The Memo: Media accused of using kid-gloves on Biden

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A CNN town hall event with Democratic nominee Joe Biden, broadcast Thursday evening, is sharpening questions about fairness in news coverage of the 2020 campaign.

The questions Biden faced during the 75-minute event were overwhelmingly sympathetic, and only a single one —from a Republican voter who asked about regulation — could have been considered hostile. 

The event’s moderator, Anderson Cooper, was also respectful toward Biden, offering little by way of interrogation of the former vice president.

The contrast to an ABC News town hall featuring President Trump several days earlier was stark. Trump faced stern questions from audience members and from the moderator, George Stephanopoulos.

Complaints about media coverage are a dime a dozen from political partisans, but the CNN town hall drew adverse comment beyond the usual suspects. 

Jeff Greenfield, a former political analyst for CNN and other networks, tweeted: “Biden is doing very well, yes. But this is not exactly getting him ready to face tough questions from a Chris Wallace or Jake Tapper.”

Politico’s Christopher Cadelago contrasted Trump’s “icy grilling” with the Biden event’s resemblance to “an affable reunion of old acquaintances.” 

Debates about fairness of media coverage are subjective by their nature. No candidate or campaign ever believes it is treated fairly or that its opponents are met with the same level of scrutiny.

But reporters face a unique conundrum this year. 

On one hand, the president accuses them of being “enemies of the people”; frequently derides stories that turn out to be true as “fake news”; declines to say whether he will accept the election result; casts unmerited aspersions on mail-in voting; and retweets doctored video of his opponent.

On the other, he is the sitting president seeking reelection, and is therefore entitled to fair coverage of the race.

The whole question of what constitutes fairness in covering a president so one-of-a-kind as Trump is something that the media, and outside observers, have grappled with — and failed to come remotely close to a consensus.

“I think the old formulas of campaign coverage have fallen apart, and reporters don’t have a clear idea” of what should replace them, New York Times media columnist Ben Smith told The Hill.

To Trump supporters, Biden has got an easy ride on everything from his position on fracking, which has softened since the Democratic primary, to what he would have done differently from Trump in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. 

To Biden backers, Trump’s inconsistencies and misstatements are of a different order. In late July, a Washington Post tally found that Trump had made more than 20,000 false or misleading statements during his presidency.

There is another complication: Just as politicians are often accused of “refighting the last campaign,” the same might be true of the media.

Coverage of the 2016 campaign has been a subject of rancorous debate ever since Trump’s election. Two themes — the amount of airtime given to Trump, especially in the early days of his campaign, and the scrutiny devoted to Hillary Clinton’s emails — have assumed enormous significance, especially in the minds of the president’s critics. 

Some observers argue that there has been an over-correction on the mainstream media’s part for these supposed errors — though whether this is because of journalistic concerns or a more subjective dislike of Trump himself is an open question.

“I think many in the mainstream press corps regret the time they spent on Hillary Clinton’s emails and Benghazi in 2016, because they believe that coverage ultimately helped President Trump win the election,” said Ronica Cleary, a former White House correspondent for Washington’s Fox 5 TV station.

“So, in this race, those same reporters are saying to themselves, ‘We can’t risk it this time.’ There is an undeniable willingness for them to be less tough on Biden. And I believe their thinking is, ‘We tried to be tough on Clinton and look where it got us.’ ”

Trump supporters complain as a matter of course that the media underplays Biden’s verbal flubs. Whether that is fair criticism is in the eye of the beholder. Trump himself is hardly an exemplar of verbal coherency.

Do controversies pertaining to Biden always get the same attention as they would if Trump was at their center? 

Biden’s remark in May that African Americans who did not support him over Trump “ain’t Black” flared briefly but faded soon afterward. Republicans see that as a liberal media protecting their favored candidate. Democrats argue Trump says things that are just as outrageous on an almost daily basis. 

Some independent observers claim to see a tilt against Trump and in favor of Biden — even if they are also at pains to distance themselves from the president’s “fake news” jabs.

“I am not suggesting the media is behaving in the way the president describes or that the media is making anything up or knowingly reporting anything that is false,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.

“But I do think it is also clear, after almost four years of his presidency, that editorial choices — about story selection, story framing and also, in particular, choices of headline — are very clearly very critical of the president.”

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor of communications, noted that the president has his own universe of media supporters on cable news and talk radio. But he also contended that Trump and his supporters are met with cultural disdain by many reporters in the mainstream.

“None of them want to be the one responsible for coverage of something that creates a story like Clinton’s emails,” Berkovitz said, “First of all, it is the herd mentality — do you want to be the pariah? And second, Trump is just anathema to what most of those journalists believe democracy is, and decency is.”

Campaign news coverage never wins broad approval, especially in a nation so polarized as today’s United States.

But Reeher, the Syracuse professor, worried that any tilt toward Biden, however small, has the effect of buttressing Trump’s bigger, more dangerous case about media bias.

“If I am right about the media’s orientation [against Trump], it gives the president just a tiny — tiny! — sliver of reality to the larger, false things he is saying about the media. They are giving him an ‘in’ there and they don’t need to. They could just report all this stuff straight.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.



Tags Chris Wallace CNN Donald Trump George Stephanopoulos Hillary Clinton Jake Tapper Joe Biden Presidential debates

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