The Media Today

When an election year becomes a sideshow

April 14, 2020

Like all bad TV, the Trump Show has reached the point where the writers have stopped trying and are falling into self-parody. Yesterday’s White House briefing began with Dr. Anthony Fauci—the highly-respected health expert and recent presidential-retweet victim—walking back an interview Sunday in which he appeared to concur with a New York Times story criticizing Trump’s coronavirus response; Fauci said his “wrong choice of words” had been taken “as a way that maybe somehow, something was at fault here.” (A reporter asked Fauci what we were all wondering: was his clarification voluntary? Fauci seemed affronted.) Trump then railed about the Times story, before playing a video montage showing mainstream pundits downplaying the virus, and governors from both parties singing the president’s praises. (Sometime in the middle of the video, CNN and MSNBC cut away from the briefing.) When Paula Reid, of CBS, asked Trump admirably pointed questions about his virus response, he called her “a fake”; later, he claimed that, as president, his “authority is total.” In a chyron, CNN described the whole thing as a “propaganda session.” Vox called it an “epic meltdown.” “A toddler threw a self-pitying tantrum on live television on Monday night,” David Smith, of The Guardian, wrote. “Unfortunately he was 73 years old, wearing a long red tie and running the world’s most powerful country.”

If there were any lingering doubts that Trump is using his briefings as substitutes for campaign events, the video—complete with purposeful, commercial-esque music—dispelled them. There’s still an election going on. Coverage of it—ubiquitous until quite recently (in human weeks, if not coronavirus weeks)—has been diminished by the virus, but remains unavoidable, not least because it’s the prism through which the person leading the virus response seems to see, well, just about everything. Ahead of the 2016 election, networks gave Trump ample free airtime for his rallies. They were much criticized for doing so, but four years on, they’re doing it again, albeit with government bureaucrats in the background, instead of Trump’s plane. Networks not broadcasting his grievance-littered rambling remains a notable occurrence, not the norm; even though MSNBC, for one, bailed on Trump’s video last night, it had already broadcast enough to do damage (which is to say, some of it), and went back to the briefing afterward. Trump still has the power to yank us around.

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent, wants our attention, too, albeit from his Delaware basement, rather than the White House briefing room. Conveniently, in a cable-news attention-span sense, Biden won a more-or-less insurmountable delegate haul before the coronavirus crisis really intensified, making it easier for reporters and pundits to turn the focus elsewhere. At first, Bernie Sanders, Biden’s last standing primary challenger, seemed determined to continue his campaign through the convention; in late March, his campaign said he was looking forward to debating Biden in April, should Biden and a host network oblige. Yesterday, Sanders did appear across a split screen from Biden—not to debate him, but to endorse him for president, having dropped out last week. “We need you in the White House,” Sanders told Biden. “I will do all that I can to see that that happens, Joe.” The pundit class, it seemed, had found its holy grail: Party Unity. “Hello, what’s this?” the Times wrote, in a (one has to hope) tongue-in-cheek headline this morning, “the Democrats aren’t in disarray.”

Not so fast. Sanders may have swung behind Biden, but important parts of his support have reservations. In an interview with the Times yesterday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a star Sanders backer, said she’d support the Democratic nominee, but added that “unity and unifying isn’t a feeling, it’s a process”—one that involves substantive policy concerns, and which hasn’t yet started in earnest. Over the weekend, the Democratic Socialists of America, the group that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez’s career, said it isn’t endorsing Biden; yesterday, Briahna Joy Gray, a former journalist who was press secretary for the Sanders campaign, said likewise. Last night, The Nation convened a discussion about the future of the progressive movement “after Bernie.” That debate will continue, and will be of interest to a growing number of voters. The mainstream press—which has often ignored such conversations—should take it seriously.

Biden has other problems. Despite a succession of web chats, cable interviews, op-eds, and podcasts, he’s struggled to cut through the pandemic news cycle. His early remote campaigning efforts were beset by cringe-inducing technical difficulties; by the time his basement studio was fully online, a “Where’s Biden?” narrative had taken hold in the political press, and he’s found it hard to shake. Biden is commonly described as a consummate retail politician, and, like many retailers, he’s struggled with the transition to online sales in the attention economy. At the moment, he’s getting crushed by Amazon. (Not that Trump would appreciate that comparison.)

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Biden also faces an allegation of sexual assault. Last month, Tara Reade—a former staffer in Biden’s Senate office who was one of a number of women to accuse him, last year, of inappropriate touchingtold the podcast host Katie Halper that Biden assaulted her in 1993. (Reade subsequently filed a criminal complaint against Biden with Washington, DC, police.) At first, the allegation (which Biden strongly denies) struggled for traction in mainstream media, but in recent days, that’s started to change; it’s been noted on cable news, and in the pages of the Times. A friend of Reade’s told the Times that Reade told her about the assault at the time; Reade’s former Senate colleagues said they did not recall any such incident. Yesterday, Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, asked Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, why it took 19 days from Reade making her claim for the Times to run a story on it. Baquet said he was giving his reporters time to properly delve into it.

November isn’t imminent yet, but neither is an end to the present crisis. Already, there are important election-adjacent issues for the press to cover and adjudicate—some related to the coronavirus, others not—and as time goes on, that will only become more true. Covering electoral competition, especially in the sportscast-esque manner typical of political punditry, risks feeling trivial—insensitive even—right now. But it’s important that we not take our eye off the campaign entirely. Trump’s eye is rarely anywhere else.

