Critical readers are increasingly furious about the way political journalists are doing their jobs

An ever-expanding pack of press watchers is expressing anger about mainstream media political coverage as the nation enters a make-or-break period for democracy.

Writing for magazines, in opinion columns, and especially in newsletters, these media critics are particularly upset at how political reporters continue to use the same both-sides constructions that served them in the distant past — effectively normalizing the anti-democratic extremism of Donald Trump and the modern Republican Party. They express concern that the mainstream media is underestimating and underreporting the threat to democracy.

They were particularly triggered by last week’s extraordinary overreaction to a special counsel’s gratuitous comments about President Biden’s mental acuity.

Here’s a taste of what’s out there.

Inside the Nuclear Freakout

I wrote in my column on Friday about the media’s ridiculous pile-on in response to special counsel Robert Hur’s comments about Biden.

The indefatigable Judd Legum, in his extraordinary Popular Information newsletter, did the number crunching:

A Popular Information analysis found that just three major papers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal — collectively published 81 articles about Hur’s assessment of Biden’s memory in the four days following the release of Hur’s report. Incidents that raised questions about former President Trump’s mental state received far less coverage by the same outlets…

Overall, The New York Times published 30 stories about Biden’s alleged memory issues between February 7 and February 10. Over those four days, the story was covered by 24 reporters (some of whom filed multiple stories), four opinion columnists, and the New York Times Editorial Board….

The Washington Post featured even more coverage of Biden’s memory in the aftermath of Hur’s report. The paper produced 33 articles featuring Hur’s opinions about Biden’s memory from February 7 to February 10. Headlines include: “Special counsel report paints scathing picture of Biden’s memory,” “‘Hair on fire’: Democratic worries grow over claims about Biden’s memory lapses,” and “Republicans call for 25th Amendment to be invoked.” The articles described Hur’s report as a “devastating picture of [Biden’s] mental agility,” “a devastating portrait of an 81-year-old president,” and “damning.”

Will Bunch, the national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, scolded the “flailing news media” for failing “to put Biden’s occasional slips into any meaningful context.”

Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan helped cement the idea of a president as performer-in-chief, when that’s really not the job. The person in the White House is CEO of an outfit with a cadre of whip-smart top aides and cabinet secretaries overseeing nearly three million federal employees. They implement policies set by what is in the president’s heart, not the speed of the neurons in his brain. No one is going to drop a bomb on Norway instead of Syria because POTUS said the wrong word in the Oval Office.

Democracy is “heading like Wile E. Coyote toward a cliff,” Bunch wrote.

If neither Biden’s age nor Trump’s neofascist policies are viewed from the right perspective, democracy will go over that cliff on Jan. 20, 2025.

In his Stop the Presses newsletter, Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune, decried the media’s focus on gaffes:

This obsession with verbal missteps reflects a basic flaw in the media’s idea of what a campaign is for. It’s not the national spelling bee. It’s not an obstacle course. It’s supposed to be a forum for candidates to discuss the issues that matter to voters – to describe their vision for our country.

The marvelous national security website Just Security doesn’t often engage in media criticism, but the all-star legal team of Andrew Weissmann and Ryan Goodman nevertheless felt obliged to correct the record over the weekend.

“The Special Counsel Robert Hur report has been grossly mischaracterized by the press,” they wrote. “The press incorrectly and repeatedly blast[ed] out that the Hur report found Biden willfully retained classified documents, in other words, that Biden committed a felony.” In fact, the wrote, “the report repeatedly [found] a lack of proof. And those findings mean, in DOJ-speak, there is simply no case.”

Paul Waldman, a former Washington Post political columnist who now publishes a newsletter called The Cross Section, dissected the “absolute nuclear freakout” by top editors over Hur’s comments — and argued that there were a lot of other ways they could have covered the story:

They could have framed Hur’s statements about Biden’s age as a story about partisanship and the weaknesses of the special counsel process. Or they could have treated it as a real but not particularly important story, something you’d assign one reporter to write one article on, then move on to more pressing news. Instead, they reacted as though a) something new had been revealed about the president, and b) it was one of the most important stories of the year….

While there has been pushback from the White House and some other Democrats to Hur’s report, I haven’t seen reporters ask what the hell Robert Hur is supposed to know about Joe Biden’s cognitive state that we couldn’t have learned from innumerable better-informed sources, let alone why Hur’s opinion is of anything more than incidental news value.

Waldman also scolded journalists for their “cowardly use of the passive voice” as well as their “willful lack of self-awareness of the self-fulfilling prophecies at work.” He asked:

Might the differing opinions about the two men’s age have something to do with the fact that they’re not writing front-page stories every time Trump displays evidence of cognitive decline and rushing to cable news to say Trump’s latest gaffe “raises questions” about his cognitive capacity?

And here’s another good question:

Is there no one at these major outlets who is capable of taking a step back and exercising some judgment?

That one came from outspoken Guardian media columnist Margaret Sullivan, writing in her newsletter American Crisis.

