The Media Today

Jim Jordan and the right-wing media chokehold

October 23, 2023
FILE - Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, House Judiciary chairman and staunch ally of Donald Trump, meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

On Saturday, the Washington Post’s David Maraniss and Sally Jenkins published a profile of Jim Jordan—the hard-right Republican congressman who has recently aspired to the speakership of the House of Representatives—that was framed around wrestling. As a young man, Jordan was a near-Olympic-level wrestler himself, then a coach at Ohio State, where he overlapped with Richard Strauss, a team doctor who was later unmasked as a serial molester of student athletes; Jordan has always said that he didn’t know about the abuse at the time, but Maraniss and Jenkins spoke with eight sources who find this “inconceivable.” Also, we were told, Jordan is a wrestler in the political sense. “Whether on the mats or in the halls of Congress,” Maraniss and Jenkins wrote, “Jordan’s dial is turned to the same setting: relentless aggression.”

If the story—which topped ten thousand words—was not a dollar short, various observers suggested that it was, literally, a day late: on Friday, Jordan, having lost two previous votes for Speaker on the House floor, convened a third vote, lost again (by a bigger margin than before), and was subsequently dethroned as his party’s candidate in an anonymous, behind-closed-doors vote of his co-partisans. He had previously seemed set to fight on, but now acknowledged his defeat. (So much for relentless aggression.) The votes plunged the House Republican Conference further into crisis and ensured that the chamber will enter its fourth Speakerless week since Matt Gaetz, the Trumpy congressman from Florida, and seven of his colleagues joined every Democrat in voting to remove Kevin McCarthy from the post.

As I wrote in the aftermath of that vote, McCarthy’s ouster looked like proof, among other things, of the growing power of right-wing media over Republican politics, both in an immediate sense—media agitators including Steve Bannon had pushed the anti-McCarthy crusade—and over the long term, in the genre’s elevation of star power over teamwork (see Gaetz), the fringe over the mainstream (see, erm, Gaetz again), division over compromise, anger over action. At a glance, Jordan’s failure to succeed McCarthy appeared to illustrate the limits of this power: again, both immediately—Sean Hannity, of Fox, lobbied Jordan holdouts both privately and very publicly—and longer-term. (Since 2017, no member of Congress has appeared on Fox’s weekday shows more often than Jordan.) Squint, though, and a more nuanced picture emerges: of the nature of this power, and how its limits may actually be the point.

First, it’s worth noting that deposing a Speaker is not the same task as installing one: under current rules, a tiny minority of the Republican Conference can achieve the former, whereas the latter requires an overwhelming majority (absent support from across the aisle). Even at his lowest ebb, nearly two hundred of Jordan’s Republican colleagues backed him for Speaker—a remarkable tally for a man long perceived as a fringe rabble-rouser, and, if anything, a testament to the power of right-wing media in dragging the GOP toward him, rather than the inverse. Supporters of Jordan, not least in right-wing media, clearly believed that a pressure campaign appealing to the party’s grass roots (who, of course, consume right-wing media) would cow the holdouts. Initially, this strategy appeared to be working, but it ultimately backfired; several of the holdouts chafed at it, and stood firm. In the end, only two dozen or so House Republicans opposed Jordan. Given the GOP’s slender majority, this was all it took to sink him.

The irony, here, is that a relative few obstructing the will of the many gave many right-wing media personalities and their favored Republican politicians a taste of their own medicine; after years of obstructionism, Jordan et al.’s calls for unity and for the House to get back to work inevitably rang hollow. It’s tempting to see the shadow of Frankenstein’s monster here, as Jordan licks his wounds. Beyond the ambitions of one man, though, the current dysfunction in the House is the point—or at least the logical culmination—of the recent drift of the Republican Party, pushed and pulled along by right-wing media. As Liam Donovan, a former GOP operative, put it to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Friday night, Gaetz and co. teed up a situation where they couldn’t lose: they would either get a fellow traveler as Speaker or be able to claim that “the swamp” took him down and bask in the grievance. For them, Donovan said, “the spectacle is the point.”

Aside from the occasional maddening take casting the current dysfunction as a product of some amorphous polarization or explicitly suggesting Democratic culpability for it, most of the coverage I’ve seen has been clear-eyed (by the standards of congressional punditry, at any rate) in assessing that Republicans own this mess. Then again, I’ve not been following as closely as I might have, due to the horrific violence in the Middle East, a story that has, rightly, relegated the speakership drama to a secondary consideration in the news cycle. (The war pushed the print version of the Post’s big Jordan profile below the fold of yesterday’s front page.) Sometimes, the process has been so farcical that the coverage has felt like light relief.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

This isn’t to trivialize—as I’ve written before, a news story can be funny and very serious at the same time. But some of the coverage of the chaos—particularly that which has dwelled in the weeds of vote counts and palace intrigue—has lost sight of how serious the situation is, and why. It is best covered not as an embarrassing aberration, but, again, the logical culmination of a desire to trash institutions and their rules. The most salient fact about Jordan’s candidacy—by far—was his proximity to Donald Trump’s election-subversion campaign in 2020. The political press sometimes centered this, but it didn’t always; an analysis by Media Matters for America, a progressive watchdog group, found that across the first six days of Jordan’s bid, only around a third of the coverage in major print and broadcast outlets even mentioned it. And Jordan, as a media character, is more closely yoked to Trump than many of his colleagues are, even though a majority of House Republicans voted to overturn the 2020 election even after the violence of January 6. Seven of the nine representatives now running for Speaker were among them

