The Media Today

The interconnectedness of the Virginia, Build Back Better, and COP26 stories

November 1, 2021
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, speaks with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres during arrivals at the COP26 UN Climate Summit. AP Photo/Alastair Grant

As we enter a vital week, three political stories are driving much of the US news agenda. On the international stage, President Biden and other world leaders convened for a G20 meeting in Italy ahead of the crucial COP26 climate summit in Scotland, which formally opened yesterday. Nationally, the precise fate of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda remains unresolved: before heading to Europe, the president outlined a compromise package of ambitious social policies and climate spending; Democratic leaders were hoping to hold a vote on the package and a bipartisan infrastructure bill tomorrow, but negotiations are ongoing, and the timetable could easily slip. And tomorrow brings important mayoral and other local elections across the country. New Jersey and Virginia are holding gubernatorial elections, the latter of which—between the former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe and his Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin—has excited national media attention to a particularly heightened extent.

The levels at which these stories are playing out—local, national, and international—are, of course, nested within one another: Virginia is part of the United States, which is part of the world. Approaching a given news story—a local election, say—with this in mind should lead us to the understanding that while certain aspects might be specific to a given city or state, they’re all playing out within a broader national context that is in turn playing out within a broader international context, with the different levels connected by links than run outward from the local level and vice versa. COP26, for example, is an international story that will have profound national and local ramifications; as Andrew McCormick wrote recently for Covering Climate Now, a climate-reporting initiative led by CJR and The Nation, international summits don’t typically make local headlines, but COP26 is so important to the future of the planet that “journalists everywhere, in newsrooms large and small, should be covering” its effect on their community. This is as true in Virginia—a coastal state with an important agricultural sector—as anywhere else. That makes Virginia’s gubernatorial election a climate story, among other things. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Cale Jaffe, an environmental lawyer who has served on climate commissions under both McAuliffe and his successor as governor, Ralph Northam, pointed out that Virginia recently passed “one of the most sweeping climate laws in the nation,” and that Youngkin has opposed it. “Climate change,” Jaffe wrote, “is on the ballot in Virginia this year.”

New from CJR: A tale of two Facebook leaks

Some coverage, particularly in local outlets, has reflected this; while moderating a debate in late September, Chuck Todd asked McAuliffe and Youngkin about climate mitigation spending. Generally, though, the climate crisis has been glaringly absent from coverage of the race, especially at the national level, with legions of journalists and pundits instead glomming onto national culture war themes—around “critical race theory” (right-wingers claim this is being taught in schools, which it isn’t), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Youngkin’s campaign ran an ad in which a conservative activist claimed the book gave her son nightmares after he read it at school), and trans rights—and the national electoral implications of the result in Virginia, with both eyes fixed on next year’s midterms, and at least one already on 2024. (Youngkin, we have repeatedly been told, is walking a “Trump tightrope,” which sounds more like an ill-fated eighties circus venture than the stuff of serious political analysis, but we are where we are.) The best of this coverage has elucidated what local dynamics in Virginia can tell us about the toxicity of national American politics. The worst of it has uncritically amplified Youngkin’s dog whistles.

If the absence of the climate story from the national conversation around Virginia’s election shows that journalists often neglect the links between the local and the international levels, we can also see here how local and international stories get forced through national prisms that can be limiting. The latest coverage of Biden’s agenda, for instance, has often stressed that its quick passage matters in the context both of COP26 and the Virginia race. The former point is clearly of substantive importance: a concrete commitment to fight climate change at home is crucial to bolstering Biden’s moral authority on the world stage. The latter point—that national Democrats getting something done would bolster McAuliffe’s electoral prospects—might also be of substantive importance, but the path to that conclusion is less certain: if Democrats fail to pass Biden’s agenda by tomorrow and that materially contributes to a McAuliffe loss, then some Democrats might fear a midterm defeat and row back their support for ambitious spending, including on climate change; this all might foreshadow Republican control of Congress after the midterms, which would clearly have enormous consequences for US climate policy.

