Over the last week, the media has hammered Joe Biden with relentlessly critical coverage of his pullout from Afghanistan, resulting in noticeable drops in his approval ratings. Put aside for a moment whether this reflects failures by Biden or biases by the media. One conclusion we can draw is that this sort of dynamic is a regular feature of Democratic presidencies, and — as the Trump administration showed — a near impossibility during Republican ones.
But wait, you’re thinking. Didn’t the media hound Donald Trump for four straight years at least as hard as it’s hounded Biden over the last week?
Well, sort of. The mainstream media certainly gave Trump harsh and even overtly hostile coverage. But the mainstream media only describes roughly half the media landscape. The other half of the media is a right-wing messaging apparatus that makes no effort to follow traditional journalistic norms. Republicans communicate to their base through a media that functionally operates as part of their party, while Democrats communicate to their base through a media that still exerts substantial independence. If you want to understand the strange difficulty that Joe Biden’s sane, competent administration has in yielding measurably higher approval than Trump’s insane, incompetent presidency, the asymmetrical relationship between the two parties and their respective media environments is the most important place to start.
Conservatives often gloat about the ratings dominance of right-wing infotainment:
And they’re right: Conservative media really does command enormous audiences that frequently dwarf its mainstream-news counterparts. But this merely underscores the fact that what we think of as “the media” only accounts for a portion of the American news-media diet. The other half of the media is simply a vehicle for partisan propaganda. And whatever its failings, the last week has amply demonstrated once again that the nonconservative mainstream media is not that.
This is not necessarily to deny that the mainstream media has some kinds of liberal bias. It’s certainly true that, as the electorate has grown more polarized by education, the mainstream media’s near-total reliance on college graduates has made it much more socially liberal than the overall country. (One stark example of this bias was the stampede last year to dismiss the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis as a “racist conspiracy theory.”) For the sake of argument, I am willing to concede that this liberal bias outweighs other cross-cutting biases. I would simply maintain that liberal bias is not the only determinant of media coverage.
Above all else, it treats bad news as more important than good news. And so, while mainstream media often covers Republican presidents critically, it metes out the same treatment to Democratic presidents. For instance, the American media’s coverage of COVID — which a study found to be more relentlessly negative than coverage in almost any other country — probably hurt Trump, but now it’s hurting Biden. Even many situations that a Democratic president handles almost perfectly — think of President Obama’s innovative response to the BP oil spill or the Ebola outbreak — will produce little reward, just scary headlines disappearing and the subject being dropped in favor of the next looming disaster.
Traditional journalistic norms may have weakened, especially in subjects like culture and sports, but they remain intact in most newsrooms, and especially in political coverage. Those norms enshrine a certain definition of objectivity that implicitly favors, in addition to social liberalism, hawkish foreign policy, deficit reduction, and bipartisanship.
Putting aside the ethics of the media’s approach, the political effect seems clear enough. Most Democratic voters will experience Democratic administrations as a mixed bag, at best. Republican voters, who mostly absorb the news through party-aligned media, will experience Republican administrations as an unmitigated triumph. The four-year experiment in Trump proved conclusively just how low the conservative media’s standards of truthfulness and competence are for a Republican president. If nothing else, Trump proved conservative media will support anything its party’s leader does.
Even the most dishonest, incompetent, and scandal-ridden Republican presidency imaginable — which more or less describes the one we just had — will still have a media environment divided almost equally between scorching criticism and obsequious fawning. On Trump’s worst days, the Fox News chyrons depicted him as a triumphal leader. On Biden’s best days, the conservative media was still giving him hell. In recent days, CNN and MSNBC looked a lot like Fox News, all hyping chaos in Afghanistan 24/7. That is the kind of comprehensive media hostility Trump never had to worry about.
Of course, never having to worry about the media turning your base against you means not holding yourself to any standard of performance other than standing firm with your own base. Republicans have the freedom to dismiss negative revelations as the liberal media, a luxury Democrats don’t have. When you combine that near impunity from damaging news stories with the Republican ability to win control of government with a minority of the votes, you go a long way toward explaining the incentive structure that has turned the GOP into the party it is today.
And the flip side of the very different media environment facing Democrats is that it at least forces them to try to meet some minimal standard of competence and honesty. Their politicians sometimes lie, as politicians do, but if caught in a lie, it’s untenable for them to simply repeat the lie over and over.
The standard that mainstream news media applies to Democrats leaves plenty to complain about. (And I do.) But if we have learned anything from the previous four years, it’s that being held to a flawed standard ultimately works out better than not being held to any standard at all.