Covering the new Congress

What links the Republican Reps. Scott Perry, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene (beyond, in the case of the latter two, a buzzy recent Daily Beast story about a bathroom shouting match)? All voted to overturn President Biden’s win in the 2020 election, and worse besides. And, as of last week, all sit on the House Oversight Committee, now under Republican control, that is primed to unleash a slew of investigations into Biden’s administration, family, and who knows what else in the weeks and months to come. Numerous news stories on the appointments of Gosar, Greene, et al, including one in the New York Times, prominently laid out their troubling past positions and associations; the lede of a Washington Post story noted that Gosar and Greene had previously been stripped of committee assignments after making “extremist or violent remarks” (even if the story’s understated headline referred to these simply as “comments”). Other stories prioritized more classic Beltway framings: characterizing the appointments as a win for Republican “hardliners,” for instance, or previewing the committee’s upcoming hearings as “​​the Madison Square Garden of heavyweight political brawling.”

According to Politico, the Biden administration’s internal response to the committee appointments was one of “unbridled glee,” with staffers trading “digital high fives” and likening their luck to “drawing an inside straight,” the reason for this being, as one unnamed official put it, that the likes of Gosar and Greene will be easy for Democrats to “dunk on in the media,” decredibilizing their investigations of Biden from the start. (Said dunking has already begun; one Democratic activist described the committee members as having “the credibility of a sentient My Pillow commercial,” a reference to the company run by the election denier Mike Lindell.) The unnamed official, however, stressed that the committee members are “also dangerous,” and Democratic members of Congress, at least in their public statements to the media, did not sound particularly gleeful either. “The Republicans have brought the QAnon caucus to the Oversight Committee,” the freshman Democratic Rep. Dan Goldman told Politico, “and you can expect them to run with the most ludicrous conspiracy theories one can ever imagine.”

Related: Margaret Sullivan on the coverage of Biden’s documents

Even taken on their own, strategic terms, I, too, was skeptical of the wisdom of all the high fives. The likes of Gosar and Greene are, indeed, easy to “dunk on,” if that’s an appropriate way of characterizing scrutiny of their extreme behavior. But the “in the media” part of the rationale strikes me as standing on shakier ground. It is, of course, not the media’s job to facilitate the “dunks” of a given administration. It is the media’s job to scrutinize extremism, and to cut through the incendiary nonsense that given extremists will likely rain down from their committee perches. But the media doesn’t always perform this function very well. Since January 6, the political press has not uniformly shown persistence in holding to account all those who, even after the insurrection, voted to overturn Biden’s win. (Of the twenty-two recent Republican appointees to the Oversight Committee who were in Congress that day, sixteen, by my count, voted to overturn the election. That rot runs deeper than Gosar and Greene.) And, in the past, political journalists and pundits have, time and again, privileged political theater and sensation over substance, helping turn manufactured scandals into, well, scandals. As the new Oversight Committee goes about its business, political theater is unlikely to be in short supply.

In addition to hyping brawls, mainstream political coverage, as I’ve written often over the years in this newsletter, often falls into a “both sides” dynamic, giving competing partisan claims equal weight, even if they aren’t of equal merit, in the name of balance. Already, media critics have seen that dynamic at play in coverage of the new Congress, and not only in the realm of oversight. In recent days, coverage of the debt ceiling, in particular, has come into question: the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, for instance, charged sections of the press with characterizing unilateral (and hypocritical) Republican ransom tactics—future budget cuts in exchange for avoiding a calamitous default on existing debt—as “a reasonable path to lowering government spending, and the Democrats as unwilling to negotiate”; the media critic Jay Rosen, for his part, credited the Times with “one of the greatest ‘both sides’ packages I have seen,” a reference to a pair of articles that were headlined, “A political fight is again putting the economy at risk” and “Months Before a Potential Crisis, Both Parties Kick Off a Fiscal Blame Game.” Charges of bothsidesism in this area aren’t new; they were leveled the last time Republicans manufactured a debt-ceiling “crisis” in 2021, as I wrote at the time. As the present crisis intensifies, the press will need to bring more nuance to its coverage than a strict, fifty:fifty apportionment of blame. Watch this space.

Back in the realm of oversight, media critics have also pointed to bothsidesism in media coverage of the biggest Biden scandal of the new year so far: the story of his past mishandling of classified records, more of which were found during an FBI search of his Delaware home last week. Unlike last year’s FBI search of Mar-a-Lago in the case involving Donald Trump’s own mishandling of classified documents, the Biden search was consensual, one of a great many differences between the two cases that the political press, as the media critic Margaret Sullivan told me last week, has sometimes (if by no means always) elided as it is has jumped on the Biden story. Sullivan also told me that the Biden-records story is worthy of significant coverage in its own right, an assessment with which I agree. But the motives of those pushing the story forward in the public sphere—not least Republicans on the House Oversight Committee who characterized Trump as a victim of political persecution in his own records case—are significant, too, and the press should interrogate them as part of its coverage. Some journalists and interviewers have done that; last weekend, for instance, CNN’s Jake Tapper confronted James Comer, the new chair of the Oversight Committee, with footage of Comer playing down the Trump story last year, before asking, “Do you only care about classified documents being mishandled when Democrats do the mishandling?” Not all Comer coverage has been as sharp.

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As The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote over the weekend, Comer and other right wingers, including in the press, have sought to link the Biden-documents story to other well-worn talking points, around the Chinese Communist Party, for example, or Biden’s son Hunter; after one set of documents was found in a garage alongside Joe Biden’s Corvette, the New York Post ran a photo showing Hunter in the car. Republicans, Sorkin wrote, “would no doubt like to see all these story lines—the documents, Hunter, the Corvette, Communists—merge into a lurid fog that obscures the real line between Trump’s case and Biden’s.” It will be no surprise if the same applies to Republican oversight of Biden in general, beyond the documents case. The job of the press will be to shine a light through the fog, isolating charges that warrant further scrutiny and reporting—even when made by unreliable interlocutors—while debunking and, where possible, minimizing nonsense, and always being clear as to where the interlocutors are coming from. Last week, even some relatively strong stories about the extremism of the new committee members lapsed into bothsidesism, likening them to left-wing Democrats who have served on the panel. It’s true, as I wrote in 2019, that the panel’s members always have an agenda. But that agenda isn’t always election denialism.

Ultimately, the presence of Gosar, Greene, et al on a panel devoted to scrutiny of the government is regrettable because, as I also wrote in 2019, we all benefit when such scrutiny is rigorous and credible; at its best, it can help the press perform its parallel task of holding power to account by bringing serious problems to light that may otherwise have remained hidden. (The press, unlike the Oversight Committee, cannot issue subpoenas.) Brendan Buck, an adviser to the former Republican speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, told the Times last week that “Republicans have long treated Oversight as the land of misfit toys.” That should never be cause for high fives, digital or otherwise.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Journalism has a Davos problem

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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.

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