The Pew Research Center has released a massive study of how the media have covered the early days of the Biden administration. I am not going to do a deep dive, but I did find a few of the key findings interesting.
First, the study found that coverage was slightly more negative than positive (32% to 23%) — but that, in a separate survey of about 12,000 adults, about 46% thought the coverage had been mostly positive and only 14% assessed it as mostly negative. Here’s how the report put it: “Americans’ sense of the early coverage about the Biden administration tends to be more positive than the tone of the content that was studied.”
There was also a marked difference in coverage between media outlets with predominantly left- and right-leaning audiences as well as among the respondents themselves based on what media they consume. Pew chose 25 news organizations to study. Vox had the most left-leaning audience whereas Sean Hannity’s radio show had the most right-leaning.
My own sense is that coverage of President Biden and his administration has, in fact, been mainly positive, and that the perception of the survey respondents is closer to the mark than Pew’s assessment of the actual coverage. And I’d suggest that Pew reconsider its list.
Every Pew-chosen outlet appealing to left-leaning audiences is either a mainstream news organization or combines reporting with opinion. On the other hand, several of the outlets selected for study that appeal to right-leaning audiences consist of pure opinion that’s often combined with misinformation — among them Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax and Hannity’s and Mark Levin’s radio shows.
The other finding that struck me was that most stories about Biden have focused on “his ideology and policy agenda,” whereas, four years earlier, stories about the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency centered on “his character and leadership.”
Needless to say, that’s far more a reflection of the two presidents than of the media. Biden represents a return to normality, and news organizations obviously are going to spend much of their time covering a normal new president’s beliefs and policy proposals. Trump’s entire presidency was about nothing but the cult of personality he encouraged — the consequences of which will be with us for some time to come.
Bad news about the media business is nothing new. From the moment that the commercial web slipped into view in the mid-1990s, news organizations have been on the losing end of a long war over how — and even whether — journalism should be paid for.
Some recent developments, though, offer reasons for hope amid the gloom. Consider:
• BuzzFeed recently acquired HuffPost and immediately took an axe to it, laying off 47 employees, with the threat of more cuts to come. I will concede there’s nothing positive about that. But the debacle points to the limits of media funded by venture capital and could encourage more sustainable models.
• The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was on the verge of acquiring Tribune Publishing, whose nine large-market daily papers include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, locally, the Hartford Courant. But a group of billionaire investors led by Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum stepped forward to propose breaking up the chain and operating the papers locally, some of them on a nonprofit basis. And, at least at the moment, it looks like they might win.
• As media observers had long feared, the departure of former President Donald Trump from the White House led to an immediate decline in news consumption — not just at the cable news networks, but at national and regional newspapers too. Yet the post-Trump slump represents a chance to emphasize local news, which has more of an effect on readers’ actual lives and helps build community.
What a lot of this comes down to is the end of the idea that scale will save the digital news business. “Local doesn’t scale” has long been the motto of community-based entrepreneurs. But now it’s looking like scale doesn’t work at the national level, either, with a few notable exceptions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Josh Marshall, founder of a small but successful political website called Talking Points Memo that depends mainly on reader revenue, described the dilemma in a recent essay for The Atlantic. For years, he wrote, venture capitalists kept pouring more and more money into digital news outlets hoping that they would someday become large enough to dominate their rivals, rake in a bounty of ad revenues and give the investors a chance to cash in.
Instead, the digital ad money went to Google and Facebook, leaving these outlets without any way forward.
“The whole digital news industry has been based on lies,” Marshall wrote, adding: “Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot … In digital publishing, scale was the god that failed.”
If bigger isn’t necessarily better, that points to an opportunity for local news, whose tribulations have been the subject of considerable discussion over the past several years. Last November, I wrote that reviving community journalism could help overcome the angry polarization of the Trump era. Now three scholars have conducted a study showing there may be something to it.
According to an overview by Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the researchers — Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Whitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M — conducted a survey of readers after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, decided to drop from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.
Darr, Whitt and Dunaway compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three wrote, the effect was notably salutary regardless of the actual numbers, since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.
