The Media Today

Letting the Republican Party off the hook

October 26, 2020

Over the weekend, President Trump took a (relative) backseat in the news cycle as other members of his party came to the fore. We learned that five top aides to Vice President Mike Pence tested positive for COVID-19; Pence has been in “close contact” with at least one of them, but rather than isolate, he plans to continue with his in-person campaigning activities, on the grounds that they, somehow, constitute essential work. Bloomberg broke the story of the Penceworld outbreak, just as it broke the story of the Trumpworld outbreak earlier this month; according to the New York Times, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, worked to keep the latest round of positive tests from becoming public knowledge. Yesterday, Meadows made headlines in his own right, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper that the administration is “not going to control the pandemic.” When Tapper asked why not, Meadows replied, “because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu.” His initial quote reverberated across the mediasphere.

Elsewhere in Washington, Senate Republicans convened a rare weekend session and voted to advance the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. She’ll be confirmed today. Just two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against advancing the nomination, after citing the proximity of an election and Republicans’ refusal, on such grounds, to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016—but Murkowski also said that, having lost the vote, she’ll put her procedural objections aside and vote to confirm Barrett anyway. Murkowski’s announcement drove headlines, as did a remark that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, made about Barrett’s impending confirmation. “A lot of what we’ve done over the last four years will be undone sooner or later by the next election,” he said, but Democrats “won’t be able to do much about this for a long time to come.”

New from CJR: Election 2020: Why the fantasy of a return to normal is so dangerous

Scrutiny and criticism of the negligence and hypocrisy of Republicans who aren’t Trump is not anything new, of course—complicity has been a defining story of the Trump era. Over the weekend, the editorial board of the Times spoke to the theme in an editorial that was headlined “RIP GOP” and accompanied by an illustration of a Republican elephant half-buried underground. The GOP has “allowed itself to be co-opted and radicalized by Trumpism,” the editorial read, noting that Trump didn’t conjure that trend in the party, but rather accelerated a longer-term process of moral decay. “Its ideology has been reduced to a slurry of paranoia, white grievance and authoritarian populism. Its governing vision is reactionary, a cross between obstructionism and owning the libs.” The weekend saw some sharp coverage on the news side, too.

Still, even at this late stage of the campaign and Trump’s term, too much coverage of the GOP and senior figures within it continues to be credulous, even generous. That’s partly because “bothsidesism” remains hardwired into the basic structure of political media, and the Republican Party is one of the sides that makes that dynamic work. The idea of hearing (more or less) equally from both parties continues to be an organizing principle of the Sunday shows, for example, and many Republicans continue to exploit that principle to throw out lies and smears. Important policy stories—around coronavirus stimulus negotiations, for example—continue to be framed as partisan clashes, often eliding Republican hypocrisy and obstructionism. And too many journalists still borrow Republican talking points when grilling Democrats, presumably in a bid to show evenhandedness. We saw this in the recent, overheated coverage of Joe Biden’s stance on Supreme Court reform, as well as in the debate question that Biden faced last week on his son Hunter’s business dealings. On 60 Minutes yesterday, Norah O’Donnell, of CBS, asked Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate, whether she has a “socialist” perspective. Harris laughed at the question.

Similarly, senior Republicans’ promises are still often taken at face value when experience has shown that a greater skepticism is warranted. Murkowski’s Supreme Court pledge is one such example. (Shortly before Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Murkowski said she wouldn’t “vote to confirm” a hypothetical new justice prior to the election; when the question was no longer hypothetical, she said she opposed “taking up a nomination”—a subtle change of language that left Murkowski some wiggle room yet didn’t seem to register with much of the press.) We saw another example in late September, after Trump threatened not to accept a peaceful transfer of power. Many outlets reported that Republican senators “rebuked” Trump by giving “assurances” to the contrary—but, as Politico noted, the senators declined to say what they’d actually do to ensure a peaceful transition. And again, wording matters. McConnell, for instance, promised that the “winner” of the election would be inaugurated in an “orderly” manner—an “assurance” against a violent coup, maybe, but not against the much likelier eventuality that Trump and his allies could exploit procedural chicanery to make it look like he won when he actually didn’t.

