This Thursday, Nov. 5, marked a milestone in the Biden Presidency. Just days after the Tuesday general election where Democrats lost a vital seat in Virginia’s Governor’s Mansion and found themselves in closer races than they had expected in New Jersey, the House of Representatives passed one of Biden’s landmark legislative goals – the bipartisan infrastructure bill. While Democrats initially intended to package the infrastructure commitments with a much larger social spending bill, negotiations between moderates and progressives fractured their fragile coalition. A proposed vote on the bill was delayed as it awaited a Congressional Budget Office score, at the behest of House moderates.
The final version of the infrastructure bill – which passed with a price tag of over 1.2 trillion dollars and at a little over 2,700 pages – includes so many provisions that summarizing them in a single article is nearly impossible. In brief, the bill invests $500 billion over 10 years in our nation’s most distressed infrastructure, and lays out plans for more than $600 billion in road and bridge improvements appropriated from prior budgets. An additional $100 billion supports new investment in roads and bridges, prioritizing public transportation through historic aid to passenger and freight rail systems. Furthermore, the bill supports expanding access to broadband internet in rural areas, updating the electric grid to improve resiliency and reducing reliance on nonrenewable energy.
These provisions are critical steps that critical to remedying our aging and historically underfunded infrastructure. For decades, American roads and bridges have deteriorated under funding schedules insufficient to complete much-needed repairs. Earlier this year, the report card for America’s Infrastructure, an organization funded by transportation companies across the country, gave the United States a C- in large part because of the poor conditions of public roadways. As former president Donald Trump famously said, “We used to have the greatest infrastructure anywhere in the world, and today we’re like a third-world country […] literally like a third-world country.”
Of course, though, Trump ultimately failed to improve the condition of American infrastructure during his time in office. In fact, “infrastructure week” (the Administration’s clever title to sell a potential bill to members of Congress) became a running gag during the Administration as members of the White House negotiation team were repeatedly frustrated by disagreements over nearly every aspect of the bill including its size, priorities and funding.
However, despite all the crucial measures newly taken in the bill, set to be signed into law during a ceremony on Monday, most Americans know very little about what the bill will actually do. According to an ABC News/Ipsos poll issued in late October, “although a majority (55 percent) of the public is following news about the negotiations at least somewhat closely, about seven in 10 (69 percent) Americans said they know just some or little to nothing about what’s in both bills.” Unfortunately for our democracy, media outlets have done little to change this reality. While news coverage about the bills has been at a near-constant hum throughout the summer and fall, very few people know what’s in the bills, indicating that the horse race of negotiations has quite literally overtaken their substance.
While media coverage has focused on the opinions of moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, as well as progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Pramila Jayapal of Washington, very little attention has been paid to the actual components of the bills that will impact people’s lives. CNN’s “horse-race” framing made up 91 percent of coverage of the social spending package currently under negotiation, according to a survey of news segments (Levine-Drizin and Johnson, 2021) for Substack blog The Column. This data reveals a frightening yet unsurprising fact of our media landscape: detail-oriented analysis of the potential real-life impacts of a proposed bill has taken a back seat to the sports-like coverage seen throughout our media. This characterization is no hyperbole. In fact, CNN president Jeff Zucker himself said in a 2017 interview, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.”
While some blame the communications arm of the Democratic Party for failing to relay the most important aspects of the bills, the news media also failed to live up to their responsibilities in educating and informing the public. In a press release from Oct. 15, Senator Bernie Sanders aptly noted that “the mainstream media has done an exceptionally poor job in covering what actually is in the legislation.” Explaining that “there have been endless stories about the politics of passing Build Back Better, the role of the president, the conflicts in the House and the Senate, the opposition of two senators, the size of the bill, etc.” the senator denounced the “limited coverage as to what the provisions of the bill are and the crises for working people that they address.”
Fortunately for the infrastructure bill that passed earlier this week, coverage has begun to change – far too late, however, to change the minds of those that voted against it. In the days following the 228-206 vote, many articles and news segments have been dedicated to revealing the contents of the bill in clear, understandable terms. This method might work for the infrastructure bill – which received support on both sides of the aisle – but for the rest of Biden’s Build Back Better Plan (including the social spending bill), such treatment in the media might make it dead on arrival in a Senate where it will already be fighting an uphill battle.
This is an abject failure of our media, but not one utterly beyond correcting. We must demand that our media outlets review the contents of the social package immediately and inform the public of its priorities, funding and real-life stakes, not just its top-line price or how Senators Manchin and Sinema are feeling about the bill that day. We must support media companies that are truly dedicated to defending and circulating the truth. Crucially, while we wait for coverage to become informative, we must encourage one another to learn about the contents of these bills and pull ourselves away from the incessant scoreboard that has captured our politics.