Politics

The Political Media Is Having a “Gotta Hear Both Sides” Relapse

Stephanopoulos, wearing a blue suit and a medical mask, is seated onstage at a televised event against a blue backdrop.
George Stephanopoulos in Philadelphia in October. Stephanopoulos does not actually feature in this article but is considered by many (me) to be “the Clown Prince of Both Sidesery.” Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In January, five years of Donald Trump’s rhetoric culminated in an attack on the Capitol and its police force by thousands of his supporters, who believed they were attempting to overturn an election that had been stolen from them by inner-city Democrats and voting machine companies. The mainstream press—TV networks and print publications with major Beltway presences—generally described these events, harshly but correctly, as the unprecedented result of the Republican Party’s efforts to discredit Joe Biden by circulating false information.

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In the wake of the violence, Trump was banned from using the big social media networks, and news outlets treated his remaining public statements with a heightened version of the awkward, insta-skeptical style they had developed gradually during his term (“Trump Claims, Without Evidence, That Bat People Are Sabotaging His Border Wall,” etc.). There was no more violence, and Biden took office in what, aside from COVID-19 precautions, was the normal way.

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Biden has settled the presidency back in its conventional rhythms, while Trump’s deranged and tangibly dangerous ranting has been confined to the occasional press release with a West Palm Beach dateline. For the most part, this is good. The “before times” atmosphere, though, has also triggered the media’s reflex to cover political questions as disputes between two factions, equal in legitimacy, that deserve to be treated with precisely the same balance of credulity and skepticism. Inside the Beltway, people whose entire job is to follow the news are waking up each day, Memento-style, and behaving as if they don’t remember anything that has happened since roughly the moment Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House.

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One such Memento character is NBC senior political editor Mark Murray, who reacted to Republican threats toward the corporations that have criticized Georgia’s new voting restrictions by remarking, “This is no longer your father’s Republican Party standing for limited government, free enterprise, free expression and local control.” The party of Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the flag-burning amendment, Jesse Helms vs. the NEA, and getting people fired for criticizing Israel and the War on Terror has never stood for “free expression,” but that’s a relatively minor issue compared with the wallet-inspector credulousness with which Murray suggests that it is surprising, in 2021, that Republicans would be more interested in asserting cultural power than respecting principles of fiscal prudence and federal restraint. Shouldn’t NBC’s senior political editor be familiar with the career of Sarah Palin, the overwhelming rejection of John Kasich’s principled-conservatism campaign by the 2016 Republican primary electorate, the orientation of every prime-time host on Fox News, the entire Trump presidency, and the violent attempt to nullify state-certified electoral votes that happened three months ago?*

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A related kind of myopia appears to bedevil the decision-makers at CBS, whose flagship Face the Nation program broadcast a late February episode that featured Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Republican National Committee director Ronna McDaniel. Noem, by refusing to enact basic COVID-19 precautions like mask mandates and indoor gathering limits, has made a relatively isolated state with Canada-level population density into one with the eighth-worst COVID fatality rate in the United States. (South Dakota’s per-capita death rate is almost twice as high as neighboring Minnesota’s and, for the record, seven times higher than that of the comparably dense Canadian province of British Columbia.) McDaniel’s RNC helped provoke the Jan. 6 riot by, among other things, hosting attorney Sidney Powell at its headquarters to claim that the governments of Venezuela and China were involved in rigging the November election. And on Feb. 28, both Noem and McDaniel got to go on national TV to basically say whatever!

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The governor, in fact, was featured in a sort of follow-up critique role after an appearance by Anthony Fauci. (“I want to ask you, Dr. Fauci, about something one of our upcoming guests said,” host Margaret Brennan said to the infectious disease specialist during his segment. “Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota delivered a speech to a conservative conference yesterday and she touted her decisions. She got a standing ovation when she said she ignored the medical advice of experts and specifically you. How much of an impediment is sentiment like that to the nation’s recovery?” A lot? A lot of an impediment?) “South Dakota’s doing well,” Noem said, later asserting that “what we’re seeing is that the mandates aren’t necessarily what’s working.” To that, Brennan responded, and I quote, “yeah,” before segueing into a question about whether Noem took “personal responsibility” for the economic impact of COVID-19 cases related to the 2020 Sturgis, South Dakota, motorcycle rally, as estimated by a San Diego State University study.

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Brennan then asked McDaniel if Donald Trump has “done some self-reflection” about the events of Jan. 6. That is really what she asked.

This edition of Face the Nation was at least useful for demonstrating the D.C. press’s discomfort with the prospect of addressing the empirical and ethical dimensions of a given issue on the merits. One way of avoiding that kind of intellectual work is to turn public interest questions into binary confrontations. Another, demonstrated by the at-best-completely-beside-the-point “personal responsibility” and “self-reflection” questions, is to reduce every event into an inflection on a character arc and/or a potential opportunity to do mild finger-wagging about personal integrity.

It’s the latter approach that’s gradually swallowing coverage of Joe Biden, whom ABC’s chief Washington correspondent Jon Karl accused on Sunday of betraying his campaign promise to be a “moderate, transitional president” by “using his narrow [Senate] majority to ram through the biggest expansion of government since JFK.” Similar framing has marked Politico’s coverage of the administration, like a recent piece whose tagline asserted, in a tone of alarm and concern, that “the president and his party are poised to completely sidestep Senate Republicans whom Biden long argued he could work with” in a way that could “bury” his “bipartisan brand.” (Politico also recently characterized Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s effort to invalidate Biden’s electoral votes as a “controversial stand” that was criticized by “liberals and some Republicans.” Our thanks to indefatigable Daily Show writer and Beltway-schlock consumer Matt Negrin for flagging this and other examples used in this post.) At a recent White House event, a member of the presidential press corps asked Biden whether he will have “failed” on “his promise of bipartisanship” if no Republicans vote for an infrastructure bill later this year.

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This trope implies that Biden is imposing an agenda with “narrow” 50-50 appeal, but the components of the legislation he’s passed and proposed have generally had the support of more than 60 percent of the public. (Even the 50 Democratic senators who did vote for his first major bill represent 56 percent of the population.) He also didn’t ever say he would be a moderate president, guarantee that Republicans would vote for his legislation, or promise not to pass anything without their support. He said repeatedly that he believed and hoped he could cooperate with Republicans after Trump was no longer in office. But he also said as early as last April that he wanted to pass a multitrillion-dollar green spending bill; deployed friends to note that, as a key figure in the Obama administration, “nobody knows better than Joe Biden just how much Mitch McConnell’s obstruction cost”; and hired, as his chief of staff, another Obama-era figure who’d in fact spoken to Politico about having learned, from that obstruction, that if you wait to do something until you can concede enough of your position that a Republican senator gets on board, you might end up waiting forever.

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Yes, candidate Biden was strategically ambiguous, and perhaps willfully optimistic in a way that he knew would appeal to voters. But he didn’t issue a check-the-box promise not to do anything as president without the approval of a given number of Republican senators. To suggest as much—to treat a modern Republican position as one worth taking seriously by default—isn’t just doing the party a midterm-oriented favor. (Why aren’t they the ones being scrutinized for failing to reflect their constituents’ attitudes toward popular proposals?) It’s recreating the conditions that Trump took advantage of so destructively in 2016 (and to diminishing returns thereafter). Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice or more, I’ve been promoted to a prestigious position running politics coverage at a major American media outlet, apparently.

Correction, April 16, 2021: This post originally misidentified Mark Murray as senior political director of NBC News. He is senior political editor.

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