CBS's Bob Schieffer ended "Face the Nation" the other day with a brief commentary on dangerous automatic spending cuts due to kick in next week.
For those who can't watch clips online, Schieffer had this to say on the sequester:
"[T]hese automatic cuts in spending that go into effect March 1 are Washington`s own doing. The law cut spending programs to the bone. It ends Head Start, reduces the number of food inspectors, ensures longer lines at airports because of massive furloughs of federal workers, not to mention layoffs at shipyards and on and on and on. All of which would probably cause a recession.
"The idea was that no sane person would allow such cuts to happen, which was theorized, would force Congress and the White House to take responsible steps to slow down deficit spending.
"Well, guess what? Even Washington managed to underestimate its own ineptitude. The sequester and the draconian cuts are about to happen because the White House and Congress cannot close the partisan divide and figure out what to do about them."
Now, my point is not to pick on Bob Schieffer. I share his concerns about the severe damage the sequester is likely to do, and I, too, would like to see a bipartisan compromise resolve the issue before it's too late.
But the trouble with his commentary is the assumption that "Washington" is to blame for the "ineptitude" on display.
There are certain facts that are not in dispute. We know that both sides agree the sequestration cuts would undermine the nation's economy, military, and domestic priorities. We know that Democrats have offered a balanced compromise as a sequester alternative, featuring spending cuts and new revenue. We know the White House has said it's ready for additional negotiations -- and that President Obama will speak in D.C. this morning on the need for a bipartisan resolution.
We also know congressional Republicans have ruled out the possibility of a balanced compromise. We know congressional Republicans expect that any potential agreement give them 100% of what they want. We know that in this Congress, Republicans have not been willing to propose a sequester alternative, and have no plans to do so. And we know that congressional Republicans thought it'd be a good idea to take this entire week off.
None of these facts are in dispute. So why is it, exactly, that we should blame "Washington" for this mess?
Again, I'm not singling out Bob Schieffer because his commentary was egregious. On the contrary, his assessment is entirely common -- the political establishment reflexively blames "both sides" for literally everything, even when one side doesn't deserve it. There can be no doubt that if next week's deadline comes and goes without a resolution, as now seems likely, most pundits will be saying exactly what Schieffer said, lamenting the lack of compromise, despite one side's desire for compromise.
But I hope at least some of these commentators not only pause to consider the facts, but also keep the thesis from Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein in mind.
We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.
Our advice to the press: Don't seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?