopefully a temporary one. The media coverage of the whole thing was breathless but also wholly incorrect in its illustration of what happened and who was responsible. I’m not sure I have ever seen more media outlets get one thing so wrong.

The New York Times article about the showdown exemplified the error:

The liberals’ tactics were reminiscent of those employed by the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, whose members routinely threatened to withhold their bloc of votes unless Republican leaders met their demands. More moderate Republicans, particularly those from competitive districts, became incensed with the group, blaming them for standing in the way of popular bills that were political imperatives.

On Thursday, some politically vulnerable Democrats were similarly angry at their progressive counterparts for holding up a bill that had broad support.

Other middling pundits desperately seeking relevance, like conservative columnist Josh Kraushaar, went so far as to call the House progressives “the New Tea Party” and compare Rep. Pramila Jayapal to Senator Ted Cruz. 

The problem with this narrative and these comparisons is — well — everything. They portray ignorance of what’s happening now, in recent history, and display a significant blindspot in political coverage.

What Happened

The journalistic renderings of what happened on Capitol Hill last week tell stories of a group of rebellious progressives flexing their muscles to pull the Party’s agenda to the left against the will of the speaker and the president.

But that’s the opposite of what happened.

Time has mostly lost its meaning since the pandemic started, but is it too much to ask that people who write and tweet about politics for a living remember things that happened only a few months ago?

Back in the spring, President Biden gave two speeches to unveil the components of his jobs and families agenda. Part one was a $2.3 trillion “hard infrastructure” plan to rebuild our roads and bridges and make a historic investment in fighting climate change. A few weeks later, Biden announced the families component, which included initiatives like an extension of the Child Tax Credit, free community college, child care, and more accessible and affordable healthcare.

Around the same time, a bipartisan group of senators — with the support of the White House — began working on potential compromise legislation, focusing primarily on the roads and bridges part of Biden’s plan. After many meetings and deadline extensions, they struck a deal known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF). In a vacuum, the BIF is a good piece of legislation that will grow the economy and create jobs. The mere existence of bipartisan legislation is an impressive feat and a testament to Biden’s legislative skills. But, the BIF represents only a small fraction of Biden’s jobs and families agenda. Democrats — including the president — would never have agreed to the BIF if it meant casting aside everything else President Biden ran on. So everyone agreed on a “two-track strategy.” They would support the BIF if — and only if — Congress also passed a second bill that included the rest of the president’s agenda. Those votes would need to happen nearly simultaneously.

Everyone was content with this plan until a small group of Democratic centrists, led by Rep. Gottheimer — and with the support of corporate interests opposed to the Biden agenda — forced Speaker Pelosi to set a deadline for a vote on the BIF. The hope was that a deadline would force Senators Manchin and Sinema to seriously negotiate the remainder of Biden’s jobs and families plan.

The point of Gottheimer’s rebellion was to de-link the two bills. De-linkage was a priority for powerful special interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports the BIF but is adamantly opposed to Biden’s proposed increase in corporate tax rates and initiatives to save the planet from the fossil fuel producers that fund the Chamber. Put another way, a small cabal of centrists are flexing their muscles to defeat core elements of the Biden agenda at the behest of powerful special interests.

It was progressives — led by Jayapal — that banded together to protect Biden’s agenda. They didn’t make exorbitant demands or try to force the Party to adopt an extreme position. In fact, it wasn’t only progressives. Ninety percent of Democrats were on the same page in the battle against the centrists.

Media Blindspots

The misleading media coverage of what happened demonstrates two fundamental blindspots in how the political press covers these topics. First, the D.C. media fetishizes bipartisanship and ideological moderation to such an extent that they cannot fathom the idea that the self-described moderates could be the problem. Their reflexive desire to blame progressives for any and all problems caused the press to make a series of embarrassing errors that belied the very things that happened before their eyes.

Second, they are so addicted to the “both sides narrative” that they are ignoring facts and history. All this to claim that progressives are as extreme as conservatives. The Tea Party, as a movement,  is a direct reaction to the election of a Black president. Its members wore tri-corner hats and talked about taxes, but the less-than-subtle message of White grievance was evident. Many of them used their campaigns to promote the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

Once elected to Congress, the first act of the Tea Party — which evolved into the Freedom Caucus — was to nearly force the United States to default for the first time. They had no policy principles and demonstrated an embarrassing ignorance of the most basic facets of government. The current crop of Tea Partiers and Freedom Caucus members are the leading promoters of the Big Lie and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.

The agenda the Democrats fought for was not extreme, nor did it run counter to the wishes of the Party. It was substantive, popular, and absolutely necessary. I hesitate to compare anyone to the Freedom Caucus, but if anyone demonstrated the slimy, shamelessness of Ted Cruz, it wasn’t Pramila Japayal. It was Josh Gottheimer.