The Media Today

When procedure becomes the story

November 24, 2020

Yesterday, media eyes turned to Michigan, where a canvassing board met to certify Joe Biden’s clear presidential victory in the state. CNN’s Dianne Gallagher, broadcasting live from Lansing, tried to explain to viewers that the process is typically “mundane,” but was drowned out by Trump supporters’ chants of “CNN sucks”; online, reporters and curious observers, from Michigan and further afield, watched the meeting on a livestream that, at times, had more than thirty-thousand viewers. The reason for all the interest was the prospect that the board’s two Republican members—in particular, a man named Norm Shinkle—might vote against certification, despite having no good reason to do so. (Shinkle’s wife previously filed an affidavit, in support of a Trump-campaign lawsuit, alleging that poll workers in Detroit were “extremely rude” to her.) NPR’s Linda Holmes printed a t-shirt with a message that just about summed up the situation: “I never wanted to learn this much about the Michigan Board of State Canvassers.”

After several hours, the canvassing board did its job: Shinkle abstained, but his Republican colleague, Aaron Van Langevelde, voted to certify, as did the board’s two Democratic members. The vote was just the latest in a series of procedural dramas that we’ve witnessed since the election—formalities that have passed without media mention in prior years, but become stories in light of President Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and rancid efforts to pressure Republican functionaries to go along with the con. As I’ve written here before, coverage of Trump’s push to overturn the election results has often been head-spinning—it has lurched between discordant notes, from ridicule to alarm, that feel contradictory but actually aren’t, and channeled starkly different assessments of how worried we should be, sometimes within the same hour of TV programming. Last Thursday, for instance, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes advised his viewers not to get “a knot in your stomach” about the outcome since Trump’s assault on democracy “is not gonna work,” then interviewed The Atlantic’s Barton Gellman, who, having covered the assault extensively, was less sure. “You’re probably right that he’s not gonna get away with it,” Gellman told Hayes, “but I wish I could believe that it’s completely out of the question, and I don’t.” The resulting whiplash has been perfectly understandable—Trump has dragged us, once again, into territory that is uncharted and should have remained so—but it’s been disorienting all the same.

From the magazine: New Money

Another theater of unlikely procedural drama has been the federal government’s General Services Administration, whose leader, Emily Murphy, refused for weeks to “ascertain” Biden’s likely victory—a legal box that must be checked before a presidential transition can begin. Murphy, too, has become a character in the national news cycle, perhaps too much so—last week, several stories sought to humanize her by quoting friends who characterized her as a diligent public servant caught in an impossible bind, and drew the ire of various media critics and commentators. (“No. She is not doing her honest duty,” The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, a prolific chronicler of complicity, wrote in response to CNN’s profile of Murphy. “The only explanation for her behavior is the most obvious one: She has bought the ideology; she has become a true believer; she has accepted the lies.”) It’s a journalist’s job, of course, to portray newsworthy figures with nuance, but that becomes complicated when, as with Murphy, the figure is only in the news because of their refusal to perform a basic task—one that, again, is not commonly worthy of comment—in the public interest. Last night, following the Michigan certification, Murphy finally ascertained Biden’s win. Trump tweeted confirmation that the transition would begin, but he did not concede defeat, and his legal challenges look set to continue. (According to the Daily Beast, Christina Bobb, a trained lawyer and host on the Trump-sycophant One America News Network, is now helping with Trump’s election litigation.)

The phenomenon of paying close attention to typically-mundane processes isn’t unique to the election story—it also applies to the pandemic story, which has disrupted the basic, unremarked mechanics of everyday human life, and trained unusually intense public scrutiny on scientific advances. As I’ve noted here before, and my colleague Shinhee Kang explored in depth last week, this is especially true of the vaccine-development story, where incremental advances have been “magnified as news alerts”; routine setbacks have been amplified in “major headlines, inciting alarm”; and the competition between drug companies has been a dominant theme. As Ellen Ruppel Shell, a professor of science journalism at Boston University, told Kang, “a lot of the coverage is almost done as if it’s a sports match: ‘Who’s going to be the winner?’”

