The pathetic semantic squabble in coverage of Biden’s democracy speech

Last night, after President Biden gave a prime-time address in Philadelphia warning that America’s democracy is under threat from extremist Republicans in thrall to Donald Trump, the lead story about the speech in the New York Times quoted a historian who succinctly put it in context. “We are in a crisis in this country. There’s no doubt about it. Not just in terms of the sanctity of the vote or trusting our votes will be counted,” Allida Black, a University of Virginia academic who was among a group of experts to recently brief Biden privately on the state of US democracy, said. “We seem to attack rather than embrace responsibility and accountability.”

Sadly, Black’s quote came forty-one paragraphs into a forty-four-paragraph story. Quoted much higher up (paragraph eight) was Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House minority leader, who said before Biden’s speech that, actually, Democrats are the ones “dismantling Americans’ democracy.” The Times did not point out that this is false, or that McCarthy was one of 139 House Republicans who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election even after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on January 6.  Also quoted high up (paragraph ten) was Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, who called Biden “the divider in chief” and accused him of exhibiting “disgust and hostility towards half the country.” The Times did not point out that the RNC’s official position on January 6 is that it was “legitimate political discourse.” In between, the Times characterized a more general Republican objection to Biden’s speech: that he “was maligning the 74 million people” who voted for Trump in 2020.

ICYMI: A Nefarious and Hidden Threat to Journalists Rises

To be fair, the Times had already noted in its story that Biden explicitly was not doing this. (“I want to be very clear, very clear up front,” he said early in his speech. “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are maga Republicans. Not every Republican embraces their extreme ideology.”) Broadly speaking, the paper’s story was not entirely without merit (there was the historian’s quote, in addition to some other important context); nor did its flaws stand out as particularly egregious when compared with other major outlets’ topline coverage of Biden’s speech. In many ways, though, this was the problem. Biden’s core message was clear. Too much coverage ended up muddying it—stenographically stacking he-said/she-said reaction quotes, wringing it through the deadening mangle of the midterms horserace, even insinuating a cynical ploy on Biden’s part. “Biden warned about the genuinely historic threat to American democracy,” Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist who has written for CJR and others, tweeted last night. “And the media response is more brain-dead game frame coverage of the ‘politics.’”

It’s appropriate that Nyhan put “politics” in scare quotes, since a debate as to the meaning of that word recurred in media chatter both before and after the speech. Ahead of time, the White House insisted that the speech would not be political, by which it meant that Biden would be addressing the nation in his official capacity as president, but numerous reporters sounded skeptical, putting it to Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, that it would be political though, wouldn’t it, or sharing advance excerpts that they felt proved the point. Within three minutes of Biden starting to talk, at least one White House correspondent had concluded that, yep, this is political. Afterward, a former White House correspondent asked whether, under FEC rules, the Democratic National Committee, not taxpayers, should pick up the bill for the speech. Various journalists, meanwhile, noted that a pair of Marines were in shot as Biden spoke, and that this was a break with norms. Brianna Keilar, an anchor on CNN, overtly objected to the Marines’ presence. “Whatever you think of this speech, the military is supposed to be apolitical,” she tweeted. “Positioning Marines in uniform behind President Biden for a political speech flies in the face of that. It’s wrong when Democrats do it. It’s wrong when Republicans do it.”

