A little over a month ago, Drew Magary decided to ditch the regular politics column he was writing for GEN because, he said, writing it sucked. “I’m out of political opinions,” he said. “The kind of torpid recycling of stances you see from David Brooks and other professional thought havers? I’m no different.” Magary listed the basic ideas and themes that he found kept recurring in his work, including “Trump is a Nazi” and “the pandemic deaths here are his fault.” Writing about politics every week in 2020, he added, “is like your old man catching you with a pack of Marlboros and forcing you to smoke the entire thing in one sitting to make you sick.”
As I’ve written repeatedly in this newsletter, there is too much news right now—a historic, interconnected crush of major crises and events that has defied adequate engagement. And yet Magary, perhaps paradoxically, is right: when it comes to politics in general, and Trump in particular, much of the crush of news is intensely repetitive and flows naturally to the same basic set of damning conclusions. Yesterday alone, Trump once again trashed his top coronavirus expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, calling him a “disaster”; once again trashed CNN, calling its journalists “dumb bastards”; once again trashed NBC’s Kristen Welker, who will moderate the next Trump-Biden debate, on Thursday; once again held irresponsible rallies; once again danced to “YMCA”; and so on, ad nauseam. As Quinta Jurecic put it in an Atlantic column that appeared not long after Magary’s, Trump is actually really boring. “The president is a man without depths to plumb,” she wrote. “What you see is what you get, and what you get is the same mix of venality, solipsism, and racial hatred that has long been obvious.”
New from CJR: The legal landscape for frontline student journalists
Jurecic raised an important question that, to my mind, strikes at the heart of the too-much-news/Trump-is-boring paradox: “What happens when politics is crucially important, but there is little original to say?” If much of the media coverage of recent days, particularly on TV, is any guide, it seems like the answer is: go through the motions. It feels like we’re in a holding pattern, waiting. Election Day is still two weeks away, yet there’s so much early voting going on—and all the votes could take so long to count—that the concept of “election day,” as a climactic event, feels thin. Entering the final stretch, and with ever-fewer votes up for grabs, Biden is pretty quiet and Trump and his allies are insisting on a rerun of the 2016 campaign. (But his/her emails; Lock him/her/them up.) Many in the media seem willing to indulge that strategy, supplementing it with their own relitigation of 2016 media coverage, polling errors, and so on. We’re debating about the debates again. Many outlets are—quite rightly—busy finetuning election models and plans for election night/week/month coverage, and war-gaming possible election outcomes. While we wait for it all to play out, many of the denizens of media Twitter have been chewing over unrelated controversies (none of which, of course, have anything at all to do with said war-gaming exercises, no sir).
In late September and early October, after Trump repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose in November (a key reason for all the finetuning and war-gaming), it was big news; the Times gave it the full-width A1 headline treatment. Trump is still threatening not to accept the result—he did so at a weekend rally in Michigan, for instance—yet when he does it now, it seems barely to merit a headline at all. And it’s not just election-related news that can feel grimly repetitive. The coronavirus is once again surging; national politicians once again can’t agree on a stimulus bill to aid the millions of Americans whose livelihoods have been hammered by the pandemic. These developments are still driving coverage, but much of it—at the topline level, at least—often feels flat, subdued, weary.
When it comes to Trump’s antics, the repetitiveness is, to a great extent, the point, and it’s okay not to fall for all of it all of the time. But some Trump storylines—his ongoing threats to the election perhaps chief among them—merit prominent repetition, even if their details don’t meaningfully change. Trump attacking the integrity of the vote in relatively consistent language is a much bigger deal than him deploying a newer, ruder insult for CNN. The threat of the virus merits reiteration, too. It doesn’t care how tired and bored we may be.
To that end, it’s vital that we find fresh, compelling ways of telling these stories; ways of cutting through the repetition to communicate the urgency of the stakes. The ever-climbing coronavirus death toll is a repetitive story—but each individual death is not. The victims of the virus and Trump’s atrocious management of it only get to live and die once. The economic impacts of the pandemic feel repetitive—but every job, or health-insurance plan, or apartment lost is a tragedy, if not an emergency, for those who have to live through it. The same is true of voter suppression; it’s not a new story, but every voter only gets one vote per election. If they’re wrongly denied the chance to cast it, that’s a scandal, each and every time it happens.
There’s much good coverage out there illustrating the human stakes of our overlapping crises—from gut-wrenching obituaries, to portraits of people who are struggling, to surveys and analyses quantifying the scale of the pain. Too often, though, such coverage seems stuck below the crust of the news cycle, with its cyclical talk of rallies, debates, and polls. There is still too much urgent news to report right now. In the two weeks before election day, we shouldn’t waste any of our capacity on the boring, just because it’s about the election (in the traditional, stultifying sense of that term) and we feel compelled to cover it. Death and hardship are election stories, too. As Jurecic puts it, “The work of people who write and talk and make art about politics is valuable because it helps other members of society make sense of their shared world,” and “if that work loses depth or relevance, democratic culture in the US diminishes.” As Magary puts it, “The perception of reality should never take precedence over reality itself, but national political coverage does precisely that.”
Below, more on the election:
- Debate night: Ahead of the final presidential debate of the cycle on Thursday, the Commission on Presidential Debates—which promised to consider format changes after Trump’s bad behavior derailed the first debate, but then went silent on the matter—met to hash out reforms. It decided that, when Trump and Biden give initial answers at the beginning of each debate segment, the other candidate’s mic will be muted in a bid to stem interruptions. Still, a longer period of unmuted “open discussion” will follow, and even turning Trump’s mic off won’t necessarily stop him heckling Biden or Biden from hearing. The debate commission insisted that the new policy isn’t a change to the debate rules, but rather to the enforcement of existing rules. That didn’t stop Trump from calling the change “very unfair,” though he currently still plans to show up.
