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Sunday, March 10, 2024

Democrats are angry over media coverage of Biden. Is it a distraction? | US elections 2024 | The Guardian

Democrats are angry over media coverage of Biden. Is it a distraction?

Joe Biden
Joe Biden departs after delivering the state of the union in Washington DC on 7 March 2024. Photograph: Getty Images

"When an opinion poll in the New York Times found that a majority of Joe Biden’s voters believe he is too old to be an effective US president, the call to action was swift. But it was not aimed at Joe Biden.

“Amplifying flawed presidential polls, refusing to report on [Donald] Trump’s cognitive issues, the NYT is biased for Trump,” was a sample response on social media. “If you have a subscription to NYT, cancel it.”

The irate chorus aimed at one of America’s most storied media institutions followed finger-pointing at the legal system for failing to stop Trump in his tracks. Despite much wishful thinking, primary election results this week made clear that the nation is hurtling towards a Biden v Trump rematch in November.

That polling and media coverage are imperfect, and the wheels of justice of turn slowly, is beyond dispute. But whatever the merits of the arguments, critics argue that Democrats are at risk of playing a blame game that distracts them from the central mission: defeating Trump at the ballot box.

Tara Setmayer, a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “Commiseration is not a strategy and Democrats need to stop throwing political temper tantrums and do the work to unify and get Joe Biden re-elected. The courts, the media, late-night comedians are not going to save us. So this whining and complaining about these aspects being unfair is not a strategy for victory.”

people walk in front of doors with ‘new york times’ logo over them
The New York Times’ coverage of Biden’s age drew Democrats’ ire. Photograph: Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

Among some Democrats, there has long been a yearning for a saviour who will stop Trump in his tracks. Hopes were pinned on the special counsel Robert Mueller, but his Russia investigation lacked teeth and failed to bring the president down. Two impeachments came and went and the Senate missed a historic opportunity to bar from Trump running again.

Now resentment is focused on the supreme court and the attorney general, Merrick Garland, for dragging their feet on holding Trump accountable for his role in the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol. The court issued a unanimous decision that Colorado and other states do not have the power to remove Trump from the ballot for engaging in an insurrection.

A justice department case alleging that he sought to overturn the 2020 election, which had been due to begin this week, was postponed until the supreme court rules on whether he is immune from prosecution. And an election interference case in Georgia is also on hold because the prosecutor Fani Willis is dealing with allegations of a conflict of interest over a romantic relationship.

In Florida, where Trump is charged over his mishandling of classified government documents, he managed to draw a friendly judge who has indicated the trial will not start soon. That means the case likely to start first is one in New York relating to Trump paying hush money to an adult film star during the 2016 election campaign, widely portrayed in the media as the weakest of the four.

Yet such a case would have been devastating to any other candidate at any other moment in history. Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington, said: “He’s going to be on trial for 34 felony counts in less than three weeks and the mainstream media has barely indicated the importance of this.

“‘Oh, it’s just a hush money trial.’ No it’s not. He’s not on trial for hush money. He’s on trial for election fraud, not just paying the hush money but deceiving the American people by concealing it as a business expense.”

Lichtman added: “If this was anybody but Trump, any other presidential candidate on trial, it would be the trial of the century and the mainstream media would be screaming that, if the candidate got convicted, he should be bounced from from the campaign. Instead they’ve misrepresented and trivialised this case.”

Trump has long challenged media orthodoxies. During the 2016 campaign, the New York Times used the word “lie” in a headline – a move that would have been seen as judgmental and editorialising in the pre-Trump era. In 2019, the paper changed a headline, “Trump urges unity vs racism”, after an outcry from readers and progressive politicians.

Television has also struggled to find the right approach. There was much introspection over how saturation coverage of Trump’s 2016 campaign rallies and tweets gave him $5bn in free advertising, according to the media tracking firm mediaQuant. Cable news networks have drastically reduced their live coverage of Trump’s speeches, although some commentators warm that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, contending that voters need to see his unhinged antics, verbal gaffes and extremist agenda.

With Super Tuesday’s primary elections clearing the way for another Biden v Trump clash, some accuse the media of focusing too much on polls and not enough on the stakes, treating Trump as just another political candidate rather than an existential threat. They say the intense focus on Biden’s age – he is 81 – is wildly disproportionate when set against Trump’s authoritarianism and 91 criminal charges.

Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, said: “The media has clearly not learned its lesson from 2016 or 2020 on how to cover Donald Trump. This is not a conventional horse race election. There’s nothing normal about any of this so, by covering Biden and Trump equally, it minimises Trump’s considerably disturbing behaviour, comments and plans for the future.

“The Democrats do have a legitimate complaint with the way the media is bothsides-ing this. The media should not be under any obligation to tell both sides of a lie or conspiracy theory or leading presidential candidate’s desire to tear up the constitution and become a dictator on day one. All things Donald Trump has said he would do.

The New York Times/Siena College poll was made up of 980 registered voters across the country and conducted on mobile and landline phones. It found that 61% of people who supported Biden in 2020 thought he was “just too old” to be an effective president. An accompanying article in the Times was headlined: “Majority of Biden’s 2020 Voters Now Say He’s Too Old to Be Effective.”

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, thinks it was a fair question. “The media’s not in this to help any candidate and Joe Biden is the incumbent and there are legitimate questions about an 81-year-old repeatedly struggling in public. To do a poll that asks questions about that is entirely fair.”

trump sits at table among others, frowning
Donald Trump attends the Trump Organization civil fraud trial in New York in November. Photograph: Jabin Botsford/Pool via Reuters

Others take a very different view. Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, said: “The choice to ask the question and the way the question is asked and who the question is asked of and then how the result is played are agenda-filled. Polls become a self-fulfilling prophecy of: we’re going to set an agenda and say it all and then we’re going to do a poll and act as if that’s news when it’s just a reaction to what we’ve already done. This is the case with the age.”

Jarvis added: “The New York Times – which has been our best and which I criticise because I want it to be better - is horribly frustrating because it does not know how to cover the rise of fascism, and that’s what this story really is. Neither does it know how to cover the essence of why this is happening, which is race.”

Defenders of the New York Times point out that it has done extensive reporting on Trump’s plans for a second term and what it would mean for America and the world. Some commentators warn that Democrats’ attacks on the media are likely to backfire and lead to accusations that they are shooting the messenger.

Not even comedians are immune. When Jon Stewart returned to The Daily Show on Comedy Central, and skewered Biden and Trump as the two oldest presidential candidates in history, Mary Trump, a niece and fierce critic of the former president, wrote on X: “Not only is Stewart’s ‘both sides are the same’ rhetoric not funny, it’s a potential disaster for democracy.”

Stewart responded on his next show: “I guess as the famous saying goes, ‘Democracy dies in discussion’ … It was never my intention to say out loud what I saw with my eyes and then brain. I can do better.”

If history is any guide, there is no knight in shining armour coming to Democrats’ rescue. They have to win on the merits on 5 November. Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, observed: “The Democrats have wanted to use every trick in the book to defeat or unseat or stop Trump since 2016 and nothing has changed in that respect.

“The fact is he is a leading candidate. He is supported by almost half the country. The idea that he poses a threat to democracy is not unfounded but is also wildly overblown. If the media did what many Democrats want, they would effectively be acting like media in Orb├ín’s Hungary, so the irony might be telling.”

Democrats are angry over media coverage of Biden. Is it a distraction? | US elections 2024 | The Guardian

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