DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The partial shutdown of the federal government involves real lives, people out of work and also politics, the blame game. It's a wide-ranging story that forces news outlets to confront a familiar question. How do you present the story, remain even-handed and explain accurately what's happening? Here's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.
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DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: A lot of headlines and coverage has sounded something like this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No midnight deal in Washington, just more partisan fights.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: With lawmakers deeply divided, Americans are feeling the brunt of it. No...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Republicans still waiting for Senate Democrats to show up at the table.
FOLKENFLIK: That, from ABC's Good Morning, America, NBC's Today Show and Fox's Fox & Friends this week. And much, though not all, of the coverage sounds that way, apportioning equal blame to both parties. Now, I'd like to introduce you to two journalists who approach their profession very differently in age, outlook and publication, yet reach similar conclusions about what the story really is.
James Fallows was speech writer for President Jimmy Carter more than three decades ago. He is now national correspondent and a media critic for The Atlantic magazine. Robert Costa is the Washington editor for the conservative National Review magazine. He specializes in reporting on congressional Republicans.
James Fallows says coverage of the shutdown must focus largely...
JAMES FALLOWS: On tensions within one party, that is with the Republican Party, between the Boehner/McConnell traditionalist faction and on the other hand, the newly elected sort of Tea Party faction.
FOLKENFLIK: For decades, Fallows says, the default position of journalists has been to give credence to the idea that both parties carry equal culpability in every crisis. Not so, he argues. Now, Robert Costa of the National Review.
ROBERT COSTA: When you look at the Democrats right now, they're on the sidelines, and there's a reason for that because they're looking at the divisions within the Republican ranks and they know there's no opportunity even to really craft a deal to their liking.
FOLKENFLIK: Again, James Fallows after watching coverage of the shutdown on cable news.
FALLOWS: The anchor person kept saying again and again, well, isn't really the blame on both sides? The American people think this is all just a bunch of squabbling. And so in the guise of being objective, that anchor was actually pushing one interpretation of reality.
FOLKENFLIK: And here's Robert Costa.
COSTA: I think Speaker John Boehner is the central figure in this entire shutdown discussion. House Speaker Boehner was just unable to get his conference together onto any bill, any legislation to fund the government.
FOLKENFLIK: Articles and editorials that say there's been a partisan standoff and that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have refused to compromise offer an accurate account, but not a sufficiently precise one, the two reporters say. Costa says tensions within the Republican ranks are often misunderstood by reporters who don't take conservative lawmakers seriously enough.
COSTA: Every day, I'm surprised almost by some of the machinations within the House Republican Conference. It's almost surreal to cover it. But that doesn't mean I write about it in a surreal way because the way conservatives now maneuver within national politics and especially within a weak Republican Party, they are a very serious force and they're something that deserves deep and penetrating coverage.
FOLKENFLIK: For its part, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is criticizing the media from a different direction for what it characterizes as alarmist and unfair coverage. Fox News senior analyst Brit Hume told viewers the media had rushed to judgment.
BRIT HUME: One reason people think Republicans are to blame for government shutdowns is that so much of the media keep telling them that that's the case.
FOLKENFLIK: Hume cited a publication that, like Fox, is part of the greater media empire of Rupert Murdock.
HUME: Even as balanced a paper as the Wall Street Journal reported this morning that the, quote, "simplest path" to avoiding a shutdown would be for the House to immediately pass the Senate funding bill. Well, it would be just as simple for the Senate to pass the House bill and send it to the president for him to sign.
FOLKENFLIK: Hume said that reflects bias by journalists against Republicans. But James Fallows argues that a critique like Hume's only works in a past era in which the nation reaches a rough consensus on how to move forward.
FALLOWS: I think we are evolving towards a journalism that strives relentlessly to be as fair and accurate and transparent and correctable as it can be, but doesn't imagine that in every dispute that comes down the pike there's going to be a sort of 50/50 reasonableness balance between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
FOLKENFLIK: On Tuesday, the New York Daily News ran a front page that portrayed John Boehner as the villainous anti-hero of the political thriller "House of Cards." Yesterday, it depicted Boehner, Reid and Obama as the Three Stooges. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.