The Media Today

Good days and bad days

February 12, 2024

Last Tuesday, congressional Republicans had a bad day, failing to impeach Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, in the House while a bipartisan package to tighten border controls and send military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan fell apart in the Senate under outside pressure from Donald Trump. (In fact, this might be underselling things—Republicans could be said to have had a no good, very bad day, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, a spectacular day of failure, even one of their most embarrassing and confusing days in recent memory.) By Thursday, however, it was President Biden and Democrats who were having not only a bad day, but a *very* bad day, one Biden world wishes it could forget: first, the justices of the Supreme Court seemed almost uniformly skeptical of Colorado’s move to kick Trump off its presidential ballot for being an insurrectionist; then, a special counsel report into Biden’s mishandling of classified documents determined that no charges would be brought against Biden, but took several swipes at his age and memory. All this added up to Trump’s best day of 2024—and maybe the best ever in his tumultuous legal history.

By the time the weekend rolled around, Biden and congressional Republicans had officially had a bad week while Trump had had a good week. Then Trump gave a pair of campaign speeches and claimed, among other things, that an unspecified “they” will rename Pennsylvania if he loses the state in the fall, that his primary rival Nikki Haley’s husband is “gone” (he’s overseas on active military deployment), and that he told the head of a big NATO country that if they didn’t pay their dues, he would “encourage” Russia to invade them. In major media outlets, Trump’s remarks upstaged the fallout from the special counsel report on Biden. (At least, eventually, and even then not everywhere.) Who this might have been good for was less clear.

To rewind to the beginning, media coverage that marked the attempted Mayorkas impeachment and the associated failures on border and security policy as a bad day for Republicans was, at least, an improvement on the media trope of pinning Republican legislative inaction on “Congress” as a whole. (“A lot of times in Congress, you go, Oh, you know, both sides are having problems,” Carl Hulse, the chief Washington correspondent at the New York Times, said on CNN. “But this is really Republican dysfunction.”) Still, in other ways, the bad day framing fell short. It hinged, fundamentally, on legislative process—presumably, if Mayorkas had been impeached and the Israel aid bill had gone through, House Republicans might have had a good day, not one of spectacular failure. Process matters, obviously. But making it the primary yardstick by which days are judged can obscure the fineness of the margins. Arguably, it is less significant that the Mayorkas vote fell than that only three Republicans voted not to impeach him, despite even conservative legal pundits seeing the vote as an illegitimate way to censure what, ultimately, amounted to policy differences, not misconduct. The story, in other words, was arguably one of extraordinary Republican unity. (Perhaps tellingly, one of the three who voted no has since announced that he will quit Congress.)

Focusing narrowly on process can also drown out substance. The nakedly political nature of the push to impeach Mayorkas sometimes, if by no means always, got lost amid the coverage of the vote count; meanwhile, the quick, Trump-inspired implosion of the Senate border bill overshadowed whether or not it was sound policy. (As Caitlin Dickerson, who covers immigration for The Atlantic, noted on X, “It’s important in pointing out Trump’s efforts to undermine bipartisanship that we don’t accidentally imply the Senate Border Bill would magically fix decades of immigration issues.”) Ultimately, the good day/bad day framing is a shallow one—more interested in which politician or party has won or lost on a given question of process, and less interested in whether the ideas they’re pushing are good or bad for the country.

As I noted above, this framing peaked on Thursday, as the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Trump-Colorado case and the special counsel, Robert Hur, released his Biden report. Narrowly, the framing was fair: Trump does seem likely to prevail in the Colorado case; the Hur report was politically radioactive for Biden. Stretch the time frame, however, and the framing wobbles. The existence of the Colorado case in the first place—downstream, as it is, of Trump’s incitement of insurrection and related legal troubles—might not end up being good for him politically in the long term; it certainly doesn’t reflect well on him. And, weeks or months from now, Trump will still face charges over his mishandling of classified documents whereas Biden will not; indeed, Hur, in his report, explicitly noted that Trump’s case is different from that of Biden because Biden cooperated with investigators where Trump, erm, did not. Media outlets could have centered these facts, but instead mostly led with the report’s comments on Biden’s age and perceived poor memory. They did so as if this angle had been handed down on a slate of marble from on high, not as if it was a conscious editorial choice.

