The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The media fails to meet the moment

Members of the press corps wait inside the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Jan. 19. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Less than a month into the new presidency, many mainstream media reporters are floundering. Given a normal, competent administration moving quickly on multiple fronts, too many in the media often do not seem cut out to cover the influx of substantive policy. Instead, they have reverted to a number of crutches and false assumptions.

First, rather than ask tough questions on a slew of policy issues, White House reporters comically allot a good deal of the 45 minutes in the daily briefings to ask what President Biden is thinking about impeachment, why he is not watching and why he won’t tell them what he is thinking and watching. How can he not tell us? Hmm, maybe because he is fighting myriad historic crises. Don’t we deserve to hear his views? No. Isn’t he really watching? No, he takes his job seriously.

This fixation is childish, but worse, it’s a poor substitute for asking questions on things that matter. For example, we need the media to examine the true state of state finances, especially those controlled by obstructionist Republicans, and the effect that the new administration’s return to a values-based foreign policy is having on dissidents and their oppressors. Where is the coverage of the toll that long-term unemployment is having on individuals and communities?

Second, reporters — despite evidence to the contrary — assume (or pretend to assume) Republicans are acting in good faith. They tell us with a straight face that the voluminous impeachment evidence has not persuaded Senate Republican jurors, as if these Republicans ever intended to listen to evidence. They pepper Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, with questions as to why he is not being more bipartisan — despite replete evidence (from their conduct at the impeachment trial, for one thing) that fact-based politics is not Republicans’ thing. They do not grill Republicans as to why they are out of the mainstream of their own party’s voters on a rescue plan. Refusing to recognize Republicans as cynical, hardened partisans is the newest, worst form of false equivalency between the parties.

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Third, for all the coverage of the trial itself, the media does not take domestic terrorism seriously. Remember in the wake of 9/11, when the media for years rightly gave top billing to the dangers posed by Islamist terrorism? Who were the radicals? Who was harboring them? Where did their money come from? What religious figures were turning them into violent extremists? There is no comparable interest in probing the same questions with regard to domestic Christian White nationalists who have turned to terrorism. Have they been grilling community and religious leaders from the terrorists’ hometowns as to why they have not denounced the violent, racist elements in their midst? That is how they treated Muslim communities after 9/11. With scenes of extremists carrying the Confederate battle flag in the Capitol, why have we not seen Republicans asked to explain their defense of these symbols on flags and their reverence for traitorous secessionist military figures?

It is as if reporters do not recognize we are in an entirely new political environment in which one party has been radicalized by authoritarian, racist demagogues while the other earnestly tries to engage in problem-solving, imperfectly of course. Journalists are not diligently covering either half of the equation. Instead of giving scrutiny to members of a party that has itself helped radicalize insurrectionists and defends the seditionist leader, they pretend Republicans act in good faith. Instead of scrutinizing Biden policy decisions and the myriad national challenges, the media resorts to trivial, petty issues.

The media needs to meet the moment. So far, it has not.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Biden is not the barrier to bipartisanship. Republicans are.

Karen Tumulty: I was skeptical of Democrats pursuing a second impeachment. I was wrong.

E.J. Dionne Jr. : The impeachment managers have sealed off Republicans’ escape hatches

Dana Milbank: If Republican senators acquit Trump, they will own the violence that follows

Karen Attiah: The impeachment videos put the hypocrisy of Blue Lives Matter on full display

Alexandra Petri: Sorry, President Biden is much too busy to notice there’s an impeachment going on!