It’s often asked in my circles: Why isn’t Joe Biden getting more credit for his accomplishments? As with anything, there’s no single reason. Inflation is a factor. His age is as well. Ditto the fact that people aren’t quite yet seeing the infrastructure improvements or the lower prescription drug costs.
There is no one reason. But there is one overwhelming factor in play: the media. Or rather, the two medias. It’s very important that people understand this: We reside in a media environment that promotes—whether it intends to or not—right-wing authoritarian spectacle. At the same time, as a culture, it’s consistently obsessed with who “won the day,” while placing far less value on the fact that the civic and democratic health of the country is nurtured through practices such as deliberation, compromise, and sober governance. The result is bad for Joe Biden. But it’s potentially tragic for democracy.
Let me begin by discussing these two medias. The first, of course, is what we call the mainstream media: The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major (non-Fox) news networks, a handful of other newspapers and magazines. This has also been known as the “agenda-setting media,” because historically, that’s what they did: Whatever was the lead story in The New York Times that day filtered down, through the wire services and other delivery systems, to every newspaper and television and radio station in the United States.
Then there’s an avowedly right-wing propaganda network. This got cranked up in the 1970s, when conservatives, irate over what they (not incorrectly) saw as a strong liberal bias in the mainstream media, decided to build their own. Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post. In the 1980s, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon started The Washington Times. In the 1990s, right-wing talk radio exploded (enabled, in part, by a 2–1 decision by a judicial panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals making the Fairness Doctrine discretionary; those judges were Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork). Then the Fox News Channel was launched.
Back then, even with the launch of Fox, the mainstream media was much larger and more influential than the right-wing media. If the mainstream media was a beachball, the right-wing media was the size of a golf ball.
Today? They’re about the same size. In fact, the right-wing media might finally be bigger. Mainstream media audiences and newsrooms have shrunk. Consider: In 1990, newspapers reached 63 million readers; in 2020, that number was 24 million. In 2006, newspapers employed about 75,000 people. In 2020, that figure was 31,000. The right-wing media, meanwhile, has grown and grown: Fox, One America, Newsmax, talk radio, Sinclair and all its local TV and radio news operations, and much more.
So the right-wing media today is, I’d argue, at least equal in size to the mainstream media. But here’s the more important point. The right-wing media has more power to set the news agenda than the mainstream media. It’s vital to understand this fact, and why it’s so.
The success of the right-wing media is by and large due to the way they speak in lockstep, with one voice, and the way they push one very partisan agenda. They promote Republicans and conservatives, and they say nothing good ever about Democrats or liberals (exception: people who go off the reservation and willingly foul the Democratic-liberal nest, like Joe Manchin or some liberal academic or talking head who turns right, like Glenn Greenwald). Their guiding ethos is not journalistic but political: to advance one party and creed and work their readers and viewers into a constant state of agitation about the other party and creed. And in a time when the Republican Party project has little to do with policy and everything to do with fomenting culture war, no matter how trivial, the right-wing Wurlitzer is adept at ginning up a good two-minute hate against something that got tweeted or what Mr. Potato Head is wearing that week—and here, the mainstream media, chasing engagement like a child fields for candy, follows the right down into these rabbit holes.
The mainstream media, in contrast, do not speak with one very partisan voice; they speak in many voices—critically, including many non-polemical ones. Their guiding ethos is not political but journalistic. Sure, they’re “liberal,” in two senses. First, their editorial pages typically endorse Democrats. And second, they are culturally liberal, because they are mostly based in big cities and their staffs include lots of LGBTQ people, for example, and precious few evangelical Christians.
But even with all that, the mainstream media do not serve a transparent political agenda in the way the right-media do. When The New York Times or CNN or MSNBC gets a scoop about serious corruption in the Biden administration, they pursue the lead and, if verified, report it. If Fox got such a scoop about Donald Trump … well, it’s conceivable that there’s someone left there who wants to do real journalism and who might pursue it. I wish that person luck, though, in getting it on the air. And even if Fox were forced to report it, they’d quickly find ways to rebut it.
