A Whiplash Week on the Biden Media Seesaw

From CJR’s The Media Today by Jon Allsop:

A YEAR AGO NEXT WEEK, Kabul fell to the Taliban, presaging an accelerated US withdrawal from Afghanistan that—among its countless more important consequences for that country and its people—brought a wave of overheated media opprobrium crashing down around President Biden. Last month, Perry Bacon, Jr., a columnist at the Washington Post, made the case that the withdrawal marked a turning point in mainstream coverage of Biden’s presidency and that that coverage in turn has helped drive down Biden’s popularity, with the political press turning Afghanistan into the basis for a “Biden is struggling” narrative that subsequently fattened itself on other meat—Democratic losses in off-year elections, inflation, the stalling of Biden’s “Build Back Better” spending agenda—even if Biden wasn’t necessarily to blame. Afghanistan “provided journalists the big anti-Biden story that I think many of them were desperate to find,” Bacon wrote—as well as an outlet to start channeling their impulse that coverage of “both sides” should be equally negative even as top Republicans continue to hold a lit match to American democracy.

The negative coverage has culminated, in recent weeks, in seemingly incessant—not to mention painfully premature—media chatter as to whether Biden will or should run for reelection in 2024, with office-holding Democrats unable to step within shouting range of a reporter without having to field the question. A particularly excruciating example of the trend came last week when Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a top House Democrat who is facing a competitive primary in New York, said at a debate that she didn’t believe Biden would run again; she then carted herself off to CNNto apologize to Biden while at the same time doubling down on her “belief.” (“We are all entitled to have our own information,” she said.) The whole episode drove a mini news cycle.

By the time Maloney went to mop up, however, something strange had happened: Biden’s narrative fortunes had started to shoot upward in the eyes of the mainstream political press. As was true of his narrative decline last year, events in Afghanistan were arguably the precipitating factor: last Monday, Biden announced in a televised address that he had authorized a drone strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind, at a house in Kabul. The next day, voters in Kansas opted, by a decisive margin, to reject an amendment to their state constitution that would have enabled lawmakers to restrict abortion rights; the same day, the Senate, which had already recently passed a gun-reform measure and a bill to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing, voted through a healthcare package for veterans who may have been exposed to toxic waste after decidedly movable Republican objections met an unstoppable Jon Stewart-shaped media force. The day after that, gas prices declined for a fiftieth straight day. On Friday, red-hot jobs numbers dropped.

Then, yesterday, the Senate finally passed Build Back Bett— sorry, the Inflation Reduction Act, authorizing historic climate investment and the lowering of drug prices, and putting an end (well, almost) to a news cycle that has been spinning since the earliest days of Biden’s presidency, albeit with differing degrees of ferocity as negotiations repeatedly stopped and started. Coverage of the bill’s Senate passage went out as it came in—amid a hail of Manchin-and-Sinema-watching and sometimes-unexplained procedural jargon (“reconciliation,” “carried-interest loophole,” “vote-a-rama”); in between times, political reporters and pundits repeatedly declared the legislation dead, sometimes with good reason, often not. The bill’s passage capped what some of those same voices referred to as Biden’s best week in office to date. Only last month, mainstream outlets were haunting him with the ghost of Jimmy Carter. Now he’s being compared to LBJ.

Not that the Biden-Lazarus narrative wasn’t challenged—it was, and not only in the right-wing mediasphere, where Biden could physically revive a dead man and be accused of cheating the funeral industry. Critical mainstream pundits suggested that the jobs report was too hot, or that Zawahiri’s mere presence in Kabul should concern national-security officials, even if they did manage to kill him; reporters, meanwhile, suggested, with varying degreesof generosity, that even if Biden’s recent achievements have been impressive, he can’t necessarily take the credit for them. Others questioned—including in the same breath as the LBJ comparison—how much Biden’s achievements matter if the electorate doesn’t reward him for them. Yesterday’s Sunday shows featured ample chatter about his approval rating, and—you guessed it—whether he should run in 2024. On CNN, Dana Bash put that question to three top Democrats. She also described the list of Biden’s policy successes as being so long, she didn’t have time to read it.

The politicized framing of yesterday’s Senate vote, in particular, has already been criticized; the economist and New York Timescolumnist Paul Krugman, for one, warned “anyone about to write this up primarily as a horserace story—some already have—[to] stop,” adding that “first and foremost this was a victory for urgently needed policy,” especially where the climate is concerned. Not everyone, it should be said, did primarily cover the bill’s passage as a horserace story. This morning, for example, Krugman’s own paper led with the full-width banner headline “SENATE VOTE PUTS CLIMATE ACTION IN REACH” both in print and online, just above stories assessing why it took Congress so long to meaningfully act on climate change (“essentially, lawmakers replaced the sticks with carrots”) and scrutinizing fossil-fuel concessions in the bill—not least its support of a gas pipeline in West Virginia, the state Manchin represents in the Senate, whose backers have plied Manchin with donations.