Biden’s age “really is a legitimate concern for many voters,” she wrote. “But for the media to make this the overarching issue of the campaign is nothing short of journalistic malpractice.” She begged for an intercession from above:

How about a note from New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger to two key people who report to him directly — the opinion editor and the top newsroom editor — that goes something like this: “Katie and Joe, I’m concerned that we’re going overboard with both coverage and commentary about Biden’s age. Let’s keep this in better perspective and tone it down.” Believe me, those two sentences would make a world of difference.

CNN’s top guy, Mark Thompson, could do his version. And so could the decision-makers at the Washington Post and the three major broadcast networks.

Sullivan is absolutely right that what our newsrooms need is an intervention. But I don’t think it’s going to come from the top down. I think it’ll come from the bottom up.

Missing the Story of the Moment

Historian and author Rick Perlstein last month launched a new must-read column for the American Prospect that’s heavy on media criticism. In his first column, he wrote that the tools of political journalism created by “generations of … incumbent, consensus-besotted journalism” are “thoroughly inadequate to understanding what politics now is.”

As he explained on Democracy Now,

The horse race doesn’t matter if the guys in the MAGA hats blow up the track. The important thing is not how many votes Donald Trump is able to get. He’s going to win the nomination. The important thing is not how many votes he gets in November, because he’s going to claim he won no matter what…. The important question is: How many people are going to be willing to take arms up for Donald Trump on the next January 6th, in 2025? I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but reality itself now seems to — for millions of Americans, a considerable part of the Republican Party —  flows from the person of Donald Trump. And the word we have to begin using for this situation, as melodramatic as it seems, is “American fascism.”

In a two-part column on Jan. 17 and Jan. 18, Perlstein interviewed author and fascism expert Jeff Sharlet, who shared with him an incredible recording of a bookstore talk between Sharlet and a smug, unnamed New York Times reporter (who internet sleuths later identified as Reid Epstein). The reporter responded with scorn to Sharlet’s use of the word “fascist” to describe Trump and the MAGA movement, saying:  “It’s not a word we use in The New York Times.”

And yet, as Perlstein argued:

By not naming it “fascism,” when others responsibly name it that, the Times is, effectively, naming it “not fascism.”

Washington Post opinion columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. recently slammed his MSM colleagues for nattering on about how old and unpopular Biden and Trump both are instead of focusing on the stakes.

Dionne lashed out at the legacy media for engaging in false equivalence — “the bane of our politics” – out of fear of being called liberal. He explained that “decades of attacks from the political right have made the mainstream media far more sensitive to the appearance of liberal bias than to worries about other forms of distortion. This makes formulas of false equivalence very attractive.” By contrast, he wrote:

It’s time for everyone, the media especially, to face up to the actual choice: Between constitutional democracy and authoritarianism. Between a normal human being and a self-involved, spiteful madman. Between a government that has performed well and a regime that would gyrate from one personal obsession to another.

Fellow Washington Post opinion columnist Perry Bacon Jr. wrote recently that the journalism industry lacks a sense of mission and “should reorganize itself to focus squarely on America’s crises… most notably a radical, antidemocratic leader and movement controlling one of its major political parties.” He concluded:

The rise of Trump unfortunately hasn’t created a profitable journalism industry. But it can create a purposeful one — if journalists bring their unique skills and strengths to America’s crises and Americans embrace them for doing so.

New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote that “what really scares me is less the decline of profits in my industry than growing numbness and despair in the face of possible political calamity.”

What’s the Point?

So what good is all this media criticism? As it happens, political strategist and media critic Jamison Foser, writing in his Finding Gravity newsletter, recently offered three excellent answers to that question:


Forceful, reasoned media critiques can shift behavior around the margins — a little more coverage of something that’s been underplayed, a little less of something over-played, a reconsideration of a unsupported assumption or an underlying bias. It isn’t particularly efficient, it isn’t going to lead to the wholesale changes it should, but in a closely-divided country changes at the margins can be decisive….


Changing the news media is not the only goal of media criticism. Another is changing the way people react to the news media….


[M]edia criticism is often a useful vehicle for carrying other messages. When people criticize the New York Times for, for example, downplaying the threat of Donald Trump banning abortion, we aren’t just ineffectually criticizing the Times: We’re telling our audience that Donald Trump will ban abortion.

I would add a fourth answer: Media criticism gives voice to many frustrated readers — and reassures them that they aren’t alone.


If you’re one of those frustrated readers, please consider subscribing to the newsletters mentioned above – and make a tax-deductible contribution to Press Watch.



  1. Ironically, readers of these publications fail to exercise *their* power and cancel subscriptions over particularly egregious behavior. It’s a tactic that apparently many younger people have not heard of. It’s called a “strike.”

    Most of the people who read in this country (indeed, most people with a college education) are center-left. Most of the people on the right are viewers. And, while newspapers get most of their revenue from advertising, the value of that advertising depends on who reads and how many read. Readers have enormous power–if they exercise it collectively. A one-month organized strike against one of the major papers might be enough to create significant change.

    I began my own, lonely strike against bad reporting not because the writing was conservative or liberal, but because deliberately slanted journalism makes me unhappy. I’m fine with honestly conservative publications and read a number of them, even on the fringe right. But when papers accept open lies from Op-Ed writers or poorly researched writing or writing that is calculated to appease the angry right (or anyone), it’s not journalism. It’s propaganda and it needs to be shut down.

