Platforming disinformation in the name of “balance”
During Donald Trump’s presidency, Chuck Todd, the host of Meet the Press, invited on Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, and allowed him to spout a conspiracy theory about the origins of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Two years later, Todd invited Johnson back, and he took the opportunity to claim there had been voter fraud in the 2020 election, implying the outcome was illegitimate.
Covering international elections in American political terms
In July, Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil and a far-right firebrand, threatened to cancel the nation’s elections. American outlets compared the situation to Donald Trump’s lies about voter fraud in the United States. But in Brazil, a country with a recent history of dictatorship and a leader whose cronies imprisoned his political rival, the threat to democracy is far more acute.
Combative questions engineered to be TV “moments”
In June, after Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin had their first meeting, each held a press conference. Kaitlan Collins, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, posed a question: “Why are you so confident he’ll change his behavior, Mr. President?” Biden stuck a finger out and replied, “What the hell?” He later apologized for being “short.” But in fairness, the question—a projection of the president’s thoughts—was intended to be provocative, and succeeded mainly in generating a day’s worth of meta-analysis on cable news.
Hagiographic obituaries of defective leaders
After the death of Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense under Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, some journalists depicted his legacy in a false glow; a few deployed the vague word “controversial.” The AP went so far as to suggest, in an early headline, that Rumsfeld was a victim of the Iraq War—even though he’d orchestrated it—calling him “a cunning leader undermined by Iraq war.” (George Packer got it right in The Atlantic: “Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history,” he wrote. “Being newly dead shouldn’t spare him this distinction.”)
Panels that flatten real ideological divides into entertainment
The lofty conception of panel debates—guests from either side meet for a civil exchange—is of no use. Democrat A spars theatrically with Republican B on contrived controversy C while reporter D and pundit E split the difference. On an episode of the “Powerhouse Roundtable,” on ABC’s This Week, guests squabbled over William Barr’s supposed U-turn on Trump, which conveniently allowed the host, Jon Karl, to plug his book on the subject. Sarah Isgur, a pundit who worked in Trump’s administration, claimed that the Mueller report largely “exonerated the president.” That wasn’t true. No one pushed back.
Breathless election night coverage before the polls close
CNN, on Election Day 2020, seemed intent on blowing out viewers’ synapses no matter how few votes had been counted. Wolf Blitzer and John King colored in states on their “magic wall” and threw out “Key Race Alerts” (sponsored by Calm, a sleep and meditation app). Into the early morning, the outcome remained unknown, yet the intensity stayed high.
Reporting on policy as strategy
During protests in the summer of 2020, the phrase “Defund the Police” reverberated across the United States. Political journalists filled their notebooks with quotes from campaign strategists about how the message would play in the upcoming presidential election. (“Defunding police will lead to Republican victory this year,” according to a piece in The Hill.) Few interviewed police abolitionists about their advocacy or history.
Setting absurd expectations for complex problems
Political change is a slow brew, but news outlets tend to suggest otherwise in headlines, as in June, when the Washington Post summed up the first meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin like this: “Biden, Putin hold ‘positive’ summit but divisions remain over human rights, cyberattacks, Ukraine.” See also last year, when the Post asked, atop a story on Black Lives Matter, “America convulses amid a week of protests, but can it change?”The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.