We saw more evidence of that yesterday, as AstraZeneca announced, based on an interim analysis of trial data, that a vaccine it has been developing with researchers at Oxford University, in the UK, is on average seventy-percent effective, a figure that declined to sixty-two percent when two full doses were administered, but rose to around ninety percent when a half dose followed by a full dose was administered. Responding to that complexity, different outlets emphasized different findings—a push notification sent out by Bloomberg, for instance, cited the seventy-percent average and noted that the vaccine had fallen “short of the bar” set by competitors developed by Pfizer and Moderna, whereas a New York Times notification cited the “up to ninety percent” figure and called AstraZeneca “the third drugmaker to announce promising results.” Some experts, meanwhile, cautioned that coverage shouldn’t focus on effectiveness alone: Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor at Baylor and regular guest on CNN, tweeted that we should also assess vaccine candidates’ durability, long-term safety, and ease of delivery. On the latter score, the AstraZeneca vaccine is easier to store than other leading candidates.

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Journalists have always had to cover procedure, of course, but the recent raising of the stakes, across numerous beats, has been a challenge. Sometimes, we’ve failed to translate the nuts and bolts into clear, consistent coverage, but we have also seen excellent, diligent reporting on the minutiae, especially on the local level, in Michigan and elsewhere. We should not shy away from detail. But we should be careful—especially when it comes to the vaccine story—not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. And we should ensure—especially when it comes to the election story—that we retain a sense of proportion, and not expend undue resources on hapless chicanery.

More broadly, we should be wary of a contradiction here: we’re diving deeper into the weeds at a time when our information ecosystem incentivizes the opposite—oversimplification, at best, and disinformation, at worst, all with a dollop of outrage. A greater focus on routine processes—especially when they seem to be working as designed—ought, perhaps, to help restore public trust, but bad actors have instead turned them into grist for conspiracies. The supposed corruption of procedure is a key tenet of vaccine denialism, and of Trump’s election denialism, too. His erosion of trust in formalities that the average news consumer did not, until this year, know about will have long-term consequences, even if the air seems to have gone out of his immediate threats. As MSNBC’s Hayes said last night, referring to the belated initiation of the Trump-Biden transition, it “seems like a big deal, and also a tragedy that it had to be a big deal.”

Below, more on the coronavirus and the election:

  • Boosterism: Amid concerning levels of vaccine skepticism among the American public, a marketing push aimed at persuading people to get vaccinated is underway—led not by the federal government, but by the Ad Council, a nonprofit group. The group “led a similar effort in the 1950s, when it urged Americans to get vaccinated against polio,” Tiffany Hsu writes for the Times. Its coronavirus vaccination push “will be one of the largest public education crusades in history,” with public service announcements set to roll out “across airwaves, publications and social media next year.”
  • The transition: Yesterday, we learned the identities of Biden’s first cabinet nominees—he’s tapping Antony Blinken for secretary of state, Alejandro Mayorkas for homeland security secretary, Avril Haines for director of national intelligence, Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador, John Kerry as a special presidential envoy for climate, and Janet Yellen, the former chair of Federal Reserve, for treasury secretary. Many liberal commentators hailed the picks as boring, in a good way. “If you wonder how these people will govern, just close your eyes and imagine yourself back to 2016, before you developed that nervous tic that causes you to rip out your hair by its roots whenever your phone buzzes with a news alert,” The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood wrote. “What a luxury to see the Cabinet gradually populated with low-key operators who do not view manic stimulation of the electorate as a sign of a job well done.”
  • “Make schmoozing great again”: Roxanne Roberts, of the Post, reports that the DC establishment hopes that the Biden administration will restore the city’s previously-cozy social scene. “Without Trump, the White House correspondents’ dinner—typically a night of mutual good will between the administration and the press that covers it—became an awkward defense of the First Amendment,” Roberts writes. Under Biden, events like “the Honors, the Alfalfa dinner, the Gridiron, Ford’s Theatre gala and the correspondents’ dinner” will “likely return to their former glory.”
  • Turkey, I: Yesterday, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, received the International Emmys’ Founders Award, for his “effective use” of televised press briefings during the pandemic; according to Josefa Velásquez, of The City, his press conference yesterday was delayed by his acceptance speech. Also yesterday, Cuomo said, in a radio interview, that he’d invited his daughters and elderly mother to join him for Thanksgiving—after spending days urging New Yorkers to reconsider their holiday plans. He later reversed course.
  • Turkey, II: Trump will lead the traditional White House turkey pardon today, with two birds called “Concede” and “The Election.” (Just kidding, they’re called “Corn” and “Cob”—though in 2018, Trump really did pardon a turkey named “Carrots” who, in the president’s telling, lost a “fair and open election” but “refused to concede and demanded a recount.” Trump told Carrots that he was sorry, but “the result did not change.”) The ceremony will be Trump’s first public appearance since Murphy ascertained Biden’s win. As Mark Leibovich, of the Times, put it, today “might be the single most awaited presidential turkey pardoning, ever.”

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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.