Here’s a fact: The political brinksmanship that results in a temporary government shutdown is always the result of two sides refusing to budge — each preferring to go beyond the deadline rather than capitulate on a core issue. It’s always the same: One side wants something funded or passed into law, and the other side refuses; or, one side wants something de-funded or repealed, and the other insists upon the status quo. Either party could end the impasse by compromising; thus both deserve equal blame for the lack of a solution.
But government shutdowns of the last thirty years have been unfair fights, with Democrats boosted by the fact that the liberal news media always blame Republicans for the short-term disruption in funding. Knowing ahead of time that the media will give them the P.R. victory, Democrats have little incentive to compromise, as each day’s headlines brings more denunciations of Republicans as mean-spirited “terrorists,” or worse.
There have been three major shutdown battles during the past 30 years, and the media have been a powerful ally for the Democrats in each and every one. Journalists’ shutdown playbook is straightforward: single out Republicans for blame; highlight “victims” of the shutdown to build public anger; and then claim Democrats won because they were the “grown-up” party. A quick recap:
■ 1995-96 Shutdown: In November 1995, the government shut down for six days as Democratic President Bill Clinton opposed the new Republican Congress’s attempt to restrain the growth of expensive federal programs. A short-term funding measure sent the bureaucrats back to work for a month, only to see a second shutdown from December 16, 1995 through January 6, 1996.
Media Research Center studies at the time found the networks employed Democratic spin when it came to blame for the shutdown as well as casting federal workers as victims. MRC analysts looked at all 113 stories on the Dec.-Jan. shutdown on the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts, plus CNN’s World News. They found that “In the 48 stories in which reporters allocated blame, 23 assigned blame to the Republicans, but not one held Clinton culpable (25 blamed both).”
The December shutdown was caused when Clinton chose to veto six Republican spending bills rather than accept spending limits. The media cast that as the fault of Republicans. “Well, they’ve done it again. Nine days from Christmas, Republicans have forced another partial shutdown of the government because they cannot come to an agreement with the White House on how to balance the budget,” CBS’s Bob Schieffer grumped on the December 16, 1995 Evening News.
During the November shutdown, the networks emphasized the plight of federal workers and the pain of losing government for even a few days. “Imported Christmas toys, which could be unsafe, are not being examined by safety inspectors,” fretted CBS’s Linda Douglass on the November 16 Evening News.
During the second shutdown, MRC found more than half of the TV coverage (67 of 131 stories) included at least one “victim” of the shutdown. On December 22 — just six days after the start of the second shutdown — ABC’s Jack Smith lamented on World News Tonight: “The shutdown now has a human face. Joe Skattleberry and his wife Lisa both work for the government. Both have been furloughed. They can’t afford a Christmas tree.”
Then on January 2, 1996, CBS’s Scott Pelley compared the shutdown to the deadly Oklahoma City bombing just nine months earlier: “In April, terrorists tried to kill them. Today, politicians stopped their paychecks. In Oklahoma City’s Social Security office, they're being ordered to work for nothing,” Pelley intoned, adding: “The bomb broke Beverly Rankin's ankle. Politics is breaking her bank.”
Two days later, NBC’s Bryant Gumbel promised at the start of the January 4 Today: “We will show you how some average Americans are suffering each and every day as a result of what is now 20 days of the government shutdown.”
And the media were explicit about blaming Republicans: “More than half the GOP freshmen have never held elective office before, and critics say their newness to government makes them naive and extreme,” NBC reporter Joe Johns slammed on the January 2, 1996 Today show.
“If you look at the polls and look at where most people in the street are or in any barroom in this country are saying Bill Clinton seems like a grown-up for once and Newt Gingrich looks like some crazy guy — a car bomber who wants to blow the country up!” then-San Francisco Examiner columnist Chris Matthews opined on ABC’s Good Morning America.
■ The 2013 Shutdown: As during the Clinton-era shutdowns, the media spin was that congressional Republicans were at fault, not Democratic President Barack Obama. MRC analysts reviewed each ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscast during the 15 day shutdown (October 1-15). Of the 124 stories about the shutdown, 41 blamed Republicans, 17 blamed both sides, and none specifically blamed Democrats.
Prior to the shutdown (September 17-30), the MRC documented the same trend: the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts aired 21 stories blaming Republicans, four blaming both sides, and none blaming Democrats.