This choice, and its presentation as the natural order of things, irked various liberal media critics, as well as Biden’s reelection campaign. Some critics questioned whether Hur’s claims about Biden’s memory were even accurate to begin with (people who met with him around the same time, including at least one journalist, suggested that he had seemed sharp); others took aim at the volume of the age coverage—the Times, in particular, was criticized for giving it breathless, wall-to-wall prominence—as well as its proportionality, especially given that Trump is not much younger than Biden and has himself made notable slipups in recent weeks. As is often the case at moments like this, many of the critics reached for the phrase But her emails!—a reference to the 2016 election, when major outlets, critics say, drew a false equivalence between Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private email server and Trump’s more numerous, deeper scandals. Yesterday, Will Bunch, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, posted an image of a road sign being submerged by floodwater, with the still-visible caption: “BUT HIS MEMORY.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The specific comparison, between Clinton-email coverage and Biden-age coverage, has been made before. Indeed, I wrote about in September and judged it to have some merit—both stories involve genuine flaws (Clinton did misuse a private server; Biden’s age is a legitimate news story), but both have at times been covered disproportionately, and cited in direct comparison to Trump’s much more significant liabilities. Thursday’s coverage looked like a comically on-the-nose example of this, given the immediate juxtaposition of Trump’s good day and Biden’s bad one. And yet I would argue, at least, that the focus on Biden’s age also drowned out other elements of the Hur report that were unflattering to Biden and merited more substantive discussion—not least his actual handling of classified materials, conduct that Hur did not exactly excuse (despite not recommending that charges be brought) and that would likely have landed a more junior official in considerably hotter legal water. 

This was, in the end, another example of the good day/bad day framing obscuring substance in favor of more narrowly political outcomes and attack lines. And, to the extent that Thursday’s coverage can rightly be referred to as a But her emails! moment, this framing abetted it. Covering politics in terms of good days and bad days can move the goalposts by which we judge political conduct—a key component of false equivalence—if we treat each day in isolation, or as a reset, or as some imagined neutral baseline. Such framing is more concerned with politicians claiming individual victories or suffering individual losses in the short term, and less with the field they’re playing on and all the other days that set its present shape. Ultimately, it is a framing that usually benefits politicians who break the rules over those who play by them (at least comparatively speaking).

It is also a framing that can induce whiplash. In the same article claiming that Thursday was Trump’s best day of 2024, CNN noted that Trump could soon have a very bad day if the Supreme Court rules, in a separate case from the Colorado one, that he is not immune from criminal prosecution for acts undertaken during his presidency. As soon as tomorrow, meanwhile, Republicans could manage to impeach Mayorkas after all. If they do, it will be thanks to only a subtle shift in congressional arithmetic. So good days and bad days go.

Other notable stories:

  • The Washington Post profiled seven of the more than seventy-five journalists killed so far during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, and shared some of the journalists’ work. The journalists “tried to report any way they could, recording scenes of carnage and rare moments of calm through photos, videos and social media posts. The images they left behind—or the words they didn’t know would be their last—allowed a glimpse into the lives of besieged Palestinians in a devastating war,” the Post writes. “At funerals in Gaza, placing blue press vests and helmets on the bodies of fallen reporters, photographers and others has become a grim ritual. The Post has collected some of the last photos and videos these journalists shared. This is Gaza through their lens.”
  • Last week, the city council in Minneapolis approved a settlement of nearly a million dollars to a group of journalists who were assaulted by police while covering the protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd in the city in 2020. In other legal news, a second suspect pleaded guilty in a federal case involving vandalism at the home of a New Hampshire Public Radio reporter who covered sexual-misconduct claims against a businessman, as well as at the homes of her boss and parents. And lawyers for the Washington Post moved to depose ten current and former officials in Florida, the latest salvo in a legal fight to access records related to Governor Ron DeSantis’s official travel.
  • In media-jobs news, Noah Shachtman is stepping down as the editor in chief of Rolling Stone amid reported editorial disagreements with Gus Wenner, the publication’s CEO; the Times has more. Elsewhere, Semafor reports that CNN is quietly laying off staff in what one source described to the publication as a “drip-drip-drip” approach. And John Avlon, a political analyst and sometime anchor at CNN, announced that he is leaving the network. According to Puck, Avlon could now run for Congress in New York “on a centrist, anti-Trump platform.” (I wrote about news anchors running for office in 2022.)
  • Last year, after launching Threads as a rival to X (the app formerly known as Twitter), executives at Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, suggested that they would not “encourage” political or hard-news content on the platform. Now Meta has confirmed that while users of Threads will be able to follow accounts that post political content, it will not “proactively recommend” such content to users. Meta said it was responding to users’ preferences, but some journalists are concerned; the Washington Post has more.
  • And—after candidates aligned with the party of Imran Khan, the jailed former prime minister of Pakistan, surprisingly won the most seats in elections marked by a military crackdown—Khan declared victory in his own voice, in a speech generated by artificial intelligence. The speech offered “an example of how AI can work to circumvent suppression,” the Times writes, but also underlined fears “about its potential dangers.”

ICYMI: Biden Punts on the Super Bowl. Are the Debates Next?

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.