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The media, the president and what we should have known about his age-related issues

George Stephanopoulos interviews President Biden in 2021. White House photo.

Right now we’re all waiting to see how President Biden does in his interview with George Stephanopoulos. Obviously Biden has to come off as coherent, and even then it’s not going to stop calls for him to step aside in the midst of donor panic and declining poll numbers. The New York Times and The Boston Globe are reporting that Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey has been telling associates that Biden’s candidacy is “irretrievable.”

Given the terrible position in which we find ourselves, it’s worth asking whether the media should have covered Biden differently over the past few months. My Northeastern University colleague Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times, thinks so, writing a commentary for Semafor that begins:

It’s clear the best news reporters in Washington have failed in the first duty of journalism: to hold power accountable. It is our duty to poke through White House smoke screens and find out the truth. The Biden White House clearly succeeded in a massive cover-up of the degree of the President’s feebleness and his serious physical decline, which may be simply the result of old age. Shame on the White House press corps for not to have pierced the veil of secrecy surrounding the President.

Richard Tofel, a former top executive at The Wall Street Journal and ProPublica, has been reminding us on social media that he’s been calling for greater scrutiny of Biden’s age since last October. Here’s part of what he said back then:

Is Biden speaking more slowly because he’s conscious that his lifelong stutter might now be taken for cognitive frailty, or because he has no choice? Is he walking more cautiously because he knows the political peril of falling, or because he can no longer go any faster? If you think you know the answers to those questions, what is your evidence? I know of very little, either way.

My own sense is that there was actually quite a bit of reporting on Biden’s age even before his disastrous June 27 debate with Donald Trump, but that it was discounted for a variety of reasons. When special counsel Robert Hur called Biden “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” that got plenty of coverage. At the same time, though, Hur was arguably engaging in prosecutorial misconduct by adding his own commentary while not bringing charges against Biden — which, in turn, reminded people of then-FBI Director James Comey trashing Hillary Clinton in 2016 over the way she handled her emails even while concluding she had not committed a crime.

The Wall Street Journal published an in-depth story on Biden’s age-related issues in early June, but that was widely dismissed because of the Journal’s reliance on partisan Republican sources, including former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had previously told aides privately that he found the president to be sharp in White House meetings.

The Times itself has spent months obsessing over what voters think about Biden’s age, which in turn brought about accusations of both-sides-ism and false equivalence given that Trump is nearly as old and arguably more addled as well as an insurrectionist and a convicted criminal who’s been found liable for sexual assault.

Brian Stelter has written an excellent, deeply reported overview for Vox. Here’s the nut:

The national media wasn’t dodging the story: The biggest newspapers in the country published lengthy stories about Biden’s mental fitness. The public wasn’t in the dark about Biden’s age: Most voters (67 percent in a June Gallup poll) thought he was too old to be president even before the debate. But questions about Biden’s fitness for office were not emphasized as much as they should have been.

That’s the third option: The stories should have been tougher, the volume should have been louder.

Then, too, journalists are not unaware of what we’re facing. A second Trump term could amount to nothing less than the end of democracy in this country. Surely there was a sense that as long as Biden wasn’t too impaired, it wasn’t worth the risk of throwing the election into chaos and risking Trump’s return to office — this time as the head of the authoritarian right.

If Biden could somehow make it across the finish line this November, so this thinking went, it would be up to God and Vice President Kamala Harris after that. I definitely count myself among those observers who dismissed concerns about Biden’s age, partly because I thought they were overblown, partly because I feared the consequences of removing Biden from the top of the ticket.

Unfortunately, we’ve got chaos anyway.

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Media notes: Will Lewis’ unethical ask, Biden is still old and Hub Blog is back

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Once the mishegas over the shake-up at The Washington Post dies down, we are left with a question: Is publisher Will Lewis the right person to set a new direction for Jeff Bezos’ money-losing, reader-hemorrhaging newspaper? The New York Times has some disturbing news (free link) on that front.

According to Times reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, executive editor Sally Buzbee clashed with Lewis over a story about new developments in the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal. Lewis had some involvement as an executive in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and he reportedly told Buzbee that he didn’t want the story to run. Buzbee ran it anyway. The Times reports that the exchange was a factor, though not the decisive one, in Buzbee’s decision to leave the Post rather than accept a reduced role under Lewis’ plan to reorganize the staff into three newsrooms.

And lest we forget, Max Tani of Semafor reported a couple of weeks ago that the Post’s director of newsletter strategy, Elana Zak, sent out a missive instructing staff members “don’t distribute this story” in its newsletters. At the time, Zak’s email was attributed to some sort of internal mix-up, but the Times story casts that in a new light.

