The Media Today

The siloed media narratives around Biden and Trump

October 12, 2021
Jim Bourg/Pool via AP

Late last week, Ezra Klein, a columnist at the New York Times, took a deep dive into the work of a figure with a rising media profile: David Shor, an Obama campaign alum and Democratic data analyst. Shor believes that the party is screwed (“Only he didn’t say ‘screwed’”) in terms of its election prospects in the Senate, in particular—in part because of structural disadvantages, in part because party elites are trapped in a Twitter discourse bubble and have lost touch with working-class voters and the issues that matter to them. The article, of course, drove a frenzied round of discourse on Twitter, where journalists, political scientists, and casual observers debated “popularism,” “Shorism,” and “Shorpilling,” often echoing arguments for and against Shor’s thesis that Klein himself discussed at length. Shor’s critics have argued that he has not presented proof for some of his key assertions—for example, around the political toxicity of the slogan “defund the police.” (“I feel like he’s found this weird sweet spot with the media where he never actually shows anyone the evidence for his claims,” Michael Podhorzer, a political strategist at the AFL-CIO, said. “He just does interviews with reporters.”) Others argue that Shor overstates the rational appeal of consistent policy messaging, and Democrats’ ability to set the agenda, period, in a world of endless Republican attacks and media distortions.

In recent weeks, media chatter about Democrats’ policy priorities has, to my mind, reinforced the latter critique: President Biden is working to push through an ambitious agenda, much of which, when disaggregated, is highly popular, and yet the policy detail has largely gotten lost as day-to-day coverage has focused on poorly contextualized topline price tags and supposed infighting among Congressional Democrats. A narrative has crystallized in some quarters that Biden is failing to sell his agenda to the public. On Sunday, CBS polling found that “the public is more likely to have heard about what it would cost than about the specific policies that would be in it,” with some very popular policies “among the least heard about”; yesterday, Politico reported on a poll of its own that found, among other things, that fewer than forty percent of voters credit Biden with expanding child tax credits, a policy he already passed as part of his coronavirus relief package earlier this year. (“It’s great to deliver and do things, but you have to actually go out and tell the f—ing world about it,” a Senate aide told Politico.) Biden is hardly powerless here. But the press is clearly a part of the picture, too, and an active one at that. As numerous observers pointed out in response to the CBS poll, voters obviously won’t know what Biden is proposing if the press doesn’t tell them—yet coverage of such polls routinely asserts voters’ lack of knowledge as a fact of nature, or at best a political failure, without reflecting on the media’s role.

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A different CBS poll finding also caught the eye: it pegged Biden’s approval rating at fifty percent, a high-water mark compared to other recent surveys. Some observers characterized the number as a blow to a burgeoning media narrative that Biden is in freefall in the eyes of the public; one tweet that accused the press of emphasizing Biden’s bad numbers and declared “a lot of journalism” to be “broken—and wrong” scored a like from Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff. Poll results will rise and fall, but there’s no question that a broadly similar narrative—that this is a tough moment in Biden’s presidency—has taken hold across major outlets in recent weeks, nourished by his approval ratings but sparked by the resurgence of the pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and, most recently, the Congressional wrangling over his agenda.

Biden, clearly, deserves sharp scrutiny in all these areas and more. But, as I’ve written in this newsletter, much coverage of these stories has often been lacking in perspective: ignoring the culpability of prior administrations in the case of Afghanistan, for example, or neglecting the fact that legislating, especially at the scale that Biden is proposing, is contentious and takes time. Such coverage has, at times, driven negative headlines about Biden that are disproportionate or at least premature; journalists and pundits then state that Biden is struggling with bad headlines, which are then themselves discussed as natural facts independent of media choices. Such analysis often crowds out substantive coverage about policy. And so the cycle continues.