“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”
It’s worth noting, too, that The Desert Sun — a Gannett paper — is small enough to be regarded as a truly local paper. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the Sun’s combined digital and print weekday paid circulation is 15,862, and 16,993 on Sundays. But will the experiment have a lasting impact?
According to Julie Makinen, the paper’s executive editor, the answer is yes. Although the ban on national politics lasted only lasted for a month, she wrote approvingly about the study last week and added that it “is useful to us in that it helps point the way for further improving our opinion pages as we bring on a new editor for the section.”
Which brings me back to where I started. If scale is “the god that failed,” as Josh Marshall puts it, and if local news and opinions are an answer to rebuilding both journalism and civic engagement, what should come next?
Damon Kiesow of the Missouri School of Journalism, whose professional stops include a stint on the digital side at The Boston Globe, recently tweeted out a link to a piece he wrote more than a year ago that seems even more relevant now than it did then.
Because most local newspapers are owned by national chains, he wrote, those papers often end up getting caught in a strategy of pursuing scale even though it makes no sense for them. Journalistically, it means loading up on syndicated content. On the business side, it means chasing advertising dollars — or pennies — that are going to go to Google and Facebook in any case.
“To succeed,” he wrote, “local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation. But reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.” He concluded that “the internet is infinite; your community is not. Go small, or we are all going home.”
For a generation now, much of the news media have been seeking magical one-size-fits-all solutions to the economic destruction created by technology and out-of-control capitalism. The problem is that there are no easy answers, and scaling up has only made things worse. Those who have succeeded have done so through the hard work of figuring out what their communities need — and then going about the business of serving those needs.
I don’t think any of us believe that Trumpism is going away. To the extent that we take any comfort from the current chaotic state of the Republican Party, it’s that it seems mainly to be defined by the QAnon craziness of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the alleged perversion of Matt Gaetz and the cartoonish cynicism of Josh Hawley. Yes, we need to keep an eye on them. But they’re so out there on the fringes that the amount of damage they could do would appear to be limited.
Which is why an essay published recently by Glenn Ellmers of the Claremont Institute should chill you to the bone. Running at more than 3,200 words, Ellmers’ screed is nothing less than an assertion of authoritarianism and white supremacy, dressed up in intellectual garb. I don’t mean to suggest that he advances a coherent argument — he keeps telling the reader that he’s going to explain what he means, and he never actually gets around to it. But Ellmers can write, and he’s got a worldview that he wants to impose on all of us. “Pure, undiluted fascism,” tweeted my GBH News colleague Adam Reilly.
"[A] majority of people living in the United States today can no longer be considered fellow citizens."
Ellmers begins by asserting that more than half of his fellow countrymen are “not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” And what does he mean by that? Well, he wants you to know that his definition of not-Americans goes well beyond those he bluntly labels as “illegal immigrants” and “aliens.” He writes:
I’m really referring to the many native-born people—some of whose families have been here since the Mayflower—who may technically be citizens of the United States but are no longer (if they ever were) Americans. They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.
So who are the real Americans? Why, Trump voters, of course. That is, “the 75 million people who voted in the last election against the senile figurehead of a party that stands for mob violence, ruthless censorship, and racial grievances, not to mention bureaucratic despotism.”
There’s the hate, right out in the open. I really don’t need to quote any more except to say that Ellmers goes on at great length, in pseudo-intellectual language, to tell us that action must be taken. What kind of action he doesn’t say. But I would assume that his only regret about the insurrection of Jan. 6 is that it failed.
What’s especially chilling about this is that there’s none of the unseriousness that often defines hardcore Trumpism — no pedophilia rings masterminded by Hillary Clinton and George Soros, no claims that the election was stolen. Just a pure will to power, which is a defining characteristic of fascism.
If you don’t want to read the whole thing, I recommend this analysis by Zack Beauchamp of Vox. Under the headline “The conservative movement is rejecting America,” Beauchamp writes:
Ellmers’s essay should be taken seriously because it makes the anti-democratic subtext of this kind of conservative discourse into clearly legible text. And it is a clear articulation of what the movement has been telling us through its actions, like Georgia’s new voting law: It sees democracy not as a principle to respect, but as a barrier to be overcome in pursuit of permanent power.
