Early yesterday, then-President Donald Trump vacated the White House and headed to Joint Base Andrews, where he gave a farewell address before flying to Florida. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer wondered aloud if we’d be treated to a final Trump surprise, but the event was predictable, as was the coverage it generated. “The Trump era ends as it begins,” James Poniewozik, TV critic at the New York Times, wrote, “with news networks wall-to-wall showing the empty stage where he’s going to speak.” Every major network carried the whole address live; reporters got in some final digs about the smallness of the crowd; one columnist even hailed the president’s new tone, though there didn’t seem to be much heart in any of it. After he finished speaking, Trump left the stage and boarded Air Force One as “YMCA” blared from the speakers. “Y’know, the first line of that song is, young man, there’s no need to feel down,” Rob Finnerty, a host on the pro-Trump network Newsmax, said on air. “Even though he will not be the president at noon Eastern today, there is no need to feel down.” And then he was gone.
Cut to Joe Biden—first at church, and then at the Capitol. Network talking heads chattered over music (the Marine band, not the Village People) and footage of various dignitaries taking their seats. Trump lingered, despite his absence—on CNN, John King accused him of neglecting the “norms and traditions” that “truly make America great”—while Mike Pence showed up and won some lukewarm plaudits for doing so. Various anchors hailed the “peaceful transfer of power.” With midday approaching, proceedings began and the punditry gave way to bromidic speeches by senators Amy Klobuchar and Roy Blunt, the latter of whom was, as recently as last month, still refusing to call Biden the president-elect; then, Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice-president, and Biden as president. Major outlets whipped out the banner headlines and unleashed a flood of news alerts on readers’ phones. Online, every journalist felt compelled to note either that Trump was no longer president, or, as it still wasn’t yet midday, that they weren’t yet sure who was technically president. Their tweets jostled for attention with Bernie Sanders memes, and then with a flurry of (deserved) praise for Amanda Gorman, a poet whose recitation instantly went viral; news organizations quickly turned all of this content into more content, further flooding the zone. In his inaugural address, Biden repeatedly stressed the importance of truth. The sun came out, and was quickly pressed into service as a metaphor.
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Less so in the right-wing mediasphere, though there was some generosity of spirit on display. On Fox News, Chris Wallace urged “us in the media” to take to heart Biden’s words on the truth, and called the speech as a whole “the best inaugural address I ever heard”; his colleague Brit Hume called Biden “an amiable, genial man,” and said, “Let’s give him a chance.” Over at FoxNews.com, editors gave Biden a chance with headlines including “Hunter Biden in attendance amid reported suspicious transactions probe,” and “CNN anchors let insults, condemnations fly as Trump leaves the White House”; later, back on the air, Sean Hannity said that Biden was “cognitively struggling,” and Laura Ingraham flashed up chyrons such as “MEDIA & CHINA GIDDY OVER PRESIDENT BIDEN” and “BIDEN’S DIVISIVE POLICIES SACRIFICE OUR FREEDOM.” One America News Network didn’t broadcast the inauguration at all, instead airing a documentary-length program titled Trump: Legacy of a Patriot. On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh insisted that Biden and Harris have “not legitimately won” the election.
Even in the reality-based media, it felt as if some of us were struggling to compute that Trump was really gone and Biden was really in. Given the events of two weeks ago, the networks were primed to cover more noisy strife after Biden was sworn in; instead, we got low-key formalities and a rare stretch of silence, as Biden traveled from the Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath. There was a collective feeling, almost, of Trump withdrawal; as Charlie Warzel, a columnist at the Times, put it, “it is very clear to me right now the extent to which my brain has become extremely conditioned to reading continuous and preposterous news about one man.” Media critics no longer had to write takes about all the unchecked lies in the president’s speech. By the 5pm hour, CNN was rattling breathlessly about the fact that Biden was now in the Oval Office. Reporters were excited to discover that Trump had left Biden a note; one shouted a question about it, but Biden declined to share what Trump wrote, beyond calling it “very generous.” At 7pm, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, convened a televised briefing, and pledged to do so daily going forward. (Though “not Saturdays and Sundays. I’m not a monster.”) The second reporter to be called asked about Trump’s note. Afterward, everyone agreed that Psaki’s professional demeanor was disarmingly normal. Van Jones said that the briefing was “mesmerizing”: “There was a human, and that person said words, and the words made sense, and somebody asked a question, and that person answered.”
