Republicans have a Putin problem — and the media need to stop glossing over it

Madison Cawthorn. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

Madison Cawthorn didn’t get the memo.

Sometime in early March, the extremist Republican congressman from North Carolina decided to go off on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Remember that Zelenskyy is a thug,” Cawthorn told supporters. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

If Cawthorn had spoken, say, a month earlier, he might have earned the praise of former President Donald Trump and gotten invited to trash Zelenskyy some more on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. But that was before Zelenskyy had emerged as a heroic figure, standing up to Russia’s invasion of his country with a combination of eloquence and courage. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said to those who thought he should flee.

So former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, the sort of establishment Republican who was frozen out during the Trump era, used his Wall Street Journal column to let his readers know that Republicans like Cawthorn and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance (“I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another”) are outliers — and that the party is oh-so-very supportive of Zelenskyy. “Republican members of Congress, candidates and commentators echoing Mr. Trump’s isolationism and Kremlin apologetics are out of sync with GOP voters,” Rove wrote.

WRAL.com of North Carolina, which obtained video of Cawthorn taking the Kremlin line, pushed that message even harder, stressing in its lead that Cawthorn’s vile rhetoric was at odds with his party and calling it “a comment that runs counter to the overwhelming share of Republicans with a favorable view of the leader fending off a military invasion from Russia.”

Oh, please. Can we get real for a moment? Yes, Rove and WRAL cited poll numbers that show Republicans, like most Americans, are now pro-Zelenskyy and support Ukraine in fending off the massive Russian invasion. But that is an exceptionally recent phenomenon.

In January, for instance, a poll by The Economist and YouGov found that Republicans viewed Vladimir Putin more favorably than President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — hardly surprising after years of pro-Putin pronouncements by Trump.

No wonder former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who’d like to run for president, told Fox News that Putin is “a very talented statesman” with “lots of gifts” who “knows how to use power,” as Eric Boehlert, who tracks conservative bias on the part of the mainstream media, took note of.

Now, some of this reflects a split between the Republican Party’s right wing and its extreme right wing. Way out on the authoritarian fringes, figures such as Carlson and Steve Bannon have long admired Putin for his unabashed, anti-democratic espousal of white Christian dominance and attacks on LGBTQ folks. Politicians such as Cawthorn, Vance and Pompeo, rather than standing up for principle, are trying to thread the needle.

Meanwhile, their less extreme counterparts, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have flipped from coddling Trump, Putin and Russia to claiming that Biden is to blame for the invasion and the high gas prices it has led to.

All of this has a historical context. As everyone knows, or ought to know, Putin has represented an existential threat to Ukraine since 2014, when he invaded the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and incorporated it into Russia. Putin appears to be gripped by the idea of a Greater Russia, of which in his mind Ukraine is a part. Ukraine was a Soviet republic, and Putin has always expressed nostalgia for the U.S.S.R. But the two countries’ ties go back centuries, and apparently no one cares about that more deeply than Putin.

Into this box of dry kindling came the spark of Trump in 2016. His numerous statements of support for Putin and pro-Russia actions couldn’t possibly all be listed here, but a few that pertain to Ukraine stand out. One of Trump’s campaign managers, Paul Manafort, had worked for a pro-Russian political faction in Ukraine and, upon being forced out, offered his services to Trump free of charge. You may also recall that a plank in that year’s Republican platform guaranteeing Ukraine’s security was mysteriously watered down — and a delegate to that year’s convention later said she was asked directly by Trump to support the change. (Manafort later went to prison for financial crimes he committed in Ukraine, only to be pardoned by Trump.)

That was followed by revelations in the fall of 2019 that Trump, in a phone call to Zelenskyy, demanded dirt on Biden in return for military assistance — assistance that Ukraine needed desperately to deter Russian aggression. Trump was impeached over that massive scandal. Yet not a single Republican House member (not even Liz Cheney) supported impeachment, and only one Republican senator — Mitt Romney — voted to remove Trump from office.

As detailed a month ago by The Washington Post, Trump has continued to praise Putin, hailing his war against Ukraine as “genius” and “savvy,” while Trumpers like U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona sneer, “We should just call ourselves Ukraine and then maybe we can get NATO to engage and protect our border.”

Mother Jones reported over the weekend that Russian media outlets have been ordered to quote Tucker Carlson as much as possible. Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed Republican congressional candidate in Washington state, endorsed Cawthorn’s eruption this past Saturday and went him one better, tweeting: “Zelenskyy was installed via a US backed color revaluation [sic], his goal is to move his country west so he virtue signals in woke ideology while using nazi battalions to crush his enemies. He was also smart enough to cut our elite in on the graft. @CawthornforNC nailed it.”

