In every confrontation between the press and President Trump, there comes a time when media coverage becomes so aggressively bad that it turns into a parody of itself and “jumps the shark.” I knew that moment had arrived in reporting on the federal government’s partial closure when I opened my news-of-the-day app to find the headline, “How the shutdown will affect the Super Bowl.” Having once attended a Super Bowl during a period of genuine emergency—Super Bowl XXV, played in the first days of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991—I doubted that the furloughing of nonessential federal personnel could threaten the big game. Not surprisingly, much of the story consisted of Atlanta officials assuring the public that they didn’t anticipate any problems, followed by some conjecture about things that might go wrong, anyway.
I’ve been ignoring most such stories, because I’ve seen no evidence that the shutdown will affect me and my family. I’ve heard no friend, neighbor, or relative even mention it. Virtually everyone I know outside of my professional life seems to be going about their business. Still, I’ve taken a thorough look at press coverage over the past two weeks and found nearly 500 stories on how the closure is supposed to affect our lives. Most of the coverage goes beyond the plight of federal workers themselves, who are not getting paid, and who, if they’re living from paycheck to paycheck, are facing real duress. The press seems intent on convincing the rest of us that we’re at risk, too.
Throughout the shutdown, the press has been asking readers for stories about how the situation was disrupting their lives. “Everything from airport security to some food inspections to tax refund processing may be affected,” the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote recently, trying to stoke local concerns. “Is your passport delayed? Is your research grant funding halted? Are you a business providing assistance to Richmond-area federal government workers?” Call us, the paper asked. But is it a national emergency if reporters are begging readers for stories?
Democratic members of Congress are in on the act, too, looking to highlight cases of people acutely affected by the shutdown, but they’re usually finding more mundane examples. Florida Democrat Kathy Castor sent out a press release telling, among other stories, of a woman who prepares taxes and worries that she can’t get accurate information from the IRS during the shutdown. Leaving aside the IRS’s longstanding reputation for giving out incorrect information even when the government is fully operational, the story hardly amounted to a personal tragedy, though Castor tossed in the detail that the tax preparer cared for an autistic child.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference to discuss the humanitarian crisis facing New Yorkers because of the shutdown. “In my six years as Mayor, New York City has faced storms, attacks and political crises. During each of these crises, I told New Yorkers the truth: that we’d be okay,” said de Blasio. “On the 27th day of the Trump shutdown, I cannot promise we’ll be okay.” But the primary hardship cited by the mayor and his aides was that “many New York City food stamp recipients will see their February benefits released early rather than in the month of February.” Apparently, getting early benefits may confuse benefit recipients, who might think that the extra money in their accounts is a glitch, and spend it all quickly.
Many headlines stoking fear contradict the articles they introduce. A story in the Guardian, for instance, was pitched as a tale of the shocking impact that the shutdown would have on a small rural town. Though the paper tells us the town is “in the grip of a partial government shutdown,” readers find little evidence of it. “We really haven’t noticed anything,” City Manager Mike Deal confesses.
Stories that get too specific about what ordinary Americans are missing risk emphasizing how nonessential some federal government services are. For instance, a story in the Bangor Daily News noted that the Small Business Administration, which hands out government-subsidized loans to firms, won’t be making them during the shutdown. Still, the story notes, that’s not going to make much of a hit on the local economy, since the SBA has made just 2,687 loans in Maine since 2010, for an average of just 27 a month. The SBA dispenses more loans in bigger states, but the agency, which various presidents have struggled to reform or eliminate, has spent decades trying to prove its worth, with little success. If there’s an agency that might not be missed in the shutdown, the SBA is it.
Some of the stories are enough to make me wonder whether the press is trying to let us know that it’s in on the joke. What else could account for a story in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser entitled, “How the shutdown is affecting local breweries in Louisiana.” The problem, the owner of Bayou Teche Brewing explains, is that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is responsible for approving labels for new beers, and the agency’s not working right now. “With every government shutdown that’s happened since we opened, we’ve had a beer needing label approval,” said Karlos Knott of Bayou. “And that results in beer we’re just having to sit on.” Call out the National Guard, or FEMA!
The stories keep multiplying, though, even as Americans note that some of their biggest concerns, such as long airport-security lines, have failed to materialize. No sooner had I finished reading the Super Bowl shutdown story than I came across this headline on Vox: “Cardi B’s viral shutdown rant made some really good points.” If that isn’t jumping the shark, then I’ve never seen an episode of Happy Days.
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