political convention

political convention

Friday, March 2, 2012

The news media and the immoderate moderate

Journalists working for media organizations like CNN, the New York Times and NPR have taken up the practice of rating members of Congress on a scale—call it the moderation scale. In the middle are "moderates," the few brave politicians willing to work across party lines to get things done. All the rest are ideologues or political hacks falling at varying distances to the right or left.

The problem with the moderation scale is that it has little to do with what’s really going on in Congress. The prototypical “moderate,” is Senator Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska. Reporters and commentators hail Nelson as an independent whose distain for party loyalty makes him immune to partisan bickering. But is he really moderate in the normal sense of the word—someone who avoids extremes?

Two examples show why Nelson is in fact a conservative who has sided with far-right Republicans on key issues that stir ideological undercurrents.

For months Nelson was an uncompromising holdout during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s healthcare initiative. He threatened to vote with Republicans against the legislation, even though it was the centerpiece of the new Democratic president’s agenda and was supported by most members of his party, as well as a few Republicans.

The proposed law created government programs to address longstanding healthcare problems but also had features that were sympathetic to the needs of private sector players such as hospitals and insurance companies. Legislators not consumed by ideology should have been able to find reasons to support the law, or at least have cause to work with colleagues to address its deficiencies. Nelson, however, stayed in opposition until it looked like he would be the lone senator who could scuttle the bill. He eventually relented and voted in favor, but only after strenuous pressure from the White House and other Democrats. In the end his resistance encouraged lingering doubts about parts of the law and gave cover to right-wing attacks.

More recently, Nelson strayed again from the middle by voting in favor of a harshly ideological amendment to a transportation bill that would have excused employers from providing insurance coverage for contraceptives for female employees. The aim of the Republican-backed legislation was to weaken the Affordable Care Act under the guise of protecting religious freedom. Placing the amendment in a transportation bill was just one small part of this deceitful conservative ploy.

Nelson’s affirmative vote was not motivated by fear of losing his next election. He is about to retire. The only other plausible explanation is that he shares the ideological objectives of the amendment’s right-wing sponsors. Yet the day before the vote he was still being labeled a “moderate” by a network reporter and a cable news commentator.

The moderation scale is deeply flawed when it is used to justify this kind of inaccurate labeling. It is also well off the mark when it suggests, as it does, that there is an equal distribution of “non-moderates” to the left and right of center. The radical right Tea Party House of Representatives should put this idea to rest. So why do reporters and commentators choose “moderate” as the essential category in their version of the political spectrum?

One good answer is that journalists feel most comfortable when they focus on the perceived middle. It helps them avoid unpleasant accusations of bias and it makes it a lot easier for them to do their jobs. For one thing, there’s less pressure to verify the factual accuracy of opposing arguments—the guy in the middle must be right because everyone else has some reason to be unhappy with him.

So in practice the moderation scale is a lousy tool. It has little value as an accurate description of reality and it gives the public the corrosively false impression that simply straddling the border between the two parties is the best and most constructive place for a politician to be.

It’s time for reporters to do the immoderate thing and edit “moderate” from their vocabulary.

Related posts: Tax compromise? For Republicans it adds up to zero, Dec. 7, 2011; 
                             A political dictionary of slippery words, Nov. 24, 2011.

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