The problem with ‘moderates v. progressives’

In June 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive, defeated Joe Crowley, then the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, in a Congressional primary in New York. While news organizations such as The Intercept and The Young Turks (and, yes, Ozy) had covered her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory came as a seismic shock to the many major outlets—not least the New York Times—that failed to see it coming, and in the aftermath, those outlets were roundly criticized for their blindspot. As I wrote at the time, their failure went “significantly beyond the latest horse race,” reflecting a media culture of dismissing movements on the left as unserious, and a related problem of language. “Having spent years carefully parsing distinct ideological currents on the right,” I wrote, “much coverage of the left still leans on disputed labels like ‘liberal,’ ‘progressive,’ and ‘the Resistance.’” Journalists have generally understood “what divides mainstream Republicans and more radical groups like the Tea Party.” Divisions on the left, I wrote, “are just as sharp—and just as consequential—but are not as well understood.”

More than three years later, Ocasio-Cortez is a fixture in Congress and—with President Biden working to push through a hugely consequential spending package and a linked bipartisan infrastructure bill that already cleared the Senate—divisions among Democratic lawmakers are a big story. Not that the language problem has been solved. The dynamic among Congressional Democrats has been characterized, in much coverage, as a civil war between “moderates” and “progressives,” even though both terms remain fuzzy: the former increasingly feels unmoored from any actual ideological position; the latter at least reflects the name of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—a nearly hundred-strong group of lawmakers whose leader, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, has tirelessly toured cable studios in recent days—but has not been used with much consistency. Late last week, after House Democratic leadership shelved a planned vote on the infrastructure bill as progressives sought assurances from recalcitrant colleagues on the other package, the New York Times characterized the delay as the result of a “liberal revolt.” On Saturday, another Times story reported that Biden had “thrown in” with his party’s “left” rather than its “center,” leaving “his agenda in doubt,” while CNN ran an analysis piece that referred to “the left” in its headline, “liberal Democrats” in its first paragraph, and “progressive Democrats” in its second. On Sunday, Axios splashed: “Left seizes control.”

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In recent days, critics have pushed back on such framing, taking issue both with the imprecision of the labels and the insubstantial “civil war” emphasis. Coverage has depicted “a horse race with four thoroughbreds—‘moderates,’ ‘the Biden White House,’ ‘progressives,’ and ‘Republicans’ all jockeying for first place,” Adam Johnson wrote yesterday in his newsletter. “The seniors who will go without healthcare, dental coverage, and hearing aids are incidental and not worth mentioning.” Democratic politicians have been among those to have weighed in. Rep. Mondaire Jones, a member of the Progressive Caucus, told The Hill that “referring to the small handful of conservative Democrats working to block the president’s agenda as ‘moderates’ does grave harm to the English language and unfairly maligns my colleagues who are actually moderate yet by and large understand the stakes of this historic moment.” Speaking on Meet the Press Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders said that “the media thinks this is the Red Sox playing the Yankees. It is not.” Even Biden seems annoyed. “These bills are not about left versus right or moderate versus progressive or anything that pits Americans against one another,” he said yesterday, as he visited Michigan to promote his agenda. “These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency. They’re about opportunity versus decay.”

Biden has also recently pushed back on the “revolt” part of the “liberal revolt” formulation: currently, House progressives are working to save his agenda, not imperil it. Many media watchers have echoed the point that the real rebels here are the few “moderates,” chiefly senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who are still holding out on the spending bill: Greg Sargent, of the Washington Post, called the wave of coverage to the contrary “backward” and “through the looking glass”; Joan Walsh, of The Nation, pointed out that “it’s actually the progressives who have compromised; they are the pragmatists,” and asked, “why can’t the media get this story right?” On her MSNBC show Friday, Joy Reid took aim at “the narrative that the moderates are always reasonable ones and the progressives are always wild-eyed crazy ones,” and invited on Eric Boehlert, a press critic, to discuss. “The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is now the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” Boehlert said. “The press, as you point out, is playing catch-up. It is not used to covering progressives—particularly, let’s say, women of color in the Democratic Party—as our brokers, as being the center of the party.”

