Slow news day? Rehash old news about Congress and add some spin.
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Slow news day? Rehash old news about Congress and add some spin.

August 4, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US Congress on recess until September

The U.S. Congress recessed for the summer on Thursday. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives will reopen on September 5, after Labor Day. The Senate is scheduled to hold some pro-forma sessions in August and early September, The Washington Post reported.

During the past legislative session, Congress approved, among other measures:

  • A bill sanctioning Russia, Iran and North Korea. The Senate passed it by a 98-2 vote, and President Trump signed it into law on Wednesday.
  • The confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as new Supreme Court Justice.
  • A bill to fund the Food and Drug Administration, passed by the Senate on Thursday.
  • Two separate pieces of legislation to prevent the dismissal of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is in charge of the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
  • A bill to help military veterans get healthcare.
  • Approval of more than 60 nominees for the State Department, the Treasury Department and other agencies in Trump’s administration.
  • The Senate set up a “system” on Thursday to prevent the president from appointing senior officials that require congressional approval while Congress is on recess, according to The New York Times.
  • The overturning of 14 rules adopted in the last days of former President Obama’s term. This was done by using the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to vote to repeal any bill adopted within the last 60 days Congress was in session (as opposed to normal calendar days).

This term, Congress did not pass legislation to repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act (known as “Obamacare”), after some bills were proposed in the House and the Senate. Most recently, the Senate voted against the Health Care Freedom Act in a 51–49 vote on July 28.

Distortion Highlights

  • The news is that lawmakers began summer recess, but media outlets use the event as a springboard for a broad, dramatic story about Congress and Trump.
  • There’s spin and opinion disparaging Congress and Trump, yet not much specific data to back up the criticism.
  • This may provide good entertainment, but it doesn’t do much to inform the public about the political situation.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

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

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

Read between the lines. Learn how news outlets distort the information.

Top Spin Words

  • Misery monsoon

    But within the misery monsoon that has befallen Congress this year lies some potential silver linings. (The New York Times)

  • Bitterly blamed

    Republicans have bitterly blamed Democrats’ foot-dragging on nominees for many of their problems, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky heralded Thursday’s actions as “an important step towards filling critical roles throughout the administration.” (AP)

  • Loophole-choked

    The White House and congressional Republicans are also promising action early this fall to change the loophole-choked tax code and lower rates for both corporations and individuals. (AP)

  • Dysfunctional

    It has also engendered some pity from those who see Congress as hamstrung by a dysfunctional White House.  (The New York Times)

  • Spectacular implosion

    The GOP delivered an unstated declaration of independence from their own Republican president by passing a Russia sanctions bill he resisted, rebuffing his demands they try again on health care after the spectacular implosion of Obamacare repeal, even taking steps to head off any attempt by Trump to fire the special counsel investigating him, Robert Mueller. (Politico)

  • Ostentatiously

    But Congress has had to settle largely for small-bore victories since President Trump was sworn into office, ostentatiously failing to pass a bill to repeal his predecessor’s health care law and achieving little substantive policy legislation. (The New York Times)

  • Swept into power

    By their own accounts, Republicans have failed to enact the ambitious agenda they embarked upon when Trump and the GOP majorities swept into power in January. (The Washington Post)

  • Sniped

    Lamenting poor relations with Russia, Trump sniped over Twitter on Thursday, “You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!” (AP)

  • Loom

    A worsening relationship between President Trump and congressional Republicans threatens to create new roadblocks in September, when a looming funding crisis could shut down the government. (The Washington Post)

    A fight on that looms this fall or winter, along with the threat of a government shutdown if Trump presses for money for his border wall that Democrats are certain to reject. (AP)

    Without measures to fund the government, a shutdown threat, which has become a feature as endemic to Washington as the annual cherry blossom run, will loom.  (The New York Times)

What’s the news here? Congress let out for a month-long recess. That’s about it, and as news goes, the start of summer recess isn’t very noteworthy—it’s scheduled in advance. So if the media stuck to reporting the data, it would be a short story. Or, this could be an opportunity to give an informative review of the major highlights of the session so far.

