The Media Today

Burning Manchin

October 22, 2021
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 19: Reporters and photographers follow Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., as he walks through the Ohio Clock Corridor to the Senate floor for a vote in the Capitol on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Whither Manchinema? As summer turned to fall and Congressional negotiations over President Biden’s agenda got stuck in the mud, the term—a portmanteau of the “moderate” Democratic senators Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona—gained widespread currency as media shorthand for the mud; both senators objected to the scope of Biden’s spending plans, with Manchin, who talks often with reporters, communicating various apparent red lines, while Sinema, who is much less chatty with the press, remained something of an enigma. (Manchenigma?) Last week, Politico’s DC Playbook newsletter reported that, while united in obstruction, Manchin and Sinema actually disagree on key policies, from aggressive drug-pricing reform (Manchin broadly for; Sinema broadly against) to aggressive carbon-pricing reform (Sinema broadly for; Manchin broadly against). Coral Davenport, a climate reporter at the New York Times, then broke the news that Manchin is a hard no on Biden’s core climate plan, a program that would rapidly phase out fossil-fuel-dependent power plants. The next day, Playbook noted that Manchin was “again controlling the news cycle”—this time “vs. everybody.”

As all of this was going on, Senator Bernie Sanders, a key progressive from Vermont, took the fight directly to Manchin’s constituents, placing an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a top West Virginia newspaper, in which he urged Manchin to back Biden’s spending plans and seize this “historic opportunity to support the working families of West Virginia, Vermont and the entire country.” Manchin furiously hit back: “This isn’t the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them despite having no relationship to our state,” he said in a statement. “Congress should proceed with caution on any additional spending and I will not vote for a reckless expansion of government programs. No op-ed from a self-declared Independent socialist is going to change that.” (A previous time Manchin likely had in mind came just after Biden took office, when Vice President Kamala Harris did a mini media tour in West Virginia to sell a different spending package. “I couldn’t believe it,” Manchin said at the time. “No one called me.”) Then, on Wednesday, Manchin got mad about another article, this one written by a journalist: David Corn, of Mother Jones, reported that Manchin has talked with associates about the prospect of leaving the Democratic Party should he fail to get his way on Biden’s agenda, and has already devised an exit strategy that would involve him sitting as an “American Independent” (and not as a Republican). Manchin’s office did not get back to Corn ahead of publication, but Manchin would later weigh in himself, telling reporters that the article was “bullshit spelled with a B-U-L-L-capital-B.” (This spells BULLB, but I digress.)

Related: The most important climate summit in history is a local news story, too

The story quickly blew up across the political mediasphere. On Wednesday night, Corn appeared on Joy Reid’s and Lawrence O’Donnell’s shows on MSNBC and strongly stood by his reporting. “The sourcing is impeccable, and he knows it,” Corn told Reid. “He has now said it’s B-U-L-L. It’s actually T-R-U-E.” Also on MSNBC, Ari Melber dissected Manchin’s vehement denial: “He swore repeatedly and then drew attention to it by saying how to spell it,” Melber said. “Something went farther than he wanted in the way this story is unfolding.” Yesterday morning, Playbook laid out a chronology of Corn’s requests for comment, deemed his story to be a credible account of a real conversation, and assessed the competing theories that it leaked out now to decrease Manchin’s leverage (by making him sound desperate) or to increase it (by laying down a public threat), before concluding that the scoop likely “fell into Corn’s lap without any Machiavellian strategy behind it.” Later, Manchin addressed the story again—this time telling reporters that he did tell top Democrats that he’d be prepared to become an independent if he was “embarrassing” them; he added that he never planned to stop caucusing with Democrats, and that his offer never went anywhere anyway. “Joe Manchin called our reporting ‘bullshit,’” Mother Jones responded. “Now he’s got a different story. And he still doesn’t have it right.”

Corn said on Reid’s show that if Manchin were to leave the Democratic Party, it would be “somewhat of a symbolic blast—and, of course, it will lead a lot of political reporters to talk about disarray among Democrats.” This is an important point: “Dems in disarray” is a favorite narrative of the Washington press corps, and Manchin has long been a central character within it, given his regular disagreements with colleagues and position at the center of an evenly divided Senate. The media obsession with Manchin is, to some extent, policy-focused. But he has also been a reliable vehicle for less substantial narrative impulses—including reporters’ nostalgia for agreement between parties, and love of drama within them.

Corn is right to observe that Manchin leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent would pour gasoline on such narratives. (In the short term, anyway: “Dems and American Independent in disarray” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.) But the substantive importance of such a move is similarly open to question. A change of party affiliation could lead Manchin to change his stance on important policy questions, and could even throw control of the Senate to Republicans, which would be enormously consequential not only for Biden’s agenda but for American democracy. But it could also end up being little more than a shallow branding exercise. Ultimately, his positions on the issues matter most—not just on spending and climate change, but also on voting rights; Manchin still opposes abolishing the filibuster to protect the franchise and has tried instead to reach a deal with Republicans, none of whom eventually voted to advance a compromise bill that came up this week. In June, after Manchin sparked a media frenzy when he used a Gazette-Mail op-ed to tank a prior effort to pass voting-rights legislation, my CJR colleague Lauren Harris noted that the voting issue is much bigger than Joe Manchin and Washington intrigue—reflecting a broader truth about insider-style coverage. Recently, Rich Thau, who moderates focus groups, showed some swing voters photographs of Manchin and Sinema. Hardly any of the respondents were able to identify either senator.

