The “this is fine” bias in cable news

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When staying calm becomes misleading.

There’s a norm in American political journalism that requires journalists to generally be unfazed by the political disputes they cover — the job of a journalist is to remain neutral and unemotional in the face of America’s political screaming matches. That norm stems from a desire to have journalists remain objective, even during heated political disputes. And it’s produced a kind of detached, even-keeled form of news speak — think of the way Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, and Lester Holt deliver the news.

That tone might be appropriate in normal political disputes, but in the Trump era, it’s made news coverage feel totally inadequate. Many of the news stories of the past few months haven’t been normal; they’ve represented significant breakdowns in democratic norms.

Take the recent Senate health care vote, for example. Senate Republicans voted to consider a wildly unpopular health care bill without knowing what was in it, tried to pass it in the dead of night without holding any committee hearings about the bill, and made House Speaker Paul Ryan promise not to pass the Senate’s version, knowing it would be a disaster if it became law. That represents a major upending of the democratic process, but news anchors on TV treated it like just another typical heath care vote, rattling off vote counts and gawking at the “drama” on Capitol Hill.

That kind of coverage represents a “normalcy bias” — an inability to recognize or even convey when something has truly gone wrong in the political process. And in the Trump era, that bias is warping our understanding of the dangers lurking in our politics.

Watch the video above to see how “normalcy bias” shapes the way news networks talk about political crises.