There was a time when, as the old saying went, politics stopped at the water’s edge. That wasn’t always good policy, as elected officials came under withering attack when they dared to criticize misbegotten actions such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But there was a virtue to it as well. When we go to war or, in the case of Ukraine, engage in high-wire diplomacy aimed at ending a war, it’s that much harder when critics are sniping at our leaders. Can you imagine if Republicans had gone on television in 1962 to say that Nikita Khrushchev was right to place Soviet missiles in Cuba?

Claiming that Republicans are united in supporting Ukraine doesn’t make it so. Some are, some aren’t. It’s shocking that a few fringe figures like Cawthorn and Kent are openly criticizing Zeleneskyy even now — but it’s just as shocking that praise for Putin was a mainstream Republican position as recently as a month or so ago.

Unfortunately, the media’s tendency to flatten out and normalize aberrant behavior by the Republicans will prevent this from growing into an all-out crisis for the party. We’ll move on to the next thing, whether it be expressing faux outrage over Vice President Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s touting electric cars while gas prices are high (what better time?) or Biden’s latest miserable polling numbers.

Anything that enables our feckless media to cover politics as the same old both-sides game that it used to be.

Pundits wrestle with a State of the Union address overshadowed by war

White House photo

Previously published at GBH News.

The dichotomy at the heart of any State of the Union address was on full display Tuesday night. The president’s annual message to Congress is a major news event. Yet it is fundamentally a political exercise.

So when serious news from the outside world intrudes, cognitive dissonance ensues. That was surely the case during President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union as well as in the subsequent coverage.

How did the pundits handle it? For the most part, they treated it as two speeches — a sober, even stirring call to support the Ukrainian people as they fight desperately to hold off an unprovoked invasion by Russian forces, and a domestic-policy address aimed at shoring up Biden’s miserable poll numbers.

“It was as inspiring as any section of a State of the Union, in large part because it was about something bigger and more compelling than politics as usual,” wrote Washington post columnist Jennifer Rubin of Biden’s opening, which focused on Ukraine. “Moreover, it was a rare display of bipartisanship, and a reminder that in facing external threats we can rise to the occasion…. From there on out, bipartisanship receded.”

The real-news-versus-politics divide was particularly acute in the way the war in Ukraine and the State of the Union address were played on the front pages of our three leading newspapers. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal all led with Ukraine. The Journal didn’t even place Biden’s address above the fold.

Originality was hard to find in my post-speech scan of the coverage. One exception was Ezra Klein of the Times, who noted that Biden did little — nothing, really — to prepare Americans for the economic effects of the tough sanctions that he and other Western leaders have imposed on the Putin regime.

“For all Biden’s resolve on Tuesday night, he did not try to prepare Americans to sacrifice on behalf of Ukrainians in the coming months, if only by paying higher prices at the pump,” Klein wrote. “Instead, he said, ‘my top priority is getting prices under control.’ That’s the tension Putin is exploiting.”

Divisions on the right were apparent in both the House chamber and in the subsequent commentary. During Biden’s speech, far-right Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene disgraced themselves by interrupting the president just as he was about to invoke the memory of his late son, Beau Biden, whose death from brain cancer may have been related to his exposure to toxic fumes while he was serving in the military.

Writing for the ultraconservative PJ Media site, Matt Margolis made the same point somewhat more artfully, criticizing Biden for talking about his dead son rather than the 13 American soldiers who were killed by terrorists during last summer’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. There was, Margolis said, “not a single word about the withdrawal” in Biden’s speech. “Not a single word to honor those who died because of his incompetence.”

At National Review, a more mainstream conservative publication, Dan McLaughlin praised Biden on Ukraine but dismissed the rest of his address, writing, “You could tell the pandemic is really and truly over when we saw a return to Democrats demonizing the pharma companies that gave us life-saving vaccines.”

McLaughlin also attempted to turn the Big Lie on its head, taking Biden to task for speaking out against voter-suppression efforts fueled by pro-Trump Republicans who dare not question the former president’s false assertions that he actually won the 2020 election. “This is hardly the first time Biden has cast doubt on the legitimacy of our elections,” McLaughlin wrote in a truly mind-bending line.

Meanwhile, Jonathan V. Last, writing for The Bulwark, a Never Trump conservative site, summarized the moment in a pre-speech assessment beneath a headline that read “The West Is Winning, Russia Is Losing, and Biden Is Doing a Good Job.”

Although Biden noticeably did not move to the center, doubling down on popular but stalled-out ideas such as a $15 minimum wage, child-care assistance and controls on drug prices, he nevertheless invoked the moderate, unifying appeal that carried him to victory over Trump.

David A. Graham of The Atlantic wrote that “rather than try to convince Americans not to believe what they’re feeling, or claim credit for things they don’t see, Biden offered them a promise that things are about to get better. To make the case, he tacked toward the middle — with a few pointed detours — delivering a speech that hews closer to the ‘popularist’ movement in the Democratic Party than to its more progressive contingent.”

