Infrastructure, the Republican Party, and what democracy demands of the press

As March neared its end, reporters hailed the arrival—finally—of Infrastructure Week. It had originally been scheduled for June 2017, with the stated idea being that the Trump administration would focus its public messaging on infrastructure-spending proposals with the potential to attract bipartisan support in Congress; in reality, it was a pretext to distract media attention from an explosive Congressional hearing with James Comey, the fired FBI director, that fell apart when Trump proved unable to resist jabbing in Comey’s direction. Trump aides planned several more “Infrastructure Weeks,” each of which was similarly derailed; quickly, the phrase became a humorous Beltway euphemism for Trump’s inability to focus on anything of substance—“less a date on the calendar,” as Katie Rogers wrote in the New York Times, than “a Groundhog Day-style fever dream.” On March 31 of this year, however, Bill Murray was finally set free: President Joe Biden, who replaced Trump in the White House, went to Pittsburgh and laid out his intention to pass a two-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that would cover everything from transit to elderly care, while bolstering the fights against racism and climate change.

Infrastructure Week soon ended; although the press continued to cover Biden’s plan, it gradually receded into the background of the news cycle as other stories spun to the top. Many of those have involved the Republican Party: the fallout from restrictive voting laws in Georgia and other states, the litany of troubling allegations against Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, Trump’s continued rumblings from Mar-a-Lago, the election “fraudit” in Arizona, House Republicans’ vote to oust Liz Cheney as their conference chair after she refused to indulge Trump’s lies about the election, House and Senate Republicans’ opposition to a 9/11-style commission on the January 6 insurrection, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene comparing mask mandates to the Holocaust, and so on. Of all of these, the Cheney story has perhaps been the biggest (though the Greene story is still young)—cable news shows dissected it endlessly as a paradigmatic example of the Republican Party’s authoritarian turn, and Cheney herself stoked the fire by sitting for a series of high-profile interviews. She’s likely to remain an object of fascination for some time, as the latest leader of the Republican Resistance. “Cheney plainly understands that the mechanics of the modern media economy will give her an outsized platform to share her views,” as Bloomberg’s Joshua Green put it. “Political press coverage thrives on two things—conflict and Trump—that Cheney delivers in one efficient package.”

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The subtext here is that the direction of the GOP is inextricably linked to the fate of American democracy. “It’s my opinion that the United States needs a healthy, thriving, fact-based Republican Party,” Jake Tapper argued on CNN, after party leaders started to turn on Cheney. “It is difficult to… conclude that we have one.” On Monday, Mika Brzezinski, a host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, said, “We need a real Republican Party. What we don’t need in this country is an insurrectionist party.” Her cohost and husband, Joe Scarborough, himself a former Republican Congressman, agreed. “We have three parties in America now,” he said. “We have the Republican Party, we have the Democratic Party, and we have the Insurrectionist Party. And I think it’s really important for people in the media to recognize that.” He proceeded to criticize coverage equating Cheney with the insurrectionists, in light of an interview with Axios in which she backed voter-ID laws and separated them from Trump’s election lies. “That’s a debate that we can have between the guardrails of American democracy,” Scarborough said.

This debate is, in fact, about the guardrails of American democracy, and separating the Republican Party from “the Insurrectionist Party” is wishful thinking, but the broader argument here has merit: the GOP’s current direction is clearly dangerous for democracy, and functional political parties, collectively speaking, play a vital role in structuring, and peacefully resolving, democratic disputes. The problem is that large sections of the media seem to depend on the perpetuation of America’s party system as it has traditionally existed—the frames we use to cover politics routinely rest on the assumption not only that two parties can collectively represent a huge and diverse country, but that those parties should, as a matter of moral principle, strive as much as possible to agree on matters of policy, and not just on the color of the sky and who won the last election. This manifests, as I and others have written before, in journalists and pundits privileging “unity” and “bipartisanship” over outcomes.

Which brings us back to infrastructure. After Biden unveiled his broad plan, an interesting debate started to crystallize, across the media, as to what infrastructure actually means. Some outlets have continued to convene that debate; as I explored recently, for example, numerous commentators have made the case that local news constitutes critical infrastructure, and that the government should invest in it. Others, though, quickly declared the debate closed. (A week after Biden outlined his plan, Politico’s influential Playbook newsletter declared more than half of its proposed spending to not clearly fit the definition of infrastructure, saying, for instance, that it would be “silly” to label home-care services that way.) When infrastructure has risen back up the wider news cycle in recent weeks, coverage has typically either been reactive to fresh failures of American infrastructure—the Colonial Pipeline hack, most notably—or preoccupied with Congressional horse-trading. The latter framing has relied, again, on the premise of good-faith negotiation between two honest political parties, even as coverage of other big stories has demonstrated clearly that this is a fiction. In a right-wing landscape increasingly devoid of honest brokers, it’s no wonder so many pundits cling to characters like Cheney.

