The government shutdown: How media fueled the blame game
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The government shutdown: How media fueled the blame game

January 23, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Government shutdown ends after Senate votes on short-term spending bill, Trump signs into law

On Monday, shortly after noon eastern time, the Senate voted for a temporary spending bill to fund the government through Feb 8, ending the three day “shutdown.” The bill passed in an 81-18 vote, surpassing the required 60 votes. Two Republicans voted against the measure. President Donald Trump signed it into law shortly after 9 p.m. local time, officially ending the shutdown.

Read our previous Raw Data on the shutdown, including information on what happens during a shutdown, here.

Additional sources: CNN, The New York Times.

Distortion Highlights

  • During the government shutdown, some lawmakers blamed the other side of the aisle.
  • In addition to reporting on the negotiations, much of the news coverage also sensationalized the blame.
  • This can perpetuate blame and distract from the efforts to reach an agreement.
  • It may entertain readers with drama, but doesn’t inform them with objective news.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Blame game

    Federal shutdown enters Day 2 amid blame game on both sides (AP)

  • Zigzagging stance

    Democrats were using his zigzagging stance in immigration talks — first encouraging deals, then rejecting them — to underscore his first, chaotic year in office. (AP)

  • Theatrics high

    Tempers were short and theatrics high. (Fox News)

  • Recriminations

    On Saturday, recriminations flew around over the Senate’s failure to pass a new budget and prevent the shutdown. (BBC)

  • Finger-pointing

    Senate leaders offered no obvious solution to reopening the government and engaged in unrelenting finger-pointing during a rare Sunday session in the hours leading up to a vote to end the shutdown before the workweek began. (AP)

    However, much of their efforts and political rhetoric was more about finger-pointing and trying to dodge blame. (Fox News)

  • Bristled

    Democrats bristled as Republicans put the blame largely on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, calling him “Shutdown Chuck.” (Fox News)

  • Barbs

    Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) exchanged barbs on the floor, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held a press conference surrounded by other women from the House to press back at GOP charges that Democrats are hurting the military. (The Hill)

  • Ripping

    Republicans say Democrats forced the shutdown and are ripping them for closing the government and keeping pay from the military, among other things. (The Hill)

I think the blame game is ridiculous on both sides. Republicans and Democrats … But when both sides do it, I think the American people see through it,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

This opinion — expressed by Sen. Paul on CNN and quoted by The Hill — suggests that blame isn’t helpful to lawmakers looking for a solution to the government shutdown. But in the articles we analyzed (published on the second day of the shutdown), it stands alone as the only voice questioning the validity of blame. Instead, outlets such as Fox News, The Hill and AP focused on the so-called “blame game,” hyping it with sensational language, focusing on lawmakers faulting each other, and leaving out specifics about the issues that were still being negotiated.

As a result, readers may get the impression that lawmakers were petty, incompetent, and focused on political gain instead of trying to resolve a matter affecting a lot of Americans. Although it may very well be the case that some of their behavior reflects pettiness, not everything happening in the Senate is due to this, and the outlets give little to no information about the issues being discussed and what it would take to reach an agreement.

In contrast, BBC’s article contains the least sensational language and the most specific information about areas of agreement and disagreement.

Let’s explore how three of the outlets feed into the blame.

Sensationalizing the fight

Some lawmakers have made sensational or defamatory comments, and media outlets add to the drama with sensational and subjective descriptions of their own. Here are some examples (with spin words marked in red):

Tempers were short and theatrics high.” (Fox News)

“Senate leaders offered no obvious solution to reopening the government and engaged in unrelenting finger-pointing…” (AP)

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) exchanged barbs on the floor…” (The Hill)

“As lawmakers bickered in the Capitol…” (AP, Fox News)

Given lawmakers’ comments, people might regard the negotiations as a fight, and lawmakers do seem to be blaming each other. Still, it isn’t neutral or objective to use the above descriptions — which include the outlets’ own subjective commentary, much like an editorial piece would.

Focus on finding fault

AP, Fox News and The Hill all include multiple quotes from lawmakers that blame the other party for the shutdown, often using disparaging language. For instance, The Hill quotes House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) saying Democrats “blew up the negotiations that were already underway,” and AP cites Senate Minority Leader Chuck (D-N.Y.) saying the shutdown is “a direct result of a president who has proven unwilling to compromise and is thus unable to govern.”

It’s a fact that these people said these things, and it might be important for the public to know, but citing these sorts of quotes alone is not enough to capture what’s going on. As mentioned above, some lawmakers said the “blame” wasn’t productive and were cooperating and negotiating in an attempt to reach a deal (which they did on Monday.) The news we looked at largely ignored this, and instead focused on fighting and blaming.

What’s missing?

Most of the outlets are short on specifics about the issues being negotiated and the areas of contention.

Take the Fox News article, for example. It has 26 paragraphs and 24 of them don’t have any information on what items are being negotiated. A few lines in, the outlet says, “Democrats refused to provide the votes until they strike a deal with President Trump to protect from deportation illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as young children by their parents.” It isn’t until the final paragraph that the reporter includes more information on the issue (DACA). That’s 24 paragraphs of just fighting and blaming.

In contrast, the BBC article contains the most prominent and specific information about the negotiations and areas of disagreement. Before including any quotes from politicians blaming each other, BBC outlines several areas of negotiations for the spending bill. (These include DACA, funding for a border wall, increased military spending, and an extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.)

The news was that there was a government shutdown. Wouldn’t it be more informative to know exactly why, rather than just focusing on the “bickering”?

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 27% Spun

  • 40% Spun

  • 55% Spun

  • 65% Spun


FOX News

“Tempers were short and theatrics high.”


FOX News

“Lawmakers bickered over blame, hypocrisy …”

Lawmakers said the other party was responsible, not their own.

Associated Press

“The looming vote will prove to be a test of unity among Democrats.”

At least nine Democratic senators would need to vote for a short-term spending bill to end the government shutdown.

Associated Press

“Senate leaders offered no obvious solution to reopening the government and engaged in unrelenting finger-pointing during a rare Sunday session …”

The Senate was in session Sunday. Leaders did not say a deal was imminent. They said the other party was responsible for the shutdown.

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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