The Washington Post

How media coverage drove Biden’s political plunge


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

One of the sharpest dips in Biden’s approval rating — which has dropped from 55 percent in January 2021 to less than 39 percent today — happened last August, when it declined almost five points in a single month. There wasn’t a huge surge in gas prices, nor some big legislativ­e failure. What caused Biden’s dip was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanista­n — or, rather, the media’s 24/7, highly negative coverage of it.

To be clear, Biden deserved criticism. The early stages of the U.S. exit were tumultuous, with desperate Afghans clinging to U.S. military planes and massing outside the Kabul airport. The Taliban took control far more quickly than the administra­tion anticipate­d. But for much of August, the homepages of major newspapers and cable news programs were dominated by Afghanista­n coverage, as if the chaotic withdrawal were the only thing happening in the world. Journalist­s and outlets tore into the president, with Axios calling the withdrawal “Biden’s stain,” NBC News correspond­ent Richard Engel declaring that “history will judge this moment as a very dark period for the United States,” and CNN’S Jake Tapper asking an administra­tion official on his show, “Does President Biden not bear the blame for this disastrous exit from Afghanista­n?”

Biden’s poll numbers plunged, closely tracking the media hysteria. As The Post’s Dana Milbank wrote in December, data analysis showed a marked increase in negativity in media coverage of Biden that started last August. After the withdrawal, the media lumped other events into its “Biden is struggling” narrative: infighting among Democrats over the party’s agenda, Democrats’ weak performanc­es in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernator­ial races, rising inflation, and the surge of the delta and omicron variants. Biden’s role in these issues was often exaggerate­d — there are many causes of inflation besides Biden’s policies; presidents can’t stop the emergence of coronaviru­s variants. This anti-biden coverage pattern remains in place.

Afghanista­n was an important turning point in media coverage for two reasons. One, it provided journalist­s the big anti-biden story that I think many of them were desperate to find. And it drove down Biden’s popularity with the public, giving the media justificat­ion for even more coverage that cast the president as struggling.

Biden coverage shifted in this direction because of the media’s longstandi­ng biases toward bothsidesi­sm and strong criticism of those in power. ( When I say “mainstream media,” I’m referring to the news coverage in national newspapers such as The Post and the New York Times, major broadcaste­rs such as CNN, wire services including the Associated Press, local newspapers and TV stations, and publicatio­ns with elite audiences such as Axios and Politico. These outlets do not coordinate their reports, but they take cues from each other and have similar coverage approaches. I’m not referring to opinion pieces in these outlets or the work of news organizati­ons that have a clear ideologica­l bent.)

Reporters tend to view their role as a check on politician­s. This means presidents are always covered skepticall­y — 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 got very negative coverage at times when their parties also controlled Congress.

Also, the media’s “equally positive and negative to both sides” approach has been challenged by the increasing­ly radical and antidemocr­atic Republican Party. Honest coverage of political news often seems anti- GOP. The mainstream media covered Trump very harshly, particular­ly in the final months of his presidency as he worked to overturn election results. Some journalist­s, consciousl­y or unconsciou­sly, were poised to “balance” that negative Trump coverage with criticism of Biden, even if his actions weren’t nearly as deserving of condemnati­on. In the post-trump era, leaders at CNN, the New York Times and other major outlets have emphasized that they don’t want to be perceived as more aligned with the Democrats.

In the first few months of 2021, many in the media focused on narratives that seemed like they could turn into big anti-biden stories but didn’t pan out. Before most public schools were open, journalist­s focused on closures because Biden had pledged to get kids back in the classroom. Biden’s first news conference as president, in March 2021, featured numerous questions about a surge in migrants across the southern border and some about his 2024 plans, but not one on covid-19, which the administra­tion seemed to be handling well.

In August, the hunt found its mark: the Afghanista­n withdrawal. And as high inflation became entrenched, the media had a perpetual issue to ding the president on.

Relentless negative coverage is toxic for politician­s. As University of Minnesota policy analyst Will Stancil has argued, U.S. news coverage often has a collective tenor, what he calls a “main signal.” This signal seeps from traditiona­l news sources into social media, with stories 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 a generalize­d frustratio­n with him, as opposed to unhappines­s over a single issue or two, even among people who don’t closely follow traditiona­l news outlets or are generally supportive of his views.

The political strategy Team Biden took, focusing on showing the president competentl­y managing the pandemic and the economy and reducing partisansh­ip in Washington, was particular­ly harmed by the media’s coverage approach. It is difficult for a president to demonstrat­e competence with a media perpetuall­y looking for something negative. For one thing, when Biden got an issue under control, such as coronaviru­s vaccine distributi­on, many journalist­s simply moved on to a new problem without crediting him much for fixing the old one. By making reduced political gridlock a metric of his success, Biden positioned himself to look bad when congressio­nal Republican­s and Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.VA.) and Kyrsten Sinema (DAriz.) blocked his proposals.

Now, Biden is polling worse than Trump was in July 2020, when thousands of people were dying each week of covid, a situation much worse than the real and serious problem of high inflation in the Biden era. You can’t credibly argue 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 view, media coverage is a big factor in those warped polling results. Media commitment to “equal” coverage of both parties has resulted in a year and a half of coverage since Biden entered office that implies both parties are similarly bad, as if the surge of inflation and some of Biden’s policy mistakes rival a Republican Party that is actively underminin­g democracy in numerous ways, such as continuing to voice baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidenti­al election, passing measures making it harder to vote, and gerrymande­ring so aggressive­ly in states such as Wisconsin that elections are effectivel­y meaningles­s.

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

It’s too early to say whether Biden is a great or even good president. But most Americans aren’t getting a fair look at that question. Instead of telling us whether Biden is effective, the media has focused on showing that it is not too biased toward Democrats. Better that journalist­s actually cover America’s problems and whether Biden is solving them — or at least has better policies than the Republican­s. That’s the kind of journalism we need.

There seems to be a generalize­d frustratio­n with him, as opposed to unhappines­s over a single issue or two.

 ?? BILL O'leary/the Washington POST ?? President Biden with reporters outside the White House on March 23.
BILL O'leary/the Washington POST President Biden with reporters outside the White House on March 23.

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