Awful political coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other premier news organizations is turning more and more observers into angry press critics.
Lately, the critics’ almost constant complaint is that political reporters at major news organizations are letting right-wing narratives determine their tone and their agenda, story after story after story.
Consider, for instance:
- A New York Times article that depicted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as an underdog fighting the education establishment, rather than as a full-on authoritarian who bans books, censors teachers, punishes dissenters, and victimizes minorities.
- Coverage of the debt ceiling increase as a “crisis” and a “standoff” rather than a hostage situation entirely created by Republicans.
- The muddying of the major distinctions between two entirely different document-retention issues — Trump’s clearly willful and involving obstruction, Biden’s not.
- The hyperbolic attention given to a Chinese balloon as if it presented some sort of danger to the country that President Biden was ignoring.
These are all Republican frames. They also happen to defy common sense and leave the public misinformed and ignorant.
You might think that after so many years of being lied to, yelled at, and denigrated by Republican leaders – after a violent attempted insurrection that many Republicans still defend – editors in our major newsrooms would tell their staffs to treat Republican narratives with considerable skepticism.
But nothing matters to these very accomplished journalists more than “not taking sides.” They are particularly terrified of being seen as liberal. And they desperately want an exciting horse race to cover in 2024. So they refuse to publicly acknowledge what has become of the modern Republican Party.
Since writing and speaking the truth would (they think) make them look partisan, they adopt Republican narratives instead.
The right will decry the media establishment as liberal no matter what it does. What these journalists should be terrified of is being seen as mouthpieces for the authoritarian right, because that’s what they are becoming.
Charmed by a Fascist
The corporate media has generally treated DeSantis respectfully, as a more-than-plausible Republican presidential candidate in 2024. This is a terrible mistake. His actions as Florida governor include using the power of the state against his political enemies, stoking division with racist and anti-trans conspiracy theories, and entrenching complete one-party control of the government.
There’s been a lot of horserace coverage that describes him as a “formidable potential challenger” to Trump.
But the New York Times article by Stephanie Saul, Patricia Mazzei and Trip Gabriel headlined “DeSantis Takes On the Education Establishment, and Builds His Brand” took my breath away – and I wasn’t alone.
Progressive journalist Jordan Zakarin tweeted: “This may be the worst headline I’ve ever read from any major national news outlet. The Times transforms DeSantis’s aggressive, state-sponsored campaign of bigotry into a savvy brand-building venture by an edgy politician.”
Georgetown University historian Thomas Zimmer called it a case study of how mainstream media reporting actively – and, it must be assumed: deliberately – normalizes an authoritarian takeover.”
Sociologist and author Victor Ray noted the terrible timing: The Times branding DeSantis’ anti-Black plan to destroy of Florida’s education system as ‘taking on the educational establishment’ at the start of Black History Month is a bit much,” he wrote.
The Times got it completely backwards, as Media Matters’ John Knefel explained:
By immediately framing DeSantis as an underdog, the Times adopts the governor’s own messaging — he appears as a brave outsider, taking on the “establishment,” rather than the powerful executive authority that he is.
The Times story hailed DeSantis as “an increasingly vocal culture warrior, vowing to take on liberal orthodoxy and its champions, whether they are at Disney, on Martha’s Vineyard or in the state’s public libraries.”
Using state power to punish Disney for defending the rights of gay workers, kidnapping and dumping migrants, and effectively stripping school shelves of books? Those aren’t disqualifying, quite the contrary. They are signs of his “pugilistic approach.”
This was not a fluke. The Times soon followed up with an admiring story about DeSantis’s political strategy, (“DeSantis’s Challenge: When, and How, to Counterattack Trump“); a feeble story about his war on reality-based news organizations, (“DeSantis, Aiming at a Favorite Foil, Wants to Roll Back Press Freedom“); and a response to his critics (“Ron DeSantis Is Not Scott Walker“).
This man is hugely dangerous. The Times, however, is charmed.
Arsonist, not firefighters
The balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is bad journalism and bad for democracy, and the debt “crisis” is as one-sided an issue as you could possibly imagine.
When previously agreed-upon legislation requires the Treasury to take on more debt, raising the debt limit is a constitutional requirement.
That’s really all you need to know.
For Republicans to threaten default and a worldwide economic crash unless their demands are met – without even saying what those demands are – is the stuff of farce. This is Keystone Kops taking the world hostage.