Buzbee, at least, stood up to Lewis and his ethically inappropriate demand. The problem is that his handpicked new editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett, may prove to be more malleable.

A flawed WSJ story

The Wall Street Journal has published a lengthy inquiry (free link) into President Biden’s mental acuity that has inflamed liberal critics. I read it with an open mind, but the story, by Annie Linskey and Siobhan Hughes, is based almost entirely on the observations of partisan Republicans like former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who’s quoted on the record, and current Speaker Mike Johnson, who isn’t.

The article, we’re told, is based on interviews with 45 people — but apparently six of those interviews were devoted to what Johnson had told people about a meeting he had with Biden in February. The story also contradicts earlier reporting about McCarthy, who has privately praised Biden’s mental sharpness even while mocking him in public.

One of the most fair-minded, nonpartisan media observers out there is Tom Jones of Poynter Online, so I was curious as to what he would have to say about it. Here’s his take:

Is it a fairly reported story on a pertinent topic? Or is it a pointed piece based pretty much on quotes and opinions from those who don’t want to see Biden elected to a second term?

I’d go with the latter — considering the money quote is from McCarthy, another key anecdote was reported by current Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, and other tales suggesting Biden’s decline are flimsy, at best. (For example, he sometimes talks quietly, he uses notes, and he relies on aides.)

That “money quote” from McCarthy, by the way, is this: “I used to meet with him [Biden] when he was vice president. I’d go to his house. He’s not the same person.”

Despite Murdoch’s ownership, the Journal’s news coverage is generally superb. It was the Journal’s reporting, after all, that led to Donald Trump’s 34 felony convictions last week. You have to wonder how a slanted piece like this passed muster.

Fairly or not, the Journal has raised the stakes for Biden’s June 27 debate with Trump, who, it should be said much more often than it is, is nearly as old as Biden and whose own problems with age-related mental slips tend to play out in public rather than (allegedly) behind closed doors.

Jay Fitzgerald returns

Veteran journalist Jay Fitzgerald, one of the original Boston bloggers, has revived Hub Blog (via Contrarian Boston). It looks like Jay is mainly writing an old-fashioned link blog with a few longer posts on the turmoil at The Washington Post.

I started writing an early version of this blog in 2002, shortly after Hub Blog launched. I was actually doing it by hand — I had no idea there was this thing called blogging software that automated the process of date-stamping, archiving older posts, adding permalinks and the like until Jay asked me, “What are you using.” He led me to Blogspot, though I’ve been using WordPress since 2005.

Anyway, it’s good to have Jay back in harness.

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Is Ezra Klein’s call for Biden to stand aside realistic or desirable? Probably not.

Then-candidate Joe Biden. Photo (cc) 2019 by Matt Johnson.

You may have heard that Ezra Klein has called for President Biden to pull out of the campaign and let a younger generation of Democrats compete for the nomination. Klein, who hosts a podcast and writes commentaries for The New York Times, is someone I look to for guidance. This isn’t just the Times being the Times; Klein was a prominent thinker and commentator before coming to the Times, and he will continue to be long after he leaves.

You can listen or read what Klein has to say here. There’s not a lot of analysis I want to add except to say that he’s thought through most of the objections. He believes Biden has been an effective president and could continue to be in a second term, but that his age has become a real obstacle to his re-election — and that the stakes are way too high to take the chance that Donald Trump could return to the White House. Yes, Trump is nearly as old, far more addled, and, unlike Biden, faces 91 criminal charges and has all but pledged to rule as an authoritarian. Klein believes that anything that keeps Trump out of power is worth doing, even if it means somehow persuading Biden to call it a career.

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Probably my main objection to Klein’s idea is that it’s so late. If Biden had pulled out a year ago, we could have had a proper primary campaign. So what is Klein’s alternative? Throwing it to the Democratic National Convention in August, a truly risky move. “There is a ton of talent in the Democratic Party right now,” Klein writes, and he offers a long list that, intriguingly, omits California Gov. Gavin Newsom and includes Georgia Sen. Ralph Warnock. I’m skeptical of Newsom, and I have to say that I like the idea of Warnock.*

Another problem that Klein has given some thought to is what to do about Vice President Kamala Harris. His answer is that she is a better and more appealing politician than she’s generally given credit for, and that she could compete at the convention like everyone else. If she wins, she wins; if she loses, that’s not a reason to believe that the party would be torn apart. I’m not so sure about that, but Klein puts it this way:

Could it go badly? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it will go badly. It could make the Democrats into the most exciting political show on earth. And over there on the other side will be Trump getting nominated and a who’s who of MAGA types slavering over his leadership. The best of the Democratic Party against the worst of the Republican Party. A party that actually listened to the voters against a party that denies the outcome of the elections. A party that did something different over a party that has again nominated a threat to democracy who has never — not once — won the popular vote in a general election.