“Popularism,” in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the idea that the Democrats should de-emphasize the more divisive aspects of their agenda in favor of those with broad support. Examples offered by Graham were Biden’s calls for more police funding and keeping kids in school during COVID-19 surges.

According to a snap poll conducted by CBS News, the speech was popular with those who were watching, with 78% saying they approved of his speech and just 22% disapproving. But, CBS cautioned, “As we’ve seen with previous presidents’ State of the Union speeches, those who watched tonight are more likely to be from the president’s own political party, boosting approval of the speech.”

In other words, whatever political benefit Biden receives from his address is likely to be short-lived. His popularity — and, thus, the Democratic Party’s prospects in the upcoming midterm elections — are likely to be grounded in matters that are largely beyond his control, such as the outcome of the war in Ukraine, the ongoing battle against COVID and the persistence of inflation in an otherwise strong economy.

For one night, though, the stage was his. It’s fair to say that he made the most of it.

From COVID to our crisis of democracy, 2021 turned out to be a scant improvement over 2020

Photo (cc) 2021 by Blink O’fanaye

Previously published at GBH News.

Hopes were running high when we all turned the calendar to 2021. Would the worst 12 months in anyone’s memory give way to the best year of our lives?

Not quite. Yes, it was better than 2020, but 2021 was hardly a return to paradise. The joy of vaccinations gave way to the reality that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. The economy recovered rapidly — accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Worst of all, the end of the Trump presidency morphed into a crisis of democracy that is starting to look as ominous as the run-up to the Civil War.

During the past year, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens through the prism of the media. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns from 2021. They’re in chronological order, with updates on many of the pieces posted earlier this year. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that we’re in real trouble — but that, together, we can get through this.

The end of the Trump bump, Jan. 27. Even as he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump, both before and during his presidency, was very, very good for the media. Cable TV ratings soared. The New York Times and The Washington Post signed up subscribers by the bucketload. Several weeks after Trump departed from the White House, though, there were questions about what would happen once he was gone. We soon got an answer. Even though Trump never really left, news consumption shrank considerably. That may be good for our mental health. But for media executives trying to make next quarter’s numbers, it was an unpleasant new reality.

Local news in crisis, Feb. 23. The plague of hedge funds undermining community journalism continued unabated in 2021. The worst newspaper owner of them all, Alden Global Capital, acquired Tribune Publishing and its eight major-market papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. When the bid was first announced, there was at least some hope that one of those papers, The Baltimore Sun, would be spun off. Unfortunately, an epic battle between Alden and Baltimore hotel mogul Stewart Bainum resulted in Alden grabbing all of them. Bainum, meanwhile, is planning to launch a nonprofit website to compete with the Sun that will be called The Baltimore Banner.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson, April 15. How did a stylish magazine writer with a libertarian bent reinvent himself as a white-supremacist Fox News personality in thrall to Trump and catering to dangerous conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines (bad) to the Jan. 6 insurrection (good)? There are millions of possible explanations, and every one of them has a picture of George Washington on it. Carlson got in trouble last spring — or would have gotten in trouble if anyone at Fox cared — when he endorsed “replacement theory,” a toxic trope that liberal elites are deliberately encouraging immigration in order to dilute the power of white voters. A multitude of advertisers have bailed on Carlson, but it doesn’t matter — Fox today makes most of its money from cable fees. And Carlson continues to spew his hate.

How Black Lives Matter exposed journalism, May 26. A teenager named Darnella Frazier exposed an important truth about how reporters cover the police. The video she recorded of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he lay on the pavement proved that the police lied in their official report of what led to Floyd’s death. For generations, journalists have relied on law enforcement as their principal — and often only — source for news involving the police. That’s no longer good enough; in fact, it was never good enough. Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize for her courageous truth-telling. And journalists everywhere were confronted with the reality that they need to change the way they do their jobs.

The 24th annual New England Muzzle Awards, July 1. For 24 years, the Muzzle Awards have singled out enemies of free speech. The Fourth of July feature made its debut in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 and has been hosted by GBH News since 2013, the year that the Phoenix shut down. This year’s lead item was about police brutality directed at Black Lives Matter protesters in Boston and Worcester the year before — actions that had escaped scrutiny at the time but that were exposed by bodycam video obtained by The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization. Other winners of this dubious distinction included former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson, who unleashed his mob to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine.

How to help save local news, July 28. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving around 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. It’s a disaster for democracy, and the situation is only growing worse. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan proposal to provide indirect government assistance in the form of tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and publishers, could help. The bill is hardly perfect. Among other things, it would direct funds to corporate chains as well as to independent operators, thus rewarding owners who are hollowing out their papers. Nevertheless, the idea may well be worth trying. At year’s end, the legislation was in limbo, but it may be revived in early 2022.

