Reviews | How media coverage drove Biden’s political plunge

President Biden listens during a virtual meeting with governors on protecting reproductive health care on July 1.  (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
President Biden listens during a virtual meeting with governors on protecting reproductive health care on July 1. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Comment

The mainstream media has played a huge and underappreciated role in declining support for President Biden over the past year. His flawed coverage model of politics and government is bad for more than Biden — it results in a distorted national narrative that weakens our democracy. The media must find a different way to cover Washington.

One of the biggest drops in Biden’s approval rating – from 55% in January 2021 to less than 39% today – occurred last August, when it fell nearly five points in a single month. There hasn’t been a huge gas price spike, or a big legislative failure. What caused Biden’s downfall was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan – or, rather, the overwhelmingly negative 24/7 media coverage.

To be clear, Biden deserved some criticism. The early stages of the US exit were tumultuous, with desperate Afghans clinging to US military planes and massing outside Kabul airport. The Taliban took control much faster than the administration had anticipated. But for much of August, the front pages of major newspapers and cable news programs were dominated by coverage of Afghanistan, as if the chaotic withdrawal was the only thing going on in the world. Reporters and media tore at the president, with Axios calling the removal a ‘Biden stain’, with NBC News correspondent Richard Engel saying ‘history will judge this moment as a very dark time for the United States’ , and CNN’s Jake Tapper asking an administration official on his show, “Isn’t President Biden responsible for this disastrous exit from Afghanistan?”

Biden’s poll numbers have plunged, closely following the media hysteria. As the Post’s Dana Milbank wrote in December, analysis of the data showed a marked increase in negativity in media coverage of Biden that began last August. After the withdrawal, the media lumped other events together in their “Biden is in trouble” narrative: infighting among Democrats over the party agenda, weak showings by Democrats in the gubernatorial races of New Jersey and Virginia , rising inflation and the rise of the delta and the omicron. variants. Biden’s role in these issues was often exaggerated — there are many causes of inflation besides Biden’s policies; presidents cannot stop the emergence of coronavirus variants. This pattern of anti-Biden coverage remains in place.

Dana Milbank: The media treats Biden as badly as — or worse than — Trump. Here is the proof.

Afghanistan was an important turning point in media coverage for two reasons. First, it provided reporters with the big anti-Biden story that I think many of them were desperate for. And it lowered Biden’s popularity with the public, giving the media justification for even more coverage that portrayed the president as struggling.

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Biden’s coverage has moved in this direction due to long-standing media bias against both sides and heavy criticism from those in power. (When I say “mainstream media,” I am referring to media coverage in national newspapers such as The Post and The New York Times, major broadcasters such as CNN, news agencies such as the Associated Press, newspapers local and TV stations, and publications with elite audiences such as Axios and Politico These outlets do not coordinate their reporting, but they draw inspiration from each other and have similar coverage approaches. I am not referring to opinion pieces in these outlets or the work of news outlets that have a clear ideological bent.)

Journalists tend to see their role as a check on politicians. That means presidents are always showered with skepticism — but when one party dominates Washington, the political media often scrutinizes that party’s president even more. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump received very negative coverage at times when their parties also controlled Congress.

In addition, the media’s “both positive and negative for both sides” approach has been challenged by the increasingly radical and undemocratic Republican Party. Honest coverage of political news often seems anti-GOP. The mainstream media covered Trump very harshly, especially in the final months of his presidency as he worked to overturn the election results. Some journalists, knowingly or unknowingly, were willing to “balance” this negative coverage of Trump with criticism of Biden, even if his actions did not deserve as much condemnation. In the post-Trump era, executives at CNN, The New York Times and other mainstream media have stressed that they don’t want to be seen as more aligned with Democrats.

In the early months of 2021, many outlets focused on stories that looked like they could turn into big anti-Biden stories but didn’t come to fruition. Before most public schools opened, reporters focused on the closures because Biden pledged to get kids back to class. Biden’s first press conference as president, in March 2021, had many questions about an increase in migrants across the southern border and some about his plans for 2024, but not one about covid-19, which the administration seemed to manage well.

In August, the hunt found its target: the withdrawal from Afghanistan. And as high inflation took root, the media had a perpetual problem to take up with the president.

Relentless negative coverage is toxic to politicians. As Will Stancil, a policy analyst at the University of Minnesota, has argued, US media coverage often has a collective tenor, what he calls a “master signal.” This signal seeps from traditional news sources into social media, with stories being shared on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Biden’s arc shows what happens if this broad tenor turns against a politician. There seems to be widespread frustration with him, as opposed to dissatisfaction over a single issue or two, even among people who don’t follow mainstream media closely or generally support his views.

The political strategy adopted by the Biden team, of showing that the president competently manages the pandemic and the economy and of reducing partisanship in Washington, has been particularly challenged by the approach of media coverage. It is difficult for a president to compete competently in the face of a media that is perpetually on the lookout for something negative. On the one hand, when Biden got an issue under control, like distributing coronavirus vaccines, many reporters simply moved on to a new issue without giving him much credit for solving the old one. By making the reduced political deadlock a measure of his success, Biden has positioned himself to look bad when congressional Republicans and the senses. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) blocked his proposals.

Now Biden is questioning worse than Trump was in July 2020, when thousands of people were dying every week from covid, a situation much worse than the real and serious problem of high inflation in the Biden era. You cannot credibly claim that Trump, with his constant inflammatory statements and incompetent management, was a better president than Biden. These poll numbers reflect something gone wrong.

And in my opinion, media coverage is a major factor in these distorted poll results. The media’s commitment to ‘equal’ coverage of both sides has resulted in a year and a half of coverage since Biden took office, implying that both sides are equally bad, as if the surge in the inflation and some of Biden’s policy mistakes rivaled a Republican party that is actively undermining democracy in many ways, such as continuing to air baseless allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, passing measures making the vote tougher and gerrymandering so aggressively in states like Wisconsin that elections effectively make no sense.

Yes, I call on the media to cover Biden more positively. Not in the sense of declaring Biden a better man than Trump (although that is obviously true). Instead, political coverage should be based on highlighting the wide range of our problems and assessing whether politicians and parties are working on credible solutions. Such a model would still produce plenty of stories about soaring inflation, Afghanistan, and other issues where Biden’s policies didn’t work. But there would also be more stories about other issues important to Americans even if they were doing well under Biden (like the huge job growth during his tenure). Ideally, on every issue, the media would compare Republican and Democratic solutions. You can see how this model could help Biden — but the biggest benefit would be for readers.

It’s too early to tell if Biden is a great or even a good president. But most Americans don’t get a fair look at this question. Instead of telling us if Biden is effective, the media has focused on showing that he isn’t too biased toward Democrats. Better if reporters actually cover America’s problems and if Biden solves them — or at least has better policies than Republicans. This is the kind of journalism we need.

About Deborah Wilson

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