‘Unity’ does not mean ideological consensus

On Thursday afternoon, twenty-eight hours after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, Michael D. Shear, a reporter at the New York Times, asked Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, a question that was more of a comment. “There’s this call for unity that the president made in his speech yesterday, but there has so far been almost no fig leaf to the Republican Party,” he said, presumably meaning “olive branch”; Biden, Shear went on, has thus far not appointed a Republican to his cabinet, prioritized executive orders “largely designed at erasing” Trump’s legacy, and put forward an immigration bill that “doesn’t do much of a nod towards border security” and a relief bill that Republicans also dislike. “Where is the actual action behind this idea of bipartisanship?” Shear asked, finally. “And when are we going to see one of those sort of substantial outreaches that says, ‘This is something that the Republicans want to do, too?’”

This wasn’t a new or unexpected focus: unity was a key theme of Biden’s campaign and has swirled down through media coverage as a result, driving much network chatter on the day the election was called for Biden, then again on inauguration day and ever since. On Thursday, Shear’s colleague Peter Baker published a news analysis that both-sidesed the concept of sides under the headline “In Biden’s Washington, Democrats and Republicans Are Not United on ‘Unity.’” Biden “may discover he can get a big coronavirus stimulus bill or a bipartisan deal—but not both,” Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim, and Jeff Stein wrote in the Washington Post on Saturday. “The path Biden chooses with his first major piece of legislation could set the tone for the remainder of his term, revealing whether he can make good on his promise to unify Congress and the country.” Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, said yesterday that Biden’s call “to dial down the temperature of political disagreements may quickly face its limits when it comes to policy consensus,” and noted the Republican argument that Donald Trump’s impending impeachment is a threat to unity; “If Joe Biden wants to unite the country,” Dana Bash quipped on CNN’s State of the Union, “maybe he should borrow Bernie Sanders’s mittens.” (Later, Bash acknowledged that the mittens, which went massively viral online last week, were a “distraction” from economic pain in the country, then presented Sanders with a few of her favorite mitten memes anyway, including images that placed Sanders in scenes from Ghost and Dirty Dancing. “She put you in the corner, senator.”)

Related: A White House correspondent charts the changing of the guard

In recent days, media critics have argued that much of this coverage is misguided, pointing out, correctly, that unification cannot be a unilateral act, and that seeking to hold Biden alone to the unity standard risks obscuring his opponents’ responsibility to reciprocate. Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Post, wrote last week that Republican politicians—and their boosters in right-wing media—are running a “‘unity’ scam,” attempting to “game the media into saying Biden is already reneging on his unity promise by being divisive” in an effort to move the national debate past their complicity in Trump’s abuses of power. “We are not required to play this game,” Sargent wrote. “Biden may or may not succeed in securing ‘unity.’ But Republicans don’t get to unilaterally dictate in advance what counts as a true attempt to achieve it.” Sargent suggested, in a separate column, that rather than channel the synthetic outrage of GOP elites, reporters should assess the tangible impact of Biden’s policies in places where Trump won.

When it comes to this narrative, media susceptibility to partisan grifting is only the tip of the iceberg; much of the recent coverage has betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding—both of what Biden seems to mean by unity and how the press might usefully approach the concept—that stems from the conflation of unity with the concepts of bipartisanship and ideological consensus. In his inaugural address, Biden didn’t once mention either of the latter terms; instead, as Sargent notes, he framed his call for unity around the rejection of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. To be sure, Biden is seeking bipartisan cooperation on his agenda—but that doesn’t amount to a policy goal in and of itself, and administration spokespeople have strongly implied, in recent media interviews, that if Republicans won’t come to the table, Biden will press ahead without them. As Baker reported in his news analysis, Biden’s allies see unity as “a change in culture, not splitting the difference on policy plans.”

