From Senator Manchin to Mr. Potato Head: a quick tour of post-Trump TV

Yesterday, Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat and Santa Claus of bipartisan bromides, made his media rounds, appearing on four of the major Sunday shows (one short of a full Ginsburg). Manchin’s ubiquity was understandable—his is a crucial vote in the evenly-split Senate, and he had just been at the heart of the action as President Biden’s $1.9-trillion stimulus package made its way through the chamber, stalling the bill to ensure that its unemployment-payout provisions would be smaller and shorter-term than Democratic leaders had proposed—and he faced some questions that one might even describe as tough. (“Why were you fighting for less help for citizens during this cruel economic time?” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked; “You are on four Sunday shows today,” Chris Wallace noted, on Fox, “are you enjoying your position of power maybe a little too much?”) Mostly, though, the questions covered traditional Sunday-show fodder—legislative sausage-making, procedure, and, yes, bipartisanship—and dwelled less on the particulars of the bill, despite their historic significance for low-income people. On Meet the Press, the words “bipartisan” or “bipartisanship” were spoken eleven times. The word “poverty” was spoken twice, neither time in the context of the stimulus.

As a self-described adherent of the “moderate middle,” Manchin sits sweetly at the Sunday shows’ traditional center of gravity; as Jason Zengerle put it in a recent article for the New York Times Magazine, the shows have “cast themselves as facilitators of a point-counterpoint format,” questioning leading proponents of either side of a given issue with equal critical rigor, or lack thereof. As Zengerle noted, this approach is untenable in an age when the “counterpoint” in question is often election denialism or some other form of conspiracy, yet the format won’t die. In recent weeks, the Sunday shows have collectively platformed various Republicans who, to varying extents, indulged the fantasy that Trump actually won in November, and have often allowed them to dodge scrutiny for that stance; when they have been asked about it, the questions have usually not been aggressive enough. (Yesterday, Tapper asked Tate Reeves, the governor of Mississippi, whether Biden is the “legitimate, lawfully elected president.” Reeves refused to give a straight answer, instead spreading smears about mail-in voting; he did eventually call Biden “duly” elected, which Tapper accepted as an answer.) As the New Republic’s Alex Shephard wrote recently, “the Sunday shows are not designed to inform or educate,” but to “broadcast what Democrats and Republicans care about at that moment.” Not that all Democrats are always included in this equation. Prominent progressives, including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will pop up from time to time, but yesterday, no representative of their wing of the party appeared at all—either to defend the highly-progressive credentials of the stimulus package, or to criticize its Manchin-enforced reductions in scope.

ICYMI: How to cover vaccine hesitancy

This reflects media trends that are both broader than the Sunday shows and longer-term than recent times: the disproportionate representation of conservative and moderate voices compared to left-wing ones, and a focus on bipartisanship that privileges the midpoint between the parties and, usually, pushes the onus of compromise toward that point. The latter problem, however, has recurred with particular frequency since Trump left office and Biden took power, and has been especially acute on TV—reflecting, in large part, the wider impulse to reassert the media totems of civility, unity, and normality. Not that the Trump story has gone away, of course: he remains a TV obsession, to varying degrees depending on the show. The fallout from the Trump-inspired insurrection has remained a big story on MSNBC and CNN, in particular, and rightly so—but coverage has sometimes felt siloed, a story more of one traumatic day than of a whole-system jolt to American politics. Indeed, the further out we get from the Trump presidency, the more atomized the TV news agenda feels. This is, in many ways, a good thing: the binding glue of Trump’s outrage du jour made us all high. But it also reflects a feeling of unmooredness—like we haven’t yet collectively worked out the most productive ways to use our freer attention spans. Old habits, like unity chatter, die hard; imagining new modes of coverage is harder work.

