Last Tuesday, the major broadcast and cable news networks interrupted their regularly scheduled programming to air President Trump’s prime-time address on the nonexistent “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border. The speech failed to live up to the seemingly endless hype, vindicating those who questioned the networks’ decision to provide a platform for Trump’s oft-repeated lies. “There wasn’t anything of substance that we haven’t heard many times before,” wrote Post columnist Margaret Sullivan. “And all the fact-checking in the world — worthy as it is — can’t make a dent in the spread of misinformation that such an opportunity gives the president.”
This kind of media malpractice has become familiar in Trump’s Washington, where politics is often covered as a spectator sport. In the first week of the new Congress, for example, House Democrats introduced a sweeping reform package to strengthen voting rights, limit the influence of money in politics and fight government corruption. Yet the coverage of the bill was almost completely drowned out by coverage of a faux controversy surrounding freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) using an expletive in reference to the president. Journalists spent days covering the potential political fallout of Tlaib’s remark, with Politico reporting that “Democrats are furious” and “Republicans are positively salivating.” The new majority’s signature policy proposal and the real issues it addresses were virtually ignored.
Tlaib is not the only congressional newcomer who has already whipped the media into a frenzy. Despite facing a wave of outright misogyny from the right, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is defiantly pushing new ideas into the mainstream, including a 70 percent top marginal tax rate that she floated on “60 Minutes.” That idea has decades of precedent, is supported by top economists and invites a necessary conversation about inequality. But much of the coverage seems more concerned with the political wisdom of Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal than its merits. National Journal politics editor Josh Kraushaar predicted that it would be “politically damaging” for Democrats, while the headline on a Bloomberg column proclaimed, “The Democrats’ Latest Idea on Taxes Will Only Help Trump.”
And as the 2020 presidential race gets underway, many journalists and pundits are already reverting to the personality-driven, horse-race-style coverage that plagued the 2016 campaign. During her first campaign stop in Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) talked passionately about taking on corporate power and tackling inequality in front of overflow crowds. In the corporate media, however, much of the coverage of Warren’s campaign rollout focused on her decision to take a DNA test and on implicitly sexist questions about her “likability.”
The horse-race mentality has also prevailed for years in the stenographic coverage of America’s endless wars. William Arkin, a veteran national security reporter and co-author of The Post’s landmark 2010 investigative series, “Top Secret America,” cited this dangerous dynamic in his resignation letter from NBC earlier this month.
“Seeking refuge in its political horse race roots, NBC (and others) meanwhile report the story of war as one of Rumsfeld vs. the Generals, as Wolfowitz vs. Shinseki, as the CIA vs. Cheney, as the bad torturers vs. the more refined, about numbers of troops and number of deaths,” Arkin wrote. He went on to condemn the media establishment’s bias toward uncritically accepting and repeating the word of military and intelligence officials who are invested in escalating conflicts, not ending them. “For me I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump’s various bumbling intuitions: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even in his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI. Of course he is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I’m alarmed at how quick NBC is to mechanically argue the contrary, to be in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war.”
Arkin is rightly alarmed. Mainstream media coverage is frequently motivated by an insatiable desire for conflict — in war zones, on the campaign trail and in the nation’s capital. Too often, however, that coverage fails to inform people about conflicting ideas or alternatives to endless war, discredited economic policies and a downsized politics of excluded possibilities. As the new House majority rolls out its agenda and more presidential candidates enter the fray, outlets should reevaluate how they cover politics and policy. We can’t afford more media malpractice that degrades our democracy and drowns out real debate.