The Media Today

Biden wins, but Trump—and division—aren’t going away

November 9, 2020

CNN’s election-count coverage ended as it began: with Wolf Blitzer all excited. “After four long, tense days, we’ve reached a historic moment in this election,” he said. “We can now project the winner of the presidential race.” One thrumming musical interlude later, the network reported that Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (the full name treatment, so it must be serious) had taken Pennsylvania, and thus Pennsylvania Avenue. It was 11:24am Eastern on Saturday. Within four minutes, NBC, CBS, ABC, and the Associated Press had all echoed CNN’s call; over on Fox News, Neil Cavuto said that his network was “not comfortable doing that yet ourselves,” but by 11:40am, Fox, too, had declared the election over. (Decision Desk HQ and its media partners, including Vox and Business Insider, called the race several hours earlier; per the Washington Post, the AP and the networks delayed due to insufficient data and pandemic-linked uncertainty, and not—as some observers and Biden backers feared—out of excessive, Trump-induced caution.) In cities across America, Biden supporters banged pans and honked car horns—the original push notification. The Queens Daily Eagle reported that a local man had just been evicted. Washingtonian reported that a longtime federal employee was relocating to a historic home.

Even though the Biden call was not a surprise, the mainstream press seemed to exhale, all at once. The banner headlines instantly came out. Back on CNN, Van Jones sobbed, and Jake Tapper and Abby Phillip wondered what we should start calling Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. (Tapper suggested “the second dude.”)  Later, Biden and Harris gave victory speeches in Delaware, and commentators marveled at their use of ungarbled sentences. Slate published a package of articles waving goodbye to administration staffers—from Jared Kushner to the EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler—who “have made the past four years so difficult for so many people” and soon “will not matter”; over at New York, Sarah Jones also bade farewell, to Trump’s “lesser ghouls.” Yesterday, ABC’s Jonathan Karl and CNN’s Phillip admitted to Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, that they’d long since disabled Trump-tweet alerts on their phones, and Stelter did likewise live on air. Despite Trump’s continued non-acceptance of his defeat, it felt, suddenly, as if he’d been defanged and demystified; stories informing us that he was in a foul mood and had gone to play golf felt pitiable, almost comforting. When the networks called the race, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, was making wild allegations of voter fraud in a press conference at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia—not the hotel, but a landscaping business next door to an adult bookstore and a crematorium. The venue was, apparently, not a mistake. The tweets wrote themselves anyway.

Related: Addicted to CNN in the UK

In a pre-election interview, the historian Rick Perlstein told me that mainstream news organizations have, in his view, long tried to privilege consensus over conflict. So it was over the weekend. Trump-antagonizing Republicans—including John Kasich, who publicly endorsed Biden, and Sen. Mitt Romney, who did not, but didn’t vote for Trump, either—swarmed TV news warning Biden not to govern as a progressive, as hosts and pundits echoed the central theme of unity. America had elected Biden to “heal the nation,” NBC’s Chuck Todd said. “That is why he ran and that is why he won.” For the last five years, members of the media have characterized Trump, time and again, as “divisive”—often at the expense of sharper words, such as “racist.” For many among us, it seems, division was always his greatest sin.

The weekend’s invocations of unity, of course, were downstream of Biden himself—it was a key plank of his candidacy, and he emphasized it again in his victory speech. Many reporters will see it as their job to hold Biden to that standard, and partially, that’s fair. But there are complications here: the unity focus, to my mind, invites divergent media paths that should both be avoided. One path—which I outlined recently with my colleague Pete Vernon—involves treating Biden as a welcome return to “normalcy,” allowing him to dodge substantive policy scrutiny as long as his tone stays proper, while siloing Trump and Trumpism as aberrant when they are anything but; the other path, conversely, involves holding Biden to an impossibly-high standard (especially when compared to Trump) and blaming him if unity does not materialize, even though unity has never been in a single man’s gift. Look carefully, and the present news cycle offers portents of both approaches. We’ll need to find a middle ground, and quickly.

