Can the media regain credibility under Biden?
America’s newsrooms spent the last four years grappling with an arduous challenge: separating the consequential from the petty in President Trump’s endless barrage of malfeasance. Yet with Trump out of office, the media now faces a new task: proving impartiality while covering a president – Joe Biden – who journalists nearly uniformly supported in the 2020 election.
That’s a tall order: According to Gallup, only 18 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in television news; for newspapers, that number is 24 percent. Conservatives, in particular, accuse the media of projecting bias — an image not helped by feelings that journalists breathed a collective “sigh of relief” after Biden’s victory.
Journalists often blame Trump for their low esteem. Yet data reveal that America’s distrust of the media predated the former president. Trump made inroads with his “fake news” mantra only because he activated a preexisting sentiment.
Can journalists be fair-minded in covering a new president who most preferred to Trump? After four years of Trump, will they be tempted to give Biden a pass? Here’s how the media can ward off criticisms of a lack of objectivity under Biden.
1) Don’t treat Trump as the reference point. Trump told an average of more than 50 lies per day in office. He’s the only president to be impeached twice. Every administration has its share of improprieties, and every president tells fibs. Yet Trump’s record shouldn’t be the new baseline.
Journalists, however, have frequently resorted to comparing Trump to prior presidents. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said that what Trump has done is “at least, at least” 100 times worse than Bill Clinton lying to Congress. Journalist Carl Bernstein claimed that Trump’s actions have been “far worse than Watergate.”
If Biden, his staffers or his allies get caught up even in mini-scandals, they need to be called out — and not by discounting their importance or comparing them to Trump’s.
2) The goal isn’t to ensure Trump doesn’t get elected again. Some members of the media took Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) posture toward Barack Obama as their own model for how to deal with Trump: to ensure he was a one-term president.
Providing even a remotely varnished take of Biden’s administration out of a fear that too harsh of treatment could lead to a second Trump term can’t be part of the calculus.
What Trump does over the next four years – good and bad – also needs to be covered extensively. Even if journalists don’t like the news coming out of Mar-a-Lago, it’s sure to be news.
3) Judge Biden by his own standards. Biden has set a high bar for himself. He’s promised to be the uniter-in-chief — a president who will “fight as hard for those who did not support [him] as for those who did.” Journalists should highlight if he fails to deliver — not just on rhetoric, but on policy.
Obama, too, depicted himself as a post-partisan candidate. Yet his first term was characterized by pushing through a health care agenda against huge Republican opposition.
Biden is considering a sweeping immigration plan that would offer a path to citizenship within eight years for roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants; he’s also proposed a massive $2 trillion blueprint to address climate change. Agree or disagree with the proposals, the partisan implications are stark.
4) Remember, there’s no such thing as “normal.” When Trump entered the White House in 2017, New York Times journalist Peter Baker said that “we shouldn’t view it as a normal White House.”
Ultimately, though, there’s no such thing as a “normal White House.” Every administration has its idiosyncrasies and misconduct. Without drawing equivalencies, the media shouldn’t lull itself into complacency under Biden.
Journalists spent the last four years in defensive mode. Even if Biden isn’t Trump, and there’s good reason why the media was on high-alert, that basic stance shouldn’t change. For the media, gaining the trust of the public will come by treating Biden fairly — with an appropriate level of scrutiny.
Thomas Gift is director of the UCL Centre on US Politics. Follow him on Twitter @TGiftiv.