The Media Today

Mainstream media grapples with a left-wing wave

July 2, 2018

The last few days have been seismic for the American left. Last Tuesday, the insurgent Democratic candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored an upset primary victory in New York, unseating heavyweight Congressman Joe Crowley. The next day, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, girding the left for a nomination fight that could put Roe v. Wade—and other settled rights for immigrants and minorities—back on the table. And over the weekend, protesters across the country marched to oppose the separation of families at the US–Mexico border.

On Sunday, CNN’s Brian Stelter discussed sharp, ongoing criticism that mainstream media outlets failed to spot Ocasio-Cortez’s rise with The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb (who is also a professor at Columbia Journalism School) and Vox’s Liz Plank. “Do you buy into the idea the press missed the story?” asked Stelter. “I think it’s pretty obvious,” Cobb replied. Don’t just follow the money, “follow the tweets,” added Plank, referring to Crowley’s huge, yet futile, fundraising advantage over Ocasio-Cortez.

ICYMI: Kennedy’s retirement sets off months of SCOTUS coverage

That Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was so shocking to so many reflects an overall failure of media attention—even if left-leaning outlets like The Intercept, The Young Turks, and Splinter did track her campaign. “There are definitely biases in which races get covered, and they rarely fit with which candidates are viable,” Sean McElwee, a left-wing researcher and contributing writer for The Nation, told me late last week. “Progressive women of color excite the Democratic base, and certainly drive engagement, and a lot of outlets have picked up on that and done an excellent job covering those candidates. But for many outlets, that excitement is dismissed, and isn’t considered a valuable hook.”

This failure, however, goes significantly beyond the latest horse race, and isn’t just about reporters showing up. Large sections of the US press lack the language to discuss left-wing candidates and issues: Having spent years carefully parsing distinct ideological currents on the right (like “white supremacy” and “white nationalism”), much coverage of the left still leans on disputed labels like “liberal,” “progressive,” and “the Resistance.” Thanks to thoughtful reporting, Americans generally have a substantive understanding of what divides mainstream Republicans and more radical groups like the Tea Party. The divisions between the left and mainstream liberals are just as sharp—and just as consequential—but are not as well understood.

This weekend’s mass mobilization against Trump’s border policies was the latest proof that animated, angry left movements are now common in America. While the issues they’re raising do get covered, the policy solutions they prescribe—like abolishing ICE, which Ocasio-Cortez and others advocate—have too often been ignored as unrealistic or naive, even as equivalently radical ideas on the right have had a mainstream hearing. As Gaby Del Valle, who’s written for The Outline, Vice, and The Daily Beast, told me on Thursday, “It’s so easy to dismiss young leftists as angry and useless, which I think is what so many big media people did, instead of taking their criticisms of the establishment seriously.”

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As Cobb told Stelter on Sunday, media institutions concerned about their perceived liberal bias after Trump’s election “overcorrected, found every permutation of a ‘white working class’ story they could find, and then missed the bigger narrative of what working-class people of all backgrounds are going through in this country.” The good news is that an equivalent overcorrection can be avoided this time. It’s not too late for media outlets to pay more attention to America’s left-wing wave, and to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

Below, more on Ocasio-Cortez, the left, and the media:

  • “Make way for young Democratic leaders”: On Saturday, The New York Times editorial board called on Democratic leadership, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to make way for a younger generation.
  • “Summer of rage”: Writing in New York magazine’s The Cut over the weekend, Rebecca Traister addressed the gender and racial dynamics at work in recent media coverage of US politics as a whole: “The handwringing over white men is what has kept newspapers publishing endless stories about Trump’s base and their unwavering devotion to him, all while ignoring the grassroots rage spreading through the majority: the young, often female, and often women of color candidates who’ve been streaming into American politics for the past year and a half.”
  • Don’t make the same mistake twice: Washington Post media reporter Margaret Sullivan wrote last week that “Journalists need to drastically pick up the pace, so they never again have to face an election night where prepared stories are tossed out like gum wrappers and palms hit foreheads in thoroughly avoidable shock….In short, they need to get closer to what voters are thinking and feeling: their anger and resentment, their disenfranchisement from the centers of power, their pocketbook concerns.”
  • Mainstream media’s left voices problem: Pete Vernon and Nausicaa Renner discussed coverage of Ocasio-Cortez on CJR’s podcast The Kicker. And in May, I wrote that mainstream opinion sections and cable news segments should stop systematically excluding radical left perspectives.
  • The view from abroad: Left winds aren’t just blowing at home: Overnight, veteran leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador won a sweeping victory in Mexico’s presidential election. Writing in The Nation, James North argues that US mainstream media outlets have “slandered” López Obrador, including by comparing him to Trump.


Other notable stories

  • After a shooter killed five staffers at the Capital Gazette media group in Annapolis, Maryland, on Thursday, CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope writes that poorly secured local newsrooms are on the front lines of President Trump’s war on the press. While there’s no evidence that Trump’s rhetoric motivated the Annapolis shooter, Pope warns that for most Americans, the media isn’t national, but rather “our local newsroom down the street, staffed by professionals reporting on what matters most to people where they live. We’re reminded this week that in the war against the press, they may well be the journalists in America who are most at risk.”
  • Also in the wake of Annapolis, HuffPost published an uncensored selection of threats and hate mail received by its reporters, pointing out that it can be tough to tell who’s sincere and who’s trolling.
  • With former Fox executive Bill Shine poised to become White House communications chief, The New York Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum looks again at the symbiotic relationship between Trump and his favorite network. “The Trump-Fox connection extends beyond friendship and flattery to outright advocacy,” Grynbaum says. “The president is the beneficiary of a sustained three-hour block of aggressive prime time punditry, which has amplified his unfounded claims and given ballast to his attacks on the news media as the ‘enemy of the American people.’”
  • Japanese firm Uzabase will pay up to $110 million to acquire Quartz, The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin reports. “The sale price is welcome news for a digital media industry that has seen some unfavorable exits in recent months,” he writes. “For instance, Mashable sold for about $50 million late last year, a fraction of its 2016 valuation of about $250 million.”
  • Reporting for CJR in June, Kim Lyons wrote that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had nixed a series of anti-Trump cartoons by Rob Rogers, who was fired by the paper shortly afterward. Now many of the spiked drawings have found a new home—as part of a forthcoming exhibition at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of the Arts & Design.
  • In the UK, the BBC apologized for underpaying its former China editor Carrie Gracie, who stepped down from the post in January citing what she called a “secretive and illegal” gendered pay structure at the broadcaster. Gracie says she’s donating her back pay to women’s rights charity the Fawcett Society.
  • CJR’s Karen K. Ho interviewed Grace Marion, the outgoing editor in chief of a Pennsylvania high school newspaper who recently investigated the school’s questionable method of filing teacher sexual misconduct records. “I love corruption investigations. I have a problem with authority figures,” Marion told Ho.
  • And The New York Times profiled Tim Torkildson, a retired clown who emails regular news-themed limericks to publications including the Times and CJR. “I was born different,” Torkildson says. “I truly believe I was born to make people laugh.”

ICYMI: Capital Gazette shooting shows the vulnerability of journalists

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.