Irrespective of what Biden means by unity, it’s not the media’s job to police political consensus; holding political candidates to their campaign pledges is not an absolute moral good, as the Trump presidency should amply have demonstrated. There are facets of unity that should concern the press, insofar as the rejection of rampant lies, bigotry, and insurrectionary violence can be seen through that lens—but a shared commitment to the basic truth is not the same as a shared worldview, and we should be careful not to blur the two. (As I’ve written before, nostalgic calls to return to the pre-internet age and its common set of facts often gloss over the reality that the gatekeepers of that era, mostly white men, shut out many valuable perspectives.) To be useful, the unified understanding that facts and democracy matter should be conducive to sharp, genuinely broad debate on the substance of policy, rather than constraining it. Too often, though, journalists—from White House correspondents to cable TV bookers—have instead defined unity as a window of acceptable opinion; as the historian Rick Perlstein told me last year, many in the media “fetishize” consensus, or the idea “that Americans are united and fundamentally at peace with themselves,” and that reporters should elide “structural tensions” in American society. This impulse entails the old idea that the truth is to be found somewhere between the major parties’ positions. One party, in particular, understands that by moving shamelessly to the right, it can pull the political media’s center of gravity in the same direction.

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Over the weekend, various journalists, commentators, and Democratic interviewees did offer more nuanced conceptions of what unity might mean, but others continue to hew to the yardsticks that Shear planted in the White House briefing room. According to Politico, conservatives were thrilled by Shear’s question; the office of Kevin McCarthy—the House minority leader who voted to challenge the results of the election even after the insurrection on January 6—went as far as to send reporters a clip of Shear “calling out” (in their words) Biden. Political journalists, of course, can’t control how partisan hacks quote their reporting. But they are responsible for the way they frame questions of accountability. When it comes to Biden and unity, we need more sophisticated metrics than cabinet berths and legislative capitulations.

Below, more on the Biden news cycle:

  • A different approach: Late last week, Politico’s Jack Shafer and the Post’s Margaret Sullivan both argued that reporters should tone down the thinly-veiled adulation that marked much coverage of the inauguration. “CNN glowed almost as brightly about the event as a state media would have,” Shafer wrote. “MSNBC worked from the same script, going gaga for not just Lady Gaga but the whole schmear.” Sullivan added that the press “runs the risk of being seduced by an administration that, in many cases, closely reflects our values: multiculturalism, a belief in the principles of liberal democracy, and a kind of wonky idealism.”
  • A different lens: The media critic Dan Froomkin argues that with Trump gone, White House reporters should zoom out, focusing less on the person of the president and more on his administration as a whole. “The White House is more than just the president’s whims and mood disorders. It is filled with staff, and process, and sometimes competing senses of mission,” Froomkin wrote on his blog, Press Watch. “It’s hugely important for our major news organizations to break themselves of the habit of obsessively focusing on what the president says—and instead devote themselves to exploring much more broadly what is going on inside the White House, and how, and why.”
  • The return of the briefing: On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with S.V. Dáte, a White House correspondent for HuffPost, about covering the Trump era, and the return of regular, reality-based press briefings under Psaki; Dáte called the normalcy of the first briefing “very bizarre” compared to what came before. Elsewhere, the New Republic’s Alex Shephard cast a skeptical eye over the continued relevance of the briefings. Psaki’s approach is an improvement “but we needn’t honor it with extended bouts of applause,” he writes. “The longer you’re starved of the bare minimum, the more it looks like the extra mile when it returns, perhaps.”
  • In brief: Azi Paybarah, of the Times, profiles WABC-AM, a right-leaning New York radio station whose air Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, is still using to push conspiracy theories about the election; management recently barred hosts from spreading such lies, but Giuliani claims, literally, that he didn’t get the memo. Elsewhere, Harris Faulkner, an anchor on Fox News, slammed Time magazine over a “not real!” cover image, showing Biden in a trashed Oval Office, that was clearly metaphorical. And Psaki seemingly mistook Peter Doocy, Fox’s White House correspondent, for his dad, Steve, also of Fox. (Last year, Mark Oppenheimer profiled Doocy—Steve, not Peter—for CJR.)