Now—back to Biden and the question of credit. The right-media will never give Biden credit for anything. He could cure Alzheimer’s, and they’d lead with the fact that he failed to cure Parkinson’s. So, in their world, nothing good that happens in the economy can or will ever be credited to Biden.
And in the mainstream media? Yes, Biden gets credit for things, but the mainstream media do not speak with one voice as the right-wing media do. So, to the loud and bumptious anti-Biden chorus that blames him for everything bad, there is no equally loud and bumptious pro-Biden answering chorus speaking as one and giving him credit for everything good. And with respect to economics specifically, the imbalance is made worse by the fact that the mainstream business press, as Tim Noah pointed out not long ago, tends to accentuate the negative and see bad news nearly always coming around the corner.
And that’s why today, the right-wing media have become the agenda-setting media: They set the political agenda because, on core issues, they speak with one very loud voice.
By the way—and I want to stress this—I’m not arguing that the mainstream media should speak with one loud and liberal voice. No—the mainstream media should do journalism. Politico doesn’t exist to provide cover for Democrats, nor should it. It and other mainstream outlets should try to treat both sides equally.
Except … when they shouldn’t. There are times when it’s impossible, from a journalistic perspective, to treat both sides as equals. And the press has to get a lot better at recognizing when those moments arise.
This brings us to another huge problem. Back in the 1970s, the first noted conservative media critic was a man named Reed Irvine who headed a group called Accuracy in Media. Irvine got meetings with the editors of the Times and Post and so on and sat down with them and pointed out to them examples of liberal bias in their pages, from the way things were phrased to the space allotted to, say, Democratic versus Republican senators in a given story. Much of the time, he had a point. At the same time, the then-new conservative movement was growing—Ronald Reagan came on the national scene, and talking heads like Pat Buchanan and John McLaughin, both former Nixon aides, were ascendant.
This led to the self-policing and over-correcting that we see so much of in the mainstream press these days. Most reporters know that they are personally pretty liberal, so they overcompensate for that. Most of them went to elite schools and have maybe never known a Southerner or an evangelical, so they overcompensate for that as well.
That’s what gave us all those stories of reporters venturing out into the heartland to try to “understand” Trump voters. And all those stories about people who refused to wear masks or get their shots. How many more of these can we bear to read, I kept wondering at the time. And I couldn’t help but notice that there was no mass effort to find and understand Biden voters after he won in 2020. To do my and The New Republic’s little part in bucking these trends, during the pandemic, I sent a journalist, Marion Renault, down to red America (Mobile, Alabama, specifically) to report on the people who were following the rules—who were wearing their masks and getting vaccines in an inhospitable milieu. She produced a beautiful, moving report that I felt certain would land her on TV and get attention. No one cared. It didn’t fit the narrative—either right-wing or mainstream. Not enough chaos or conflict to be found in American citizens helping to knit up the civic fabric during a traumatizing pandemic, I guess.
But all that is a relatively benign manifestation of overcompensation. There’s a malignant manifestation, and it’s the one that profoundly poisons our democratic well: the pursuit of “balance” in the coverage of politicians. This is what’s going to help elect Donald Trump.
How? Because media, by its nature, decontextualizes facts. That’s how news is presented. No news outlet ever tells you the full story, because the full story is long and complicated and, often, pretty boring. What’s “news,” on the other hand, is the stuff that’s interesting and that stands out. So outlets run with that, and even when they try to contextualize later, it often doesn’t matter.
Take the classified documents cases. They could hardly be more different. Trump had hundreds of documents with classified markings; Biden, about 20. Trump ignored repeated requests from the FBI to come down to Mar-a-Lago and do a search. Biden’s attorneys, upon discovering a few classified documents among his papers, immediately and voluntarily called the White House, which immediately and voluntarily notified the National Archives and Records Administration, which immediately took possession of the docs.