Other coverage of the speech gestured at the notion of politicization in ways that were subtler than Keilar’s tweet but, I would argue, no less asinine. Much was made of the fact that Biden spoke Trump’s name, as if the latter were Voldemort (oops); this did mark a departure of sorts for Biden, but one politician overtly criticizing another does not seem all that worthy of comment. Various outlets suggested that Biden has made a “sharp recent turn,” as one put it, away from his pledge to unify the country, a suggestion that both indulged an explicit Republican talking point (see above) and reflected a misunderstanding of what Biden has meant by unity, both in his speech last night—during which he repeatedly, explicitly urged Americans to unite around the defense of democracy—and dating back to his earliest days in office, when, as I wrote at the time, many journalists wrongly conflated the concepts of unity, bipartisanship, and consensus in their Biden coverage. Also last night, journalists and pundits cited, as evidence that the speech was political, the fact that Biden ended it by calling on Americans to vote, even though he issued the call, at least explicitly, in a general sense.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Of course Biden wants people to vote for his party. It’s also true that he used his speech last night to tout his agenda, including in the run-up to his call to vote; indeed, the Times characterized the address as effectively “two back-to-back speeches,” one focused darkly on threats to democracy, the other optimistically on his administration’s progress. But, at least conceptually, these focuses cannot be neatly separated, just as calls to vote and the touting of an agenda can’t be separated from the broader work of defending democracy—encouraging voting and making the case that the votes should be for you is the basic stuff of democracy. And it’s all the stuff of politics, which is one reason journalists’ efforts to police the political nature of Biden’s speech last night were so misguided. Merriam-Webster—and I hate to be this tedious, but apparently it’s necessary—has a whole bunch of entries for politics, the broadest (and, I think, best) of which defines it as “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” Saving democracy is thus political, inherently so. So is the military. So is just about anything the president says, no matter who is picking up the tab. Arguing about whether last night’s speech was political would have been silly and pedantic at the best of times. At this fraught moment, it’s akin to watching your house catch fire and shouting, “Wait a minute! Is this a house?”

What various top outlets seemed to actually mean by political—and some stated it outright—was partisan, referring to the idea that Biden was criticizing members of another party. To take a charitable view, this isn’t totally irrelevant as a concern, since there are rules governing campaigning using federal resources. (See: Trump hosting part of the 2020 Republican convention at the White House.) But it’s close to irrelevant in this case; there was much about the speech that was much more important than the setting. And partisan, like political, is a slippery term. That some members of the press used the two interchangeably last night is telling of a broader trope in political journalism: that politics is principally about the interrelation of political parties, not least in the electoral arena. The “total complex of relations” in a society, this is not.

Biden’s actual message on democracy didn’t get totally lost last night: even the coverage that I’ve criticized above, including the Times story, often opened by quoting the key planks of what he said in a fairly straightforward way. But it did get muddied—and in some key places, it wasn’t heard at all. NBC, CBS, and ABC all declined to cut away from their scheduled programming to show the speech live, sticking, respectively, with Law and Order, Young Sheldon, and a game show episode titled “Zombie Apocalypse Ready.” Network bosses, the Times’ Peter Baker surmised, had “evidently” deemed the speech “more of a campaign rally than a presidential address to the nation.” Whatever the rationale, the networks’ snub contrasted with their decision, early in 2019, to air Trump’s first prime-time Oval Office address as president, on his border wall, which did not make much news but did sound a lot like a campaign speech. It was certainly both political and partisan, even in the narrowest senses of those terms.

When I wrote about Trump’s address in this newsletter, I focused on what networks might do to fact-check it in real time, given all the lies Trump tells. The question of whether networks should even carry the speech was a live one then, too—but the concern, as I recall, focused on its truthfulness, not whether it would be political. Ultimately, truth is the foremost standard by which the press should judge a president’s words. Last night, the core claims that Biden made about the threat to democracy, at least, were demonstrably true. Those should be the focus. Embracing responsibility and accountability requires it. At the very least, it’s more interesting than Young Sheldon.

Below, more on Biden’s speech:

  • The White House responds: Last night, as journalists at various outlets lined up to call Biden’s speech political, White House communications officials hit back. Andrew Bates, a deputy press secretary, directed reporters from CNN, CBS, and Reuters to their own outlets’ past coverage of Republican threats to democracy, while Chris Meagher, also a deputy press secretary, hit back directly at Keilar, arguing that “democracy is not a partisan or political issue.” For his part, Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, retweeted the Washington Post satirist Alexandra Petri’s quip that she “loves to make controversial political statements like ‘let’s continue to have democracy.’” The Hill has more.
  • The right responds: Right-wing media also had a lot to say about Biden’s speech, as you can imagine. Even before Biden spoke, Jeanine Pirro said, on Fox News, that Biden was issuing an “indictment” of those who didn’t vote for him and warned that “anyone who is a student of history” understands that “segregating people” does “not end well.” “Hate is hate, hate leads to violence, and that leads to retaliation,” Pirro said. Later, Raymond Arroyo, a Fox host, compared the red-lit backdrop against which Biden spoke to something out of Nazi Germany. Monica Crowley, a guest, called it “almost satanic.”
  • “Semi-fascism”: Biden also sparked right-wing condemnation—and some mainstream-media pearl-clutching—last week, after he likened “extreme maga philosophy” to “semi-fascism.” Writing for The Bulwark, a right-leaning site, however, William Saletan argued that Biden was right. For days, senior Republicans “have been all over TV and social media, denouncing Biden’s use of the F-word,” Saletan wrote. “But Biden was right. Many of the ideas and tactics deployed by Trump and his apologists, including those who decry Biden’s comparison, fit the dictionary definition of fascism.”

