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.
Vice President Kamala Harris made history Wednesday night just by sitting behind President Biden during his joint address to Congress. As the understudy to our oldest president, Harris may well be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 if Biden decides not to seek re-election.
And Harris, who is not just the first female vice president but also the first Black person and Asian American to fill that role, is driving the right crazy. Back in 2019, when she was running her own presidential campaign, the main critique of her was that she was too conventional and too close to law enforcement. Now the right-wing media echo chamber portrays her as the fifth member of the Squad.
The latest attack on Harris backfired in an unusually spectacular manner, and illustrates the corrosive effect that the Murdoch media are having in this country.
On Saturday, Murdoch’s New York Post devoted its cover story to a report that immigrant children at the border were being given goodie bags that included taxpayer-purchased copies of Harris’ children’s book, “Superheroes Are Everywhere.”
The story immediately became fodder for Murdoch’s Fox News Channel. But the only evidence was a photo of one copy of the book, and the tale quickly unraveled — though that didn’t stop the Post, in a follow-up, from claiming that “thousands” of copies were distributed.
Then, on Tuesday, we received a rare moment of clarity. Laura Italiano, the Post reporter who wrote the story, tweeted that she had resigned. “The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point,” she wrote. Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times has all the details.
The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point.
Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, then you’re thinking that this happens all the time. One part of the Murdoch media empire runs with something false, exaggerated or, at the very least, unverified; other parts of the empire amplify it; and we have a full-blown fake scandal about Democrats on our hands. (Note: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. See below.)
Last fall, for instance, in what was surely the lamest attempt at an October surprise ever, Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon attempted to feed a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop to Fox News. Taking the sensible position that the story couldn’t be verified, Fox’s news division actually passed on it — only to see it pop up in the New York Post.
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But not before some internal hand-wringing, as the Times’ Katie Robertson reported. The Post reporter who wrote most of the story refused to let his byline be put on it since he was afraid it would blow up, and several others declined as well. But Fox News, whose journalists had enough scruples not to take the story, recycled it endlessly on its opinionated talk shows, running “nearly 25 and a half hours, which included 420 segments” between Oct. 14 and 23, according to Rob Savillo of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America.
Today the laptop story exists in kind of a weird limbo, neither proven nor disproven, and in any case telling us nothing of relevance about President Biden.
After stumbling a bit after Election Day and allowing pure Trumpist outlets like Newsmax and OANN to move in on its territory, Fox News has resumed its dominance, according to Ted Johnson of Deadline — although the three major cable news channels, Fox, CNN and MSNBC, are on the decline.
Morever, Fox, fed by the New York Post, remains the most dominant force in Republican politics, making it impossible for the party to move beyond Trump or even to think about compromising with Biden.
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull recently testified before his country’s parliament about the harm his fellow Australian Murdoch has done. Among other things, he said:
What does Vladimir Putin want to do with his operations in America? He wants to divide America and turn Americans against each other. That is exactly what Murdoch has done: Divided Americans against each other and so undermined their faith in political institutions that a mob of thousands of people, many of them armed, stormed the Capitol.
On Thursday we learned that Giuliani’s home and office were raided by the FBI, reportedly in connection with his murky dealings in Ukraine as he attempted to draw a connection between alleged corruption by Hunter Biden and his father. Bannon has faced criminal charges since last August over an alleged fundraising scheme involving Trump’s wall at the southern border.
The Murdoch media, though, just goes on and on, smearing without truth or consequences. You’ll be hearing false stories about Kamala Harris’ book for the rest of her political career. Mission accomplished.
Update: The Post has denied Italiano’s accusation. The Times’ Grynbaum tweets:
"The New York Post does not order reporters to deliberately publish factually inaccurate information. In this case, the story was amended as soon as it came to the editors’ attention that it was inaccurate." https://t.co/rXSx4mYU6khttps://t.co/X9Fjj3u4js
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.
We are all horrified that we may be entering into a new period of mass shootings. Following a lull of about a year, probably related to the COVID lockdown, we’ve seen two in a week. Eighteen people have been killed by the shooters in Georgia and Colorado.
President Biden has called for new gun control measures. Would they work? Last night on CNN, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the ban on assault weapons that was in effect from 1994 to 2004 did indeed bring down the number of mass shootings. Cause and effect is tricky, of course. But did the law actually coincide with a period of fewer such crimes?
According to an analysis by Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, the answer is yes. The assault-weapon ban, combined with a ban on large-capacity magazines (LCMs), did indeed help. In addition, my Northeastern colleague James Alan Fox has shown that state bans on LCMs and mandatory background checks are associated with fewer mass shootings.
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.
A year ago at this time I was recovering from the worst cold I’d had in years. Later, I thought maybe I’d had COVID-19 without realizing it. But it was impossible. I was with a lot of people. I would have become my very own super-spreader event.
And here we are at 500,000 deaths. On Monday I watched a video of President Biden, Vice President Harris and their spouses paying their respects while a military band played “Amazing Grace.” And, just as I had during the inauguration, I briefly got choked up.
At some point, I’m sure we’ll become accustomed to simple human decency at the White House once again and will start asking questions about Biden’s actual management of the pandemic. But I’m not there yet.
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.
And so it’s over. In the aftermath of Impeachment II, the main controversy is about whether the Democrats did the right thing in reversing themselves over calling witnesses. I think they made a wise judgment. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why.