Throughout the day and into the evening—either side of a celebratory, ninety-minute special that every major network bar Fox carried live—the themes of normality and unity kept recurring in coverage. NBC’s Chuck Todd called the former “an elixir of sorts”; a CNN correspondent barked “Mr. President, can you unite the country?” as Biden unexpectedly walked past. These focuses were derived from Biden’s own messaging, but neither is entirely in Biden’s gift, and neither is a moral good in and of itself—the pre-Trump status quo, and much media coverage thereof, failed millions of people. It’s now accurate, at least, to say that there’s a “new tone” emanating from the White House, but actions still matter more. At some point, probably soon, pundits will stop seeing Biden’s boringness as refreshing, and start seeing it as boring. Before we get there, let’s drop our obsession with optics, and refocus the extra room that just opened up in our attention spans on the huge challenges that America still faces.
Below, more on the inauguration:
- Changing of the guard, I: CJR’s Ian Karbal rounds up some significant moves within the White House press corps, including Kaitlan Collins’s promotion to chief White House correspondent at CNN, Ashley Parker’s promotion to White House bureau chief at the Post, and Maggie Haberman’s plans. One correspondent who is staying put is Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS. “It would be great to be able to take a vacation and go out,” she told Karbal, “but we’re living in the middle of a pandemic.”
- Changing of the guard, II: Michael Pack—the Trump-appointed chief executive of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees state-backed, yet editorially-independent, broadcasters including Voice of America—resigned yesterday at Biden’s request, leaving a trail of firings, whistleblower complaints, conservative appointments, and other controversies in his wake. Pack—who investigated reporters for their perceived anti-Trump bias, and who moved to obliterate the firewall between management and journalists so that the agency might better “support the foreign policy of the United States”—called his ouster “a partisan act” on Biden’s part. Biden tapped Kelu Chao, a VOA news executive, as Pack’s interim replacement. NPR’s David Folkenflik has more.
- 1619 v. 1776: Biden also acted yesterday to dissolve the 1776 Commission, a panel of conservative educators that Trump convened to wage culture war on history-teaching generally and the Times’s 1619 Project—which sought to center slavery in the American story, including via resources for schools—in particular. Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton, warned that despite Biden’s decision, the commission’s legacy will live on; its final report, he wrote, “has the stamp of approval of the White House and will directly or indirectly influence the teaching of American history in large parts of the nation.”
- No trouble: As I noted in yesterday’s newsletter, major newsrooms provided their reporters with protective gear and special training ahead of the inauguration, given the heightened threat of domestic terrorism, but in the end, no violence came to pass. Andrew McCormick, who covered the inauguration for The Nation, wrote that the streets outside the security perimeter were so quiet that “journalists outnumbered civilians in comic proportion. I listened to one woman, who had traveled from Boise, Idaho, for the inauguration, give interviews to reporters from at least Japan, France, and Romania. (‘Joe Biden is going to unify our country,’ she told them all.)”
- Snookered Q: Online, many devotees of the QAnon conspiracy theory—which held that Trump would stage a successful inauguration-day coup and stay in power—were upset and confused when it didn’t happen. “Anyone else feeling beyond let down?” one poster asked. “It’s like being a kid and seeing the big gift under the tree thinking it is exactly what you want only to open it and realize it was a lump of coal.” Even Ron Watkins, a major figure in the community, gave up the ghost, advising his followers to “go back to our lives as best we are able.” NBC’s Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny have more.