The Claremont Institute, based in California, is what might be called a right-wing think tank that at some point in recent years abandoned ultraconservatism for something much more dangerous. In 2016 it published a pseudonymous essay called “The Flight 93 Election,” arguing that — just like the passengers who brought down a planeload of terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001 — voters had to vote for Donald Trump lest they allow Hillary Clinton to destroy the country. As Conor Friedersdorf explained it in The Atlantic at the time:
The most radical, least conservative people in American politics right now are the so-called conservatives who are imprudently counseling the abandon of core values and norms to avoid a point-of-no-return that is a figment of their imagination, often with rhetorical excesses that threaten the peaceful transition of power at the core of America’s success insofar as the excesses are taken seriously.
I couldn’t find a whole lot about Ellmers other than his bio at the Claremont Institute, which describes him as a visiting research scholar at Hillsdale College, another bastion of the far right, as well as a minor politico of sorts. Of local note: According to the bio, he holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Boston University.
More than anything I’ve seen since Jan. 6, though, Ellmers’ essay defines and explains the ongoing threat we face from Trumpism.
President Joe Biden speaks often about his desire to unite the country, and poll numbers suggest that he’s having some success. Until and unless the fever breaks, though, it’s clear that a large minority of Americans — 25%, 30%, 40% — are going to regard themselves as the only true patriots and the rest of us as the Other.
It’s a horrifying dilemma, and there’s no clear path forward.
As Donald Trump prepared to leave office last January, a lot of us wondered if the “Trump effect” — the boost in viewership and readership that accompanied his train wreck of a presidency — would disappear with it.
As I wrote for GBH News in January, “Trump outrage has provided elite newspapers, cable news stations and other prominent outlets with a jolt they hadn’t seen since the internet began eating away at their audience and revenue several decades earlier. But now it’s coming to an end.”
Now some early returns are available and it seems that, yes indeed, media consumption is down substantially, tracking with the decline in presidential outrages, COVID infection rates and economic uncertainty. According to Paul Farhi of The Washington Post, cable news viewership has tanked, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But so has everything else.
The double-flip in cable viewership is especially striking. During the post-election period — the endless lies and futile court battles, culminating in the violent insurrection of Jan. 6 — CNN pulled out to a substantial lead over its rivals, Fox News and MSNBC, representing the first time in many years that Fox had been anything other than No. 1. Now, Farhi reports, ratings at CNN and MSNBC have cratered, putting Fox back in the lead — not because it’s gaining viewers but because it’s lost fewer of them.
It’s unlikely that media executives expected the furious demand for news in 2020 and early 2021 would last indefinitely. That period was one of the most momentous in living memory, encompassing the onset of a pandemic, the nearly instantaneous collapse of national and global economies, a wave of racial justice protests, and a U.S. presidential election that culminated in an insurrection and impeachment trial. All of it drove people to their TVs, laptops and phones in horror and fascination.
As Farhi notes, the post-Trump slump has affected broadcast news and newspapers as well. The New York Times and The Washington Post were especially prosperous during the Trump era, yet traffic to their websites is down substantially since Inauguration Day.
After four years of the Trump Show, maybe boring is a welcome feeling for media consumers. Maybe it’s a good thing to go a day or two or three not knowing exactly what the president said or did that day. Maybe after four years of stress, some people are taking a break from the news.
I thought I would do a spot-check of how widespread the decline in news consumption is and whether it extends down to the regional level. In order to do that, I used SimilarWeb, an open platform that provides some approximation of web traffic. My list comprised The New York Times, The Washington Post and four regional papers of varying sizes: The Boston Globe, The Berkshire Eagle, the Portland Press Herald and, just to get outside of New England, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. All of them are independently owned.
In every instance, SimilarWeb reported that the papers’ February numbers were their lowest in six months. The Times dropped from 705 million total visits in November to 366 million in February. The Post hit peaks of 297 million in November and 294 in January before slumping to 178 million in February. (“Total visits” is a different measure from the industry standard of unique visitors per month, which is not available from SimilarWeb unless you pay extra.) The regional figures tell the same story:
The Boston Globe: 11.6 million total visits in January; 8.5 million in February.
The Berkshire Eagle: 680,000 total visits in January; 510,000 in February.
