It’s not a fluke, it’s a rot: Why the political media blew the 2022 election

Media failure

The corporate-media consensus that there would be a “red wave” in the 2022 midterms was not some late-emerging phenomenon that its members can blame on polls or spin.

Ever since they started handicapping the 2022 election – which means almost all the way back to 2020 – leading political reporters and pundits consistently predicted a midterm shellacking for Joe Biden and Democrats. It’s almost like they were looking forward to it.

They never even considered that voters might reject extremism.

No wonder they didn’t see it coming.

They wrote about the inevitably devastating impact of Biden’s low approval ratings. They wrote about the undeniable historical trends. And more recently, they wrote relentlessly, about inflation as a Democratic albatross, even though it was a global phenomenon being exploited by fossil-fuel and grocery-store giants.

After the Dobbs decision, they briefly entertained the notion that things might go another way. But then they dismissed it entirely.

By contrast, what any responsible, halfway-intelligent and not coopted political reporter should have been asking, over and over again, is: After all this — after Trump’s attempt to steal the election, after a violent right-wing assault on the Capitol, and with the GOP swearing fealty to MAGA, spreading vile conspiracy theories about white replacement, and accusing teachers of grooming —  how could America possibly vote for Republicans ever again?

As time went on, as Trump got even more unhinged, as the conspiracy theories got even more vile, and as a far-right Christian nationalist Supreme Court began rolling back hard-won freedoms, the real story of the 2022 election was clear: This would not be a normal election. It would be an election that could irreparably harm our democracy and head us straight toward a Christian autocracy.

If things went really badly, it might be the last fair election we ever had.

And it was certainly not the time for journalists to sit back, relax, and calmly write stories about what the polls and pundits were saying was going to happen.

By treating a major Republican victory in 2022 as a foregone conclusion, the media didn’t just get it wrong, it created a permission structure allowing normal people to seriously consider voting for an extremist, nativist, anti-governance party. It’s kind of a miracle we survived.

As I wrote in Press Watch’s mission statement over a year ago, it presumes that there will be zero accountability for lying and extremism.

And let’s be clear. A lot of us have been begging the mainstream media to reconsider its glib predictions of Republican victory for a long time. We welcome all the new arrivals. But this was not some sort of fluke. This was not just a function of the political media’s predeliction to predict results rather than write about voters and policy.

This laid bare the rot of the current political-media industry.

This is not something that can be fixed with a little tweaking, and weak stabs at contrition. What we need is a wholesale revisiting of the rules of modern political journalism.

Remaining aloof

And it’s not like these reporters and editors didn’t understand the stakes – they just compartmentalized them, then refused to make the obvious connections.

Their ancient, wheezing journalistic algorithms required that they not write anything that might indicate that one party or argument is superior to another. So they focused on the contest instead of the context. And then they lost touch with the contest.

I’d ask you to revisit a column I wrote last November: “Handicapping the midterm elections? Let me rewrite that for you.

What killed me was that these reporters filed the occasional – really excellent! — story illustrating how the modern Republican Party has become anti-democratic, race-baiting, violence-inciting, shameless, and untethered to reality.

But those very same reporters, day in and day out, calmly predicted Republican victory.

They took as a given that there would be, as usual, an energetic backlash against the ruling party. They made exhaustive note of all the causes for dissatisfaction with Democrats. And they considered it inconceivable that the public might somehow hold Republicans accountable for their transgressions and the threat they pose to traditional American values.

They should have connected the two, and written articles that started something like this:

Despite the dangerously anti-democratic extremism of the Donald Trump-led Republican Party, polls and historical trends at this point indicate that voters will return the GOP to power in the House in 2022 — and quite possibly the White House in 2024.

Then they should have put all their resources toward exploring how that could possibly be, and whether such a fate was truly inevitable.