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More recently, two Republican senators—Ben Sasse of Nebraska and John Cornyn of Texas—criticized Trump, and their remarks attracted a great deal of attention, feeding a broader narrative of pre-election tension between the president and his co-partisans. (The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Trump privately told donors that it’ll be tough for Senate Republicans to retain their majority, and that he doesn’t want to help some of them get reelected.) As the New Republic’s Alex Shephard argued last week, Sasse (eighty-seven percent of the time) and Cornyn (ninety-five percent of the time) have almost always voted to further Trump’s interests, and look more like “rats fleeing a sinking ship” than profiles in courage. Yet many in the press have swallowed their recent strategic-distancing act.

As Shephard notes, the media narrative that Republicans are starting to break with—or trying to moderate—Trump isn’t new; it’s been a recurring feature of the past four years. (See also: the “Committee to Save America,” the Anonymous op-ed.) On Friday, On The Media’s Bob Garfield jumped off of the recent Sasse and Cornyn coverage to review previous Republican “breaks” with Trump that never ended up happening. (He compared members of the media to Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin.) Whether through “careless extrapolation” or wishful thinking, Garfield said, reporters have consistently been “super willing” to believe that Republican leaders might grow a backbone, this time. The result: “so many exoduses that weren’t, so many ‘growing distances,’ so many journo geologists detecting so many ‘fault lines.’”

The reasons that we indulge episodes like the Sasse and Cornyn criticism surely also include simple novelty, and a predisposition to seek tension where it can’t meaningfully be said to exist. Whatever the motivation, the election results—whatever they may be—will represent a critical juncture in coverage of the Republican Party. Should Trump win again and top Republicans rally around him as if they never doubted his chances, it’ll be the media’s job to call out the corrosive hypocrisy of that dynamic, and its ramifications going forward; should Trump lose and top Republicans seek to distance themselves from him, it’ll be our job not to let them. The Republican Party’s Trumpian turn likely won’t end with Trump, and in any case, the last four years will still have happened. Trump’s enablers must not be allowed to slip quietly into opposition, distracting the press with a volley of media-friendly, anti-Biden talking points.

Below, more on the Republican Party and the election:

  • Perls of wisdom: For CJR, I spoke with Rick Perlstein, a prominent historian of conservatism, about his recent book, Reaganland, and the light it shines on the long history of bothsidesism and other bad media practices. Going into the election, Perlstein told me, reporters should “not allow themselves to be manipulated,” and should “study the history of how right-wing politicians have weaponized the anxieties of culturally-elite journalists in order to deliver more power to themselves.”
  • On Barrett and climate change: As Mark Hertsgaard wrote last week for CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project, Barrett’s impending confirmation doesn’t bode well for addressing the climate crisis, yet her stance on the question has passed under the radar of much general media coverage. Now more than seventy science and climate journalists—including Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Sonia Shah—have put their names to an op-ed, published in Rolling Stone, pushing back on Barrett’s nomination. Barrett, the signatories write, “has displayed a profound inability to understand the ecological crisis of our times, and in so doing she enables it.”
  • The local angle, I: Politico’s Meridith McGraw reports that the Trump campaign is attempting to flood local TV and radio with ads and rallies in the run-up to election day, in part because doing so is cheaper than flooding national media. The strategy, however, has led to a slew of negative headlines in local outlets, including “articles about rallies that eschew pandemic guidelines, news of people sickened by coronavirus afterward, spats with local officials that dominate regional coverage before and after a visit.”
  • The local angle, II: The Union Leader, a conservative newspaper in Manchester, New Hampshire, endorsed Biden—the first time in over one-hundred years that it has backed a Democrat for president. (It endorsed Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, in 2016.) The Capital-Journal in Topeka, Kansas, which endorsed Trump in 2016, is also going for Biden this time. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, however, endorsed Trump for president, having opted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. (The paper also just endorsed Jay Inslee, a liberal Democrat, for reelection as governor of Washington. It cited “significant misgivings” with both Trump and Inslee.)

