A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
We’re coming up on the three-mark of the partial government shutdown. And Friday is payday. Are news outlets doing enough to showcase the real-world effects?
For Thursday night’s edition of the “Reliable Sources” newsletter, I asked several media critics and experts — check out their answers below.
Anecdotally, I have seen a big increase in “impact” stories and segments this week. CNN’s home page has a list of 70+ ways it is “affecting Americans nationwide,” and there’s a “how has the shutdown affected you?” feedback form to solicit more stories. The Washington Post has a detailed FAQ and a list of interruptions to government programs. NBC News has added a “shutdown” section link at the top of its website.
— Breaking: “Due to TSA absences, Miami airport will temporarily close one terminal early for 3 days…”
— FBI agents say “lack of funding is hurting the nation’s premier law enforcement agency…”
— At the White House, there are “empty desks and unpaid bills,” NYT’s Katie Rogers reports…
— Plus: A visual story by the Post: “What does being on furlough look like?”
“Shine a light on the problem”
On Fox News Thursday night, Laura Ingraham claimed that “sob stories of government workers” are just “the media’s latest tactic” to manipulate the public.
Ingraham plays a media critic on TV, but what do actual media critics think? Before I heard Ingraham’s dismissive commentary, I asked Pulitzer Center exec editor and Boston Globe columnist Indira Lakshmanan.
“With any crisis, it’s the role of the press to shine a light on the problem, brings all the facts to bear, share untold stories of human consequences, and demand accountability,” she told me. “I think most serious news outlets are doing that with their shutdown coverage. Fact-checking especially has been persistent and generally effective, even forcing the White House to drop a bald-faced falsehood about thousands of terrorists crossing the border, for example.”
Should members of the media be shaming politicians into solving this mess? Lakshmanan said no: “It’s generally not a news reporter’s role to ‘shame’ politicians unless there’s illegal activity, corruption or abuse involved. Expressing moral outrage is the privilege of opinion writers. But when a crisis inflicts widespread harm — on the 800,000 federal workers going without pay and on the rest of the country deprived of important services — it’s the news media’s job to keep pointing that out.”
Political analyst Jeff Greenfield told me something similar. “It manifestly IS the press’ job to chronicle the cost of the shutdown” and to “report bad faith efforts to define the shutdown by offering flatly false accounts of what is and is not happening at the border,” he said. “If this kind of aggressive reporting pushes politicians to resolving the shutdown, great… but there’s plenty of vital work that is traditionally journalistic to do here.”
Fewer quotes from politicians, more quotes from families
Here’s what The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote when I asked for his impressions: “I think the media have actually been moving into a better approach to this … I was going to say ‘this story,’ but that almost trivializes it, since it’s so much more than a normal ‘story’ in the realm of normal politics. Let’s say, a better approach to this moment in public life. The natural instinct of the political press would be to cover this as primarily a political issue — ‘will the Democrats stand firm?’ ‘nervous Republicans look toward 2020 race’ — and to cover it mainly from DC. Quotes from Schumer and the elusive McConnell, not-for-attribution quotes about the mood inside the White House and what the next moves might be. And you did — again naturally — see a lot of that in the early days. But as time as gone on, I think there’s been a lot more coverage of what the political-football term of a ‘shutdown’ actually means. What it means for families that (like most American families) depended on predictable cash flow to meet their routine expenses.”
Fallows added: “I think the shutdown is wantonly damaging for the country as a whole. But overall I think the recent shift in press attention been a good thing, and worth noticing…”
What about the macro level?
Poynter senior VP Kelly McBride said journalists “are doing a better job covering the micro story than the macro story.”
“I see a lot of blow-by-blow coverage of the talks and a lot of stories of disfunction and hardship. And of course there is plenty of coverage of President Trump’s rhetoric. But with the exception of the financial press, I’m dissatisfied with the coverage of the larger impact of this shutdown,” McBride told me.
“This is a challenging story for most media outlets because the audience seems deeply fatigued,” she added. “Every newsroom has a different promise to its audience. National outlets are covering the negotiations. Issue-based organizations are covering their sector, which is why you are seeing so much good coverage of the National Parks. (A lot of blogs cover national parks and those stories get picked up by other journalists looking for leads.) The local newsrooms I follow tend to hone in on struggling families, feel-good efforts to help them, and some local protest stories. But that’s all on the micro level. The financial outlets are doing some of the best work describing the broader impact. The economy is taking a hit and we won’t know the extent of that hit for several months. Marketplace and CNBC have had some great stories. I wish more newsrooms would follow their lead.”