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This is not to say that the Cheney story is unimportant: Trump’s election lies demand extreme ongoing vigilance, as do the related stories of new voting laws, the fraudit, and so on. But it is pretty simple: Trump is lying; she is telling the truth (on this occasion) and has been punished for it. Rather than endlessly chew on such dynamics—or ask for the umpteenth time whether they show that Trump now fully controls the Republican Party—the news cycle should make more space to also prominently cover questions like the definition of infrastructure, and do so with an open mind. Protecting democracy requires playing defense against fascist lies, but it also requires proactively engaging the public in substantive debates about things that touch their daily lives. This, fundamentally, is what both democracy and infrastructure are really about.

Writing in the New Republic yesterday, Osita Nwanevu pointed out that political reporters and pundits have worked, in recent days, to contrive a narrative shift: the infrastructure plan is a big story again, as is planned police reform, because the deadlines by which Biden had planned to button them up (next Monday and yesterday, respectively) have not been met, and the press has decided that this means an end to Biden’s “honeymoon.” (I’ve noticed a similar trend, kicking in right around the time that Biden passed his hundred-day marker in office.) Nwanevu attributes this shift to boredom among reporters. But big policy changes take time, especially in a country with political infrastructure as dysfunctional as America’s is. The media’s “Infrastructure Week” joke targeted Trump’s short attention span. But it was always on us, too.

Below, more on democracy:


Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, shareholders in Tribune Publishing voted to allow the hedge fund Alden Global Capital to buy the company; on Monday, the deal went through. There was no announcement, but a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission revealed that Alden financed its purchase with nearly three hundred million dollars in loans that Tribune will now take on as debt. (Tribune had recently been debt-free.) Also per the filing, Terry Jimenez is out as Tribune’s CEO, with Heath Freeman, Alden’s president, taking the same title at Tribune. The Chicago Tribune’s Robert Channick has more.
  • In other media-business news, Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, that the Times is exploring a deal to buy the sports site The Athletic; the Times made an approach after the Wall Street Journal reported on merger talks between The Athletic and Axios that have since fallen through. (Per Fischer, Vox Media also held talks with The Athletic.) If the Times were to acquire The Athletic, it “would help bolster the Times’s subscription strategy, especially if it were to one day bundle its existing subscription offerings.”
  • This week, Florida passed a law aimed at punishing social-media companies that kick politicians off their platforms; it also holds that platforms cannot remove or deprioritize content posted by certain news outlets, a response to incidents such as Facebook and Twitter’s suppression of a pre-election New York Post story about Hunter Biden. The law (which conveniently exempts Disney’s websites) is likely to be challenged in court.
  • After Andrew Yang, a candidate for mayor of New York, said that Times Square is his favorite subway station, the New York Daily News ran a cartoon depicting Yang as a tourist there. Yesterday, Yang and his wife said that the cartoon was racist against Asian Americans; the Daily News defended it as a commentary on “major gaps” in Yang’s knowledge of the city, though the paper did change the way it depicted Yang’s eyes.
  • For The Conversation, Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, assessed survey data on the relationship between faith and TV viewership. “Of the big three legacy news operations—ABC, CBS, and NBC—there was no strong base of viewership in any tradition,” Burge writes. By contrast, clear majorities of Hindus and Muslims watch CNN, while more than sixty percent of white evangelicals watch Fox.
  • CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with Adnan Abidi, a Reuters photojournalist based in Delhi, about his images of the devastating surge in coronavirus cases there over the past few weeks. “I’ve seen dozens of people die in the last month,” Abidi told Darrach. “Shooting as someone is dying in my hometown street. Children pressing their father’s chest. He died right there on the street. I was shaking when I was shooting.”
  • The government of Burkina Faso has banned journalists from visiting sites housing internally displaced people, Al Jazeera’s Henry Wilkins reports. Officials have cited concerns about journalists’ safety and the “dignity” of residents, but several displaced people told Wilkins that they disagree with that rationale. “If the journalists can’t have access to us to report,” one asked, “how will people be aware of the situation and help?”
  • The BBC is investigating Tala Halawa, a Palestinian affairs specialist for its World Service, over tweets that she posted in 2014, before she started working for the broadcaster. In one tweet, Halawa wrote that “#Israel is more #Nazi than #Hitler,” then added the hashtag, “#HitlerWasRight.” The Independent has more details.
  • And to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, the music publication Pitchfork compiled a history of its reviews section “told through 38 pivotal pieces.” Reviews are “the essence of Pitchfork,” it writes—partly because Pitchfork is “committed to the idea of the album as a complete musical statement,” but mostly because of its 101-point scoring scale.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.