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.
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.
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.
Really? Does nothing else even come to mind? pic.twitter.com/R4jJOnZoY1
— Dan Froomkin/PressWatchers.org (@froomkin) November 10, 2022
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.
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