Whatever our Biden coverage comes to look like, the notion that we can all just move on from Trump now is fanciful. Already, there’s lively debate as to his short-term plans—Will he really dig his heels in or will he flounce off, resignedly, to Mar-a-Lago?—and longer-term intentions: Will he start a new right-wing media company, or does he lack the money and business acumen for the task? Will he run again in 2024, or is he secretly glad to be shot of politics? If the latter, who will be his anointed successor, and can anyone win without his support? What about (a) possible prosecution(s)? On Friday, Zeynep Tufekci warned, in a column for The Atlantic, that where Trump proved to be “ineffective and easily beaten,” a competent strongman could easily harness his base and consolidate power in the future; others argued back that for all his political weaknesses, Trump possesses some ineffable, indivisible Trumpiness that a successor will not easily be able to emulate. I see cases for both. Either way, Trump is sure to continue to command an outsized portion of our attention. He could take a monastic vow of silence and still would own the future of the Republican Party—and he’s not going to take a monastic view of silence. How long til the Jon Karls of the world are reinstating their Trump-tweet alerts?

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Whatever his future plans, we mustn’t take our eyes off of Trump right now. His refusal to accept his defeat may look increasingly bungled and sex-shop-adjacent, but it still amounts to a frightening, authoritarian assault that is both utterly outrageous in its own right and almost certain to cause lasting damage to faith in America’s electoral system. Just because it’s highly unlikely to work this time doesn’t make it not dangerous. Writing for Vox on Saturday, Ezra Klein referenced the genre of stories that satirize American dysfunction by covering it as Americans would cover dysfunction abroad; when it comes to Trump’s “autocratic attempt,” Klein wrote, “we need to cover it as if it is happening here, because it is.” Nor should we forget the mass-scale voter-suppression effort that Republicans just pushed. Again, that it doesn’t seem to have worked on a national scale this time doesn’t make it inconsequential.

And—contrary to some weekend coverage—Trump’s presidency cannot yet be consigned to the past tense. The words “lame duck” typically evoke harmless impotence, but this year, the duck might go rabid: squeezing all the juice it can out of the apparatus of the federal government in the name of self-preservation, spite, or both, without much fear of consequences. I’ve long seen the lame-duck period as potentially the most dangerous of a Trump presidency. I could be wrong, of course. Either way, vigilance will be essential. The current landscape looks bleak for Trump, but the whirlwind he has reaped will last far longer than four seasons.

Below, more on Biden and the election:

  • Biden and the press: Speaking with CNN’s Stelter yesterday, T.J. Ducklo, the Biden campaign’s national press secretary, pledged that the next administration will treat the press much better than the current one has. “President-elect Biden believes that the media is a critical piece of our democracy,” Ducklo said, and that “the media’s job is to hold him accountable. He is there to do the people’s work.” According to Politico’s Playbook team, Symone Sanders, a senior Biden adviser, is currently the favorite to become his White House press secretary. She also appeared on CNN yesterday.
  • Meanwhile, in Murdoch world: On Friday, before the race was called, CNN reported on emails circulating inside Fox News warning anchors and other staff not to call Biden the “president-elect” should the network’s Decision Desk call the race for him. Fox denied that the emails constituted official, company-wide guidance, and news anchors subsequently used the term to characterize Biden—but some opinion personalities and Fox guests have continued to back up Trump’s bogus election rhetoric. Elsewhere in the Murdoch media empire, the New York Post published news stories critical of Trump, and an editorial calling on him to go graciously—a departure from the paper’s pre-election tone. Katie Robertson, of the Times, reports that top editors have told staffers to be tougher on Trump, and that Col Allan, a veteran Murdoch lieutenant who has driven pro-Trump coverage as an adviser to the paper, now plans to retire.
  • On Maggie: Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, profiles his colleague (and friend) Maggie Haberman, who has led the way on the Trump beat. She says that she won’t miss the outsized attention that has come with her success. “Haberman is not going to move to Washington to join the new White House team… but instead anticipates covering some blend of the new administration and the enduring Trump orbit from New York,” Smith writes. “She hopes that she’ll break more news, and worries that she’ll lose her touch. ‘I’m dispensable,’ she said, an assertion that Times editors would take issue with.”
  • On AOC: After Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives, moderate members of the party’s caucus unloaded on progressives for dragging them down. In an interview with Astead W. Herndon, of the Times, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading progressive, pushed back, arguing that many swing-district Democrats ran lackluster digital campaigns. “Some of this is criminal. It’s malpractice,” she said. “If you’re not spending $200,000 on Facebook with fund-raising, persuasion, volunteer recruitment, get-out-the-vote the week before the election, you are not firing on all cylinders.” Herndon then interviewed Rep. Connor Lamb, a moderate Democrat who narrowly won reelection in Pennsylvania and who pushed back on the pushback.
  • Taking Stockton: Michael Tubbs—the mayor of Stockton, California, who is considered a rising star by many in the Democratic Party—is currently trailing in his reelection bid. (The final result isn’t known yet as many ballots remain uncounted.) Anita Chabria, of the LA Times, reports that Tubbs has been hampered by the 209 Times, a social-media page that has relentlessly targeted him. “As the city’s local newspaper, the Record, has struggled with staff cuts in recent years, the 209 Times… has amassed nearly 100,000 followers on Facebook and 118,000 on Instagram,” Chabria writes. Facebook categorizes the 209 Times as a news and media company, even though its founder acknowledges that it is not a journalistic entity.
  • Folk-Gore: Yesterday, the Trump campaign plastered the walls of its HQ with an old Washington Times front page declaring the Democrat Al Gore president in 2000; Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s comms director, tweeted that it was a “reminder that the media doesn’t select the president.” The front page, though, was a fabrication. Murtaugh deleted his tweet and later conceded, to CNN, that he’d spread “fake news.”
  • Bemusement abroad: For CJR, I explored how British people suddenly became addicted to CNN’s ongoing election coverage. Elsewhere, ABC News tweeted about fireworks in London following Biden’s victory—but Brits always let off fireworks in early November, to commemorate the attempted blowing-up of Parliament, in 1605. And Le Monde was forced to explain Gritty to its readers after Biden took Pennsylvania.
  • Danger at home: On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with Masha Gessen, of the New Yorker, about the continuing threat of autocracy in the US. You can listen to their conversation here.

