(Bloomberg Opinion) — The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank set off a bit of a kerfuffle with a column claiming that media coverage of President Joe Biden has been disproportionately negative lately, and in some respects more negative than coverage of his predecessor. Such analysis is notoriously difficult; after all, it requires not only assessing how positive or negative reporting has been, but answering the far more subjective question of how positive or negative it should be. So I was going to pass on the whole topic.
Until I saw a defense of this coverage from Politico’s Rachael Bade, who argued: “Gee, maybe this has to do with democratic infighting dominating the headlines in November — and the fact that voters sent a clear (and negative) message to the Biden Admin and the Democratic Party in the November elections …” I suspect that this isn’t an unusual sentiment.
I’ll start with the second point, because it’s important. Voters don’t send clear messages. They vote for candidates, and then political actors — media included — read “clear messages” into those votes. To be sure: Voters in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere shifted toward the Republican Party in the off-term elections last month, and that was partly a consequence of Biden’s low approval ratings. But voters regularly shift against the in-party in midterms even when the president is fairly popular. And at any rate, the best the voters collectively can do is to reflect a president’s overall unpopularity. They don’t say why the president is unpopular, or which actions or policy positions they oppose. Any “clarity” is a construction by observers.
But the reason this post annoyed me is the first part of her claim — that Democratic infighting dominated the headlines. That’s a bit circular, given that Milbank’s original point was that media coverage was strongly negative. The question is whether it was appropriate for Democratic infighting to be the big story last month, and it’s clear that in fact the party was unusually united and productive in November. After all, the big news last month on Capitol Hill wasn’t Democrats in disarray. It was that different groups of House Democrats came together to pass the infrastructure bill and advance their version of the “Build Back Better” plan. The movement on both bills strengthens the case that what we had seen in the summer and fall was productive negotiations among party groups who had some real differences but were basically on the same page, not some sort of party-wide dysfunction. In other words, not only is understanding November as a month dominated by Democratic infighting getting the story wrong, but it suggests that some have been getting the story wrong all along.
That said, this mostly reflects normal media bias. When the president is unpopular, everything is interpreted with that in mind, so Biden’s lower approval ratings are causing bad media coverage rather than the other way around. If he becomes more popular, his media coverage will improve — just as happened to Ronald Reagan in 1983 or Bill Clinton in 1995. And note that the miserable coverage those presidents received when they were down didn’t prevent them from rallying anyway.
Granted, other factors can affect media coverage. Strong agreement among elites that something is good or bad will usually have a significant influence. It’s certainly possible that some events are so unambiguous that they will generate appropriate coverage. But if we’re talking about how the president’s actions are presented, then few events meet that standard.
What I do think may have been unusual was coverage of President Donald Trump. After experts and pundits (myself included) dismissed his chances of winning the 2016 nomination, and then he outperformed the polls in the general election, I suspect a lot of the media became gun-shy about accurately characterizing his unusual unpopularity as president. What’s more, it was legitimately difficult to adjust to the constant stream of mostly self-inflicted scandals. As a result, I suspect that Trump’s media coverage — as awful as it was — actually wound up being better than it might’ve otherwise been. One could argue, indeed, that many in the media are still understating Trump’s attack on democracy, treating what he’s done over the past 13 months as relatively normal.
But my guess would be that Biden will have no such issues.