The Portland Press Herald: 2.5 million total visits in November, followed by a steady decline to 1.35 million in February.
The Star Tribune: 14.7 million total visits in November, sliding to 11.4 million in February.
Is there any good news in these numbers? Maybe not — but there is an opportunity. News organizations are no longer as obsessed as they once were with gross traffic numbers, since drive-by visitors can’t be monetized. The main reason that newspapers want to attract a wide audience is so that some small percentage can be converted into paying customers. And all of these papers have had some measure of success in signing up paid digital subscribers, the Times and the Post spectacularly so.
Of course, let’s hope that there are no news developments that will start driving media consumption once again. After a long lull, probably related to the pandemic, we’ve had two mass shootings in two weeks. It would be terrible for all of us if a return to gun violence is what it takes to offset the Trump slump. A further caveat: Presidential elections always drive news consumption. Maybe when we look at these numbers again a few months from now, we’ll see that what’s happening now isn’t that unusual.
The way to sign up and retain subscribers is by offering quality, essential journalism, not by publishing clickbait that might bring in a large audience for one story. But to sound a further note of caution, a decline in paid subscriptions would be a trailing indicator — an overall drop in web traffic shows up immediately, while non-renewals play out over many months.
This is a time when we’ll see whether publishers who are truly committed to building their business can work on strategies to attract new paid subscribers and keep the ones they’ve already got. The optimist in me says that readers who’ve already handed over their credit-card information are exactly the ones who understand that news doesn’t begin and end with Donald J. Trump.
The danger in reporting a story based on anonymous sources — in this case, one anonymous source — is that if you later are proven wrong, you’re left twisting in the wind with no one to blame but yourself.
It is highly unusual for a source to emerge from hiding and deliver a semi-exoneration. So The Washington Post got lucky Tuesday when Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state in Georgia who was the anonymous source for a Post story that resulted in an embarrassing correction, went on the record and said the Post got the story more or less right after all.
In case you missed it, the Post had to correct a story by Amy Gardner reporting that Trump had called Georgia’s chief elections investigator, Frances Watson, and urged her to “find the fraud” and that she would be a “national hero” if she overturned the results of the presidential election in her state. A tape of the call emerged recently, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s quotes were somewhat less provocative than that. Wemple writes:
In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Fuchs said, “I believe the story accurately reflected the investigator’s interpretation of the call. The only mistake here was in the direct quotes, and they should have been more of a summary.” Fuchs said that The Post disclosed her role in the story with her permission, and that she’d gotten the debriefing from the investigator — a direct report of hers — “shortly” after the call from Trump concluded.
“I think it’s pretty absurd for anybody to suggest that the president wasn’t urging the investigator to ‘find the fraud,’” Fuchs added, “These are quotes that [Watson] told me at the time.”
To be clear, what we’re talking about here is a secondary story — a follow-up to a more explosive report by Gardner about Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Georgia Brad Raffensperger in which he demanded that Raffensperger find enough votes to reverse the results. There was audio of that call, published on the Post’s website.
So, a close call for the Post — but lessons to be learned that really shouldn’t have to be stated. You don’t use quotes from a single anonymous source, especially when that source may have been second-hand. If you’re absolutely confident of your reporting, treat those quotes as a “summary,” as Fuchs suggested, rather than using quotation marks.
And understand that in this hypercharged political environment, you will be accused of making up fake news about Trump if you don’t get it 100% right. In this case, 95% isn’t good enough.
When was the first day you realized that COVID-19 was going to disrupt our lives — even though we didn’t know until later how long and hard that disruption would be?
In its anniversary package, GBH News decided on March 10, 2020, the day that Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency. I wrote about covering a COVID news conference in Mendocino County, California, on March 5.
For me, though, the real anniversary is today. On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, we learned at a faculty meeting that classes would go remote the following day. That evening, the NBA shut down and Tom Hanks announced that he had COVID.
And in what would prove to be our final in-person meeting, my graduate ethics students and I watched Donald Trump deliver an Oval Office address that night about the coronavirus that was so unnerving it sent the Dow futures tumbling.
On Friday, shortly after the Biden administration declassified documents tying the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists released statements urging President Joe Biden to take action.