These stakes, ultimately, are convoluted, and I’ve not seen any coverage that really tries to elucidate them. The shallow language of political “wins” and “defeats” is far more common: Biden getting his agenda passed would be Good For Biden and Good For McAuliffe; Republicans winning the midterms would be Bad For Biden and Bad For Democrats, and that’s about as deep as things often get. The stakes for the planet have been much clearer in the early COP coverage I’ve seen, and much of that coverage has made appropriate links with national- and, sometimes, local-level action. But we should be clear that such links run in the other direction, too. The interconnectedness of the biggest stories we face is not purely a top-down dynamic. Acknowledging this will not, in and of itself, ensure a focus on what’s important; plenty of trivial things are interconnected, too. But a wide perspective is usually a good start.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

At the debate moderated by Todd, McAuliffe said, during an exchange about education, that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The context for the remark (then-Governor McAuliffe vetoing a bill that would have forced schools to warn parents about books containing “sexually explicit” material) was quickly lost as Youngkin’s campaign—and right-wing media—gleefully seized on it, and many mainstream commentators have talked a lot about the remark, too, casting it as a defining “gaffe” or “blunder” of the campaign. Nine days after that debate, WAVY, a local TV station, sat down separately with McAuliffe and Youngkin and asked the latter if he thinks mankind is responsible for climate change. “I don’t know what’s responsible for climate change, in all candor,” Youngkin replied. “I’m a pretty smart guy but I’m not that smart.” This occasioned no comparable national-level attention. This morning, I searched Google News for McAuliffe’s parents remark and found nineteen pages of results. When I searched for Youngkin’s climate remark, seven came up. Results, not pages.

Below, more on Virginia, Build Back Better, and COP26:

  • Virginia: The media critics Dan Froomkin and Eric Boehlert have both recently called out what they see as insufficiently-skeptical media coverage of “critical race theory,” including around the Virginia election. “Isn’t it crazy that reporters are writing so much more about how winning a strategy it is than about what a lie it is?” Froomkin asked. “That they’re quoting people opposed to ‘critical race theory’ who have no idea what it really is and yet are sure it’s in their schools even when it’s not?” The CRT story, Boehlert argues, “represents a stunning failure of American journalism.”
  • Build Back Better, I: As Democratic lawmakers finalize Biden’s spending plans, Jim Friedlich, the CEO of the nonprofit Lenfest Institute, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, is urging them not to drop from the package a provision that would institute tax credits for news organizations to hire journalists. “Trade-offs are being made including on health care, tax policy, public safety, education, infrastructure, energy policy and environmental reform,” he writes. “What is distinctive—and distinctively important—about the Local Journalism Sustainability Act is that a strong local press informs and empowers Americans to participate in each and every one of these vital issues.”
  • Build Back Better, II: Paid family leave appears to be among the policies that will not make it into Biden’s bill, though lawmakers including Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand aren’t giving up hope just yet. Responding to the likely omission, Pamela Brown, an anchor on CNN, opened up on air about her own experience with severe postpartum anxiety, and said that her employer’s provision of paid leave had helped her. “I honestly could not imagine having to deal with the stress of not having paid leave on top of everything I was going through,” she said. “How is it possible in this day and age that the United States doesn’t make this more of a priority?”
  • COP26: As this newsletter was going to press, Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, was about to address the opening ceremony of COP, alongside António Guterres, the UN secretary general, and other speakers. The Guardian has live updates on the first full day of the conference here. Ahead of the conference, Covering Climate Now brought together key partner newsrooms to bring new focus and fresh urgency to the ever-worsening phenomenon of climate migration. You can find more details here.

A programming note, and an invitation:
Next week, I’ll be writing this newsletter from inside COP26, reporting and commenting on the media stories surrounding both the conference and the climate crisis itself. If you or your news organization is at COP, I’d love to hear about your coverage, or to just say hi; I’m especially interested in hearing from journalists who are covering the conference in an innovative way, and from those representing outlets outside the US. If you aren’t at COP, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the coverage of the conference as it unfolds. You can reach me at

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: When bullish finance stories are not exactly what they appear

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.