Pressing Issues

Media Can’t Stop Stoking Outrage

Taking their cues from the GOP, the mainstream press has devoted their front page coverage to “but her emails”-level scandals, like President Biden’s age and DA Fani Willis’s private life. What will this mean come November?

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One candidate for the presidency is old, sometimes trips over his words, and once kept a couple of boxes of paperwork in his house.

Another candidate is old, sometimes trips over his words, keeps truckloads of classified documents in his house and bragged about them, sexually assaulted and defamed a journalist (and owes her a total of $88 million), staged a violent insurrection against democracy, faces 91 criminal charges of fraud and conspiracy, and as of Friday, owes $355 million for civil fraud charges.

The former’s situation is a national crisis, according to our top media figures. The latter is just business as usual. And if that makes no sense to you at all, congratulations, you’re officially paying more attention to the stakes of the 2024 Presidential Election than columnists at the New York Times or producers at CNN.

The past week has been an object lesson in how the corporate press ignores the complexity of governing in favor of chasing whatever story corrupt GOP operatives shout about the loudest. And when those stories collapse as they always do, there is zero accountability for all the ink spilled promoting Republican lies.

In the span of a few days, a key witness to the House GOP’s ongoing hearings into whether President Joe Biden and his family profited from his government work was indicted for lying. Republicans brought charges of misconduct against a lawyer prosecuting Trump, saying DA Fani Willis of Fulton County, Georgia, was corrupt, but all they managed to uncover after hours of questioning Willis was that she was dating one of her employees.

Both fake scandals got more coverage, more airtime, more discussion from tabloids to late night, than any of the very real charges of election interference, tax swindling, perjury and treason that former President Donald Trump faces in real-life honest-to-god court.

Then there’s the noise about Biden’s age and his fitness for his job, cranked up to 11 on Feb. 8 with the release of a report about his handling of a few classified documents he kept from his time as vice-president.

Robert K. Hur, a special counsel appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate whether Biden did anything criminal, concluded that he hadn’t, as he’d returned documents when asked. However, Hur also noted, the 81-year-old president got some dates wrong and mixed up a few names.

Four days after Hur’s report was released the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal had run more than 80 (yes, eight-zero) stories about it, all focusing on Hur’s claim that Biden forgot things and could easily be portrayed by defenders as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

Amplifying the impact of the front-page stories, columnists followed up with think pieces about Biden’s age and his fitness for the presidency, platforming anonymous complaints and enemy anecdotes to create a level of noise about Biden’s fitness that no one could ignore.

The Sunday New York Times offered a full-court press—the entire Opinion section was focused on the need for Biden to resign and retire. “Stealth about health is no longer possible,” wrote columnist Maureen Dowd, “and the sooner President Biden’s team stops being in denial about that, the better off Democrats will be.”

The Times editorial board went even further: “The combination of Mr. Biden’s age and his absence from the public stage has eroded the public’s confidence. He looks as if he is hiding, or worse, being hidden.”

Frank Bruni scorned Biden’s age as he begged the president to do TV interviews, also implying that Biden was hiding something: For the second year in a row, Biden has declined a television interview that would have been aired immediately before the Super Bowl, on the network broadcasting the game. That sure doesn’t smack of confidence. And it squanders a rare opportunity—offered to and seized by past presidents—to address many of millions of voters who may not usually be tuned in to politics.”

Bret Stephens joined the chorus: “Democrats will not be well served trying to silence commentary on this subject, as if a giant shushing sound would quell public doubts. Trying to shield the president from too much public exposure—the White House strategy till now—will reinforce the impression that there’s something to hide. But more public exposure will probably lead to more embarrassments.”

Journalists even described how reporters were playing into Republican hands. In Axios’s morning newsletter, Mike Allen breathlessly repeated GOP plans: “Sources close to House GOP leaders are blunt that they don’t think it even matters what they find. These sources think that any fight will make the White House look bad — and keep a huge Biden vulnerability in the headlines.”