Democracy in crisis, Sept. 29. As summer turned to fall, the media began devoting some serious attention to a truly frightening development: the deterioration of the Republican Party into an authoritarian tool of Trump and Trumpism, ready to hand the presidency back to their leader in 2024 through a combination of antidemocratic tactics. These include the disenfranchisement of Black voters through partisan gerrymandering, the passage of new laws aimed at suppressing the vote and the handing of state electoral authority over to Trump loyalists. With polls showing that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, it’s only going to get worse in the months ahead.

Exposing Facebook’s depravity, Oct. 27. The social media giant’s role in subverting democracy in the United States and fomenting chaos and violence around the world is by now well understood, so it takes a lot to rise to the level of OMG news. Frances Haugen, though, created a sensation. The former Facebook executive leaked thousands of documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and spoke out — at first anonymously, in The Wall Street Journal, and later on “60 Minutes” and before a congressional committee. Among other things, the documents showed that Facebook’s leaders were well aware of how much damage the service’s algorithmic amplification of conspiracy theories and hate speech was causing. By year’s end, lawyers for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were using the documents to sue Facebook for $150 billion, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and company had whipped up a campaign of rape and murder.

COVID-19 and the new normal, Nov. 17. By late fall, the optimism of June and July had long since given way to the reality of delta. I wrote about my own experience of trying to live as normally as possible — volunteering at Northeastern University’s long-delayed 2020 commencement and taking the train for a reporting trip in New Haven. Now, of course, we are in the midst of omicron. The new variant may prove disastrous, or it may end up being mild enough that it’s just another blip on our seemingly endless pandemic journey. In any case, omicron was a reminder — as if we needed one — that boosters, masking and testing are not going away any time soon.

How journalism is failing us, Dec. 7. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank created a sensation when he reported the results of a content analysis he had commissioned. The numbers showed that coverage of President Joe Biden from August to November 2021 was just as negative, if not more so, than coverage of then-President Trump had been during the same four-month period a year earlier. Though some criticized the study’s methodology, it spoke to a very real problem: Too many elements of the media are continuing to cover Trump and the Republicans as legitimate political actors rather than as what they’ve become: malign forces attempting to subvert democracy. The challenge is to find ways to hold Biden to account while avoiding mindless “both sides” coverage and false equivalence.

A year ago at this time we may have felt a sense of optimism that proved to be at least partly unrealistic. Next year, we’ll have no excuses — we know that COVID-19, the economy and Trumpism will continue to present enormous challenges. I hope that, at the end of 2022, we can all say that we met those challenges successfully.

Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2022.

Manchin kills Build Back Better, doing what he could have done six months ago

Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Third Way Think Tank.

Sen. Joe Manchin has finally done what he was obviously planning to do all along — he’s killed the Build Back Better bill. Naturally, he made his announcement during an appearance on Fox News.

This is why I was upset with progressives like Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for holding the infrastructure bill hostage until Build Back Better was passed. To what end? Manchin was never going to vote for BBB, no matter how many programs were cut out of it. At least we got the infrastructure bill anyway. But I hate to be right — BBB would have done an immense amount of good.

The protracted process did enormous damage to President Joe Biden’s political standing. He and his advisers need to think about how they got themselves in a position where they rolled all the dice in a very public way on something that was never going to pass.

It’s time also to think about how individual chunks of BBB might be salvaged. It won’t be easy. But the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, part of which had been folded into BBB, stands out as something that has actual bipartisan support. Let’s get it done.

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Antitrust legal actions against Google and Facebook spread to 200-plus newspapers

Some 200 newspapers are engaged in legal actions claiming that Google and Facebook exercise Godzilla-like dominance of digital advertising. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dr Zito.

A lawsuit filed by newspapers against Google and Facebook that claims the two tech giants violated antitrust laws is gaining momentum. Sara Fischer and Kristal Dixon of Axios report that more than 200 papers across the country have joined the effort, which is aimed at forcing Google and Facebook to compensate them for what they say are monopolistic practices that denied them advertising revenue.

I don’t see any New England newspapers on this list. But the papers that are involved in the lawsuits in some way represent about 30 different owners in dozens of states, according to Fischer and Dixon. About 150 papers owned by 17 different groups have actually filed suit so far.

What’s interesting about this is that it has nothing to do with the usual complaint about Google and Facebook — that they repurpose journalism from newspapers, and that the newspapers ought to be compensated. By contrast, the current lawsuits are aimed at practices that the plaintiffs claim are clearly illegal.