Other notable stories:

  • Earlier this week, the Daily Beast reported that fresh questions have been raised as to the future of Chuck Todd, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press, amid “ratings woes” for the show, but NBC has since pushed back, describing itself as “proud” of Todd’s “continued commitment to engaging a whole new generation of viewers in ways the program’s Washington peers are only beginning to imagine.” Todd, for his part, tweeted the entry for the phrase “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
  • Journalists at the Indianapolis Star protested downtown yesterday to mark two years since the paper’s last union contract expired. The contract has yet to be replaced, with the union accusing Gannett, the Star’s owner, of dragging its feet and “belittling” certain proposals, including around diversity. “We are here to say enough is enough,” Jenna Watson, the union’s president, told WFYI. “We want Gannett to cooperate and show up with respect and make movement toward us in getting our next contract ratified.”
  • For The Objective, Hannah Docter-Loeb reports on the problem of national and local reporters basing their work on—or, sometimes, just copying—stories written by student journalists without giving them any credit. Professional journalists rip each other off, too, but student journalists are in a different position, Docter-Loeb writes, “opting into unpaid labor in exchange for experience.” They also “essentially function as beat reporters, well-versed with the ins and outs of their respective campus communities.” 
  • For The Nation, Chris Lamb explains how the murder of Emmett Till, in 1955, led to the invention of the notion of a “liberal media” conspiracy. “Right-wing journalists in the South used what would later be called fake news and misinformation to distort the facts of the Till story to appeal to the racism and fanaticism of their readers,” Lamb writes. “Southern segregationists helped invent the ‘liberal media’ canard to try to discredit Northern journalists who were covering the civil rights movement in the South.”
  • For CJR, Joel Simon and Carlos Lauria detailed the growing worldwide threat of slapps, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, whereby powerful people sue journalists to harass them and muzzle their reporting. Unlike when journalists are jailed or killed, the scale of the slapp problem remains “largely hidden,” Simon and Lauria write, and tends to generate “less outrage than traditional repressive strategies.”
  • Last year, Apple Daily, an independent newspaper, was forced to shut down amid a broader Chinese-backed war on press freedom in Hong Kong. Now a Taiwanese version of Apple Daily, founded by the same parent company as the Hong Kong edition, is shutting down, too, amid wrangling over ownership. According to Nikkei, a would-be buyer ended his bid, and will instead launch a new site with most of Apple Daily Taiwan’s staff.   
  • For Nieman Reports, Stefania D’Ignoti profiled several refugee-camp newsrooms that are allowing migrants to report on and for themselves. “Representation is very important in the media sector,” Katrin Schatz, who works with journalists in exile in Europe, told D’Ignoti. “Refugees being able to tell their own stories will help break down stereotypes, clichés, and prejudices in the media, and consequently in people’s minds.”
  • James Marape, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea, took out full-page ads in two newspapers to tell journalists to stop texting and calling him and instead to direct queries to his spokespeople. The instruction was also issued in a WhatsApp group shared by Marape advisers and reporters; some saw it as a threat, but others said journalists have no right to treat the prime minister as a “friend.” The Guardian’s Kate Lyons has more.
  • And this newsletter will be off on Monday for Labor Day. Enjoy the long weekend.

ICYMI: Competition, preservation, and the news-platform dynamic

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.

TOP IMAGE: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech in front of the Historic Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, USA on September 1, 2022. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via AP)