As the Republicans’ debt ceiling hostage standoff began in earnest earlier this year, The New York Times published a tweet that read, “Increasing the U.S. debt ceiling has increasingly been used as a political tool by both parties, leading to intense showdowns in 2011, 2013 and, now, 2023.”
This was, of course, profoundly wrong, as the Times soon after acknowledged. But it reflected an unfortunate tendency across much of the media to see events through a “both sides” lens: To accurately hold Republicans accountable for their own misconduct might give the appearance of “bias,” the argument goes, so reality has to be tweaked in order to blame Democrats, too, whether that reflects reality or not.
It’s a common point of concern among media critics, but we’re occasionally reminded that news organizations aren’t the only ones capable of making the mistake.
Take Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, for example.
The Arizona independent has been eagerly taking a “both sides” approach to nearly everything lately. Asked, for example, about whether she has considered becoming a Republican, the former Democrat replied, “You don’t go from one broken party to another.”
Asked about election denialism — an unhealthy scourge limited to the contemporary GOP — Sinema also argued, reality be damned, that “unfortunately, what’s happening in our public discourse is members of both political parties are twisting stories to create their own narratives.”
And when Margaret Brennan, host of CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” asked Sinema about the debt ceiling, the Arizonan stuck to the same tiresome framing.
Sinema addressed the lack of willingness in Congress to negotiate across the aisle again when asked about the standoff over the debt ceiling. “Both parties are talking without listening to each other,” Sinema said. “We’re in a situation where one party is saying they will not negotiate at all with the other party. I think that’s a very dangerous place to be because one, it’s not realistic. And two, that is just not going to happen.”
Note, the senator didn’t appear eager to criticize Republicans for their hostage crisis or their willingness to threaten Americans with deliberate harm. Rather, she implicitly slammed President Joe Biden and her Democratic colleagues for their reluctance to negotiate with those threatening Americans with deliberate harm — apparently indifferent to the sensible rationale behind their position.
Sinema also badly misstated the basic details: Democratic leaders have never said “they will not negotiate at all with the other party.” We know that’s false, because Biden and his party have already struck an impressive number of bipartisan deals with Republicans over the past couple of years. The president has also repeatedly opened the door to budget talks with his political opponents.
What Democrats have actually said is that they won’t negotiate with the GOP over the debt ceiling — a position that makes a lot of sense.
But apparently not to Sinema.
When news organizations get lazy about “both sides” thinking, it’s generally part of an effort to overcompensate in response to conservatives’ complaints. For Arizona’s senior senator, the motivations are entirely different: Sinema is an independent who’s hoping to connect with voters who don’t like either party. That’s an understandable political tactic, given the fact that both parties suffer from weak favorability ratings.
But the problem with Sinema’s strategy isn’t that it’s incoherent, it’s that she’s pitching claims that fall apart under scrutiny. The idea that “both political parties” deserve criticism about election denialism is absurd. The idea that “both parties” are to blame for the Republicans’ debt ceiling crisis is even more ridiculous.
I don’t care if the senator, looking ahead to a likely re-election campaign next year, is eyeing a triangulation strategy. I care about whether those tactics are rooted in facts. Sinema’s claims are not.