The Media Today

Warning signs from the Biden-Trump split screen

January 29, 2021

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed a suite of executive orders that transformed US climate-change policy. He mandated a pause on new oil and gas leases of federal land; instituted a major push to replace gas vehicles in the federal fleet with electric ones; directed agencies to eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies; set climate as a central pillar of foreign and security policy; and established ambitious national goals for emissions targets, land and sea conservation, and green jobs. That night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes led off his show with a detailed discussion of the orders, which he called “the most sweeping, ambitious climate-action agenda ever implemented in this country, by far.” It had been, he declared, “a good day in the life of the nation.” He then interviewed the Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a key advocate of the Green New Deal: “I’m feeling extraordinarily encouraged,” she said.

Biden’s orders were, indeed, a very big deal. Most of Hayes’s colleagues and rivals across prime-time cable news, however, didn’t afford the story the same degree of focus. On MSNBC and CNN, the climate news mostly came up behind segments on the rancid state of the Republican Party, Donald Trump’s forthcoming impeachment trial, fresh warnings about the threat of domestic terrorism, and the pandemic. (Sean Hannity, of Fox News, did open with the climate orders, but only so he could accuse the “liberal, extremist, socialist Democratic Party” of foisting another job-killing nightmare on America.) It wasn’t just an ignoring-the-climate-crisis problem: in these key early days of Biden’s presidency, he has had to compete with his predecessor for the media spotlight to an extent that appears unprecedented in recent history.

New from CJR: A newsroom assesses Marty Baron’s tenure

Since Biden took office last week, we have seen prominent, penetrating coverage of his policy agenda. And it’s fair to say that much of the ongoing Trump reporting has been urgent (we’re less than a month out from an attempted coup; Trump supporters pose a threat to democracy and to the physical safety of American citizens and their elected representatives). A split-screen approach to the news is clearly necessary right now, and will likely remain so for a while. But to get that right requires careful balance—something that major outlets tend to struggle with. It happened again yesterday: Biden signed executive orders aimed at expanding access to healthcare and abortion; most every prime-time news show led with a dispatch from Trumpland. There was coverage of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon-friendly congresswoman from Georgia who, we learned this week, openly advocated violence against senior Democrats, harassed the school-shooting survivor David Hogg, and suggested that the 2018 wildfires in California may have been started by a laser beam from space. Reporters followed Matt Gaetz, a pro-Trump Republican congressman, as he traveled to Wyoming to campaign against his colleague Liz Cheney, one of ten Republicans in the House who voted for Trump’s impeachment. There were stories of Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, visiting Florida to kiss Trump’s ring at Mar-a-Lago. And pieces on aggrieved Trump fans continue to appear in abundance. We’ve seen some interviews with Biden supporters about their hopes and fears, but not to the same extent. Republican complicity with Trump is an important ongoing theme, but misplaced attention on malevolent virality-seekers can sometimes do more harm than good.

At the moment, the Republican Party’s grip on media is tighter than its hold on institutional or popular power. As the press critic Eric Boehlert has often argued, the “number one rule” of the Beltway press is that “every news cycle begins with the same premise, what are Republicans angry about today?” That standard has warped coverage of Biden: as I wrote on Monday, much reporting on his legislative agenda has been framed around the false idea that, if he can’t persuade certain Republicans to back his proposals, he will have failed to “unify” the country. And Biden’s low-key style is apparently starting to bore some journalists, not ten days after the pundit class universally hailed it as refreshing. “Biden’s first full week in office has showcased an almost jarring departure from his predecessor’s chaotic style,” the Washington Post’s Matt Viser wrote on Wednesday, in an article that described Biden’s presidency as “9-to-5,” “tightly scripted,” and light on tweets. While many found Trump’s chaos unsettling, Viser wrote, “it is unclear for now whether Biden’s more restrained style is an antidote or an overcorrection.”

