In early April, the Obama administration and Congress reached a last-minute compromise that averted a government shutdown. The result? Visitors to Yellowstone could exhale and all those countdown tickers on TV and computer screens could take a breather.
Days later, talk shifted to the equally sticky topic of negotiations on the national debt. At a White House briefing, Office of Management and Budget chief Jack Lew lashed out:
“There isn’t anything else that — besides what the Secretary of the Treasury has shared with Congress — and everyone should know that it’s not like the government shutdown; it will be a very bad thing if all of the cable TV stations have countdown clocks to government default. The fact of anticipation would in it of itself undermine our position as an economic power. So nobody should be playing chicken with the debt.”
Did Lew’s appeal tilt the cablescape? Around lunchtime today, countdown tickers were absent from the major cable news purveyors — CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
CNN does display a countdown from time to time, particularly when a news report on the issue is airing. There’s no ticker on CNN.com, though, and no word on whether the TV presentation will go wall to wall as the polity edges closer to D-day. A CNN spokesperson says that Lew’s comments had no bearing on the outlet’s policies. An MSNBC source says that a countdown floats on air now and again.
Fox is blowing off the timer all together, a decision tethered not to Obama administration pleas but to news sensibilities. According to Jay Wallace, Fox VP of news, the cable network was early to the ticker game but has cooled on the presentation as it has become an Internet cliche.
So those who aren’t getting enough on cable can log on and watch the numbers tick away. Starting with the sexier outlets, the Bipartisan Policy Center has a user-friendly counter set against a banner of red. Why would an organization as reasonably titled as the Bipartisan Policy Center be fooling around with an artifice of vapid cable news? Here’s spokesperson Ashley Clark: “We created the clock . . . to draw attention to our Bipartisan Policy Center debt ceiling analysis. Since we found that 44% of the U.S. government’s bill would go unpaid if the federal government fails to raise the debt ceiling by August 2, we wanted to highlight both the urgency and the seriousness of the issue and draw attention to the deadline.”
Can’t beat that for responsible think-tanking.
“ABC World News With Diane Sawyer” is also strutting its Lewian independence, via a handsome ticker on its homepage. “We’re just looking for every way to explain this story to our viewers and that’s just one way,” says Jeffrey W. Schneider, senior VP of ABC News. When asked about Lew’s appeal, Schneider responds, “We’re just describing what’s going on, whereas the people involved in the negotiations can figure out ways to get it resolved.”
One logistical problem here: ABC puts the “Countdown to U.S. Debt Default” at six days and counting. The Bipartisan Policy Center, meanwhile, puts the “Countdown to the Debt Limit Deadline” at seven days and counting. That’s one of the pitfalls of this particular ticker situation — precisely what are we counting down to? The deadline? The first moment of debt default?
Government shutdown had a huge advantage over debt crisis when it comes to tickers. The moment the government shut down, there were going to be demonstrable repercussions. Empty Metro trains, closed National Park Service outposts, and the like. The default drama promises some Master of the Universe slumping in his chair. Not so demonstrable.
Even so, news organizations must implement tickers wherever possible. They add visual variety to a news drama towering on both the boredom and importance fronts. How many more photos of Boehner and Obama can we look at? Objections to the countdown, too, are pathetic. Lew’s protestations, for example, insult our shared sense of time: There’s no difference between reporting that the deadline is seven days away and putting up a ticker that says the same thing.
Besides, the public loves digital clocks. That’s why banks put them up. Henry Blodget, editor in chief of Business Insider, put a prominent, if impenetrable, countdowner on his Web site. No apologies from this guy: “Our elected representatives, who are directly responsible for the mess we’re in, are putting the faith-and-credit of the United States of America at risk to avoid compromising their particular political convictions. That’s outrageous. It’s a complete abdication of their responsibilities as leaders. The more Americans are reminded of that, the better.”