He probably prefers not to be identified, but I frequently quote a wise old friend and longtime colleague who pointed out that media “could only overcover one story at a time.” That doesn’t count a natural disaster. The Navy Yard shooting, the destructive Colorado flooding and New Jersey boardwalk fires have gotten the attention they deserve, but for a while, we had been All Syria, All the Time.
Now, from a news point of view, that crisis has been put on hold as the superpowers subject the brutality of the Assad regime’s nerve-gas attacks to the tedium of diplomacy. It is temporarily removed from the fickle firestorm of U.S. politics. But political gamesmanship has no shortage of flash points, so it’s on to the next all-consuming topic where we can engage in collective hand-wringing. Obviously, the violence at the Navy Yard moves front and center, but we also face that old standby, the game of chicken over the budget. Time is running out, so we must return to the familiar turf of Congress, where chaos is the natural order. We’re just days away from trying to avoid a government shutdown. No funding before Oct. 1, and all but the most essential federal functions come to a grinding halt.
This is less a battle between Democrats and Republicans than GOP leaders struggling against their tea-party fundamentalists. The Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid, ridicules them as “anarchists,” and while Reid’s rhetoric is often way over the top, he’s pretty close this time. There is a large element in the House GOP that loves gutting federal programs. Their favorite target is Obamacare, and they refuse to budge from a demand that the sweeping health reform be stopped its tracks by defunding it just as it’s about to go into full force. Unless the money plug is pulled, they insist, there will be no deal to keep the feds operating. And as for the impending calamity of a United States default on sovereign debt, we can forget about avoiding that unless they get to take their machetes to the budget. The White House says it won’t even bargain over raising borrowing authority, but unless somebody figures out some extraordinary accommodation, the nation’s “full faith and credit” will suffer a serious lack of faith in the financial world. So those of us with news ADD pretty much know where some of our focus must be for the next month or so.
Something to watch for, however, is the attempt by society’s malefactors to pull a sneaky fast one while there is such an emphasis on the story du jour. This is when legislative deals are worked out away from the spotlight that hand corporate interests another unfair tax break or subsidy. That’s just one example of what happens when the special interests sic their lobbyists to pounce while those who would normally stand in their way are distracted by other headlines. Of course, their other deceptive technique is to get their pliant senator or representative to sneak some goodies into whatever deal ultimately emerges from the budget crisis.
That is exactly what will be happening quietly in Washington amidst all the din of sound bites and pundit puffery. The incendiary situations in the Mideast are being shifted to the back burner for now. On the one hand, that’s a good thing, because cooler heads can try to work their magic without everyone looking over their shoulders. What’s bad about it, though, is they are no longer as accountable as they’ve been and surely will craft an unsatisfactory compromise. We already have moved on to other traumatic situations, and few people will care enough that Bashar al-Assad and his accomplices go unpunished for their use of ghastly chemical weapons. As a society, we all have ADD, so that story will then suffer from classic undercoverage.