Yo, media: The crisis is democracy, not Biden | Will Bunch Newsletter
Plus, what a bidding war for football coaches says about the state of American colleges
The out-of-nowhere 1993 Phillies with their “Macho Row.” Allen Iverson and the perpetually banged up 2001 76ers. There’s a certain kind of gritty Philadelphia sports team that forces its way into your heart — and at the very end, breaks it. The 2021 Philadelphia Union squad that left everything on the pitch on Sunday with half the team out for COVID-19 protocols was that team. I can’t wait to see them again on Feb. 26.
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The problem with Biden-era journalism isn’t what they write, but what they don’t write
When the latest jobs report for November came out from the U.S. Labor Department — continuing to show a 2021 surge of some six million new jobs, lowering the pandemic-addled unemployment rate to 4.2% — media outlets still wrote headlines that fit the dominant media narrative at year’s end, that President Biden is blowing it on the economy.
NPR, noting that the monthly gains of 210,000 new jobs fell short of some analysts’ expectations, called the jobs number “a bust” and warned the employment picture could grow even worse because of the omicron variant of COVID-19. As media critics like Eric Boehlert of Pressrun quickly pointed out, that same NPR had raved about nearly identical jobs numbers under Donald Trump last year — calling 225,000 new jobs in January 2020 a “revved up” economy, while 266,000 hires that November was described a “surge.”
But the “bust” portrayal of the Biden presidency continues to spread wildly like kudzu across a Southern forest. On the economy, recent record highs on Wall Street or the Goldman Sachs forecast that joblessness will hit an all-time record low in 2022 have been trumped by glum news about the one weak spot: inflation, fueled by rising prices from oil companies that coincidentally just posted an $174 billion profit. Nonetheless, reporters weaned on the legend of Jimmy Carter’s “stagflation” are blaming Biden. (Even highly regarded Washington Post economics writer Catherine Rampell notes “every time I think the inflation discourse can’t get dumber, I’m proven wrong.”)
Starting with its skewed coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal in late summer, the media’s assessment of the Biden presidency has dropped — coincidentally, or not — in tandem with the president’s approval rating, but is it really fair to say the media’s reporting choices on POTUS 46 have been unreasonably harsh? The Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wanted answers, so he paid a contractor to analyze major media coverage of Trump’s last year and Biden’s first year so far, using AI to comb thousands of stories for a “sentiment analysis.”
The content analysts told Milbank that over the last four months, Biden’s coverage was as negative as Trump’s, and at times markedly worse. To Milbank, any comparison of Biden’s mixed-but-largely-positive record — blips on inflation or in Kabul, but also restoring dignity, surging jobs numbers, and signing legislation on infrastructure and COVID-19 relief — to the 45th president, who gave us a botched coronavirus response and election lies leading to the January 6 insurrection, is outrageous. He wrote: “My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy.”
The feeding frenzy on Biden is disgraceful. In my opinion, it happens because after four years of being somewhat tough (yet frankly still not tough enough) on a president who lied 30,573 times, the Beltway press is determined to reaffirm its No. 1 professional value — a warped faith in a contrived objectivity — which means accentuating the negative about the new POTUS.
But I also think critics like Milbank are making a mistake in so directly linking the bad coverage of Biden to the much-more-important fate of democracy question.
Nuance is complicated. Coverage of Biden on the economy or ending a “forever war” in Afghanistan needs to be balanced — no matter how boring the “cool kids” in the Washington press corps find that — but I also think it’s wrong to pretend that Biden didn’t break his campaign promises on immigration or student debt just because democracy is at risk. What top U.S. journalists need to see is that Biden’s performance is A story, but the performance of the fragile American system under attack from authoritarianism is THE story.
One publication gets it: The Atlantic. In an essay, its editor Jeffrey Goldberg cited the threat posed by Republican support for voter suppression laws, installing or electing pro-Trump conspiracy theorists as secretaries of state, or passing measures that could allow state lawmakers to overturn election results. Goldberg said his magazine “has held true to the belief that the American experiment is a worthy one, which is why we’re devoting this issue, and so much of our journalism in the coming years, to its possible demise.”
The Atlantic’s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman, who predicted an assault on democracy along the lines of the January 6 insurrection in a prescient 2020 article, now warns of “a much more serious threat heading into 2024. Who or what will safeguard our constitutional order is not apparent today. It is not even apparent who will try. Democrats, big and small D, are not behaving as if they believe the threat is real ... They are making a grievous mistake.”
The small-d democrats of American journalism need to do better. We need to find ways to go above and beyond the excellent essays in this month’s The Atlantic to sound the alarm in ways that the average rank-and-file reader will both understand and care about. That means realizing that while those who’ve descended into the insanity of QAnon or horse-dewormer COVID-19 cures won’t be reached by any article in a mainstream publication, there are still plenty of good-hearted but discouraged voters who need to be roused.
Think outside the box. Think of ways to put the threats to democracy on the front page or at the top of the hour that are informative yet also entertaining, and clearly labelled. Call out and mock the villains of today’s neo-fascism, but also elevate the heroes who fight to save the American Way. After all, citizens fought to preserve what’s good about America when they showed up in 2018 to elect a House to hold Trump in check, and in 2020 when they voted him out. Make preserving liberty in 2022 and beyond a crusade that will bring them out to the polls again — something that can be important yet fun.