- Election night: For CJR, Vivian Schiller and Garrett M. Graff outline ten principles news organizations should keep in mind as they plan election-night coverage: they include knowing the calendar, managing expectations, and not parroting premature claims of victory. Elsewhere, Slate’s Mike Pesca dedicated his podcast, The Gist, to the question of how TV networks might handle (or mishandle) the election results, speaking with NBC’s Steve Kornacki and CNN’s Brian Stelter, among others. The stakes are high: according to a new survey conducted by Pew, eighty percent of US adults plan to follow the results either “very” or “fairly” closely once the polls have closed, and a similar percentage have either “some” or “a lot” of confidence that their favored news sources will make the right call when announcing the winner.
- Hurricane watch: Writing for Wired, Whitney Phillips likens election season to a “hurricane” of misinformation. Just as hurricanes, in nature, don’t just appear then disappear, election misinformation is already brewing, will “cause chaos” when election day lands, and will lead to long-term damage “to our institutions, to our communities, to the very notion of normalcy.” She adds, “As we prepare for landfall, we have two basic responses to consider: We can try to evacuate, or we can run towards the storm. To recover in the long term, we’ll need to figure out a way to do both.”
- The Hunter Biden saga continues: Yesterday, Colby Hall, of Mediaite, reported that before taking an extremely-questionable story about the Bidens and Ukraine to the New York Post last week, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, offered it to Fox News, only for Fox to reject it due to concerns about its “sourcing and veracity.” While some Fox hosts expressed doubts about the Post’s eventual story, others hyped it on air; according to Media Matters for America, late last week, Fox ran more than one hundred segments pegged to the story across its news and opinion divisions. “Fox doesn’t get to wipe its hands clean and pretend that it has taken a higher ground,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote, in response to Mediaite’s reporting. “If anything, this just makes the network look worse.”
- A historic endorsement: Over the weekend, an editorial in El Nuevo Día, a major newspaper in Puerto Rico, accused Trump of “an overwhelming amount of inattention, disdain and prejudice against our people” and endorsed Biden for president. According to Biden’s campaign, El Nuevo Día has never before endorsed a presidential candidate.
Other notable stories:
- Last month, the Justice Department took the unusual step of seeking to assume Trump’s defense in a defamation case brought against him by E. Jean Carroll, the advice columnist who says that Trump raped her in the nineties and is suing him over his denial. Yesterday, government lawyers said that, since Trump issued the denial while he was president, it constitutes an official, rather than a personal, act; as the Times notes, if a judge agrees, the lawsuit will effectively be dismissed, since government employees are mostly immune from defamation claims. (ICYMI last week, Carroll appeared on our podcast, The Kicker. Yesterday, we published a transcript of the interview.)
- According to Dion Nissenbaum and Jared Malsin, of the Wall Street Journal, Kash Patel, a top White House counterterrorism official, recently traveled to Syria in a bid to help secure the release of US citizens—including the freelance journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in the country in 2012—who are believed to be prisoners of Bashar al-Assad’s government. Tice’s family and groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists have worked to keep his case in the public eye. In 2018, Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director, wrote an update for CJR to mark six years since Tice disappeared.
- Staffers at publications owned by Bustle Digital Group—including Bustle, Mic, and Nylon—have announced their intention to unionize with the Writers Guild of America, East. In other union news, the guild representing staff at the Sacramento Bee said yesterday that McClatchy, the paper’s owner, wants to tie reporters’ pay and performance reviews to pageviews and related metrics. (Lauren Gustus, the Bee’s top editor, pushed back.) And the union representing staff at Wirecutter says it’s reached a “tentative agreement” with management to secure just-cause provisions.
- In other media-business news, the Hartford Courant will outsource its printing to the Springfield Republican, a newspaper in Massachusetts; according to the AP, the move will eliminate 151 jobs at the Courant’s existing plant in Connecticut. Elsewhere, Group Nine—which owns the animal-centered site The Dodo, among other properties—has taken a minority stake in Petplan, a pet-insurance company that will be renamed “Fetch by The Dodo” as part of the deal. The Journal’s Sahil Patel has more details.
- PBS will air two new documentaries tonight. One focuses on Walter Winchell, the twentieth-century columnist and commentator, and the “power of gossip”; Stanley Tucci appears as Winchell, and Whoopi Goldberg narrates. In the other, Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and journalism professor at Columbia, explores voter suppression and related topics, in conjunction with Columbia Journalism Investigations and USA Today.
- For her graduate-school thesis, Rachel J. Pilgrim set out to identify five unnamed Black women who founded Grace Baptist Church, in Mount Vernon, New York, in the 1880s. Pilgrim succeeded, and now plans to track down the founders’ descendants. “I spent 122 days looking for them,” she writes, “ready to uproot a lesson about Black womanhood that I had internalized—that Black women are often relegated to the subtext of history.”
- Jonathan Peters, CJR’s press freedom correspondent, maps out the legal obstacles facing student journalists covering their schools’ responses to the pandemic. “They have been denied access to public records and meetings,” Peters writes, “and they have clashed with school PR officials, who are consistently zealous in their efforts to control the narrative and would qualify for the Olympics if there were a sport in obfuscation.”
- And—for those who missed the reference above and/or weren’t online yesterday—the New Yorker suspended Jeffrey Toobin after he allegedly masturbated during a work Zoom call. He’s also taking some time off from CNN, where he’s a legal analyst. Toobin told Laura Wagner, of VICE, that he made “an embarrassingly stupid mistake,” adding, “I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me. I thought I had muted the Zoom video.”