Below, more on the campaign and the coronavirus:

  • The campaign trail, I: The mechanics of voting are also a huge story right now—particularly after last week’s debacle in Wisconsin, whose legislature and Supreme Court insisted that a slate of elections, including the state’s presidential primary, go ahead as planned. Yesterday, we saw some results; Biden won the primary (which took place before Sanders dropped out), and in an upset, Jill Karofsky, a liberal judge, ousted conservative Justice Daniel Kelly from the state’s Supreme Court. (Its balance now stands at 4-3 in favor of conservatives.) The results, the Times reports, made it clear that thousands of Wisconsin voters had been disenfranchised.
  • The campaign trail, II: Trump’s reelection campaign is suing WJFW TV-12, an NBC affiliate in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, for running an ad by Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, criticizing the president’s response to the coronavirus. (Lots of stations aired the ad, but WJFW, the Hollywood Reporter’s Eriq Gardner points out, is in a swing state that lacks anti-SLAPP provisions.) Elsewhere, Alex Thompson reports, for Politico, that the left is scrambling to correct “a long-term progressive deficit on YouTube that some concerned Democrats compare to the right’s command of talk radio.” While progressive causes spend heavily on YouTube ads, they lag the right in organic content.
  • Hello… can you… can you hear me… hello?: For the first time ever, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in major cases—including the legal fight for Trump’s financial records—by phone. “The court said journalists would have access to a live feed of the arguments,” Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports. “It was unclear whether news outlets would also be permitted to broadcast the audio live, which would be another first.”
  • More cuts: The magazine giant Condé Nast is cutting the pay of employees earning over $100,000, and has warned staff that job losses and furloughs are likely to follow, the Times reports; Roger Lynch, the company’s CEO, says it is planning to cut working hours in European countries where “government programs and stimulus packages can help supplement employees’ earnings.” According to CNBC, Vox Media is expected to furlough around 100 staffers, including journalists covering beats—dining and sports, for instance—that are scaled back right now. And more small local papers are dying. The Daily Clintonian, in western Indiana, is the latest to fold amid declining ad revenue.
  • Stories from the home front: For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Susan McGregor explains how reporters can keep their communications and work secure at a time when meeting sources in person is no longer an option. Tow’s latest newsletter features more of its coverage of the coronavirus. And CJR’s Camille Bromley spoke with Russell Jeung, a professor at San Francisco State University who has tracked media coverage of rising xenophobia against Asian Americans. (If you want to support CJR’s work by becoming a member, you can. For more details, follow this link.)
  • Where did we go wrong?: Peter Kafka, of Recode, looks back on early coverage of the coronavirus in the US, which failed, in many cases, to take the threat seriously enough. “If you read the stories from that period, not just the headlines, you’ll find that most of the information holding the pieces together comes from authoritative sources you’d want reporters to turn to,” such as the WHO, the CDC, and academics, Kafka writes. “The problem, in many cases, was that that information was wrong, or at least incomplete.”
  • In brief: ABC’s George Stephanopoulos announced on air yesterday that he tested positive for COVID-19, but has not been experiencing any symptoms. (He’s the third major network anchor known to have contracted the coronavirus, after CNN’s Chris Cuomo and Brooke Baldwin.) On 60 Minutes Sunday, Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, challenged the show to “show me the episode a year ago, two years ago, or during the Obama administration, during the Bush administration that said, Hey, a global pandemic’s coming”—so 60 Minutes did. And Wong Maye-E and Enric Marti—respectively, a photographer and photo editor at the AP—drove round a deserted New York by motorcycle to chronicle “the daily life that was not taking place.”
  • Counting the cost: A month ago, as the coronavirus ravaged Italy, a video of a man reading through an expanded, 10-page death-notice section in L’Eco di Bergamo, an Italian newspaper, went viral. On Sunday, the journalist Julio Ricardo Varela posted a similar video. It showed the Boston Globe.

Other notable stories:

  • In this week’s New Yorker, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, gets the Jane Mayer treatment. Mayer paints McConnell as a political chameleon who has swapped stances over time to advance his career. In Kentucky, McConnell once scored an endorsement from the liberal Louisville Courier-Journal by touting himself as a reformer. According to Mayer, Barry Bingham, Jr., the paper’s publisher, would later say, on his deathbed, that “the worst mistake we ever made was endorsing Mitch McConnell.”
  • As part of a new series on communities shaping the cultural landscape, the New York Times Style Magazine profiles the foreign correspondents reporting back to their home countries from Washington, DC. “Whatever happens here is coming to Europe,” Anne Corpet, of the French broadcaster Radio France Internationale, says. “When you’re covering the United States, it’s as if you’re on the front line of Western culture.”
  • Thea Trachtenberg, a former producer on ABC’s Good Morning America, died on Sunday, at 51. (She did not have COVID-19.) On air yesterday, Stephanopoulos paid tribute to Trachtenberg as “a force on this show, a mentor to so many on our staff, and a colleague and friend with a biting wit, a skeptical eye, and a very big heart.”
  • And Chris Cuomo hates his job, apparently. “I don’t like what I do professionally. I don’t think it’s worth my time,” he said on his SiriusXM show yesterday. “I want to be able to tell you to go to hell, to shut your mouth,” he said, of a recent confrontation with a biker. “I don’t get that doing what I do for a living.” The New York Post has more.

Related: The false ‘debate’ over reopening America

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.