Sadly, Biden flinched, imposing a variety of lesser sanctions but leaving Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman alone — even though Biden, during the 2020 campaign, had referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state with “no redeeming social value.” As the Post reported:
The Biden administration will impose no direct punishment on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite the conclusion of a long-awaited intelligence report released Friday that he “approved” the operation, administration officials said.
“By releasing this intelligence report, President Joe Biden’s administration has reinforced what we have long believed: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said CPJ Senior Middle East and North Africa Researcher Justin Shilad. “Now, the U.S. and its allies should sanction the crown prince and other royal court members to show the world that there are tangible consequences for assassinating journalists, no matter who you are.”
“Many Americans have now read — and all should read — the four-page declassified intelligence report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Matthew T. Hall, SPJ national president. “Seeing its conclusions in print under government letterhead make me angry all over again. This reprehensible action needs a strong response from the Biden administration. We appreciate Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s recent assurances that ‘a range of actions’ are ‘on the table.’ But we hope the president chooses one quickly and decisively to send the message to Saudi Arabian leaders and people everywhere that the killing of a journalist is unacceptable anywhere on this planet.”
(My emphasis above.)
Sadly, Biden’s actions parallel those of his predecessor, Donald Trump, although for different reasons. Trump didn’t care; Biden is too tied up in outmoded considerations about alliances and interests, such the supposed need to placate Saudis so they’ll help us in our confrontation with Iran.
It’s precisely because Saudi Arabia is so important that Biden should stand strong and send signals — now, while there is a window for change — that the kingdom is better off with a new crown prince who doesn’t dismember journalists.
Friday was the worst day so far for President Biden — and for anyone who cares about the U.S. commitment to human rights and to the fate of journalists at the hands of repressive governments.
Rush Limbaugh, the toxic right-wing talk show host who died Wednesday at the age of 70, came out of a regulatory environment that had changed utterly from what had come before. Although I like to tell my students that everything can be traced back to Richard Nixon, it was changes implemented by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton that gave us decades of Rush.
Starting in the 1930s and ’40s, the Federal Communications Commission required radio and, later, television stations to be operated in the public interest. The theory was that the broadcast spectrum was limited, so station operators were licensed and required to abide by rules such as the fairness doctrine. Right-wing talk would have been unimaginable during those years, since station executives would have been obliged to let the targets of Limbaugh’s attacks respond and to provide airtime to liberal hosts.
Reagan simply let those regulations lapse, and Limbaugh’s rise coincided with Reagan’s presidency. All of a sudden, a hate-monger like Rush was free to spew his bile every day without putting the stations that carried his show in any jeopardy.
The next step in Limbaugh’s rise was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by Bill Clinton. The law was mainly seen as a way to regulate cable TV prices and encourage competition. But the act also removed any meaningful restrictions on the number of radio stations any one company could own in a given market or nationally.
The law led the rise of massive corporate radio chains such as Clear Channel and Cumulus. These companies had in many cases taken on substantial debt in order to build their empires, and the way they serviced that debt was by slicing local programming and loading up on cheap national content like Limbaugh’s show. It’s a dynamic that continues to play out. As recently as a year ago, iHeartMedia, the successor company to Clear Channel, decimated WBZ (AM 1030), Boston’s only commercial news station.
Although some folks call for the restoration of the fairness doctrine, that no longer makes sense. The scarcity rationale that provided the legal basis for regulation is long gone, with satellite and internet radio offering hundreds if not thousands of choices. Podcasts have eaten significantly into the audience. Radio has fractured, just like most forms of media. Though I would like to see ownership caps restored, even that seems less relevant than it did a quarter-century ago given the multiplicity of audio options that are out there today.
That fracturing also means a radio show like Limbaugh’s could never become such a massive phenomenon today. Fox News long since surpassed Limbaugh in terms of audience and influence — and now they’re being threatened by new competitors like Newsmax, OANN and conspiracy-minded internet programming such as Alex Jones’ InfoWars. Rather than one big Rush, the mediascape is littered with a bunch of little Rushes. It’s not an improvement.
Limbaugh, of course, helped give rise to Donald Trump, and the two men have a lot in common — towering self-regard served up with heaping doses of racism, misogyny and homophobia. It’s no wonder that Trump presented Limbaugh with the Medal of Freedom. This piece, published by HuffPost shortly after Limbaugh’s death, is brutal but accurate.