Much of the recent Biden coverage has been pegged explicitly to the midterms, which are already eating up media attention despite being more than a year away. The next presidential election is even further in the future, but is increasingly eating attention, too—focused less on Biden than on Donald Trump, with media types already engaging Trump’s possible candidacy as a matter of when, not if. As such chatter has grown more voluble, media critics have urged news organizations not to treat him as a normal candidate, and savaged early coverage that they see as doing just that. “Rather than have debates over whether his crimes should result in him being imprisoned (there’s a strong case for it) or merely exiled from the world of politics,” Parker Molloy wrote last month, “the media will almost certainly just pretend that they’re covering a run-of-the-mill politician.” Dan Froomkin took particular issue with a Washington Post story that, among other things, described “investigations into his businesses in New York, and a probe into his role in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection” as “headaches” for Trump.

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On Saturday, Trump held a rally in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state (at least for Republicans); C-SPAN broadcast it live under the hellish rubric “CAMPAIGN 2024” and it drove discussion on some of the Sunday shows. The return to coverage of Trump’s rallies can feel like a no-lessons-learned repeat of 2016, but it seems to reflect less a gleeful enthusiasm for Trump’s entertainment’s value than the fact that Trump has become a crutch for certain news organizations—an easy subject with which to fill airtime when the news cycle goes quiet, as it did over the weekend. That’s not to say that there aren’t urgent Trump stories to tell—reporting on his efforts to subvert the last election and his moves toward subverting the next one deserves widespread attention, and has often gotten it, even if such coverage hasn’t always been perfect. Much Trump punditry, though, is numbingly repetitive and inane. Does he control the Republican base? What does his support look like in Iowa? When will he confirm he’s running?

And the bigger problem here is that these different strands of Trump coverage remain siloed from each other—not always, by any means, but too often. Trump is either an existential threat to democracy or a candidate subject to the normal traditions of that democracy; we know he is the former and he cannot be both. Trump coverage as a whole, meanwhile, can feel practically divorced from chatter about Biden’s agenda and Democrats’ electoral prospects, which routinely implies that the normal political rules are intact. As I wrote in the runup to the 2020 election, major outlets would often stress Trump’s subversion of democratic norms before pivoting to discuss the electoral horse race as if the track was in pristine condition. If we must start covering the 2022 and 2024 horse races now (and we really shouldn’t), then we must always start from the assumption that the track is unsafe. Biden’s approval rating is secondary, at best.

This is not to say that polls, approval ratings, and the like don’t matter at all as part of this story. As I also wrote before the last election, the size of Biden’s winning margin was always going to be central in determining the likely success of Republican dirty tricks; it’s now highly possible that Republicans might take back Congress next year and the White House in 2024 without needing any. Public perception of different policies matters; critiques of policy-lite coverage would be less urgent if it didn’t. But whenever we go into the weeds of public opinion and its electoral ramifications, we must always keep the stakes for democracy—and the observable fact that Republicans are already engaging in dirty tricks—front and center. Perhaps the most important takeaway from Klein’s analysis of Shor’s work doesn’t concern the disagreements between Shor and his critics, but rather an area in which they agree: “They are both deeply pessimistic about the near-term chances for Democrats and thus for democracy.”

Below, more on politics:

  • A slow-motion coup: On Friday, Bill Maher, the HBO host, won widespread plaudits for laying out Trump’s threat to democracy in stark terms, calling it a “slow-moving coup.” Trump “will run in 2024, he will get the Republican nomination, and whatever happens on election night, the next day he will announce that he won,” Maher warned. “He’s like a shark who’s not gone but has quietly gone out to sea. But he’s been eating people this whole time, methodically purging the Republican party of anyone who voted for his impeachment or doesn’t agree he’s the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.” Some observers, including MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan, argued that more journalists should cover Trump in such terms. (I profiled Hasan for CJR’s new issue on journalism post-Trump.)
  • Speaking of our new issue: In an introductory note, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, took aim at the media’s ongoing “fixation” with Trump. “Cynics, especially on the right, have tried to tie ongoing Trump coverage to the collapse of ratings and subscriptions that followed his exit,” Pope writes, but he sees a more fundamental problem, “ingrained into how individual political reporters see the story and how their managers decide which scoops to celebrate,” and “rooted in who gets promoted and who cashes the contributor checks from MSNBC and CNN. In reality, key failings of the political press are not simply the fault of Trump. The blame also lies with us.”
  • Does Trump control the Republican base?: The repetitive answer to this repetitive media question has usually been “yes,” but a recent Pew poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents adds some texture to that narrative: two-thirds of respondents said that Trump should remain “a major national political figure,” but fewer than half said that he should run for president again. This is one poll, of course, and all the caveats I outlined above still apply, but it caught the eye of a number of journalists and data-watchers. “My hard prior is that, if the GOP had a primary today, Trump would win a resounding victory,” G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist at The Economist, mused on Twitter. “But maybe that prior is wrong.”