Other notable stories:

  • For New York magazine, Reeves Wiedeman explores the shape of internal tensions at the Times. The divide in the newsroom is partly generational, but is more meaningfully about temperament—“institutionalist versus insurrectionist,” as one Times staffer put it. “The institutionalists were willing to play the internal Game of Thrones required to ascend the masthead because they never wanted to work anywhere else,” Wiedeman writes. “The insurrectionists, meanwhile, had often come from digital outlets or tech companies or advocacy groups and could imagine leaving the place at any time.”
  • Last month, Lukas I. Alpert and Benjamin Mullin, of the Wall Street Journal, reported that Uzabase, a Japanese media company, was looking to sell Quartz, in part due to the financial carnage of the pandemic. Yesterday, Alpert reported that Zach Seward, Quartz’s co-founder and CEO, will buy the site, with Katherine Bell, its editor in chief, taking a minority stake. Seward said that Quartz is reverting to being “a startup and an independent company.” It will seek new investors and take a loan from Uzabase’s CEO.
  • Taidgh Barron, a former staff photographer at the New York Post, is suing the paper and its owner, alleging that they assigned him to cover the pandemic and this summer’s protests without providing adequate personal protective equipment, then fired him after he complained. According to the lawsuit, the paper says that it fired Barron for financial reasons. The Hollywood Reporter’s Eriq Gardner has more details.
  • Jane Coaston, a politics reporter at Vox, will soon take over as host of The Argument, a weekly podcast from the Times’s opinion section. Since its debut in 2018, The Argument has been hosted by Times opinion writers including Michelle Goldberg, Ross Douthat, David Leonhardt, and Frank Bruni. Douthat and Goldberg will continue to appear, alongside “a rotating cast of guests and debaters from within and outside of Opinion.”
  • Javier C. Hernández, of the Times, spoke with US-based Chinese journalists who have been caught in the crossfire of a media-based diplomatic tit-for-tat between the two countries. US officials have said that reporters for Chinese outlets are engaging in propaganda, not reporting—but while many work for state-backed outlets, others work for “more commercially minded organizations that strive to produce in-depth journalism.”
  • And two veterans of the Times died recently. Marylin Bender, the first woman to serve as the paper’s Sunday business editor, passed away in mid-October, aged ninety-five. And Seymour Topping—a prolific foreign correspondent for the Times who eventually became the paper’s managing editor—died yesterday. He was ninety-eight.

New from CJR: A Confrontation in Public Media

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.