When we have to devote time to numerous important stories at once, keeping focus becomes essential. We need, as the media watcher Dan Froomkin wrote last week, to unlearn the Trump-era ideas that the president should set the agenda, and that the Oval Office must feed us constantly. A press driven by outrage favors attention-hijackers like Trump and Greene, giving them oxygen even when we believe that we’re calling them out. It’s still early in Biden’s presidency, but it seems that we have not collectively moved on—and Trump isn’t even back on social media yet. The climate, alas, doesn’t have a Twitter account.

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Below, more on the climate crisis, the news cycle, and Trump:

Other notable stories:

  • CJR’s Alexandria Neason explores the media’s legacy of racism, and the insufficiency of newsrooms’ recent apologies for their past coverage. She looks back to the 1890s, when Josephus Daniels, the editor and publisher of the News & Observer, the most powerful paper in North Carolina, waged an anti-Black campaign in support of a coup. “The press of today has a different relationship with white supremacy, but the modern manifestations—of language, of omission, of framing—are the offspring of Daniels’s tactics, only softened, normalized, and couched in industry norms,” Neason writes. “We defer to police officers even though they are incentivized to lie about behavior that results in the loss of Black life. We use passive language to describe police brutality. And in the past year, we have obscured the ways systemic racism has made the effects of the pandemic most acute for Black, Native, and other marginalized people.”
  • The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani and Lachlan Cartwright report that, in 2019, the Times disciplined Donald G. McNeil, Jr.—a science reporter who has since taken a starring role in the paper’s coverage of the pandemic—after high-school students he’d accompanied on a trip to Peru said that he used the n-word, repeated stereotypes about Black teenagers, and said that “white supremacy doesn’t exist.” In a note to staff yesterday, Dean Baquet, executive editor at the Times, said he was “outraged” and expected, at first, that he would fire McNeil, but that he gave him another chance upon concluding that his remarks weren’t “hateful or malicious.” (McNeil told the Post: “Don’t believe everything you read.”)
  • Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Post, spoke with staffers at the paper about the impending retirement of Marty Baron, its executive editor; many of them praised the strong journalism and business legacies he’ll leave behind, but stressed his failure to, as one staffer put it, “assemble a newsroom and leadership structure that actually reflects the diversity of the nation—and world—it covers.” In other changing-of-the-guard news, James Goldston will step down as president of ABC News at the end of March.
  • This week, Axios reported that Twitter is venturing into newsletters; yesterday, Mike Isaac, of the Times, reported that Facebook is doing likewise. Per Isaac, Facebook is building out a publishing platform for independent writers; the details are still in flux, but the product could look similar to those offered by established newsletter companies, such as Substack. (For more on the Substack model, read Clio Chang in CJR.)
  • The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York is out with a new report, based on interviews with dozens of journalists, detailing how the pandemic has changed journalism in America. “Despite the physical distance that the virus has put between journalists, sources, and audiences,” the report concludes, “news organizations are connecting with and being challenged by the public as never before.”
  • Last year, a Pakistani court overturned the murder conviction and downgraded the kidnapping conviction of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who had been jailed for killing Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in 2002. Yesterday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by Pearl’s family, and ordered Saeed’s release. Tony Blinken, the US secretary of state, called the ruling “an affront to terrorism victims everywhere.”
  • A British court rejected a bid by News UK, a branch of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, to make the government pay back six years’ worth of taxes on News UK’s digital operations. The company argued that a tax exemption for print newspapers should be retroactively extended to cover online news, but the court said no. (Online news will qualify for the exemption going forward thanks to a law that passed last year.) Bloomberg has more.
  • And Corky Lee, a photographer who documented America’s Asian and Pacific Islander communities, has died. He was seventy-three, and had recently been hospitalized with COVID-19. Lee’s work—which he described as being driven by a desire for “photographic justice”—appeared in many major outlets. Most recently, the AP reports, “he was documenting anti-Asian racism brought on by the pandemic.”

ICYMI: Twitter gets into the newsletter business—should Substack be worried?

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.