The Axios story doesn’t get into the weeds. But I did earlier this year shortly after the first lawsuit was filed by HD Media, a small chain based in West Virginia. Essentially, the argument is twofold:

  • Google is violating antitrust law by controlling every aspect of digital advertising. Paul Farrell, a lawyer for HD Media, put it this way in an interview with the trade magazine Editor & Publisher: “They have completely monetized and commercialized their search engine, and what they’ve also done is create an advertising marketplace in which they represent and profit from the buyers and the sellers, while also owning the exchange.”
  • Facebook is complicit because, according to a lawsuit filed by several state attorneys general, Google and Facebook are colluding through an agreement that Google has code-named Jedi Blue. The AGs contend that Google provides Facebook with special considerations so that Facebook won’t set up a competing ad network.

The two companies have denied any wrongdoing. But if the case against them is correct, then Google is profiting from a perfect closed environment: It holds a near-monopoly on search and the programmatic advertising system through which most ads show up on news websites. And it has an agreement with Facebook aimed at staving off competition.

“The intellectual framework for this developed over the last three to four years,”  Doug Reynolds, managing partner of HD Media, told Axios.

The lawsuit also comes at a time when the federal government is beginning to rethink antitrust law. A generation ago, a philosophy developed by Robert Bork — yes, that Robert Bork, and yes, everything really does go back to Richard Nixon — held that there can be no antitrust violations unless consumers are harmed in the form of higher prices.

President Joe Biden’s administration, by contrast, has been embracing a more progressive, older form of antitrust law holding that monopolies can be punished or even broken up if they “undermine economic fairness and American democracy,” as The New Yorker put it.

The newspapers’ lawsuit against Google and Facebook is grounded in the Biden version of antitrust — Google and Facebook are charged with leveraging their monopoly to harm newspapers economically while at the same time hurting democracy, which depends on reliable journalism.

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Why ‘both sides’ journalism fails in the face of the rising threat to our democracy

Previously published at GBH News.

One president lied about COVID-19 (the country’s and his own), embraced white supremacists and tried to overturn the results of an election that he lost. Another president has hit a few bumps in the road as he attempts to persuade Congress to pass his agenda. Can you guess which one received more negative news coverage?

If you guessed President Joe Biden, then come on down. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media was as harsh or harsher from August through November of this year than then-President Donald Trump’s was during the same four-month period in 2020.

On one level, it’s inconceivable. On another, though, it’s all too predictable. Large swaths of the media simply cannot or will not move beyond both-sides journalism, equating the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a Republican Party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression.

“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who ordered up the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”

As I’ve written before, and as many others have said, we’re in the midst of a crisis of democracy. The Republican Party, already disproportionately empowered because of the Constitution’s small-state bias and the Senate filibuster (the latter, of course, could be abolished tomorrow), is working to strengthen its advantage through partisan gerrymandering and the passage of voter-suppression laws. The result could be white minority rule for years to come.

The situation has deteriorated to the point that the European think tank International IDEA now regards the United States as a “backsliding democracy.” To quote from IDEA’s report directly, “the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”

And the media remain wedded to their old tropes, covering political campaigns as though they were horse races and treating the two major parties as equally legitimate players with different views.

It’s a topic that was discussed at length recently on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and guest host Nicole Hemmer, a scholar who studies right-wing media. Their conversation defies easy summary (the whole episode can be found here), but essentially, Rosen argued that the political press falls back on its old habits because breaking out of them is just too difficult.

“The horse race absorbs a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can take that abuse, because it is such a problem-solver. It checks so many other boxes that even when people know it’s kind of bankrupt, it stays on.” As an alternative, Rosen proposes coverage based on a “citizens agenda,” which he has written about at his blog, PressThink. But he admitted to Hemmer that we may lose our democracy before his ideas are adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.

What I find especially frustrating is that the media have not been ignoring the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from it. As just one small example, the Times on Sunday published a front-page story by Nick Corasaniti on a multitude of actions being taken at the state level to suppress the vote and put Trump loyalists in charge of the election machinery.

“Democrats and voting rights groups say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially by people of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other partisans in what had been relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, raise the prospect of elections being thrown into chaos or even overturned.”

So why am I frustrated? Because this sort of valuable enterprise reporting is walled off from day-to-day political coverage. We are routinely served up stories about the congressional Republican leaders, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Mitch McConnell, going about their business as though they were latter-day versions of the late Bob Dole, sharply partisan but ultimately dedicated to the business of seeking compromise and governing. In fact, whether through cowardice or conviction, they are enabling our slide into authoritarianism by undermining the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection as well as by failing to call out Trump and the excesses of their worst members.

Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan endorsed the idea of a “democracy beat,” which would look closely at attempts to subvert voting rights. Sullivan would go further than that, too. “The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media,” permeating every aspect of political and governmental coverage.