I’d say my biggest objection is that Klein would reward special counsel Robert Hur, who recently cleared Biden of criminal wrongdoing in his retention of classified documents but then gratuitously smeared him by suggesting that the president is senile. It was a gross example of prosecutorial misconduct. But that doesn’t mean concerns about Biden’s age aren’t real. As Klein notes, he may be sharp and focused in private (just ask Kevin McCarthy), but he’s slowed down in public, and his own campaign seems to be trying to hide him from scrutiny.

The issues involved are difficult to sort out. In addition to Hur’s actions, which ought to be investigated, there is also the media’s wildly disproportionate coverage of Biden’s age. It’s a legitimate story, of course, but it’s gotten far too much attention when compared with more important stories, many of them having to do with Trump’s dangerous and outrageous pronouncements. In addition, the notion that Biden will stand down is almost certainly wishful thinking — that is, if you’re even wishing for it. “The sky is blue and Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic Party’s nominee,” as Josh Marshall puts it.

Anyway, Ezra Klein’s piece is worth a read or a listen at least as a thought exercise. It seems pretty obvious that if we’re going to stop Trump, it’s going to have to be with Biden. But Klein’s counter-factual is pretty interesting.

*Correction: I swear I can’t read. Newsom is on Klein’s list. I’m still skeptical of him, though.

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Boehner is to Romney as McCarthy is to — Trump?

In 2015, replacing John Boehner with Mitt Romney seemed like a good, if unlikely, idea. Photo (cc) 2011 by Gage Skidmore.

With the Republican House lunatic caucus once again bringing down a speaker with no clear alternative, I want to recycle this GBH News column I wrote back in 2015, when the crazies pushed out John Boehner. This time around, with extreme right-wingers Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan facing off, the worst of the worst are suggesting Donald Trump as an alternative. Eight years ago, with a nudge from my friend Catherine Tumber, I put forth a kinder, gentler alternative: Mitt Romney.

This column originally appeared on Oct. 16, 2015.

House Republicans appear to have reached their End of Days. David Brooks of The New York Times, a moderate conservative who at one time would have epitomized Establishment Republicanism, has analyzed the situation brilliantly. So has Gene Lyons, a liberal, at The National Memo.

The immediate crisis is that the House of Representatives appears incapable of electing a speaker to succeed John Boehner. The problem is that Republicans on the extreme right vow not to respect the choice of the Republican caucus. That means no one will get a majority once the speakership comes to a full vote in the House, since nearly all of the Democrats will vote for their party’s leader, Nancy Pelosi.

So I have an idea, and I thought I’d toss it out there. We’re already having a good discussion about it on Facebook. How about a moderate Republican who’s not currently a member of the House (yes, it’s allowed) and who would be supported by a majority of Republicans and Democrats. How about — as my friend Catherine Tumber suggested — Mitt Romney?

Please understand that by “moderate” I mean moderate by the standards of 2015. Boehner may be the most conservative House speaker of modern times, but he’s a moderate by comparison with the right-wingers who are holding the House hostage. And so is Romney, who’d finally get the big job in Washington that he’s long lusted for.

Under this scenario, the Republicans would necessarily pay a high price for their inability to govern. House rules would have to be changed to give the Democrats more of a voice and maybe even a few committee chairmanships. The idea is to form a coalition government that cuts out the extreme right wing.

The chief impediment would be that Democrats might not want to throw the Republicans a life preserver under any circumstance, especially with the presidential campaign under way. But it would be the right thing to do, and I hope people of good will consider it. Or as Norman Ornstein, who predicted this mess, so elegantly puts it in an interview with Talking Points Memo: “We’re talking about the fucking country that is at stake here.”

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Why should Democrats have helped McCarthy while getting nothing in return?

I’m surprised — OK, I’m not surprised — at the self-loathing liberals who are criticizing House Democrats for not helping Kevin McCarthy hold on to the speakership. That would have required negotiations, and negotiations require compromise. What would a comprise look like? Power-sharing, no more evidence-free investigations, and an end to the phony impeachment inquiry. Why would Democrats vote to save McCarthy without getting something significant in return?