The outlets we looked at didn’t do either. Instead, they used the event as a springboard for a broad, dramatic story about Congress, the Republican Party, and President Trump’s White House, portraying them as inept, dysfunctional and at each other’s throats. A lot of spin and opinion, and few facts.

For comparison, consider that The Washington Post’s article is 1,385 words while our Raw Data above is just 298 words. That’s the difference between sensationalism and reporting the facts.

How do they write the sensational version? Let’s explore:

Focus on Fighting: The outlets pit Congress against the White House, using spin words and opinions to portray them at odds with each other. AP says there are “simmering tensions” between Republican lawmakers and the White House. Politico says Republicans “square[d] off against Trump,” “boxing [him] in,” and had “delivered an unstated declaration of independence from their own Republican president” by voting for a bill he didn’t support.

There’s certainly information to suggest that the president and Congress have not agreed on certain topics. For instance, as the outlets report, the Senate passed a sanctions bill that Trump had called “seriously flawed.” But it’s different to use opinion to frame disagreement as dramatic fighting and “tension,” than to give concrete examples of what disagreements exist (and to point out what agreements they’ve had, too).

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

  • 80% Spun

  • 82% Spun

  • 83% Spun

  • 90% Spun

That leads to the next point…

Telling, not showing: Not only do the outlets focus on apparent conflict, they suggest that Congress hasn’t been able to do much over the last six months, and that it’s a big problem. It may be true that they’ve passed fewer significant bills than in previous sessions. But the issue is that the articles just tell us this (using spin and opinion), and don’t provide much data to back it up.

For instance, The New York Times says lawmakers were “hamstrung by a dysfunctional White House,” and that a “misery monsoon” has “befallen Congress” as a result. What exactly a “misery monsoon” might be, the Times doesn’t say. Politico also calls the period “typically the most prolific stretch of a new administration,” calling Trump’s agenda “stalled.” Sounds like a pretty big failure, right? Perhaps, but the outlet doesn’t tell us how it’s measuring the failure.

But shouldn’t the public know that Congress hasn’t passed important legislation?

Yes, the public should be informed about what elected officials are doing…or not doing. The news media plays a vital role in communicating this and holding politicians accountable.

The problem isn’t that the news does this, but how. In other words, we’d have a more informed and empowered public if the news provided specific information about what has been done and what hasn’t, in comparison to other administrations, rather than suggesting this through vague and dramatic spin. For instance, saying there are no “major” accomplishments, or that Congress is in “misery,” is not precise information.

The Washington Post is the only outlet we analyzed to provide any historical data for comparison. About halfway through its article, the paper gives two examples of what other administrations had done before the first August recess: Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress enacted a stimulus package and confirmed a Supreme Court justice, and during George W. Bush’s first term lawmakers passed the “No Child Left Behind” education policy as well as legislation to reduce taxes by $1.35 trillion. The current Republican Congress under Trump has also appointed a Supreme Court justice, and passed some legislation, so we would need more comprehensive data to compare the current Congress to previous ones.

Although quantity isn’t necessarily quality, so far the majority-Republican Congress has passed 43 bills this year. In comparison, the first six months Obama was in office, the majority-Democrat Congress passed 42 measures. During George W. Bush’s first six months, Republicans did not have a majority in Congress and passed 25 bills. After Republicans got the majority in 2003, they passed 68 bills in about six months. (Check out the Context section below for more.)

So why is the sensational version a problem?

In a sense, the spun reporting turns politics into entertainment — it’s a form of intrigue that readers can get riled up over or shake their heads at. Some might judge the administration or lawmakers for their performance, and others might want to take a side and blame. So, the focus on fighting, division and drama could encourage more fighting, division and drama. This may sell papers, get clicks and increase TV ratings, but is it how we’re going to most effectively move forward and find solutions to the nation’s problems? Probably not.