To my mind, much—though by no means all—of the recent coverage has revealed a series of linked truths about the political press: that American political culture and institutional design have taught many reporters to see the center of legislative gravity as sitting with “centrist” “deal-makers,” that progressives are not serious legislators, and that any delay to a vote that would get something done is typically framed as obstruction and not a strategic step toward doing more. It’s important to check all of these assumptions at the door when covering the current dynamics, for the sake of accuracy, if nothing else: it’s misleading to suggest that a left fringe is working at cross purposes to Biden when in fact the vast majority of Democrats in Congress support his proposals; the outsized veto power of Manchin and Sinema should not be mistaken for an anchor dropped at the “center” of their party.

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Still, an extra step is required here, since it’s also true that lots of politicians liking something is not in itself a measure of virtue. As I wrote last week, the best coverage of the negotiations has interrogated the substance of the bills under discussion ahead of Democratic infighting. It has also interrogated the motives of the Democratic holdouts—or tried to, at least, since it still isn’t really clear to anyone what Sinema wants beyond attention. (“We have to go from what we know and see,” Reid said on MSNBC Monday, noting Sinema’s “all-white co-negotiators on the infrastructure bill and rich donors.”) Shorthand labels like “moderate” and “progressive” dilute such scrutiny, grouping Democrats with diverse politics and motivations under a single banner and telling news consumers very little of what they actually want. Journalistic shorthand is hard, but we don’t actually need to resort to it here. If we stop treating the ongoing negotiations like the Red Sox playing the Yankees, then we don’t have to name the teams.

None of this is to say that parsing such language about the left doesn’t matter; the looseness with which so many journalists still use it reflects a continuing lack of media investment in understanding the many nuances of the left as a serious political force, especially when compared to the right. A growing number of outlets and reporters are making that investment, but, when I look back on 2018, I don’t see enough improvement across the board. The media missing Ocasio-Cortez was framed mostly as a failure of horse-race coverage, and it was. But it reflected a failure of governance coverage, too. We’re seeing that clearly now.

Below, more on Congress and Biden’s bills:

  • An excoriation: Last week, Dan Froomkin, a media critic, tore apart the Times’s “liberal revolt” story on his blog, arguing that it revealed a “triumphalist delight in anything that can be characterized as a failure by progressives,” and contained other descriptions of the delayed infrastructure vote—like “humiliating blow”—that constitute “entirely subjective judgement, which assumes both that the action in question is inherently shameful and that the person in question ought to be ashamed.” As a companion piece to his post, Froomkin debuted a new feature, called “Let me rewrite that for you,” where he takes “a handful of recent articles that I felt badly missed the mark, and offer alternative ledes or nut graphs that I think do a better job of telling the truer story.”
  • An imitation: While Manchin has spoken relatively often with reporters in recent days, Sinema has proven elusive; as Reid put it on Monday, she “rarely holds town halls with her constituents or speaks to the press and often dismisses the Capitol press corps that covers her, including by throwing out stupid jokes.” Sinema seems to be trying to present herself as an independent-minded maverick in the mold of John McCain, her Republican predecessor from Arizona—but as numerous reporters have noted, McCain couldn’t stop talking to the press. “Sinema is totally silent in public,” the political journalist Ben Jacobs wrote on Twitter. “In contrast, McCain would be doing multiple Sunday shows and engage in extended albeit vague dialogues… every day in this situation.”
  • A cancelation: On Sunday, Biden attended church in Wilmington, Delaware, then walked through a cemetery where his late son Beau is buried, a visual that prompted Annie Linskey, a White House correspondent at the Post, to tweet that Biden was visiting a graveyard “as his legislative agenda is dying in Washington.” (Linskey later deleted the tweet and apologized.) The writer Parker Molloy unsubscribed from the Post, calling the tweet “the final straw.” When “right-wingers get upset at the press, news organizations will bend over backwards to make them feel better,” Molloy wrote. “When people on the left are upset about bad coverage, though? They respond by mocking us.”
  • An elucidation: In late August, Mehdi Hasan, a host on Peacock and MSNBC, took issue with the “moderate Democrat” label, flashing up on screen a dictionary definition of the term. “It’s not some sort of neutral, balanced description,” he said. “It’s a heavily-loaded and very ideological term. If you’re a moderate, then everyone else is what? An extremist?” Recently, I profiled Hasan for CJR’s issue on political journalism after Trump, and discussed the piece with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, on our podcast, The Kicker. We talked about the media’s left-language problem, too.