If Trump runs again, he may very well end up being installed as president even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Who would stop him? In the aftermath of the 2020 election, there were still enough Republican state and local officials with integrity who refused to go along with Trump’s demands that they overturn the results. That is not likely to be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover story, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not remote. People with the motive to make it happen are manufacturing the means. Given the opportunity, they will act. They are acting already.”

Meanwhile, the media go about covering President Biden and his travails as though our politics hadn’t changed over the past 40 years. Of course Biden needs to be held accountable. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, confusing White House messaging about COVID and his inability to bring Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to heel are all worthy of tough coverage. (But not inflation because, please, don’t be stupid.) But it needs to be done in a way that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are in real danger of losing our country.

As the Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it on Twitter, “The problem is the media failing to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative coverage (an important form of democratic accountability!).”

Five years ago Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School issued a report showing that coverage of Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general-election campaign had been equally negative — a finding that he found disturbing. Patterson wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Well, here we go again. Next time, though, it’s the future of democracy that is likely to be at stake.

An incoherent look at Biden’s popularity

President Biden. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Is President Biden historically unpopular? Or is he simply experiencing a drop-off that’s similar to what many of his predecessors have gone through?

Nate Cohn of The New York Times tries his hand at analyzing Biden’s popularity — and I don’t know what he’s saying. Consider this:

The president’s approval ratings have sunk into the low-to-mid 40s, putting him into rather lonely historical company. In the era of modern polling, only Donald J. Trump had a lower approval rating at this early stage of his term.

Whoa! That’s not good. But then there’s this:

Many presidents have won re-election after watching their ratings fall to similar depths during their first two years in office.

And this:

Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all saw their ratings sink as low as Mr. Biden’s are today, before ultimately recovering to win re-election.

Cohn is a numbers guy, and I regard him as one of the more reliable journalists at the Times. But this is just incoherent.

Why our crisis of democracy is suddenly having its moment in the media spotlight

“Storm the Capitol” event at the governor’s residence in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 6. Photo (cc) 2021 by Chad Davis.

Previously published at GBH News.

All of a sudden, our crisis of democracy has moved to center stage. Building since 2016, when Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d accept the results of the election if he lost, and boiling since the Jan. 6 insurrection, the rising specter of authoritarian rule is now a lead story in much of our media.

From The Washington Post to Politico, from The Philadelphia Inquirer to The Boston Globe, from CNN to public radio’s “On the Media,” the conversation for the past week has revolved around the likelihood that Trump will run for president in 2024 — and the very real possibility that Republican functionaries at the state level and in Congress will reinstall him in the White House regardless of how the election actually turns out.

Perhaps the most chilling assessment was offered in the Post by Robert Kagan, a “Never Trump” conservative who began his must-read 5,800-word essay like this: “The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”

Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder, the author of the 2017 book “On Tyranny,” said it was long past time for the press to cover Trump and Trumpism as an existential threat to democracy.

“If we’re not prepared for the attempt for people to take power undemocratically in 2024, then we’re just at this point pathetically naive,” he said. “Preparing for that and getting the facts out so that people can prepare for that and prevent it is what … journalism should be doing.”

Kagan, Snyder and others are right to be alarmed. But what accounts for this moment of media synchronicity? Why have they suddenly gone DEFCON 1 after months and years of covering the Trump movement all too often as a bunch of economically anxious white men in Ohio diners? I think there are three precipitating factors.

• First, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, “Peril,” makes it clear that Trump was actively involved in trying to overturn the election in ways that we didn’t quite understand previously. Perhaps the most bizarre and disturbing of their findings is that a discredited lawyer, John Eastman, concocted a scheme for Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the election. If Pence had wavered, who knows what might have happened?

• Second, the results of the fraudulent Arizona “audit” actually gave President Joe Biden a bigger lead over Trump than he had previously — and it didn’t make a bit of difference. As Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer observed, copycat attempts are now under way in Texas and Pennsylvania. It’s now obvious, if it wasn’t before (actually, it was), that the purpose of these ridiculous exercises is not to prove that Trump won but to keep his supporters stirred up and angry.

• Third, University of California Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, who’s been ringing the democracy alarm for years, recently published a paper and helped run a conference that generated widespread attention. That, in turn, led to an interview with Hasen by Politico Magazine and an appearance on “On the Media.”

Hasen bluntly described the threat in his interview with Politico, saying that the widespread, false belief among Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen could lead them to steal the 2024 election.

“The rhetoric is so overheated that I think it provides the basis for millions of people to accept an actual stolen election as payback for the falsely claimed earlier ‘stolen’ election,” Hasen said. “People are going to be more willing to cheat if they think they’ve been cheated out of their just desserts. And if [you believe] Trump really won, then you might take whatever steps are necessary to assure that he is not cheated the next time — even if that means cheating yourself. That’s really the new danger that this wave of voter fraud claims presents.”

