A Rant against Legislative Coverage in the Mainstream Media

One thing I don’t like above all else in how mainstream media covers the legislative process is the fact that almost no one ever mentions the bill number of the legislation being covered. For example, all the major newspapers and websites talk about things like S-CHIP, the FISA bill, the farm bill, and all these other important bills, but they almost never give you the bill number.

Why is the bill number important? Because once you know the bill number, you can go to THOMAS, the official website of Congressional records, and look up the bill yourself. Once you have the bill number, you can pretty much find out everything you need to know about the bill: its text, its various textual changes as it goes through the legislative process, what amendments are introduced and who introduced them, hearings held on the bill and witnesses testimonies, floor speeches given by members of Congress in committee and in front of the whole Congress, how members voted on amendments and on the final bill, and where the bill is at in the legislative process.

None of this is a suggestion that we no longer need coverage from the media, because to the untrained eye, THOMAS records are a mess. The job of the journalists covering a bill is to contextualize these disparate information into a coherent, sensible whole. Thus, a good journalist will go through the list of amendments proposed, and explain to the reader why certain amendments are offered, who offered them and why, why certain amendments are rejected and others accepted, why the bill is in a particular sub-committee but not another. A good journalist will make sense of this information for the reader, to the best of his ability and in good faith.

BUT, and this is a big BUT, it is also the journalist’s job to allow his readers to make up their own goddamn minds! So give us the fucking bill number, so we can look it up for ourselves! Sure, not everyone knows how to read THOMAS records, and not everyone has the time either, but dammit, give us the bill numbers so those of us who are interested can do it ourselves!

If the journalists are afraid that if they give away the bill numbers, the readers will no longer need their services, they need to stop worrying, because most people will not be able to make sense of THOMAS without some kind of assistance. The journalist, if he is a good one, provides invaluable service by contextualizing the raw data. But they also treat those of us readers who are interested in judging the data ourselves as idiots, incapable of our independent thoughts.

Just to give you some examples. When the media talks about the threat of a veto on the farm bill, do you know specifically which bill they are talking about? (answer: H.R. 2419) Or when the media covers S-CHIP, do you know what specific bill they are talking about? (this is a trick question, because the Democrats have tried to incorporate S-CHIP in about a million other bills in order to try to pass it). Or what about FISA? (answer: H.R. 3773)

Unless you are already very familiar with the legislative process, you probably couldn’t answer those questions. Sure, you might know about the veto threat facing the farm bill, but with THOMAS, you can research the bill to your heart’s content. Again, I don’t want to deny the role of journalists and the value they provide, but surely giving out the bill number is not really a threat to the journalism business. If part of the journalist’s job is to enable citizens to be more active and more informed participants in the political process, surely this entails giving the citizens the information they need to research things for themselves.

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