Every jour, of course, still brings focused outrage on the right, whose TV representatives have leaned hard, as predicted, into furious anti-Democrat propaganda. Recently, this has entailed an obsessive focus on the supposed liberal “canceling” of beloved cultural touchstones including the Muppets, Mr. (yep, still Mr.) Potato Head, and Dr. Seuss, whose work has been so canceled that it flooded the best-seller charts last week. Matt Gertz, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, counted well over a hundred mentions of the latter non-controversy on Fox News last Tuesday; his colleagues calculated that Fox gave Dr. Seuss over an hour of airtime that day, dwarfing its coverage of important coronavirus vaccine news and FBI Director Christopher Wray’s Congressional testimony about the insurrection. On Thursday, Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of Fox Corp., appeared at an investor conference and said explicitly that it is the network’s job to be the “loyal opposition” to Biden, and to “represent” Trump voters. This opposition has spanned a range of topics, including the stimulus—although, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted yesterday, the latter has hardly been a big story on the right. In 2021, he wrote, “it’s all about the culture wars. Gone are the days of the Tea Party-era in which spending was a top priority for conservative media.” (This might have something to do with the fact that the stimulus enjoys widespread support in the country—a definition of bipartisanship that fact-based outlets have gradually started to recognize, even if bipartisanship on the Hill still matters to them more.)

Anchors on MSNBC and CNN have at times called out their rivals on the right: last week, CNN’s Brianna Keilar assailed Fox’s Tucker Carlson for feeding his audience “partisan junk food” (itself a Tuckerism). She was right—but the right-wing grievance carnival is perhaps not as far removed from more sober TV coverage as we might think. The denizens of the latter world are still allowing the denizens of the former to launder their lies on their turf. And both worlds turn, to varying degrees, on the notion that politics is a game—a framework that does viewers a disservice regardless of whether the players are children’s characters or full grownups. As Shephard wrote recently, the Sunday shows, in particular, are “a relic from an earlier, more consensus-driven era,” that were “designed to highlight respectful political difference and to provide a place where both sides could come together and spin the public.” Trump’s absence from the White House is an opportunity to do things differently—opening up room to discuss and fully debate the finer details of the nation’s needs and politicians’ policy responses, starting with the stimulus. There is such a thing as bipartisan junk food.

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Below, more on the stimulus, the White House, and TV:

  • What’s in the bill: Yesterday, on Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, asked his colleague Darcy and Sarah Ellison, of the Washington Post, whether news outlets have done enough to inform Americans about the actual contents of the stimulus bill. “The coverage has been mostly, at this point, what’s had to drop out of the bill to get it passed,” Ellison said. “You haven’t really seen any intensive coverage on what’s really in it… I think most reporters hardly know what’s in it themselves.”
  • What Biden is watching: In a broader piece on Biden’s presidential style and routine so far, Bloomberg’s Jennifer Epstein touched on his media diet. Biden “starts his days with an early morning workout in the gym of the White House residence, watching MSNBC or CNN, and ends them at a reasonable hour often with a bowl of Breyers chocolate chip ice cream,” Epstein writes. “He doesn’t read Twitter unless someone shows him a tweet, and the posts at his own accounts are written by other people and almost never make news.”
  • What the public is watching: Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild report, for Axios, that news consumers appear to be losing interest in politics coverage, in general, and the presidency, in particular. “Nearly every big news site saw its traffic decline in February, compared to a tumultuous January that included the Capitol insurrection and Biden’s inauguration,” they write. There’s a supply-side decrease, too: “There were three times as many stories written about Trump in February of 2017 than about Biden last month, according to data from NewsWhip,” and Biden was discussed on cable news far less last month than Trump was in his first February in office.
  • The Manchin candidate: Writing for The Atlantic, Christopher J. Regan, who worked with Manchin as vice chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party, argues that reporters misunderstand how Manchin makes decisions. “The media are looking for clues in his every action as to what he thinks and how he’ll vote. But these analyses miss what drives Manchin,” Regan writes. Manchin is driven by neither ideology nor by the prospect of pork for his state, Regan says, but by a “keen sense of what issues and bills are popular at any given moment and of how he can be seen as being on the right side of those issues for the electorate—no matter which party is in favor of them.”


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: On being part of the story

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.