And yet the story, for a lot of voters, is, “They both did it.” I’m not sure what can be done about this. The right-wing press promoted that line, and of course it lied and lied and lied about Biden, using the phrase “1,850 boxes” as if that number of boxes was full of classified documents (it was the total number of boxes of papers from his Senate career). And lies, as we know, get around the world a lot faster than the truth.
So the right-wing media spread the lies, but the mainstream media were surely guilty of overhyping the Biden docs story—and, for that matter, the Mike Pence docs story. In both those cases, it’s likely that some aide made a mistake. Couldn’t be more different from Trump. Yet the media coverage in both the Biden and Pence cases for the first few days was salacious. There just has to be a way to cover things proportionally.
And this will happen between now and the election: Biden has been known from time to time to embellish stories. He used to tell a story about being arrested in South Africa some years ago because he refused to use a “whites only” door. He apparently did refuse to use that door, but he wasn’t arrested; he was detained, as he ultimately admitted. But Fox can string together a few of those, and the narrative will become, “They both lie.” What will the mainstream media do about that?
So, no—on matters like these, both sides absolutely cannot be treated equally. One side lies all the time, and with specific intent. On the other side, lies and exaggerations are sometimes told to gain advantage or gild a lily (by the way, this used to describe the Republican Party as well as the Democrats, but no longer). But for the right, lies are a weapon. The media must recognize the difference, and they must point it out, over and over and over.
Simple rule: When fairness and the truth are in conflict, journalism has to choose the truth. If it doesn’t, there goes democracy—killed off, in part, by the free press that is supposed to be its frontline defender.
A media environment that doesn’t put truth above all other considerations is by definition a media environment that promotes spectacle. The right-wing media—which, again, is now the agenda-setting media—promotes spectacle intentionally. The mainstream media does it unintentionally, but it does it all the same. And we know who benefits from that. Again, another point that’s important to understand: “The media” as an entity, as a sort of self-perpetuating machine, is different from “journalists.” I have little doubt that most mainstream journalists revile Trump, either because of his politics or (if they’re not personally liberal) because he is an enemy of free speech, independent inquiry, serious discussion, and every value journalists cherish.
But that isn’t what matters here. What matters is that the mainstream media, as a machine, loves Trump. Or at least, the machine loves how useful he is. He seeks constant attention, he provokes, he’s self-centered, he’s bombastic; he and the media beast feed off each other. Biden, on the other hand, is none of those things, and he has qualities that the media beast finds uncompelling. He’s serious, knowledgeable, not flashy, not attention-seeking, and empathetic. It’s just not a fair fight.
So that’s where we are. What should the mainstream media do? I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts.
Call a lie a lie.
Don’t seek to create false equivalencies in the name of “balance.”
Don’t be afraid to say that one side lies constantly and with the specific intent of muddying facts, while the other side lies far less frequently or maliciously.
Remember that we are not just in the “news” business. We’re in the information business. We’re in the preservation of the civic fabric business. And we’re in the business of people: Wherever people need the intervention of journalists, we don’t check to see how they voted first. It’s our responsibility to try to build an informed public. This means for example reminding voters of the lies Trump told as president and the norm-crushing actions he took. That’s not “news” per se, but it’s information the electorate tends to forget and will need in order to make an informed decision.
The right-wing media will be out there promoting Trump’s lies and telling their own lies about Biden. The mainstream media shouldn’t cover for Biden—if the law ends up having Hunter Biden dead to rights, it should of course be covered truthfully. But in addition to telling the literal, factual truth on any given issue, the mainstream media must remember that it can’t shirk the larger truth, that American democracy is under grave threat.
If that’s taking sides, well, it’s the side Abraham Lincoln took against a racist, authoritarian regime, and the side Franklin Roosevelt took against fascism. That strikes me as the side a free press, if it hopes to stay free, should want to join.