A president lied about COVID-19 (the country and his), embraced white supremacists, and tried to overturn the results of an election he lost. Another president has encountered some obstacles in the way as he tries to persuade Congress to adopt his program. Can you guess which one received the most negative media coverage?
If you guessed President Joe Biden, then get off. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media was as harsh or harder from August to November of this year as that of then-President Donald Trump during the same four month period in 2020.
On some level, it’s inconceivable. On another, however, everything is too predictable. Large swathes of the media simply cannot or will not move beyond journalism on both sides, equating the hopelessly unhappy Democrats with a Republican party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression.
“My media colleagues serve as accomplices in the murder of democracy”, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote, who commissioned the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are caught in a blind neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between reality and fiction. It is time to take a stand.
As I have already written, and as many others have said, we are in the midst of a crisis of democracy. The Republican Party, already endowed with disproportionate powers due to the Constitution’s bias for small states and the systematic obstruction of the Senate (the latter, of course, could be abolished tomorrow), is working to strengthen its advantage by through partisan gerrymandering and the passage of voter suppression laws. The result could be the domination of the white minority for years to come.
The situation has deteriorated to the point that the European think tank International IDEA now considers the United States as a “retrograde democracy”. To quote from The IDEA report directly, “the United States, the bastion of world democracy, has itself been the victim of authoritarian tendencies, and has been overthrown by a significant number of democratic steps.”
And the media remain attached to their old tropes, covering political campaigns as if they were horse racing and treating the two big parties as equally legitimate actors with different points of view.
It’s a topic that was discussed at length recently on Ezra Klein’s podcast in The New York Times by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and guest host Nicole Hemmer, an academic who studies right-wing media. Their conversation defies the easy summary (the the whole episode can be found here), but essentially Rosen argued that the political press is falling back on its old ways because it’s just too hard to break out of them.
“Horse racing absorbs a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can take this abuse, because it’s such a problem-solving solution. He ticks so many other boxes that even when people know he’s sort of bankrupt, he stays on. As an alternative, Rosen suggests coverage based on a “citizen’s agenda”, which he wrote on on his blog, PressThink. But he admitted to Hemmer that we could lose our democracy before his ideas were adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.
What I find particularly frustrating is that the media has not ignored the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from there. For example, the Times on Sunday published a story on the front page by Nick Corasaniti on a slew of state-level measures to suppress the vote and put Trump’s followers in charge of the electoral machine.
“Democrats and voting rights groups say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially people of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other supporters in what had been a relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, raise fears that the elections could be plunged into chaos or even canceled. “
So why am I so frustrated? Because this kind of valuable corporate report is isolated from daily political coverage. We are regularly served stories about Republican leaders in Congress, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell, going about their business as if they were modern versions of the late Bob Dole, strongly partisan but ultimately dedicated to research. compromise and govern. In fact, whether out of cowardice or conviction, they allow our slide towards authoritarianism by undermining the investigation into the January 6 insurgency as well as by not denouncing Trump and the abuses of their worst members.
Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan endorsed the idea of a “Beat democracy”, who would take a close look at attempts to subvert voting rights. Sullivan would go further than that too. “The Rhythm of Democracy shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread overhaul of mainstream media,” permeating all aspects of political and government coverage.
If Trump runs again, he could very well end up being installed as president even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Who would stop him? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there were still enough republican and local officials with integrity who refused to accept Trump’s demands to quash the results. This is unlikely to be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not distant. People who have the motivation to make it make the means. If the opportunity arises, they will act. They are already taking action.
Meanwhile, the media is covering President Biden and his plight as if our politics haven’t changed in the past 40 years. Of course, Biden has to be held responsible. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, the confusing messages from the White House on COVID and its inability to make sense. Walking Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema all deserve a hard cover. (But not inflation because, please, do not be stupid.) But it must be done in such a way as not to lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are in real danger of losing our country.
Like Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put on Twitter, “The problem is, the media fail to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!). “
The problem is, the media fail to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).
In other words, the fundamental problem is not the Biden coverage (however imperfect); this is the Trump cover. https://t.co/Qw7Z1ntfZC
– Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) December 4, 2021
Five years ago, Thomas Patterson of Harvard Kennedy School released a report showing that Trump and Hillary Clinton cover during the 2016 general election campaign had been equally negative – a conclusion he found troubling. Patterson wrote that “blind criticism blurs important distinctions. Were the allegations about Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those about Trump? That’s a question reporters made no serious effort to answer in the 2016 campaign. They pointed out all the ugly things they could find and left it up to voters to decide what to do with them. “
Well, here we go again. Next time around, however, the future of democracy may be at stake.
The blog of GBH News contributor Dan Kennedy, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.