I suggested any number of ways they could have done that. I proposed they examine:

  • The failure – on the part of the Democratic Party and the media – to properly stigmatize Trump and his enablers for their lies, corruption, rule-breaking and incitements to violence, culminating in a violent coup attempt.
  • The country’s rigid two-party system not offering a palatable alternative for non-racist, pro-democracy conservatives.
  • Republican tribalism, such that party affiliation and loyalty are defining and unquestioned.
  • A significant subset of voters who would welcome an authoritarian, white Christian government.
  • The united front presented by today’s Republican leaders and their lockstep refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing (unlike after Watergate).
  • Public and media susceptibility to Republican scare stories.
  • Negative media coverage of Biden and the Democrats.
  • The illogic of cyclic bitterness toward the ruling party, whichever it is.

I have basically begged senior newsroom editors for over a year to call a meeting, get together with their reporters, take stock, think things through, and ask themselves some tough questions, starting with: “Do we really think we’re doing a good job of educating the American public?” The second question should have been: “Are we really so sure they’re going to win?”

Then Came Dobbs

If there was ever a wake-up call for the media (and the nation) about the stakes, it was the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. As I wrote at the time, “Dear political reporters: You’ve got your election narrative now“.

Suddenly, the long American story of expanded civil rights was over. In the new story, America was  headed straight toward Christian theocracy, unless the people rose up. I pointed out that the way voting is already skewed to favor Republicans – through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the existence of the Senate – a majority wouldn’t be enough, only a supermajority.

Here was a clarion-call to action for the media, to change the topic from “inevitable Republican victory” to “dramatic inflection point ahead”.

When gas prices shot up, I pointed out, the political narrative shifted dramatically, with inflation becoming the central theme of midterm coverage.

Freedom was more important than gas prices, I argued, to no avail.

And nothing exposed the moral rot of the media more clearly than its willingness to jump on the “out of control crime” bandwagon – even as they (at least once) acknowledged it as a racist dog whistle.

Our top newsrooms downplay hugely important assaults on cherished American values, but idiotically fall for every fake Republican scare story right before elections, like clockwork. It was “death panels” in 2009. It was “migrant caravans” in 2018. It’s been “voter fraud” for decades. It was “critical race theory” in public schools in 2021. And this year it was “crime”.

They had one last chance to call out the cruelty, lack of humanity, and fundamental unfitness for office of many Republicans when GOP leaders chortled over the hammer attack of Paul Pelosi. But they covered it as a footnote.

Still blind

Our elite news organizations pride themselves in their investigative stories, uncovering malfeasance and corruption. But they can’t seem to recognize the existential crises right under their nose. They’ve entirely given up on political accountability.

And yet they still think they’re doing things right.

In the wake of this latest embarrassing failure, they still can’t admit any structural problem. Self-examination is in short supply, with reporters trying to point fingers (at Trump, at pollsters, at each other) and coming up with inane explanations of both what happened and why they were so wrong about it.

Washington Post political reporter-turned-columnist Dana Milbank never fell for the red-wave rhetoric, and wrote on Wednesday that the poll numbers actually showed the contests remained tight. It was the analysis that was flawed. “Political journalists were suckered by a wave of Republican junk polls in the closing weeks of the campaign,” he wrote.

He was too kind. The analysis was wrong because of long-held, preconceived notions, not because some operative snookered them.

Milbank himself raised the possibility that the New York Times-Siena College poll  — which spawned a last-minute deluge of articles about how voters are swinging Republican because they don’t care about democracy just inflation – was (intentionally? unintentionally?) skewed. Some of the weighted results were clearly nonsensical, suggestive of people trying to make the data fit their preconceptions.

Similarly, when a Politico poll found support for Democratic congressional candidates was greater than for Republicans, Politico dismissed its own poll as an “outlier”. It just couldn’t be.

And now, having to act all surprised that, apparently, American voters are not so far gone after all, mainstream journalists are making further asses of themselves..

New York Times reporters Lisa Lerer came up with a particularly repulsive and condescending explanation for normal voters rejecting MAGA. “The very polarization of the country functioned as a check, as the passions of one side offset the other,” she wrote.