- Justice with Judge Jeanine: When Trump’s published his final list of pardons and commutations early yesterday morning, Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host and reliable Trump sycophant, was upset that the president hadn’t included her ex-husband, Albert Pirro, who was convicted of conspiracy and tax evasion in 2000. Per CNN’s Pamela Brown and Caroline Kelly, Jeanine quickly lobbied for Albert to be added, and in the final hours of his presidency, Trump complied—a final spin of the Trump-Fox feedback loop.
- Going bust: Biden put some personal photos behind his Oval Office desk, next to a bust of the labor leader Cesar Chavez (and not of Eleanor Roosevelt, as the Washington Post erroneously labeled it). Biden reportedly also removed a bust of Winston Churchill. Britain’s right-wing press is taking the news about as well as you’d expect.
Other notable stories:
- For Business Insider, Steven Perlberg explores what’s next for the Washington Post as Trump departs the White House and Marty Baron prepares to stand down as the paper’s editor. Current and former Post staffers told Perlberg that the paper is in a good financial position—but they have concerns about its ability to move past the Trump story, and say that the newsroom has yet to fully resolve internal tensions over race and diversity. According to Perlberg, some staffers “watched with envy” as Times journalists took a public stand against their opinion editor, James Bennet, last year, leading him to resign.
- In December, an attorney for Dominion Voting Systems, an election-tech company that was repeatedly smeared by Trump-allied conspiracists, wrote to leaders of One America News, which spread the smears, threatening legal action; in response, OAN doubled down, demanding that Dominion retain documents linked to Venezuela and George Soros. According to Business Insider’s Jacob Shamsian, however, OAN’s website has since quietly deleted articles about Dominion and Trump’s election lies generally, without disclosing any retractions. (ICYMI last year, Andrew McCormick profiled OAN.)
- Stephanie Edgerly, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill school of journalism, surveyed over a thousand US media workers in an effort to gauge industry views on election coverage. While strong majorities of respondents thought coverage of the Biden and Trump campaigns was fair, nearly two-thirds of respondents thought that the press was over-reliant on opinion polls. A similar proportion agreed that polls can themselves drive voting behavior, and a majority agreed (in a poll) that polls are “unreliable.”
- Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley investment firm, is launching an online opinion page that will publish “unapologetically pro-tech, pro-future, pro-change” content. The move comes “amid growing tension between prominent venture capitalists and the news media,” The Information’s Zoë Bernard reports. Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, has “privately expressed antipathy” toward the media, and “has been known to block members of the tech press from viewing his tweets.”
- In press-freedom news, military authorities in Somalia arrested Kilwe Adan Farah, who runs a news outlet via Facebook, and accused him of murder; if convicted, he could face a death sentence. A local press group believes that the allegations are fabricated. Elsewhere, Egypt arrested two freelance reporters, Hamdi al-Zaeem and Ahmed Khalifa, on terrorism charges. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more on both stories.
- In France, the cartoonist Xavier Gorce said he would stop working for Le Monde after the paper publicly apologized for running a cartoon that he drew satirizing incest, which is currently the subject of a national reckoning following allegations against a political commentator. Critics said the cartoon was offensive and transphobic; Gorce said it was misunderstood, and that his editorial freedom “cannot be negotiated.” AFP has more.
- And The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood is under fire for calling Trump “the political equivalent of the Insane Clown Posse,” a reference to a rap duo with fans known as Juggalos. Taylor Lorenz, of the Times, wrote that Juggalos are “notably a very kind, inclusive community.” Violent J, one half of Insane Clown Posse, told HuffPost that Wood’s article “fuckin’ hurts,” and that “sad little bullshit like this makes me question the media.”
ICYMI: A tale of two inaugurations
This post has been updated to correct the misspelling of Amanda Gorman’s name.Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.