Fiction
or
Fact

Associated Press

“Yet what lawmakers left undone promises to make for an ugly September on Capitol Hill.”

Lawmakers will return to Capitol Hill in September.

The New York Times

“As Republicans head to their respective states and congressional districts for recess, their lack of accomplishments hangs around their collective necks.”

Congress went on recess Thursday. They will return to Washington on September 5.

Politico

“Senate Republicans spent their last week before a four-week August recess on a series of moves with one main goal: Reining in Donald Trump.”

The Senate broke for a four-week August recess.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts included in all sources

The president has fallen short of the legislative pace his two predecessors set in their first six months on the job. (The Washington Post)


The Washington Post doesn’t clarify how it came to this determination, but if by “legislative pace” it means number of legislative actions, then Trump is ahead of his previous two predecessors, not “falling short.” As of August 4, Trump has signed 43 bills into law. For the same time period, Obama signed 42 bills into law and George W. Bush signed 25 bills into law. The paper refers in its next sentence to the “lack of a signature accomplishment,” but it doesn’t specify how that relates to the “pace.”

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Doesn’t say: How much was done or not? What “tensions” are?

While this headline does include the fact that Congress is now in recess, it also adds opinion and the vague notion of unfinished business and conflict. Facts can help readers understand what is going on; vagueness probably won’t.

Implies: Republicans haven’t gotten “enough” wins. In the context of the article, presumably “wins” mean passing “substantive” bills. This could imply Republicans haven’t yet passed important legislation. This may be true, but if it is, the paper isn’t stating it with data.

Doesn’t say: What the news is.

This headline doesn’t tell us that Congress has recessed, or describe any of the legislation adopted on the last day in session. Instead it gives vague suggestions of conflict, which could draw focus away from what Congress achieved in this session, or the specifics of what it didn’t.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Despite controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, the Republicans have had an unproductive year by not passing a healthcare reform bill or any other “big-ticket” items on their proposed agenda. This reflects poorly on them.
  • The rift between President Trump and Congress is widening, and it’s a big, “tense” drama… (Just check out Trump’s Twitter account!)
  • Politico suggests that Congress “squaring off” with Trump is much needed, as Trump needs to be “reined in”. The conflict could lead to better solutions, and the restoration of a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • Unproductive is relative. Senator Bob Corker presented a different perspective, saying, “there is more good happening here than people know about.” Congress did approve legislation including a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia, as well as passing a law focused on healthcare for veterans with bipartisan support.
  • The three branches of government exist as a system of checks and balances, designed to prevent any one of them from gaining too much power — so, disagreements among them aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Trump’s way of criticizing may be new, but historically, the branches of government haven’t agreed with each other on everything.
  • Trump may be controversial, but saying that Congress’ “main goal” is “reining in Donald Trump” could be disparaging towards the president and misrepresent the purpose of Congress, which is to legislate. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) argues that “our first challenge is to define those principles upon which our party is based, and then pursue legislation consistent with those principles.”

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

Below is a table of the number of bills that Congress passed in about the first six months after each president’s party gained a majority.

President

Number of bills passed in about six months with a majority

Donald Trump

43

Barack Obama

42

George W. Bush

68

Bill Clinton

63

Jimmy Carter

96


The table shows bills signed into law during the first six months of each president’s first term in office, in cases where the president’s party held majorities in both chambers of Congress. For Carter, Obama and Trump, their first terms in office coincided with having a majority in both the Senate and the House. George W. Bush did not have a full majority until 2003, and then Republicans held a majority until the end of 2005. Bill Clinton’s party had a full majority in 1993 and 1994. Jimmy Carter’s party held a majority for his entire presidency (95th and 96th Congress).

Note also that not all bills are equal in significance. They can amend or repeal existing laws, create brand new legislation, or be more administrative gestures—such as renaming federal buildings.