Once again, network news viewers were treated to a parade of anecdotes from supposed victims. Just a few hours after the shutdown began, the October 1 CBS Evening News highlighted a furloughed worker who claimed the brief period away from his job had already been “a nightmare for me financially.” Over on NBC that same night, an EPA worker announced she was “terrified” and had filed for unemployment benefits.
The dispute was limited to funding ObamaCare, with Republicans ready to fund the rest of the government. But instead of (accurately) saying that President Obama and the Democrats were shutting down the government to save their program, the media chose to frame Republicans as the culprits. “It is just incredible to me to watch these Republicans putting on their suicide vests and thinking this is going to have some kind of outcome for America,” the Daily Beast’s Tina Brown exclaimed on CNN October 1.
“They’ve been called the suicide caucus in the U.S. House, about 80 members,” then-NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams derided October 3 during one of his ubiquitous visits to CBS’s Late Show. “Right now they have a hold on the House of Representatives.”
“We have elected an ungovernable collection of snake-handlers, Bible-bangers, ignorami, bagmen and outright frauds,” former Boston Globe Magazine writer Charles Pierce wrote October 1 on Esquire.com. “We looked at our great legacy of self-government and we handed ourselves over to the reign of morons.”
Chris Matthews, now an MSNBC host, agreed: “The zealots of the right wing scream louder and louder that victory lies in catastrophe — Kool-Aid for everyone, and defeatists will be shot!”
On NPR, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman likened the Republicans to terrorists: “It’s exactly how Hezbollah, a minority party in Lebanon, has managed to intimidate and pervert Lebanese democracy....They’re both using intimidatory tactics to override the will of the majority.”
Once again, the media crowned the Democrats as the big winners. President Obama was “the grown-up in the room,” applauded CBS’s Norah O’Donnell. Over on NBC, Chuck Todd proclaimed that the shutdown had been “an unmitigated political disaster for the GOP.”
“House Republicans are the clear losers,” ABC’s Jon Karl agreed on October 16. “They pushed to the brink, and have nothing to show for it.”
■ The 2018-2019 Shutdown: Unlike the 2013 shutdown, this time the confrontation was between a Republican President, Donald Trump, and a Democratic House of Representatives refusing to fund one of his top priorities. Nevertheless, an MRC study found “by a six-to-one margin, network reporters framed the shutdown as the fault of President Trump and Republicans, not Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats.”
The central dispute involved Trump’s request for $5.7 billion in funding for border security, which would have amounted to a nearly-imperceptible 0.13% of the total $4.1 trillion in federal spending that year. But out of nearly five hours of total broadcast evening news coverage (297 minutes), only 27 percent (80 minutes) was devoted to the important debate on border security.
Instead, the networks employed their well-established shutdown playbook, focusing on the “victims” of the political impasse. As our study documented at the time:
As early as January 11, ABC was touting workers at food pantries; one IRS worker told the network, “we don’t have any money and we don’t have much food.” On January 17, NBC’s Tom Costello spotlighted another IRS worker “selling her own plasma for $50 to support her family.” On January 23, CBS passed along the claim of a union boss that a worried IRS worker “told her she attempted suicide” because of the shutdown. The next day, ABC highlighted an employee of the Fish and Wildlife Service who said she was “rationing insulin” because she could not afford the $300 co-pay.
The media didn’t just blame Republicans — they vilified them as terrorists. On MSNBC’s The Beat with Ari Melber, for example, longtime Washington correspondent Eleanor Clift proclaimed on January 23: “The Democrats are defending a principle here, that you don’t negotiate with terrorists when they’re holding hostages.”
Our study found that out of 156 statements assigning blame to one side or the other, 133 targeted President Trump and the Republicans, vs. just 23 targeting Democrats, a six-to-one disparity.
And when the shutdown ended on January 25, the networks predictably crowned the Democratic leader as the winner. “A massive, massive victory for Nancy Pelosi,” Politico’s Jake Sherman exulted on MSNBC that afternoon. Meanwhile, CNN’s anchors and correspondents blasted Trump as “shameful” for having “single-handedly shut down the government” that caused “agony” and illustrated a White House not in touch “with reality.”
With the prospect of another temporary shutdown looming this weekend, network reporters are already blaming GOP “hard-liners” for the impasse. It’s a predictable narrative, perfected during three decades of partisan news coverage.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.