With Biden pulling ahead, the media must avoid the poll-driven mistakes of 2016

Jill and Joe Biden in Des Moines last Fourth of July. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

From the moment that former Vice President Joe Biden emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, political observers have been proceeding on the assumption that this year’s presidential election will be close.

But what if the dynamics are changing? What if President Donald Trump — behind in the polls even before the COVID-19 pandemic and falling further behind now — is written off as a political goner? Can the media handle it? Or will we see a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton was subjected to a disproportionate amount of negative scrutiny on the grounds that Trump, as we all thought we knew, had no chance of winning?

First, let me lay out the evidence that Trump is starting to look unelectable — keeping in mind, of course, that he looked unelectable four years ago, too. Then I’ll loop back to what the media’s role ought to be in a campaign in which one candidate seems like the all-but-certain winner.

From the moment he took the oath of office, Trump has been a historically unpopular president. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average as of Monday, 42.7% approve of his job performance and 53.5% disapprove. That’s in line with his numbers for most of his presidency, and it represents a dip from the rally-round-the-flag bump he got after he belatedly started to address the pandemic.

Moreover, there were indications even before the pandemic that Trump would lose his re-election bid by a wide margin. For instance, in the very first sentence of his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party,” the political scientist Andrew Hacker of Queens College asserts: “There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term.”

Although Hacker’s argument is backed up with a considerable amount of data, it essentially comes down to this: The blue wave that enabled the Democrats to take back the House in 2018 is almost certain to be followed by an even bigger blue wave in 2020, overwhelming any attempts at voter suppression or Electoral College math that would otherwise favor Trump.

Trump’s prospects have only deteriorated in the face of his cruel and incompetent response to COVID. Oxford Economics, which has a solid track record of calling presidential races dating back to 1948, is currently predicting that Trump will receive only 35% of the popular vote and lose the Electoral College by a margin of 328 to 210. The RealClearPolitics polling average as of Monday showed Biden ahead by more than 5 points and leading in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

So, good news for Biden, right? Not necessarily. Because if it looks like a Biden blowout, he may be held to a different, higher standard than Trump.

We all remember what happened in 2016. Clinton’s relatively minor shortcomings over issues like her speech transcripts and, oh yes, her emails were covered as though they were the equivalent of Trump’s stream of racist outbursts, revelations about his corrupt foundation and his boasts, caught on tape, that he had sexually assaulted women.

In his definitive study of how the media performed during the 2016 campaign, the political scientist Thomas E. Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School 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.”

(Incidentally, Patterson has a new book out called “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?” Spoiler alert: He thinks the answer is “yes.”)

Unfortunately, we may be seeing the same thing happen again. Yes, the media showed some restraint in covering Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault against Biden, with Politico and the PBS NewsHour doing an especially good job of reporting problems with her credibility. But the smear lingers — despite Biden’s denial, and despite the 25 women who’ve accused Trump of similar and worse misconduct.

The media have risen to the bait regarding Trump’s claims that there was something called an “Obamagate” scandal in 2016. Although Trump hasn’t bothered to flesh it out, it appears to be based on his fury that his campaign’s well-documented ties to Russian interests (see thisthis and this) were the subject of an FBI investigation.

“It’s becoming clear that journalists never fully reckoned with the mistakes of 2016 campaign coverage,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently. “We know this because they seem poised to repeat them.”

And look at what happened over the weekend. Biden had to apologize for joking with the African American radio host Charlamagne Tha God that “you ain’t black” if he was still trying to decide between him and Trump.

Trump, meanwhile, went off on a sociopathic bender, retweeting attacks on Hillary Clinton (a “skank”), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a drunk), Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Stacey Abrams (she’s fat) and repeating his nauseating and utterly false innuendo that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a female staff member when he was a congressman in 2001.

Guess which story got more attention? To be fair, the press did take note that Trump went golfing and made no mention of the COVID pandemic as the U.S. death toll neared 100,000. But by every indication, it seems that Biden is going to be held to a more stringent standard — and his lead in the polls may have something to do with it.

What would better coverage look like?

First, the media should ignore the polls — not all the time, but most of the time. And they certainly shouldn’t decide who deserves the hairy eyeball on the basis of who’s ahead and who’s behind.

Second, the political press should report on what really matters. Gaffes, of which Biden will make plenty, are worth a tweet, maybe. Phony scandals ginned up by an increasingly desperate president and his supporters should get less than that.

Instead, the press should focus on offering an honest, fair-minded appraisal of the candidates’ character, leadership abilities and experience. And that coverage should look the same no matter who’s ahead or by how much.

Because we all know that regardless of what the polls and the models say, either candidate could win.

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Follow the money

Two in-depth reports Friday rendered what was left of Tara Reade’s credibility in tatters.

The more important was a story by the PBS NewsHour. Lisa Desjardins and Daniel Bush interviewed 74 former Joe Biden staff members, 62 of them women. And though they said Biden sometimes had trouble keeping his hands to himself (something Biden acknowledged and apologized for last year), they emphatically denied that they’d ever heard of him engaging in sexual assault.

“The people who spoke to the NewsHour,” they wrote, “described largely positive and gratifying experiences working for Biden, painting a portrait of someone who was ahead of his time in empowering women in the workplace.”