But the Washington press corps adopts a Republican narrative instead. They treat it like a serious “standoff.” And they are effectively demanding that Democrats negotiate, even though Biden and his allies have said they won’t.
This is hardly the first time that political journalists have shown they are absolute suckers for this sort of framing. In 2013, for instance, when Republicans demanded the repeal of Obamacare in return for not tanking the economy, I wrote about how the media falsely blamed the government shutdown that year on a “bitterly divided” Congress that “failed to reach agreement”.
And this is no small problem. As I wrote at the time:
When the political leadership of this country is incapable of even keeping the government open, a political course correction is in order. But how can democracy self-correct if the public does not understand where the problem lies? And where will the pressure for change come from if journalists do not hold the responsible parties accountable?
This time around, political journalists have a particularly bizarre kink: declaring with absolute certainty that Biden will negotiate when he has said repeatedly that he will not.
Now it’s certainly possible that he will. But I got into a lengthy Twitter back-and-forth with Washington Post reporter Michael Scherer (here and here) about his insistence that negotiations would take place – and then had taken place – when they haven’t. That’s the power of the Republican narrative.
As Chris Lehman wrote in The Nation, it’s as if the debt ceiling “was actually designed to expose the studied inanity of journalistic discourse”:
[O]our mainstream political press resolutely professes not to see these plain facts, since the reality defies the patty-cake logic of both-sides equivalency and phony bipartisanship that functions as the catechism of the D.C. press corps.
Washington Post opinion columnist Catherine Rampell called on her colleagues on the news side to “do a better job informing the public about these political machinations and motivations, even when they’re not inherently legible.”
Reporters have also been remiss in calling attention to huge variations in McCarthy’s “negotiating” position, which has included demanding a balanced budget, or a path to a balanced budget, or a spending freeze. The difference amounts to about half a trillion dollars, which is real money.
The Matter of Willfulness
From the moment it turned out that Biden had mishandled some classified documents, it was clear that Republicans would try to conflate what thus far appears to be a mistake with Trump’s willful theft, hoarding and lying.
It was also clear that the establishment political media’s job was not to let that happen.
Instead, it joined the campaign to conflate.
Margaret Sullivan, once the public editor of the New York Times, and formerly of the Washington Post, is now writing a media column for the Guardian. She devoted her second column to the coverage of the documents. Neither Biden nor Mike Pence’s mishandling of documents should have been a big news story, she wrote.
And make no mistake, any effort to equate Biden’s sloppy mishandling with former president Trump’s removal of hundreds of classified documents to his Florida hangout at Mar-a-Lago is simply wrong.
Jamison Foser, a Democratic activist who once worked at Media Matters, appropriately took aim at Peter Baker, the establishment media’s lead normalizer of every conceivable Republican atrocity:
When New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker tweeted yesterday that the discovery of classified documents at Joe Biden’s personal office and home, though “markedly different” from Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified documents, would nevertheless inoculate Trump from criticism, it wasn’t hard to spot the flaw in Baker’s reasoning…
Baker isn’t just telling us perception matters more than truth — he is actively shaping perception, not merely observing or predicting it.
Overinflating the Balloon Story
Historian Heather Cox Richardson, who has earned an enormous following on Substack due to her no-nonsense approach to the news, wrote scathingly that the media’s magnification of a Republican response to the balloon that is “completely unrelated to reality” has “provided a window into the dysfunction of modern politics.” She wrote:
You would think this balloon marks terrible U.S. weakness and is the most important thing to happen in years.
And it’s not just that the coverage was ridiculous, it was a distraction that served Republican interests:
The breathless attention paid to the balloon starved a story that mattered far more in the long term: the economy under Biden has shown extraordinary job growth—another 517,000 jobs added in January—and the unemployment rate is at a low that has not been seen since 1969 (not a typo). Inflation is dropping.
Admittedly, the incidence of unidentified flying objects has legitimately become the subject of parlor games. But the alarmism served the GOP nicely.
Over at the Nieman Journalism Lab, Joshua Benton recently called attention to an independent review of the BBC’s coverage of economic issues that speaks volumes about how elite journalists latch onto false narratives.
The report found that “while the risks to impartiality may look political, we think they need a better explanation, which is that they’re really journalistic.”
The problem, the report’s authors found, is that too many journalists don’t really understand what they’re writing about. In this case, specifically:
We think too many journalists lack understanding of basic economics or lack confidence reporting it. This brings a high risk to impartiality. In the period of this review, it particularly affected debt. Some journalists seem to feel instinctively that debt is simply bad, full stop, and don’t appear to realize this can be contested and contestable.