Other notable stories:

  • According to Recode’s Peter Kafka, The Atlantic is working, like other big publishers, to expand its newsletter offering, but with a twist: the magazine “wants to bring writers under The Atlantic’s umbrella (and paywall) while letting them stay semi-independent.” The Atlantic “is recruiting writers who are already in the paid newsletter business,” Kafka reports. “And it wants to convert those writers’ subscribers into Atlantic subscribers.”
  • ShotSpotter, a tech company that uses covert microphones to alert law enforcement to potential gunfire, is suing Vice for defamation over a series of critical articles, the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright and Maxwell Tani report. The suit focuses principally on an article, published by Vice’s Motherboard vertical, that suggested that ShotSpotter altered data in ways that “appear to be grasping for evidence” to support police narratives.
  • In his newsletter, Adam Johnson explores how the real estate industry started lobbying local news outlets to drop the term “landlord” and replace it with “housing provider.” Landlords are “not an oppressed class for whom reclaiming a narrative is a step toward rectifying a social wrong,” he argues. The label “has earned its unseemly reputation because tens of millions of people have had bad interactions with their landlords.”
  • Allison Baker and Viviane Fairbank, who have both worked in the research department at The Walrus, a Canadian magazine, are leading a project at Carleton University, in Ottawa, aimed at making fact-checking more inclusive; the process, Fairbank says, can “hold journalists to account by pushing them to question their default assumptions.” They are currently soliciting input from journalists and sources; you can contact them here.
  • Also in Canada, top media companies recently condemned threats and abuse aimed at journalists, particularly women and people of color—an apparent response to a politician encouraging his supporters to “play dirty” with the press. Writing for the Toronto Star, however, Supriya Dwivedi argues that newsrooms have been complicit in rising abuse, and need leaders “who are willing to go beyond feel-good statements of solidarity.”
  • On Sunday, Shahid Zehri, a TV reporter in Pakistan, was killed after an explosive device was planted in his car. Zehri covered the province of Balochistan, where armed separatist movements have long been active; one of them, the Baloch Liberation Army, claimed responsibility for the murder, and emailed a statement to other journalists accusing Zehri of working with Pakistan’s security forces. Al Jazeera has more.
  • Recently, lawmakers in Singapore passed a law giving the government broad new powers over online content in the name of fighting “foreign interference.” During a parliamentary debate on the law, a minister directly accused Kirsten Han, a journalist, of inviting foreign meddling in Singapore’s affairs. These were “old claims,” Han writes for The Guardian, but the new law “will grant them the legal teeth to act on assumptions.”
  • In the UK, a court awarded damages to Jane Cahane, a journalist who alleged that Mohamed Fahmy, a former Al Jazeera journalist who was once jailed in Egypt, duped her into working for what he claimed was an independent investigative website but was actually a propaganda front for Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Cahane said that she believed the site was funded by the latter country. The Guardian’s Haroon Siddique has more.
  • And move aside, contentious Oxford commas: a defamation case in Australia could hinge on a Facebook user’s non-use of an apostrophe in a complaint against his former boss. Livia Albeck-Ripka, of the Times, has the detail’s.

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Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify that Jane Cahane said she believed that a site for which she worked was funded by the UAE.

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.