In a blistering speech, McConnell endorsed the entire factual basis of the Democrats’ case against Trump. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” McConnell said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.” And there was this:
Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in danger, even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters, the president sent a further tweet attacking his vice president. Predictably and foreseeably under the circumstances, members of the mob seemed to interpret this as further inspiration to lawlessness and violence.
Yet McConnell still voted against conviction, relying on the bogus argument that a vote to convict was unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office.
At the end of all this, no reasonable person doubts that Trump incited the mob — not just on Jan. 6, but over the course of many months. No reasonable person doubts that he was reveling in the destruction, or that Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was telling the truth about a toxic exchange between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump. Seven Republicans voted to convict Trump, making this the most bipartisan impeachment in history.
Given all that, it’s time for the Democrats to move on and let the center of gravity finally shift from Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.
Not everyone agrees, of course. The normally pragmatic Josh Marshall was apoplectic Saturday, writing in Talking Points Memo that the decision not to call witnesses was “inexplicable and maddening, to many or most Democrats outside the chamber because Democrats appeared to hold all the cards and all the votes and yet capitulated entirely.”
While it’s reasonable to imagine that witnesses would illustrate Trump’s depravity, it seems entirely likely that, as Trump’s lawyers continued simply to lie and their lies got spread through right-wing media as truth, Americans would have learned the opposite of what they should have.
Instead, the issue of Trump’s guilt on January 6 will play out in a courtroom, where there are actual rules about telling the truth.
We have lived through a terrible time, and it’s not over yet. The future direction of the Republican Party is far from certain, and it’s easy to imagine a thoroughly Trumpified party recapturing the House in 2022 as a result of gerrymandering and low voter turnout.
What we all need to concentrate on for the next two years is good governance — pushing for policies and programs that help people and, as best we can, putting the Trump era behind us. Biden is off to a good start, but a continuing obsession with Trump will hold him back. And that will hurt everyone.
Many mainstream news organizations are genuinely struggling to come to terms with the current dynamic in Washington: an often feckless Democratic Party opposed by crazy and dangerous Republicans. It’s not an entirely new scenario, and has in fact been building since Newt Gingrich’s speakership in the mid-1990s. But it’s become acute since the Trump-inspired insurrection of Jan. 6 and the embrace of QAnon and sedition by large swaths of the GOP.
But while responsible journalists are trying to figure out how to navigate this reality, there’s another group that continues to embrace #bothsides-ism at its most mindless. At the center of this is Axios, which combines the politics-as-sports sensibility of Politico, whence it sprang, with bullet points and lots of boldface.
Take, for instance, “The Mischief Makers.” According to Axios reporters Alayna Treene and Kadia Goba, leaders in each of the two major parties are being tormented by “troublemakers” and “political thorns” within their ranks. And who are these feisty backbenchers?
Well, on the Republican side is House member Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has called for the execution of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats and who believes that wildfires are caused by a Jewish-controlled laser in outer space. Also getting a nod are Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert and Mo Brooks, all of whom supported the insurrection.
What Democrats could possibly be as dastardly as that? Why, the Squad, of course! Because they’re liberal and/or progressive. So Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley all get a shoutout, as well as like-minded newcomers such as Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush.
In the Senate, Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, all of whom supported Trump’s coup attempt, are equated with Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, who are more conservative than most of their party peers, and independent Bernie Sanders, who’s to the left of most of his colleagues but who’s been notably supportive of President Joe Biden.
But wait! There’s to-be-sure paragraph buried amid all this:
Not all are created equal. Democrats often contend with an outspoken, very progressive wing of their caucus and try to keep centrists from crossing party lines. Republicans have senators who led efforts to invalidate the 2020 election results and flirted with the same conspiracy theories that fueled groups involved in the Capitol siege.
So, does anything Axios publishes cause genuine harm? It’s hard to say. But Axios is aimed primarily at insiders — congressional staff members, lobbyists and other journalists. And many of them would love nothing more than validation that they can return to business as usual.
Cynical takes such as this can serve to normalize what’s going on in Washington, providing the narcotic drip we need to help us forget that many powerful Republicans attempted to overthrow the results of the election less than a month ago. Five people died, and we haven’t even begun to get to the bottom of what happened.
I suspect we’re going to see a lot of this as mainstream journalists, terrified of being accused of bias, seek to even up the score after four years of covering the worst president in our history. In his lead story on President Biden’s inauguration, Peter Baker of The New York Times writes:
At 78, Mr. Biden is the oldest president in American history — older on his first day in office than Ronald Reagan was on his last — and even allies quietly acknowledge that he is no longer at his prime, meaning he will be constantly watched by friends and foes alike for signs of decline.
What on earth is that supposed to mean? Not only is it unsourced, but we have no idea about the nature of those sources. Close aides? Members of Congress? Some guy who shook his hand at a fundraiser pre-COVID? More to the point, what does it mean that Biden is “no longer at his prime”? It could be anything from not having as much energy as he once did (almost certainly true) to, uh, wandering off at night.
Biden showed no signs of fading during the campaign, and in fact he only grew stronger once he realized he was going to have to fight for the nomination.
If there’s a reason to write a fully reported story on Biden’s mental acuity, then by all means do it. Otherwise, Baker and the Times shouldn’t let themselves be used as a conduit for fishing right-wing talking points out of the sewer and flinging them into the mainstream.
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