That’s certainly the case with debt ceiling coverage here in the U.S.
In general, political reporters here are suckers for any alleged data point that suggests that Republicans are not crazy right-wing extremists, but are actually more like the Republican strategists they talk to at cocktail parties.
Judd Legum’s Popular Information newsletter recently exposed an astonishing example of journalistic credulity when it serves their preferred narrative.
When Americans for Prosperity Action, controlled by right-wing billionaire Charles Koch, released a memo indicating that Koch was breaking with Trumpism, the media responded with a flood of stenographic coverage:
But as Legum, Rebecca Crosby, and Tesnim Zekeria explained:
What is not mentioned in any of these stories is that, for years, Koch has repeatedly announced he was reorienting his political strategy away from far-right Republicans, including Trump — with no discernible change in his actual political activity. After each media-assisted rebrand, Koch quietly resumed business as usual.
It’s too easy.
Words of Wisdom
There’s a way out of this. It involves listening to criticism. Some is negative, but some is constructive. Consider these four essential points for political journalists from James Fallows, one of the finest editors of his generation. They are:
- Learn from your mistakes
- Not everything is a “partisan fight”
- Not everything is a “perceptions” narrative
- Not all scandals are created equal
But rather than listening to critics who want the press to succeed, journalists too often listen to critics who want them to fail.
Writing in Vanity Fair, Molly Jong-Fast recently expressed her concern that right-wing attacks on journalists will eventually wear them down to the point where they won’t even bother reminding readers of everything they’ve done wrong:
Mainstream political journalists find themselves on the defensive, worried about how their own coverage will be perceived and concerned that their institutions won’t protect them. “Working the refs,” as they say, tends to work.
Eventually, editors will get sick of adding caveats to their 2024 coverage about that whole attempted coup business the last time. Eventually, readers will forget what they know. Eventually, the entropy that is the United States of Amnesia will prevail.
Joe Kahn could prevent that from happening. Sally Buzbee may or may not have the ability to prevent that from happening. But neither have the will. They’re not listening.
Dan, have any media historians looked at why the NY Times, among other media outlets, was charmed by fascism the last time around? Their journalism during the Nazi rise was possibly even worse than their coverage now. And, as Rachel Maddow showed convincingly in her Ultra podcast series, the media as a whole normalized a plot to overthrow the government despite the fact that it included explosives, heavy weaponry, and actual attacks on munitions plants and other targets critical to national security.
It may simply be that one has to be really rich to own a printing press or the modern electronic equivalent. Fear of communism was clearly a factor in the rise of fascism everywhere. But communism has been completely discredited, and even the brand of socialism that has any purchase in the political system is pretty weak tea… I mean, how radical is it to try to reduce medical insurance costs to what they are in Switzerland?
We have been down this road before. Somehow, the media slowly changed its coverage. Surely there are media historians who understand how that happened. Was it just the attack on Pearl Harbor? Or was there something more?
The debt ceiling coverage is always framed as a debate about spending when we all know Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy blew up the national debt — as did Bush’s and Reagan’s. Why is there never any discussion in the media about repealing those budget-busting tax cuts? Focusing on spending is strengthening one of the Republicans’ biggest talking points — that Democrats are profligate, irresponsible spenders but Republicans are the fiscally responsible adults.
During the media’s balloon hissy fit I was struck by how many in the mainstream media complained that the government wasn’t telling them everything. This is the same media that had just had a freak out over the risk classified documents pose to our national security if the information they contain got out but now they demand the government give them information that is almost surely classified. You can bet the government knows a lot more about that Chinese balloon than they are saying because that information is classified.
I am also puzzled that neither the WaPo or NY Times felt the story about India’s Modi having the BBC offices raided after they ran a documentary critical of him was worth top billing. Both of them buried the story in today’s editions. More and more it seems they have a soft spot for bullying authoritarians.
Just read the study about BBC coverage of economic news which shows their journalists have similar problems as ours do, with the exception that they think public spending is good and US journalists thinks it is bad because it increases debt — the Republicans’ talking point.
“ Several general assumptions seem to lurk like [“debt is bad”] either unnoticed or uncorrected. Others that outsiders observed in BBC coverage were: “more public spending is good” and “tax cuts are good.” Whilst these views might seem to make intuitive sense, all favour some interests above others.”