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The Trump indictment is gratifying, yet it underscores some sickening truths

As gratified as I am that Donald Trump is being held to account for his reprehensible behavior, I find that Friday’s developments have left me sad as well. There are three reasons for this.

First, the alleged crimes documented by special prosecutor Jack Smith are so much worse than we had been expecting. Nuclear secrets? Plans for invading an unnamed country, probably Iran? If Trump wasn’t actively sharing these documents with our enemies, he was nevertheless storing them with shocking disregard for who might go looking for them. We have to assume that Mar-a-Lago was crawling with spies.

Then there is his massive hubris and stupidity. All of the charges, without exception, stem from documents he held onto after he was given a chance to return them. One commentator — I forget who — referred to this as a “get out of jail” gift that he nevertheless spurned. Just incredible.

Second, there is the dispiriting fact that there is literally no bottom for Republican elected officials in defending Trump. The top two elected officials in the House, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Majority Leader Steve Scalise, have both attacked law enforcement and stood by Trump, denouncing the “weaponization” of the Department of Justice and the FBI. So, too, has Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is so far the only plausible Trump rival for the 2024 presidential nomination. A pardon looms if a Republican — maybe even Trump — defeats President Biden.

Third, there is the reality (or Reality, if you prefer) that the crimes with which Trump has been charged would land any ordinary person in prison for a very long time if they were convicted — and yet the prospect of Trump’s ending up behind bars in the event of a guilty verdict seems unlikely in the extreme.

If Trump is convicted of what he’s been charged with, he should spend the rest of his life in federal custody. Does anyone really expect to see that? No, of course not. And thus our two-track system of justice — one for the rich and powerful, one for everyone else — will continue unchallenged.

Democrats may regret not seeking a consensus candidate for House speaker

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

There were always two schools of thought as to what the Democrats ought to do about the civil war among the Republicans over who should be House speaker. One was to do exactly what they did: stay united and let the Republicans destroy themselves. Two years of hell awaits on the debt ceiling, aid to Ukraine and, of course, an idiotic investigation into Hunter Biden’s laptop.

One argument was that this was the best move politically — that after two years of chaos, the voters would gratefully turn back to the Democrats in 2024. And that may be the case.

The other school was that the Democrats should find a Republican they could work with, either inside or outside the House (the Constitution allows for outside candidates), stay united, and try to peel off a few reasonable Republicans to support a consensus candidate. My thought was that Liz Cheney might be a good choice. I heard former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s name come up as well.

I understand this was always unlikely in the extreme. Keeping all 212 Democrats together and finding a half-dozen Republicans to form a majority was always going to be enormously difficult. And there really are no moderate Republicans. There’s a right wing, led by Kevin McCarthy (for the moment), and a far-right wing, led by no one. But if a consensus choice had emerged, we could have avoided the horrors I mentioned above. I also happen to think it would have been good politics for the Democrats.

Unfortunately, it did not come to pass. Two years after Jan. 6, 2021, the insurrectionists finally succeeded in taking over the House. God save the United States of America.

Liz Cheney for speaker

Earlier today I posted on Mastodon what I thought was a commonsense though impossible idea: the Democrats should nominate Liz Cheney for speaker. There didn’t seem like there would be any chance of that happening. There still doesn’t, although right-wing candidate Kevin McCarthy has just lost the third round of voting at the hands of the ultra-right.

But consider the possibilities. If you could get all of the Democratic House members to vote for Cheney, she would only need about a half-dozen Republican votes. I don’t know whether there are that many rational Republicans left to do such a thing, but maybe there are.

I’m not a fan of Liz Cheney on policy issues, but I admire her integrity and commitment to principle. The Republicans won the election and the Democrats lost, so I wouldn’t be expecting too much. But perhaps a Cheney speakership could lead to a few positive outcomes. She could agree ahead of time to stop Republican efforts to hold the debt ceiling hostage, which would risk default. She could draw sensible limits around Republican attempts to investigate the Jan. 6 commission of which she was part. And she could say no to Republican fantasies about turning the next two years into a witch hunt with Hunter Biden at the center.

Other than that, I would imagine she’d pursue the agenda of a typical conservative and work with Republicans more than Democrats. Progressive dreams are not going to come true in a House where Republicans outnumber Democrats. But is it too much to ask for decency and normality?

Update: Sorry, I forgot to note that there is no constitutional requirement that the speaker be a member of the House. That should clear up some confusion.

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.

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.

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