Politico media critic Jack Shafer, trying to be his usual contrarian self, argued that Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior and Republican attempts to rig the 2024 election through voter suppression and outright theft by state legislatures they control is actually a sign of weakness, not of strength.

“By signaling an attempt to regain power by any means necessary,” Shafer wrote, “Trump essentially confesses that Trumpism is not and is not likely to become a majoritarian movement.” He added that a fraudulent Trump victory would essentially amount to a coup, which “would only inspire a counter-coup by the majority, and maybe a counter-counter coup, and a counter-counter-counter coup. Trump is crazy enough to invite this fight, and narcissistic enough not to care what it does to the country. But is he shrewd enough to win it?”

Shafer is right that a Trump coup would lead to outrage on the part of the majority. But what would that look like? It could get incredibly ugly, as Kagan warned. The best way to deal with the Republicans’ assault on democracy is to make sure it fails. Sadly, the Democrat-controlled Congress can’t do much about it unless they abolish the filibuster, regardless of how Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe and his colleagues, writing in The Boston Globe, might wish otherwise. And Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema show no signs of yielding.

So what can and should the media do? Their current focus on the overriding crisis of our time is welcome and long overdue. From the false balance of focusing on lesser stories like Democratic bickering over the infrastructure bills to the situation at the border, the media have demonstrated a maddening impulse to return to business as usual following the chaos of the Trump years.

At the same time, though, the press’ influence is limited. Roughly speaking, 60% of the country is appalled by Trump and 40% is in thrall to him. But thanks to inequities in the Electoral College and the Senate, gerrymandering in the House and increasingly aggressive attempts to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters, the 40% may well succeed in shoving aside the 60%.

The press needs to tell that story, fearlessly and fairly. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not going to penetrate Fox News, Breitbart or Facebook. In the end, there may be little that journalism can do to stop our slide into autocracy.

This week’s members newsletter: The wayward Times, Otis Redding and more

Otis Redding. Photo in the public domain.

Tomorrow’s Media Nation members newsletter includes some thoughts on The New York Times’ appalling story about Joe Biden’s grief, a round-up of the week’s posts, a Celtics-friendly photo and some music from the great Otis Redding. To become a member for just $5 a month, please click here.

What the media are getting wrong about Biden and Afghanistan

Photo (cc) 2011 by the U.S. Army

Previously published at GBH News.

The United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan has finally come to its painful conclusion. “America’s Longest War Ends as Last Troops Leave Afghanistan” proclaimed The New York Times home page Monday evening.

There is, however, one dimension to the conflict that is still being fought — the role of the media in reporting on President Joe Biden’s management, or mismanagement, of the final chaotic and deadly weeks. Surely, many journalists said, Biden could have ensured a more dignified exit than a mad crush at Hamid Karzai International Airport, with desperate Afghans plunging to their deaths from transport planes, culminating in last week’s terrorist attack.

Increasingly, though, others have been making the case that, once Biden decided to end American involvement in Afghanistan once and for all, there was no alternative to the monumental ugliness that played out on our TV screens.

“Biden does not deserve the cheap shots that critics have taken at him when they postulate that his administration screwed up what would otherwise have been an orderly withdrawal,” writes Daniel McCarthy, a vociferous Biden critic and a conservative, in The Spectator World. “Even if the withdrawal had been much better executed, as indeed it should have been, it would still have been a disgusting spectacle, a ripe occasion for media posturing and partisan sniping.”

The end — or a least a temporary pause — of the liberal-leaning mainstream media’s honeymoon with Biden can be traced to systemic flaws in the way that the press covers Washington. Three of those flaws have been on vivid display in recent weeks.

• First, there is the media’s primordial need for balance — for treating Democrats and Republicans as if they are both legitimate actors even though the Democrats, for all their flaws, continue to act as a normal political party while the Republicans have descended into authoritarianism and lies. The media cling to both-sides-ism despite four years of a raging sociopath in the White House, an attempted insurrection by his supporters, and dangerous denialism about COVID-19.

Thus, after five years of harshly negative coverage of Donald Trump (negative coverage that he richly deserved), you can almost hear the press breathe a collective sigh of relief that it can finally go after Biden and even up the score.

Here’s a data point that shows how ingrained this is. Last Friday, Amna Nawaz, filling in as anchor of the “PBS NewsHour,” noted in a conversation with political analysts Jonathan Capehart and David Brooks that a number of Republicans have criticized Biden over his handling of the war.

“It really does run the spectrum of Republicans,” she said. “You have everyone from Sen. Ben Sasse, to Sen. Ted Cruz, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and, of course, President Trump.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene? The QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theorist from Georgia who continues to defend the insurrectionists? Well, she’s a duly elected member of Congress, and according to the both-sides formula, she needs to be normalized. It’s crazy, but that’s the way the game is played. Too bad it’s not a game.

