Has the Press Lost Its Guts... Or Is It Just Being "Fair"?

This was a question I put to congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, co-authors of the book It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.

Both Ornstein and Mann, self-described independents, are well respected in their field and frequently sought out for their observations on politics and Congress. In their four decades watch-dogging D.C. politics, they've been critical to both sides of the political aisle, yet they have never been accused of being unfair. But the content of their latest book is so controversial that Ornstein, a good friend whom I have known since my days broadcasting political coverage for CBS News, told me the response from the press has been to look the other way.

The reason? Mann says it's because they write that much of the blame for the dysfunction in Congress lies squarely with the Republican Party. It's their view that the GOP is a party that has become "ideologically extreme," "scornful of compromise," "unpersuaded by conventional understandings of facts, evidence and science," and "dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." In short, they say, the GOP is an "insurgent outlier."

Sounds like fighting words to me, but somehow much of the traditional press doesn't seem to want any part of this showdown, despite the not-so-subtle Washington Post Outlook article penned by the authors, which went viral on line. They say the traditional media's defense has been to evade the appearance of being biased by simply ignoring them, and the topic.

They wrote the book because, they say, they couldn't ignore the actions of Republican extremists, which threatened to undermine democracy. One example they cite is in 2010 when a bipartisan resolution to create a deficit reduction task force, which would have forced the country to get debt and spending under control, was effectively killed in Congress. This was a resolution that was initially supported by Republican leaders like Senators John McCain and Mitch McConnell. Both sides agreed it would bring sweeping reform to the U.S.'s debt problem.

So what happened? Mann and Ornstein say it died simply because President Obama supported it. They say passing it would have given the president political clout, something the current GOP outright refuses to let happen. The result, a year and a half later, was a down-to-the-wire, "hostage-taking" debacle of the debt ceiling crisis which threatened to throw the country into default and shutdown the government.

Say what you want, but Mann and Ornstein believe Republicans were largely to blame. It's their view that the current GOP will happily put hyper-partisan ideologies ahead of the country's best interests. It was the debt crisis which led to the downgrading of U.S. debt by rating agency Standard and Poors. Scholars Mann and Ornstein believe that it's all part of a methodical plan that goes back to the late 1960s to move the GOP to the far-right extreme; a movement that since has gained momentum with the election of Barack Obama

Today, they say, instead of a Congress created by the people, for the people, we now have a GOP that is so adversarial that there is no room for compromise. This inability to negotiate makes it virtually impossible for new policies and laws to be created, which in turn frustrates many Americans, who ideologically fall in between the two political extremes. In the end, they say, it creates an anti-politician sentiment of "throw the bums out" and provides a toehold for non-politicians to be elected, who then become even more ineffective and obstructive than their predecessors.

The book also points the finger at the press. They ask: Where is the accountability? Corporate interests and mergers, something I have been increasingly concerned about, usurp reporting. They say, in order to appear objective and balanced, and to please the corporate bosses and sponsors, news operations are engulfed in attempting to appear unbiased. It's become a televised see-saw of sorts. One side pitted against the other, going up and down or back and forth, but not really telling the audience what's actually going on.

Theirs is just one of several books focusing on Congress that have come out in recent months. And as much as they want to sell their book, Mann and Ornstein say it's more about jump starting a serious conversation in this country about what they believe is really happening. But apparently giving airtime to well-respected scholars who have written about what they say is an extremist strategy to undermine the Constitution has less chance of happening than an elephant wearing skinny jeans. They claim that journalists of today are thin-skinned and succumb to pressure from the right, keeping them off TV because right-wing groups will come down on them like "a ton of bricks."

Maybe it really is even worse than it looks. Mann and Ornstein certainly didn't pull any punches, and they know people will either agree or disagree with their analysis of our dysfunctional government.

The shame is that is no one has the guts to have the conversation.

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