Other notable stories:

  • On Saturday, Larry King, who hosted an eponymous CNN interview show for twenty-five years, died. He was eighty-seven. “In an era filled with star newsmen, King was a giant—among the most prominent questioners on television and a host to presidents, movie stars and world class athletes,” CNN’s Tom Kludt, Brad Parks, and Ray Sanchez write in an obituary. “With an affable, easygoing demeanor that distinguished him from more intense TV interviewers, King perfected a casual approach to the Q&A format, always leaning forward and listening intently to his guests, rarely interrupting. ‘I’ve never learned anything,’ King was fond of saying, ‘while I was talking.’” 
  • Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are speaking out about their experiences working on the pandemic under Trump. In an interview with Donald G. McNeil, Jr., of the Times, Fauci said that Trump advisers resorted to “nefarious” tactics to undermine his credibility while also controlling his media appearances; speaking with Margaret Brennan, of CBS, Birx said that officials would plant negative stories about her anytime there was an internal disagreement. Birx also pushed back on the criticism that she was an “apologist” for Trump. (Maggie Haberman, of the Times, notes that Birx did often appear to be “in lockstep” with Trump, and would brush off reporters who asked for her side of the story.)  
  • Last week, the journalist Yashar Ali reported that the Times canceled the contract of Lauren Wolfe, who worked as an editor for the paper, after she tweeted that watching Biden’s inauguration gave her “chills.” Online, critics accused the Times of bowing to pressure from right-wing trolls; yesterday, the Times responded that Wolfe did not have a formal contract with the paper, and denied ending her employment “over a single tweet”—while also maintaining that “we don’t get into the details of personnel matters.”
  • Eric Boehm, of Reason, noticed that the Post recently updated a 2019 piece about Vice-President (and then presidential candidate) Kamala Harris by removing comments that she made comparing the rigors of the campaign trail to life in prison. The Post said that it “repurposed” some of its past reporting on Biden and Harris for a new series pegged to the inauguration, but acknowledged that it ought to have left the text of the original Harris piece online. The new version of the story now links back to the old one.
  • Meg James, of the LA Times, investigated a deal that CBS struck nine years ago to acquire WLNY, a TV station on Long Island—a purchase that came with an exclusive golf-club membership thrown in. Peter Dunn, the executive in whose name the golf membership is registered, pledged to expand the station’s news output, but most of its journalists have since been let go. (CBS defended the deal as a “strategic acquisition” and noted that reporters at WCBS, in New York City, cover Long Island on WLNY.)
  • The Boston Globe will invite subjects of the paper’s past criminal-justice coverage to apply to have stories about them updated or anonymized—a journalistic “right to be forgotten” that, the paper says, is part of an effort to reckon with the disproportionate impact that crime coverage exerts on communities of color. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has launched a similar initiative, and the Philadelphia Inquirer is working on a policy, too. 
  • Mike Smith, a carrier for the Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Oregon, raised the alarm after noticing that Kenneth Plank, an elderly subscriber, hadn’t picked up recent issues. Plank was stuck in his bathtub; he’s now recovering. “Be thankful for your newspaper man,” Plank’s daughter told the Herald and News, “because he might be the only one who knows something’s wrong.” (In 2018, I wrote for CJR on carriers’ unheralded work.)
  • According to The Guardian’s Archie Bland, Rolling Stone is inviting “thought leaders” to pay two-thousand dollars for the chance to write for the magazine’s website; approved contributors will be members of an invitation-only “Culture Council” made up of “industry professionals.” Penske Media, which owns Rolling Stone, noted that all paid articles are labelled as such and do not run as editorial content.
  • And Dan Rather is starting a newsletter on Substack—it will be called “Steady,” and Rather will aim to use it “to build and cultivate” a community of readers, away from the “divisiveness and pique” of Facebook and Twitter. (Back in 2018, Pope spoke with Rather about Trump, Nixon, and network news for CJR’s Monday interview series.)  

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