With the stakes for democracy so high, many media critics, myself included, have often complained about media coverage that compares politics to sports; in that vein, the Post’s (very) extended wrestling metaphor for Jordan’s political style doubtless struck some observers as trivializing and trite. But such comparisons needn’t be so. In his 2019 book Audience of One, about the symbiosis of Trump and TV, James Poniewozik, the TV critic at the Times, wrote insightfully about how Trump—like WWE, which he once headlined—crafted a self-image as a form of entertainment, at a porous boundary between the real and the fake. Maraniss and Jenkins, of the Post, closed out their profile of Jordan by making a similar point about Trump and WWE, and relating Jordan—and his background in bona fide competitive wrestling—to it. 

Reacting to the Post’s story online, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, argued that it ultimately fell short because the type of wrestling that Jordan practiced is (perhaps unlike with Trump and WWE) a poor metaphor for his political style. “Wrestling is sublimated violence,” Rosen wrote. “What makes it acceptable and athletic—rather than barbaric and dangerous—are the tight rules that govern behavior on the mat, plus the extremely close eye of the referee”; Jordan, by contrast, has increasingly thumbed his nose at the rules and the refs. That’s fair criticism. For Jordan, as well as for Gaetz, the spectacle is the point. 

Its guiding metaphor aside, though, the Post’s profile contained much useful reporting, especially on Jordan’s apparent knowledge of the abuse scandal in the athletics program at Ohio State. And I didn’t think that the profile came too late, even if it was commissioned with the expectation that Jordan would be Speaker by publication time. Jordan doesn’t need the gavel to be a powerful political figure whose background merits close scrutiny—particularly when the House majority is this rudderless and decentralized. Right-wing media isn’t the only source of that power, but it is an important one. Even if Jordan couldn’t ride it to the Speaker’s chair.

Other notable stories:

  • Over the weekend, media stories continued to emerge from the war between Hamas and Israel. CNN’s Sara Sidner was reporting from Ramallah in the West Bank when a man interrupted her, got in her face, and accused CNN of supporting “genocide.” A spokesperson for the Israeli government said that officials would show foreign journalists “raw, unedited footage” of the atrocities Hamas committed after invading Israel on October 7. Away from the region, the University of California, Davis, condemned what appeared to be a social media post from a faculty member threatening violence against “zionist journalists” in the US. The BBC said that it has stopped its default practice of calling Hamas a “militant” group. And The Intercept reports that a news app owned by Axel Springer has minimized Palestinian civilian deaths. (The company denies this.)
  • Earlier this year, I reported on a proposed takeover of Forbes that seemed to have stalled due to concerns that US regulators would look askance at the involvement of an Indian billionaire with historical ties to Russia. In the end, Austin Russell, an American automotive-tech entrepreneur, announced that he was leading a buyout of the magazine—but the Post now reports that Magomed Musaev, a Russian tycoon tied to the Kremlin, has privately boasted to associates that he “bought” Forbes while Russell was “the face” of the deal. Russell and Musaev both denied to the Post that the latter has any involvement, but the news could renew scrutiny from US regulators and politicians. (ICYMI, CJR’s Feven Merid went deep on Forbes over the summer.) 
  • Over the weekend, Killers of the Flower Moon—a Martin Scorsese movie based on a book by David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker, about white settlers’ systematic murder of members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma in the early twentieth century—hit cinemas. The release “shines an extraordinary light on these events and provides a long overdue opportunity to restore them in our consciousness,” Grann and Jim Gray, a former Osage chief whose great-grandfather was among the victims, write for the New York Times—but recent laws curbing the teaching of race in Oklahoma and elsewhere have led educators to self-censor when teaching about the episode and Grann’s book.
  • In Argentina, Javier Milei, a far-right libertarian economist who rose to prominence as a television commentator, fared worse than expected in presidential elections, though he still qualified for a runoff against Sergio Massa, the country’s current economy minister. As the Times notes, amid an economic crisis in Argentina, Milei had led in most polls and dominated the national conversation “with his brash outsider campaign centered on radical proposals to eliminate the nation’s central bank and replace its currency, the Argentine peso, with the US dollar.” The runoff is scheduled for mid-November.
  • And Grace Ashford, a Times reporter who has covered the scandal-plagued Republican congressman George Santos, describes how Santos began an “unusual dialogue” with her after months of refusing to talk. “His silence left me feeling a bit like a landlocked oceanographer. I knew his birthday, his dog’s name, his verbal tics and tendencies, but I couldn’t get to the man himself,” Ashford writes, but “suddenly, all that changed.” They have since discussed baby-shower gifts and their pets, among many other topics. 

ICYMI: O Talentoso Senhor Santos

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.