It’s a terrible legacy. But Limbaugh seemed content with his choices right up until the end of his life.
President Joe Biden spoke for many of us about 30 minutes into his town hall event on CNN Tuesday night.
“I’m tired of Donald Trump,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”
This week marks the true beginning of Biden’s presidency. Trump is gone, holed up in Mar-a-Lago. We’ve put impeachment behind us, if not the insurrection that sparked it. Surely it’s time to get on with the business of vaccinating the country, dealing with Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief bill and debating issues such as the reopening of schools.
It remains to be seen, though, whether the media can move past their lucrative obsession with Trump. For instance, a little after 4 a.m. today, the lead political story on The Washington Post’s home page was about Biden’s swing through Wisconsin — and immediately below it was the headline “Trump attacks McConnell as ‘political hack,’ says he will back pro-Trump candidates.” At The New York Times, a story headlined “In Milwaukee, Biden Offers Reassurance and Optimism” actually appeared below an account of Michigan Republicans’ ongoing love for the former president.
Breaking up is hard to do.
Biden’s hour-plus appearance before a socially distanced audience of about 50, moderated by Anderson Cooper, felt weirdly normal after four years of belligerence, bluster and boasting. The president frequently got bogged down by details — so much so that he apologized several times for his meandering answers. But he projected decency and compassion, which was no small thing for a nation staggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic disaster.
Like many viewers, I was especially struck by his exchange with a mother who said her young children frequently talk about their fear of catching COVID and dying. Her daughter stood with her.
“Kids don’t get COVID very often. It’s unusual for that to happen,” Biden answered before taking a more personal approach, telling the girl she was unlikely to spread COVID to “Mommy and Daddy,” nor them to her. “I wouldn’t worry about it, baby, I promise you,” he said. “Don’t be scared, honey. Don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine. And Mommy is going to be fine, too.” A little cringe-worthy? Sure. But also a demonstration of empathy that resonated with the crowd, which applauded Biden’s answer.
Biden the retail politician was on display in other ways as well. He asked the mother of a 19-year-old who hasn’t been able to get vaccinated despite severe pulmonary problems to meet with him after the event. He told the owner of a microbrewery that he would send him a breakdown of his relief plan for small business if he’d provide his address.
And he made some news, saying there would be enough vaccines for everyone in the U.S. by the end of July, and that he hoped the country would be more or less back to normal by Christmas. He also addressed the threat posed by white supremacists and made a couple of statements sure to displease the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, although he merely repeated what he’s said in the past: he opposes defunding the police, and in fact supports more funds for better screening and training; and he will not go along with calls for massive student-debt cancellation.
That latter issue was the subject of an unusually blunt exchange with a young woman who asked Biden about proposals to eliminate $50,000 worth of student debt. “What will you do to make that happen?” she asked.
“I will not make that happen,” Biden responded, countering with proposals for free tuition for community college and state universities, debt cancellation of up to $10,000 and opportunities for students to work off their debt through public-service jobs.
So far, Biden and his proposals seem to be resonating. His popularity rating at FiveThirtyEight is 54.8% approve and 37.4% disapprove. Yes, it’s early, but that’s essentially the opposite of Trump’s ratings from the day he took office until he left. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 68% support Biden’s economic relief package, and 61% support his call for a $15 minimum wage. There may be something to Biden’s statement that the nation is “not nearly as divided as we make it out to be.”
But for Biden to succeed, the media need to move on from Trump. I don’t mean they should stand back and applaud Biden’s every move. Skeptical coverage and tough scrutiny are warranted, as with any president. Biden doesn’t deserve a free ride.
What he does deserve, though, is a political press that covers his agenda as the top story of the day, and the Republican Party’s ongoing meltdown as a sideshow — worthy of attention, but hardly worth the massive energy and resources that are being devoted to it at the moment.
“For four years, all the news has been about Trump,” Biden said Tuesday night. “For the next four years, I want the news to be about the American people.”
The media are going to have to change their ingrained habits for that to happen. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s crucial if we’re to have any hope of getting back to some semblance of normal.