Still, many reporters and pundits did prominently present the bill’s passage as a political “win” for Biden, rather than for the planet or the chronically sick—a shallow, sports-like framing that has itself bedeviled coverage of Biden’s legislative agenda since its early days. As Charles M. Blow, another columnist at the Times, put it yesterday in a piece reflecting on Biden’s recent successes, media narratives are too often “driven by trajectory,” privileging easy assessments of who is up or down over the harder, more nuanced work of disentangling messy political realities. “Biden got caught in one of those narratives: that things were going badly and people were losing confidence,” Blow wrote. Polling then “backed up that narrative, which provided a patina of proof.” But “news narratives and polls,” as Blow notes, “are symbiotic. The narratives help shape what people believe, which is then captured by the polls, and those polling results are then fed back into news narratives as separate, objective and independent fact.”

This, of course, is not a new critique of political journalism; indeed, it echoes much of what Bacon wrote in his column last month. Toward the end of that column, Bacon overtly called on the press to cover Biden “more positively”—an approach, in his view, that wouldn’t mean an end to negative stories, including about Afghanistan and inflation, but would put them in proper proportion, situating what Biden has gotten wrong as part of a bigger picture that also makes due room for what he’s getting right while comparing his proposed solutions to those being offered—or not—by the Republican Party, and at the same time dispensing with the both-sides notion that Biden’s missteps are equally as worthy of criticism as the GOP’s authoritarian maneuvers.

As I’ve written before, I find assessments of the “positivity” or “negativity” of news coverage to be slippery. As far as Biden’s recent achievements are concerned, I can think of ample grounds for media scrutiny, from the fossil-fuel concessions in his climate bill to the legality of the Zawahiri strike. (And, if Biden has been unduly blamed for certain negative storylines that have stuck to him, some of the stories now being attributed as wins for him, like the Kansas vote, seem like a stretch.) With some worthy exceptions, though, these are not the primary grounds on which the political press has engaged with these stories, and that fits a longer-term pattern. Ultimately, I agree with Bacon that media criticism of Biden has often, in practice, been trivial, horseracey, and disproportionate, particularly when weighed against the threats to democracy emanating from the other side of the aisle. I also agree that the Afghanistan withdrawal was a turning point, seeming to mark a decisive end to whatever media honeymoon Biden enjoyed.

This isn’t to say that Biden should have had a longer media honeymoon, or any media honeymoon at all—it’s to say that coverage turning so sharply on perceptions of political standing, particularly when the media has a role in shaping that perception, is unhelpful. Seeing everything primarily as a win or a loss doesn’t merely elide policy substance but contributes to a totalizing focus on elections over governing, no matter how far away the next elections may be. The passage of Biden’s agenda in the Senate yesterday should be a lesson in the importance of governing, and the time it takes. The on-again-off-again negotiations around the package were sometimes hard to follow, so a degree of narrative whiplash was understandable. But the much greater whiplash comes from a political press that prioritizes asking whether Biden should even bother running for a second term when he has so much of his first one left.

More on Biden and political media:

  • A change in approach: Seung Min Kim and Zeke Miller, of the Associated Press, charted how Biden’s level of engagement with Senate negotiations over his agenda changed over time, noting how his engagement with the press covering the negotiations changed, too. “In late 2021, White House aides persuaded the president to clam up about his conversations with the Hill, as part of a deliberate shift to move negotiations on his legislative agenda out of the public eye. The West Wing, once swift with the news that Biden had called this lawmaker or invited that caucus to the White House for a meeting, kept silent,” they wrote. This drew criticism from the press, but officials wagered “that the public was not invested in the details and would reward the outcomes.”
  • LaRosa-tinted glasses: Yesterday, Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, asked Michael LaRosa, a onetime MSNBC producer who recently stepped down as press secretary to First Lady Jill Biden, how the Bidens perceive their media coverage on the inside. “I think it’s fair to say both of them could be frustrated at times. But they’re not trying to work the refs or anything,” LaRosa replied. “I think the president and first lady would love for the press to talk about substance for the next three months instead of polls and popularity, and all the other things that they have been writing about.”
  • Covering Republicans: After various Republican candidates who deny that Biden won in 2020 moved closer to taking control of America’s electoral machinery by winning primaries for key state offices last week, Greg Sargent, a colleague of Bacon’s at the Post, called on the media to punch up its coverage of the threat they pose. “The reality of the threat this poses keeps getting lost in euphemisms. There’s an unwillingness in the media to state the true nature of their project in plain, blunt, clear terms,” Sargent wrote. “These candidates are often described with mealy-mouthed language, such as ‘election denier’ or even ‘election skeptic.’ The implication is that they genuinely believe Trump won, or harbor sincere suspicions about our elections and can’t accept ‘reality,’ as if they’re hostage to delusions about some mythic event rapidly receding into the past.”

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