• Second, maybe it really is a game. Because, in too many cases, the Washington press corps glides past the substance of an issue and wallows in the political implications. Partly it’s because politics is what they know and are most comfortable with. Partly it’s a way to avoid taking sides by focusing instead on who’s winning and who’s losing.

The caricature version of this type of pundit is political analyst Chris Cillizza of CNN. Last week, several days before the terrorist attack, Cillizza wrote a piece that dwelled entirely on the political ramifications of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, reveling in polling numbers and in what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen derides as the “savvy” style of political journalism.

“Biden’s bet,” Cillizza writes, “is that while Afghanistan is top-of-mind for most voters right now, it will fade as a priority — as foreign policy often does — when it is no longer the lead story in the news every day. That if Americans get out safely, that the public will lose interest in what’s happening in a faraway country and return to domestic issues like the state of the economy and our ongoing battle against COVID-19.”

Hey, it’s all politics, right?

• Third, too many establishment journalists, supposedly paid to cover the news rather than express their opinions, were in favor of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and opposed to Biden’s decision to end it once and for all.

“Much of the problems with the press coverage lie in the coziness between foreign policy elites and reporters who rely on them for information,” writes Alex Shephard in a perceptive New Republic piece. “The biases of interventionists and hawks flow frictionlessly into news coverage, treating the exit from Afghanistan as a capitulation and outrage, rather than as one — and perhaps the best — of a number of bad options.”

A telling example is Peter Baker’s widely criticized “news analysis” for The New York Times in which he quotes George W. Bush alum Meghan O’Sullivan and Gen. David Petraeus to argue that Biden could have achieved a different outcome. Describing Biden’s own framing of the options he had before him as “either complete withdrawal or endless escalation,” Baker writes, “Critics consider that either disingenuous or at the very least unimaginative, arguing that there were viable alternatives, even if not especially satisfying ones, that may not have ever led to outright victory but could have avoided the disaster now unfolding in Kabul and the provinces.”

Another example plays out on television, where a variety of former officials from the George W. Bush administration and former generals have been given air time to criticize Biden, notwithstanding their direct role in sucking us into what was, until recently, an endless war.

There is one other factor that needs to be considered when analyzing media coverage, and that’s the asymmetric role played by the mainstream media and the right-wing propaganda machine headed by Fox News.

As Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, Democrats and liberals can’t always count on sympathy from the mainstream because journalists want to be seen as skeptical and even-handed. Fox, on the other hand, is going to espouse a mindless pro-Republican, pro-Trump line no matter what the issue, even if it is exactly the opposite of the line it took a week earlier. At moments like this, the entire weight of the media is coming down on Biden, whereas Republicans can count on Fox being in their corner even in the worst of times.

“Even the most dishonest, incompetent, and scandal-ridden Republican presidency imaginable — which more or less describes the one we just had — will still have a media environment divided almost equally between scorching criticism and obsequious fawning,” Chait writes, adding: “In recent days, CNN and MSNBC looked a lot like Fox News, all hyping chaos in Afghanistan 24/7. That is the kind of comprehensive media hostility Trump never had to worry about.”

Now, none of this means that critical coverage of Biden was entirely misplaced. Few presidents have ever come into office with his depth of foreign-policy experience and, seven months in, he’s no longer a new president. We’ve all seen reports that U.S. intelligence officials believed the Afghan government could hang on for a year or two before its inevitable collapse. Surely a more orderly withdrawal could have been planned if they had been right. Why was Biden so seemingly unaware that his own advisers didn’t know what they were talking about? What is he doing about it?

Last Friday, on “Washington Week,” host Yamiche Alcindor replayed Biden’s embarrassing answer to her question earlier this summer that there would be no repeat of the rooftop evacuation that marked the end of the Vietnam War. Biden was right — what happened in Kabul was considerably worse.

But one of Alcindor’s panelists, Ayesha Rascoe of NPR, made an important point that has too often been overlooked by the media in its eagerness to pillory the president: “I do think this is an American tragedy, though. This is 20 years. This is four administrations. This is not just on the Biden administration.”

Indeed. The war in Afghanistan was a generation-long tragedy. Bush could have launched a targeted attack aimed at capturing or killing Osama bin Laden rather than a full-scale war to remake Afghan society. Barack Obama could have declared victory and pulled out after bin Laden was killed.

Instead, it was left to Trump to question our ongoing commitment and Biden to bring it to an end. That doesn’t mean Biden got everything right and shouldn’t be subjected to tough scrutiny. It does mean that our flawed media system was inadequate to the moment — and that we need to think about how we can do better.