Crucially, an on-the-record source told them that there were problems with Reade’s job performance that may have led to her termination. And the place where the alleged assault took place was entirely out in the open, making it nearly impossible for Biden to have done what she claims without being seen.

Also Friday, Natasha Korecki reported for Politico that Reade has spent much of her adult life as a grifter, lying and cheating people out of money — but never, in the recollection of the people she interviewed, saying anything negative about Biden.

“Over the past decade,” Korecki wrote, “Reade has left a trail of aggrieved acquaintances in California’s Central Coast region who say they remember two things about her — she spoke favorably about her time working for Biden, and she left them feeling duped.”

In the weeks after I wrote about the Reade case for WGBH News, I’ve gone from thinking there was a reasonable chance that she was telling the truth to now believing it’s highly likely that she made the whole thing up.

But why? Could it have something to do with her weird praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin? What should we make of the fact that her lawyer, who’s representing her for free, is a Trump donor? Or the fact that another lawyer who’s acted on her behalf has ties to Russian propaganda operations?

Ultimately Reade’s story can’t be definitively proven or disproven, but the media have done a good job of laying out the facts and showing how far-fetched it is. Now we need to know who, if anyone, was behind what appears to be a classic political dirty trick. Keep digging.

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An allegation of sexual assault against Joe Biden presents a challenge to the media

Joe Biden campaigning in Des Moines earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2020 by Phil Roeder.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

When a woman accuses a presidential candidate of sexual assault, her allegations deserve to be treated as something more than a political problem.

And so it is with Tara Reade, a former Senate staff member who claims that Joe Biden assaulted her in 1993. So let me stipulate up front that Reade may be telling the truth in saying that Biden stuck his hand up her skirt and penetrated her while she was pinned against a wall in a Senate office building.

There are problems with her account, which I’ll get to in a bit. But there are inevitably going to be problems with an alleged incident that took place 27 years ago. That doesn’t mean she’s making it up. It does mean that her accusation is unproven — and, in all likelihood, unprovable.

Given all that, it makes sense to examine how Tara Reade’s story made the leap from the backwaters of political chatter into the mainstream media — as it did over the past few days, as The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Associated Press and others all published detailed articles following her decision last week to file a complaint with the D.C. police.

Reade first made her allegations in late March, as WGBH News’ “Beat the Press” noted on April 3. At the time, the question was why the media were staying away from it. One likely answer: With COVID-19 smothering all other news stories, there just wasn’t the bandwidth to take on anything else.

But there was another possibility: Responsible news outlets wanted to take the time to investigate Reade’s claims thoroughly before publishing such incendiary news. The Times’ description of the lengths it went to is worth considering in full, as it shows how a first-class news organization goes about its business in a media world otherwise drowning in tweets, he-said/she-said stenography and cable-news speculation.

“Soon after Ms. Reade made the new allegation, in a podcast interview released on March 25, The Times began reporting on her account and seeking corroboration through interviews, documents and other sources,” according to the story. “The Times interviewed Ms. Reade on multiple days over hours, as well as those she told about Mr. Biden’s behavior and other friends. The Times has also interviewed lawyers who spoke to Ms. Reade about her allegation; nearly two dozen people who worked with Mr. Biden during the early 1990s, including many who worked with Ms. Reade; and the other seven women who criticized Mr. Biden last year, to discuss their experiences with him.”

The Post and The AP both reported taking similar steps before publishing.

Now, there are some problems with Reade’s claims, as all three articles point out. For one thing, she told a different story just a year ago when she was one of several women who talked about Biden’s habit of engaging in inappropriate but non-sexual touching. For another, although there is some evidence that she told others Biden had sexually assaulted her at the time it supposedly happened, that evidence is less than compelling — again, as might be expected in trying to reconstruct what took place between two people many years after the fact. Biden’s campaign has staunchly denied it happened, no other women have come forward, and the allegations don’t seem to fit what we know about him. Another complicating factor is Reade’s odd admiration at one time for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

To repeat: None of this disproves Reade’s claims. But in the absence of any evidence beyond what she is saying, it makes sense for news organizations to sift through what she has said previously as well as what others are saying.

So where does this leave the media? It’s clear that the Trump campaign will use Reade’s allegations to try to neutralize Democratic attacks on the president’s long, sordid, well-documented record of sexual assault against numerous women — a record that includes an ongoing civil case charging him with rape.

If Reade’s claims are proven to be true, they still fall far short of President Trump’s grotesque misconduct. Still, the story makes it harder for Biden and the Democrats to take the high road. Donald Trump Jr. can hardly contain his glee.

As with so many other issues involving coverage of Trump, the challenge for the media is to continue reporting on the allegations against Biden thoroughly and fairly without devolving into false equivalence. Tara Reade deserves to be treated with respect, and her allegations need to be taken seriously. But Trump’s record of sexual misconduct is much worse than Biden’s and must be seen in that perspective.

The outcome of the November election will almost certainly turn on other matters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and Trump’s conduct and misconduct during his chaotic presidency. If no new evidence emerges and if no other women step forward, Reade is likely to recede into the background. Her story will continue to resonate on Fox News, OAN and other media outposts within Trumpland, but that’s not going to change the outcome of the election.

Still, if this proves to be the beginning of something bigger, Democrats may regret settling on Biden as early as they did.

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