So Republicans are planning to use spurious tactics to create headlines about Biden’s age, and right on cue, Axios provides those headlines! The story goes on for paragraphs about how “lethal” the “age issue” is for Democrats, Biden’s “mental state” and how the report is a “blockbuster.”

It would be one thing to characterize Republicans’ plans to lie and deceive the public as such. But Allen’s report takes a tone of excitement and anticipation toward the GOP’s actions: Look, look what they’re going to do! Look at how we’re going to help them! Political machinations are to be expected from the party that invented rat-fucking. But now it’s an act of journalism to describe where, when and how the rats are going to get fucked, as if the intention itself is newsworthy.

Journalists and pundits will tell you over and over that the best of the profession just reports what is happening. Events that are taking place, politicians are speaking, and news outlets are simply conveying that information to you, the audience, through dispassionate observation.

But deciding what gets front page treatment and what doesn’t is a critical part of a journalist’s job. Stories are positioned by editors and producers to garner maximum impact, and a story’s treatment communicates to audiences what level of importance they should place upon it.

The allegations against Willis were particularly opportunistic and spurious from the start, and she was patently targeted because she was a Black woman in a position to derail Trump’s second campaign. There was no need to make them the subject of wall-to-wall coverage on live TV.

Hur’s report could very easily have been a back-page below-the-fold story, under a headline about Biden’s exoneration. Instead, journalists took details from deep within the report about things Biden said or did that were irrelevant to the investigation—forgetting dates, mixing up names—and made them the talk of the town.

All of these are deliberate choices by journalists pretending not to notice they’re creating the very phenomenon they’re writing about as if it was a natural occurrence. Questions swirl, controversy erupts, concerns develop, apparently all on their own, without anyone making a decision to cover something the way they’re covering it.

Press critics like Margaret Sullivan and Dan Froomkin were quick to call out this behavior as journalistic malpractice, but it’s more insidious than that. Malpractice implies that this is some kind of mistake, and having seen this before, we can’t pretend those who cover the White House for our elite news outlets don’t know what they’re doing.

In October of 2016 Hillary Clinton seemed all but certain to win the presidency, despite Republican opposition. Then, 11 days before the election, then-FBI director James Comey announced that he was reopening a previously closed investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server for official communications while she was Secretary of State.

Enter the Times (and the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal). Enter Maureen Dowd and Frank Bruni and Bret Stephens. Enter Mike Allen. They all attacked Clinton relentlessly in the weeks leading up to the election, over something that was only an issue to her Republican opponents. They all raised doubts about Clinton’s fitness for the presidency based on her sending emails from home, implying her judgment was flawed and that she disregarded national security.

Meanwhile, her opponent was promising to ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S., mocking disabled people, threatening NATO allies, and sucking up to America’s geopolitical foes.

Clinton’s email “scandal” received more coverage than any other issue in the 2016 election. A study from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard found that “Clinton email” appeared in more than twice as many sentences as “Trump immigration.” Clinton’s actions hurt no one, but Trump deported thousands of immigrants and ripped children away from their families at the border.

The editors who assigned stories about Clinton’s emails instead of Trump’s xenophobic policy plans, the producers who ran those spots at the top of the broadcast, the pundits who amplified dishonest GOP criticism, all should have faced consequences for their actions.

At the very least, they should recognize the repeating pattern they’re drawing in their work: that minor Democratic mistakes matter a great deal, and Republican monstrosities not at all.

If there’s hope here, it’s that the Biden campaign, so far, seems unbothered by the noise. Biden’s team is cracking jokes on TikTok and posting memes while the president, you know, presidents, meeting with small business owners and union members and talking about the need to defend women’s healthcare.

And all, this freakout is happening in February. As we’ve talked about in this space before, right-wing outrage and media fixation are transient. By October, when people are making plans to vote, something new and likely even more unhinged will be happening and THAT will take up all the oxygen currently devoted to whether Biden should step aside.

His likely opponent will be on trial for one of his many federal crimes. Maybe we’ll get to spend some time talking about Trump’s insurrection, treason, money laundering, tax fraud, plans to round up immigrants and put them in camps, and open fetishizing of dictatorship. If we’re not too busy with something else.

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