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, with COVID-19 cases surging again, the Times and eleven other outlets—the Buffalo News, in New York; the Victoria Advocate, in Texas; the Harrisburg Patriot-News, in Pennsylvania; the Grand Rapids Press, in Michigan; the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in Florida; the Arizona Daily Star; the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, in Wisconsin; the Voice of OC, in California; the Augusta Chronicle, in Georgia; the Las Vegas Sun; and the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, in Kentucky—published “Out of Work in America,” a project tracking the lives of a dozen people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. “The impact of millions of lost jobs today is less visible when so many are staying home,” the Times writes, in an introduction. “Social distancing has helped financial suffering hide.”
  • Edmund Lee, of the Times, spoke with Black journalists who have worked with Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor in chief and Condé Nast editorial director who has been accused of creating a work environment “that sidelined and tokenized women of color, especially Black women.” Eighteen sources told Lee that “Vogue welcomed a certain type of employee—someone who is thin and white, typically from a wealthy family and educated at elite schools.” Eleven of those sources say that Wintour should no longer be in post. (Wintour told Lee that she has made mistakes and is committed to doing better.)
  • Amber Jamieson, Craig Silverman, and Ken Bensinger, of BuzzFeed, obtained an internal Wall Street Journal report—dating to July and compiled by strategy editors at the paper—making the case that the Journal is overly focused on delivering a print product to older, male subscribers; does not fully understand the internet; and does not sufficiently cover race and gender, in part because reporters “self-censor” from pitching related stories. (Matt Murray, the paper’s editor in chief, said that the report contains “outdated and inaccurate information,” but did not point to specific inaccuracies.)
  • Benjamin Mullin, Joe Flint, and Drew FitzGerald, of the Journal, report that Jeff Zucker may quit as president of CNN once—or even before—his current contract expires next year. Zucker has said he will make a decision on his future after the election. He recently told network staffers that he loves his job—but he also acknowledged that both the industry and CNN are changing, and the Journal reports that he bridled at a recent restructuring that weakened his grip on CNN’s finances, HR, and communications.
  • On Friday, federal prosecutors charged Ken Kurson, a former editor of the New York Observer, with variously cyberstalking and harassing five people, including his ex-wife. Kurson is close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, and advised Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign while also serving as the Observer’s editor. (Full disclosure: Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, is also a former editor of the Observer.)
  • CNN’s Hanna Ziady profiles The Voice, a weekly newspaper that was founded in 1982, following racist coverage of unrest in London a year earlier, to serve the British-born African-Caribbean community. “Existing Black newspapers… catered to mostly older immigrants who wanted to follow news from the Caribbean,” Ziady writes, whereas The Voice “tapped into a generation figuring out what it meant to be Black and British.”
  • Recently, a tribunal in France ordered a company that certifies medical devices to hand journalists from Le Monde a list of products that it certified as compliant with European standards. Le Monde requested the data—which was initially withheld on trade-secret grounds—as part of a global investigation, spearheaded by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, that I followed from behind the scenes and profiled for CJR.
  • And Julie Wernau, James V. Grimaldi, and Stephanie Armour, of the Journal, had the story of the day yesterday, reporting that Michael Caputo, a Health and Human Services spokesperson, wanted Santa performers to promote vaccination against COVID in return for preferential access to a vaccine. Caputo recently went on leave, and his plan has been scrapped—to the “disappointment” of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas.

ICYMI: How the press covered the last four years of Trump

Update: A previous version of this post stated that the Union Leader has never before endorsed a Democrat for president, but the paper’s former publisher believes that it may have done so in 1912.  The post has been updated.

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.