The homepage of the Washington Post on Thursday morning declared that Republicans lost not because their fascism and misogyny might be turning young voters and others off, but because of tactical errors.

Our top political reporters are so “surprised” that they are blind to what Elie Mystal explained in The Nation is “the real narrative,” that “If Republicans do in fact win control of the House, there is a primary reason for their success: they gerrymandered themselves to victory.”

We can fix American political journalism. We just have to keep plugging away, keep making our voices heard.


Please help me do that. My grant funding runs out this year, so I need your financial support. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Press Watch – and tell your friends.


  1. I honestly don’t think the media can be fixed. They refused to examine their role in the 2000 election, barely analyzed their complicity in the lead up to the Iraq War (teeth gnashing that was a lot of sound of fury, signifying nothing), and defiantly abdicated responsibility for the rise and election of Trump. Now it’s feigned innocence about the 2022 midterms. My criticism of political reporters and the awful WH press corps has metastasized into fury and disgust. They will not change. They are wedded to parroting the GOP narrative, revel in attacking Dems, cherry pick facts to fit their narrative, and have traded actual reporting for access journalism.

    Thank goodness voters ignored the noise and came out in droves, recognizing the stakes. Perhaps if the media actually did their job, these tight races wouldn’t be so close, for all the reasons mentioned above.

  2. Beat-sweetening for the new regime. They want to be on the correct side of power, and they are afraid of conservatives. How would those accurate analysis and holding extremism accountable be viewed by the new regime if there had been a red wave? This coverage is intended to read well after the fact. It has been this way for thirty years. Watch how lapdogs turn to guard dogs when a democrat is in office–because they know one side won’t come after them and the other will.

    Respectfully disagree on illogic of cyclic bitterness; Every election is a change election now. One party makes things worse and the other party refuses to fix it, or worse. Voters are trying to punish the party that is failing them the only way most of them know how; by voting against them. Trouble is, that is both parties.

  3. When Republicans take the House and come close to winning – or actually do so – with candidates like Herschel Walker and in the face of backlash against Dobbs they must have a winning strategy of some sort. The particular claim of the Big Lie and election denial may not be leading directly to autocracy through elections themselves but Republicans still have a route to power and if they win in 2024 it could still be the last real election. Other extremist candidates like DeSantis will do fine without Trump’s endorsement.

    The main problem with the MSM is not that their predictions and horse-race coverage are bad, it is that they use their influence to suppress candidates whose economic programs pose a threat to big business. If economics can be separated from partisanship based on culture-war matters the public favors things to the left of what is now considered the center in this country. Democrat’s need to use economics to appeal to lower-income voters but the media are always pushing to the right economically.

  4. The WaPo’s Jennifer Rubin made a good point in her Nov 15th article “ The media need a serious overhaul of their election coverage”. In it she compares the media remorse and rethinking after getting things so wrong in 2016 to the lack of similar remorse after blowing their coverage of this election. After 2016 the media obsessed about understanding Trump voters and kept going to diners in Trump country to interview them. They also lectured Democrats about the need to empathize with those Trump voters.
    Rubin is right when she says the media needs to realize women are not a minority or a special interest group but are the typical voter. She recommends they interview women at yoga studios, carpool lines, supermarkets,etc.
    She also is right when she says the media needs to drop the false claim that Latinos are deserting the Democratic Party. From what I have seen political journalists and pundits focus on South Florida Latinos who are mostly of Cuban origins who have a long tradition of voting Republican because they have a huge fear of communists and socialism. In fact they have long been far right Republicans, which supposedly starting to moderate as younger generations raised in the US start voting.

    I am betting that the media will never do the same soul-searching and change of focus they did in 2016. I predict they will just double down on their negative narrative about those “Democrats in disarray”, portraying what is the kind of debate that healthy democracies rely on as a sign of deep dysfunction. The media clearly prefers the Republicans un-democratic preference for blindly following crackpot leaders.


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