Sometimes government works. The media must say so.
Negativity may be fashionable, but it’s far from the truth
When I was an editor at the Chicago Tribune, I went on a short reporting fellowship to Japan. The Tribune and other news outlets had pulled their reporters out of Japan and shifted them to other countries such as China. Japanese officials asked me why.
“Your country is orderly,” I told them. “Not much chaos. Which means you’re not making much news.”
It was a simplistic answer, and no doubt unsatisfying to the Japanese. But it reflected a core journalism attitude. We think of news as something that’s out of the ordinary. Conflict, disaster, scandal. Newspapers aren’t going to run a headline that says, “No Jetliners Crashed Yesterday.”
But in today’s U.S. political environment, the news media’s emphasis on the negative has been weaponized by MAGA Republicans. They want Americans to think their government is incompetent or malevolent. They want Americans to give up on the idea that their government can make their lives better. They want us all to disinvest and leave everything to them.
The media too often feed that right-wing goal with their disinterest in statesmanship. Joe Biden’s foreign diplomacy has been quietly competent. No world leader has been shoved out of the way at a NATO meeting. There’s been no bragging about no love letters from dictators. But do the media focus on Biden’s professionalism? Nope. It’s bo-ring.
There are plenty of examples like that. Biden passed an infrastructure bill, which the previous president couldn’t. And with Biden’s help, the auto strike was settled. But when government works, journalists yawn.
Republicans love that famous Ronald Reagan quote: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
Of course, Reagan didn’t target that message at Americans saved by seat belt laws or relocated from Superfund pollution sites or rescued by the Coast Guard when their boat sank.
Arkansas’s MAGA governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is especially hypocritical about the role of the federal government. Last January she promised the people of Arkansas: “As long as I am your governor, the meddling hand of big government creeping down from Washington DC will be stopped cold at the Mississippi River.”
But in late March when tornadoes raked the state, Sanders quickly requested federal disaster aid. A few days later, she expressed dissatisfaction with the feds picking up 75% of the costs and demanded 100%.
She wanted a meddling handout. And she got it.
Politicians will be politicians, but the mainstream media needn’t go along with reflexive negativity toward the federal government. They need to be appropriately critical when the government screws up, but they also need to note its achievements.
Such as Biden’s handling of the economy. He took office during a pandemic in which the government pumped money into the system to help people ride out the economic disruption. It was natural that such a move would encourage inflation, and it did. But at the same time Biden’s policies pushed the jobless rate down to near a 50-year low. And despite corporate price gouging, Biden got inflation under control.
But even when there is good news like that, the media often give it a negative spin. Two New York Times examples: “Why a Strong U.S. Economy Is Making Stock Investors Jittery” and “Inflation Has Been Easing Fast, but Wild Cards Lie Ahead.”
This is the way the Times rolls — showing its savvy outlook by finding something wrong with good news. I’m surprised the Times didn’t run a headline last February reading, “Chiefs Win Super Bowl, Putting Pressure on Team to Repeat Next Year.”
But even the Times has been worn down by so much encouraging economic news. Its headline last Friday was: “Robust U.S. Job Growth in November Is Latest Sign of a Durable Economy.” That, of course, did not prevent Fox News from declaring, “November’s positive jobs report is not as ‘rosy’ as it seems.”
It’s ridiculous when people in the media wonder why attitudes about the economy are so out of sync with the facts. The answers are obvious: MAGA and media.
Even legitimate non-Fox journalists are prejudiced against good news, and not only because they think good news is no news. They also fear they’ll look like cheerleaders for government officials if they report that the government did something right.
Republicans have their own motive, which is to win power at all costs. Not only do they lie to spread their negativity, but they manufacture bad news to turn that negativity into reality. Witness House Republicans’ obstruction of federal funding. And on one of the few issues where the Biden administration is indeed struggling — immigration — Republicans oppose meaningful reforms because they’d rather exploit the problem than address it like grown-ups.
I’m not asking the media to write headlines that say “No Jetliners Crashed Yesterday.” I’m asking the media to point out that federal regulations are partly responsible for the fact that there hasn’t been a fatal crash by U.S. commercial airlines in the last 14 years.
Everything does not suck. Some things are working.
To me, the most frightening nine words in the English language are not “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Rather, the most frightening nine words would be: “MAGA’s in charge, and it’s not here to help.”