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In recent days, some coverage of Manchin’s legislative maneuvers has done an admirable job of elucidating the broader stakes, particularly around climate. CNN sent reporter Rene Marsh to West Virginia to speak to residents about the impact of climate change there, not least the massive flooding that hit the state in 2016. (“WILD & (NOT SO) WONDERFUL,” the chyron read, “WEST VIRGINIANS HIT HARD BY CLIMATE CHANGE AS SEN MANCHIN FIGHTS LEGISLATION THAT COULD HELP COMBAT FLOODS, DROUGHT.”) Outlets from the Times to the Gazette-Mail ran similarly-focused stories; on an episode of The Daily, Davenport, of the Times, laid out Manchin’s stance in an order that is all too rare in coverage of Congressional wrangling, explaining Biden’s energy proposals—and why scientists say they’re important—in plain English before laying out the wrangling in policy-focused terms and finishing by noting the flooding in West Virginia. Marsh, Davenport, and others also raised Manchin’s deep financial ties to the state’s coal industry, both in terms of donations received and the money he still gets from a coal-brokerage firm that he founded before entering Congress—key facets of the Manchin story that critics have often decried as being absent from coverage of his motivations. Alex Kotch, a journalist who founded an app that allows readers to “opt out” of corporate-media coverage, said he was “honestly shocked that after years of ignoring Manchin’s enormous conflicts of interest, CNN and the rest of the corporate media are finally addressing it.”

Still, the coverage of Manchin’s climate stance has not been uniformly well-framed; Politico, for example, was criticized for declaring Manchin an early “winner” and environmentalists a “loser” of recent negotiations. And punditry about his party affiliation has somewhat overshadowed the focus on his financial interests and policy positions. On O’Donnell’s show Wednesday, Zerlina Maxwell sought to rectify that: “I don’t know that it’s even been mentioned in the segment yet, but we’re in the pandemic,” she said, urging Democratic leadership to “keep their eye on the policy ball.” A similar directive applies to the press. The climate crisis doesn’t care what letter appears next to Manchin’s name on Wikipedia—in West Virginia or anywhere else.

Below, more on Joe Manchin and the climate crisis:

  • Dropping the ball: Last week, Sanders accused the mainstream media of failing to inform news consumers of the specifics of Biden’s agenda: “There have been endless stories about the politics,” he said, “but very limited coverage as to what the provisions of the bill are and the crises for working people that they address.” Picking up on those remarks, David Sirota (a journalist who worked for Sanders’s presidential campaign), Andrew Perez, and Walker Bragman write that the “corporate press corps seems so busy celebrating West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s temper tantrums and prognosticating about Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s style, it isn’t bothering to consistently tell America how Manchin’s climate denial may doom the planet, and how Sinema’s corruption would let seniors continue being fleeced by drugmakers.” DC “gossip rags,” they write, are often sponsored by a “rogues gallery of corporate villains.”
  • Security concerns: Yesterday, the White House, the Pentagon, and the US intelligence community issued fresh warnings that the climate crisis is a threat to global security, with the shifts it is unleashing likely, the Washington Post reports, to “reshape US strategic interests, offer new opportunities to rivals such as China, and increase instability in nuclear states such as North Korea and Pakistan.” Bill Weir, CNN’s chief climate correspondent, noted on air that while the assessments are striking, there’s “not all that new here… There have been dozens, dozens of warning reports from NASA, NOAA, the Pentagon, everyone in federal government, and this is more urgent, of course, because now we have a lot more specifics to put on those multiple threats.”
  • COP story: According to CNN, Biden told Congressional Democrats this week that he needs them to lock down substantive policies on climate change before the end of the month, when he’ll fly to Scotland for a vital global climate summit. “The prestige of the United States is on the line,” he reportedly told the Democrats. “I need this to go represent the United States overseas.” Writing for Covering Climate Now, a climate reporting initiative led by CJR and The Nation, Andrew McCormick argues that the global summit is also an important local-news story. “Given the historic importance and global implications of COP26, journalists everywhere, in newsrooms large and small, should be covering it,” McCormick writes, adding that readers are hungry for such coverage.
  • Font of wisdom: Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez has the story of Helsingin Sanomat, a newspaper in Finland that designed an online font to “concretize the speed of climate change” over time. The font’s weight responds to the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Arctic sea ice data from 1979 to 2019, and to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s predictions through 2050, Tameez reports. “The more the ice shrinks, the more difficult the font becomes to read.” The font is available for anyone to use.

Other notable stories:

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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.