October 20, 2018

Don’t count on it

Please don’t run a countdown clock on the debt ceiling. 

For weeks, that’s what Jack Lew, the Obama Administration’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, has been urging the television networks not to do.

You know the kind of clock he means.  It’s what we saw on the cable news channels in April as the absence of a deal on the federal budget raised the prospect of a government shutdown.  To boost ratings, few things beat whipping up a little Perils of Pauline suspense about whether the Washington Monument will be shuttered and Social Security checks will stop.  In 18 hours and 42 minutes, it could be cat food for Granny.  Stay tuned!

Sometimes the clock starts after the event.  “This is the 143d day of the Iranian hostage crisis,” the network anchors said, flipping the pages of the nightly humiliation calendar during the last 444 days of the Carter Administration.  Keith Olbermann did something similar with the number of days since “Mission Accomplished” was declared in the Iraq war.

Does it matter?  In the Carter case, it may well have cemented his 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan.  (Double-digit inflation and gas rationing also didn’t help.)  In the recent wrangling over the budget, the looming deadline mattered, but it’s hard to believe that the deal the negotiators reached was actually affected by the Nielsens stunt.

This time, though, it’s different.  That’s Jack Lew’s point, which has also been made by Democrats like Obama economic advisor ” target=”_blank”>Steny Hoyer (D.-Md.), and by liberal columnists like ” target=”_blank”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@usc.edu.