    It’s hard because I know there are good journalists at most of the major papers. If I cancel a subscription, I’m careful to tell management *exactly* why I am canceling.

    In addition to the stick of a strike, we also need a carrot. I propose that every American receive a $500 credit to purchase news of their choosing. That would greatly weaken the power of advertisers, help to educate Americans about what is going on, and force media outlets to listen to readers. Even if it cost $100B to fund it, would be a lot cheaper than the bad decisions that government elected by ignorant voters cost.

  2. Why aren’t more people wonder why Hur had the nerve to bring up Beau Biden’s death? I urge people to read the post by Andrew Weissmann and Ryan Goodman at Just Security linked to above. What jumped out at me was that what Hur insists on calling notebooks were clearly Biden’s personal diaries containing his notes about what was happening in his life both personally and in his position as VP. Hur’s report makes it clear that Biden firmly believes he is allowed to keep his own diaries just as other presidents were allowed to do even if those diaries contained some classified information as Reagan’s did. (As the Just Security article makes clear that proves Biden lacked the intent and intent is necessary to prove the law was broken in these cases.)

    That these were personal diaries explains the bizarre fact that Hur admits he read Biden’s very personal, private thoughts about extremely painful events such as Beau Biden’s excruciating death from cancer.

    Biden made it clear that he was furious with Hur for bringing up Beau’s death and felt Hur had business doing that. I suspect Biden’s anger was the reason he didn’t answer the question about the date of Beau’s death. He was probably trying to keep himself under control. I wouldn’t have blamed Biden if he had punched Hur out for his cruelty. Given Hur’s willingness to play the role of hitman for his Republican overlords I strongly suspect he deliberately brought up Beau in hopes it would rattle Biden and give Hur even more ammunition.

    Also while I agree that Jud Legum’s excellent article comparing the media’s obsessive coverage of Biden’s supposed mental problems with their far fewer articles about Trump’s bizarre slips should I think it is even more important to point out that the media has also has given far less coverage to Trump’s horrifying statement that he would tell Putin to “do whatever he wants” to NATO countries who don’t pay up. That should be treated as a flashing warning light that Trump may well start WWIII just to pander to Putin.

  3. I used to think of journalism as a noble profession, as a bulwark against tyranny, as a league of truth-tellers who could give informed readers the tools to do their best jobs as voters. Boy was I a chump. I’ve been reading your press criticism, Dan, since you were staff at the WaPo, and recently cancelled what had become a 50-some year subscription to the Post because of what seemed like deliberate mischaracterization of events on an institutional level. As the politics in this country have descended into lowest-common-denominator rabble-rousing, the press continues its brainless “view from nowhere” reportage, treating sycophants and demagogues like statesmen. From MSNBC to NRO, it’s the same set of tactics, and it’s not journalism, NOR do ANY of the practitioners thereof seem to care about informing the American people as much as they care about hitting all the Stations of the Cross that the modern edgy, savvy journalist is supposed to hit. I have trusted commentators whose work I follow (you and Judd among them); but the main news sources I previously trusted are so busy lying that I’m no longer wasting my time on them. Sorry for the rant, and please continue your smart, nuanced press criticism. I believe it has an effect, and the nation would be poorer without it.

    • Doug, journalism is indeed a noble profession. Journalists risk their lives in war zones, face physical threats and attacks by Trump partisans,and are constantly under threat of downsizing or otherwise losing their jobs.

      What Dan is protesting against is not journalism. It’s hackery. When editors and publishers are successful in cowing journalists into spinning a narrative rather than reporting the facts, the product amounts to propaganda. Much of the time the propaganda isn’t really for one side or another. It’s to create a sense of anxiety in readers, so that they feel they have to read compulsively or risk missing out. But, yes, a lot of narratives benefit one side or another, usually so-called “conservatives. ” And they almost always benefit advertisers.

      There is remarkable journalism being done, even at some corporate outlets. Those how do it under difficult conditions deserve our respect and support. Writing complimentary letters to support good journalism is just as important as writing criticism of bad journalism. Maybe more so, because praise is so rare that it can break through the noise.

      • Charles, you seem to think I need that pointed out to me, by YOU, and I don’t. I think the star reporters who do good work for major news outlets are in part shiny adornments that a corrupt “news establishment” needs to give itself cover to keep generating clicks and infotainment and conscious vox-pop distortions of events. That’s my opinion, with which you’re free to disagree, but watch the condescension, bud.

  4. A couple of recent downplaying and basically both-sides instances from the NY Times:

    Underplaying Trump’s remarks about NATO:
    “is likely to cause concern among NATO member states”
    How about it likely to cause great concern?

    Broad brushing the rejection of border legislation in the story sub-headline and text:
    “but after Congress rejected a deal aimed at slowing the flow of migrants”
    “And after a proposed deal to address the migrant crisis collapsed last week in Washington”
    Let’s be more accurate. It was Republicans in Congress who rejected the deal.


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