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The inaugural Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards ceremony will take place later today, honoring outstanding reporting on the climate crisis. The winners will be announced at a special event hosted by Al Roker and Savannah Sellers, of NBC News; you’ll be able to watch it from 4pm Eastern on the websites of Covering Climate Now and its partners CJR, The Nation, The Guardian, and NowThis. The ceremony will stream again on NBC News NOW on October 8 at 11pm Eastern, and on October 10 at 7am Eastern. Mark Hertsgaard and Pope, the leaders of our Covering Climate Now initiative, have more details.


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower who provided documents to the Wall Street Journal showing the harms caused by the company’s platforms, testified before a Senate subcommittee and called on lawmakers to regulate Facebook. Congressional hearings about social media have a tendency to go off the rails; numerous journalists praised this one as substantive and insightful, though whether that’ll translate into action remains to be seen. Last night, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, finally weighed in on Haugen and the Journal’s reporting, calling the former’s arguments “illogical” and the “recent coverage hard to read because it just doesn’t reflect the company we know.”
  • For CJR, Linda Kinstler explored how news outlets are handling the right to be forgotten, with US newspaper editors increasingly considering requests to take down old crime coverage, for example, that continues to incriminate its subjects as long as it remains online. “Handling unpublishing requests is, for editors, a high-wire act,” Kinstler concludes. “They must strike a balance between evaluating every case on its merits and applying the same standards to each one. While doing so, they must engage in an ongoing conversation with their newsrooms about what to cover in the present.”
  • On Monday, the LA Times reported, citing records it reviewed, that officials saw “strong indications” of an oil spill off the California coast last Friday night—hours before the leak was formally reported to the authorities and they notified the public. Yesterday, the Coast Guard confirmed the paper’s story but claimed that the initial reports had been “inconclusive,” and that officials had had to wait until daylight to investigate. The paper, which has been covering the story aggressively, reports that the timeline remains murky.
  • Also for the LA Times, Matt Pearce explores the causes of “missing white woman syndrome,” a term for the racist and classist disparities in media coverage of missing people that have again been evident in the recent case of Gabby Petito, who was found killed in Wyoming. According to a study cited by Pearce, “police, not media, were often the real driving force determining which cases got media attention and which didn’t.”
  • Elaine Godfrey, of The Atlantic, reflects on the decline of the Hawk Eye, a local paper in Iowa that she read growing up. “When people lament the decline of small newspapers, they tend to emphasize the most important stories that will go uncovered,” she writes. “We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.”
  • In media-business news, a Democratic super PAC said that the Dallas Morning News rejected an ad it tried to place criticizing AT&T for donations to politicians who backed Texas’s new anti-abortion law. Elsewhere, Ozy, the beleaguered digital-media company, now faces a lawsuit alleging that it defrauded an investor. And The Appeal, the criminal-justice news site that shuttered in June, is back as a worker-owned nonprofit.
  • Michael Cavna, of the Post, profiled Emma Allen, the humor and cartoon editor at The New Yorker who “is shaking up the popular notion of just what a New Yorker cartoon is, knowing that imitation is the sincerest form of apathy.” There was “a vernacular shorthand of what a New Yorker cartoon looked like that people were copying,” Allen says—a “cycle of preexisting jokes” that is “rarely the best way to go for a laugh.”
  • For Refinery29, Frances Solá-Santiago spoke with Black women who are leading an “anti-racist media renaissance” in Puerto Rico, including by using the 2020 Census as “a tool to transform the narratives around Blackness.” Gloriann Sacha Antonetty Lebrón, of the magazine Revista Étnica, said, “If you don’t see yourself represented in TV, ads, and newspapers, of course you won’t feel comfortable identifying yourself as Black.”
  • And Adam Wagner, a lawyer in the UK, wrote a column that the Mail published with a headshot and “analysis” label—except the “column” was a series of tweets that the Mail reproduced without Wagner’s knowledge. The paper eventually paid him 250 pounds, which worked out at nearly fifty dollars per tweet. “They offered £100,” he told Nieman Lab, “but I suggested they take into account that what they did was probably illegal.”

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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.

TOP IMAGE: U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chants with activists who have gathered near the U.S. Capitol to call on Congress to include progressive causes in the infrastructure spending bills that they are currently debating in Washington, D.C. on September 30, 2021. (Photo by Matthew Rodier/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)