Be honest about President Biden and the job he’s doing, but be more honest about this: Biden might be the last president fairly elected — unless we fight back.
Yo, do this
Just three days after the January 6 insurrection, the MSNBC journalist Ayman Mohyeldin received a jarring call from a former high school classmate back in Georgia: The friend’s sister-in-law, Rosanne Boyland, was one of five people who died during or immediately after the assault on the U.S. Capitol. That call sparked an investigation and now a new podcast — American Radical — that tries to solve two puzzling mysteries: What caused Boyland’s death that violent afternoon, and how did a previously apolitical 34-year-old homebody get so quickly radicalized in the summer of 2020?
In what’s felt like a disappointing year for scripted movies, Malvern-raised Temple dropout Adam McKay of The Big Short and Vice fame arrives in theaters on Friday to hopefully save the day with much-needed comedy about a timely topic: The possible end of Planet Earth. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Don’t Look Up, the story of a media-and-celebrity-obsessed world ignoring two astrophysicists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who’ve found the comet on a track to destroy it, lives up to its star-studded cast and advance billing.
Ask me anything
Question: On a scale of 0-10, how concerned are you about the lack of accountability by House Democrats and the Department of Justice on January 6th? — Via Sean Kitchen @pennslinger on Twitter
Answer: Sean, I’d put those concerns at roughly a 5 — smack dab in the middle — for now. Like a lot of folks, I’ve fretted sometimes at the seemingly glacial pace of the House Select Committee that’s probing the insurrection on Capitol Hill. The committee so far has held one round of emotional but not especially groundbreaking testimony from police officers about that awful day. But there’s a strong counter-argument that the panel chaired by Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi is laying the groundwork, through interviews and the painstaking subpoena process, to make some big-time revelations in 2022 hearings. The $64,000 question is whether milquetoast Attorney General Merrick Garland will do anything with any discoveries. I remain pessimistic.
I’m old enough to remember when America’s colleges and universities were going to face a financial crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some campuses have retrenched, but not when it comes to the insane bidding war over big-time college football coaches. Perhaps it’s no big deal that a private university that caters heavily to wealthy kids like the University of Southern California — an epicenter of affluent admissions cheating in the Varsity Blues scandal — would tackle its varsity-football blues by spending undisclosed millions to lure coach Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma. But what is the deal with a public institution, Louisiana State University, giving Notre Dame’s current headman Brian Kelly a contract certain to top $10 million a year with bonuses — after paying the current mediocre coach a whopping $16.9 million to go away? Louisiana joins most states in ensuring its highest paid public employee is a coach.
You know the capitalist argument: Winning football (or basketball) sells so many tickets and fires up so many rich donors that these investments somehow pay off in the end — that football subsidizes less popular sports. Critics focus, with justification, on the plantation-style economics of a system in which these on-field CEOs get super rich while the players receive no income, but what the macroeconomics here says about the American Way of College in the 21st century is perhaps more troubling. The endless dollars for football coaches comes in an era when public support for the supposed mission of learning has plummeted. Under White House-seeking GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal in the 2010s, Louisiana lawmakers slashed the taxpayer contribution for higher ed from 55% of schools’ budgets to just 20%. In-state tuition soared, enrollment dropped, and despite crumbling facilities, LSU invested some of its shrinking dollars in an $85 million “lazy river” that spelled the school’s initials — desperate to attract rich out-of-state kids willing to pay a higher tuition to party in warmer climes and enjoy SEC football. No matter how many wins Coach Kelly racks up for the LSU Tigers, the football-first mentality is a moral loser.
Inquirer reading list
The school shooting at Michigan’s Oxford High School that claimed the lives for four teens was a uniquely American tragedy in every sense of the word. In my Sunday column, I pondered what kind of nation sees a dad buying his 15-year-old kid a semi-automatic handgun on Black Friday, as well as the causes of rising murder rates (too much rage, too many guns) and the poisonous history of the 2nd Amendment. I wondered whether longer waiting periods for gun purchases could curb some of the carnage.
With gun violence in the Heartland still on my mind over the weekend, I took a deep dive into how and why America embraced a cruel culture of so-called “rugged individualism” over any notion of the public good, and how that mindset — which sets the United States apart from almost every other developed nation — drives everything from the college debt crisis to vaccine hesitancy.
Rarely have I seen a local news story raise more questions than the big-bang arrival of Oprah-launched TV medical personality Dr. Mehmet Oz as a Republican in the wide-open race to replace Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey in 2022. First and foremost, does Dr. Oz actually live at his in-laws’ Montgomery County address where he registered to vote, or at his own mansion in North Jersey? Also, The Inquirer’s Sarah Gantz has already plunged into the morass that is the TV doctor’s bizarre embrace of various brands of pseudoscience. If you care about who Pennsylvania sends to the Senate, you’re going to want to read The Inquirer. Please consider subscribing today so you can keep up.