The Media Is Giving Us 2016 Flashbacks

Seven years ago, a competent Democratic presidential candidate ran against someone who was largely considered to be a joke. Pundits and major media outlets criticized Hillary Clinton for being “overprepared” against Donald Trump while obsessing over a controversy stemming from her use of a private email server. The word “email” dominated the political discourse when there was plenty to say about Trump’s hostility toward democratic norms, his failed businesses, and his love of the Russian cutout WikiLeaks. Trump was treated as an amusing distraction and Clinton was treated as a fait accompli. But that was two impeachments, four indictments, one superseding indictment, and an armed insurrection ago. Surely, you’d think, the mainstream media has learned from its mistakes.

And boy, would you be wrong. On Sunday, in a rare, hour-plus sit-down with the former president, NBC’s Kristen Welker proved once again that interviewing the 45th president is an impossible task—even for a sharp journalist like her. Sure, she may have fact-checked Trump’s lies in real time and peppered him with well-deserved criticism. But, as we’ve repeatedly seen in the past, good-faith pushback does nothing to stop the ex-president’s falsehoods. Like the house in a casino, Trump always wins—and the mainstream media just keeps making bets, seemingly desperate to turn 2024 into 2016.

What is a bit different from the lead-up to 2016 is that Trump, despite his tumultuous absence from government, is now the de facto leader of the Republican Party. And for the most part, the GOP primary contest appears to be a pathetic competition for the vice presidency. (Chris Christie, at least, has the self-respect to openly condemn Trump.)

As for the Democrats, well, the party has an incumbent president—which, in a normal world, would mean no chance of a primary. However, some in the mainstream media have bemoaned the lack of challengers to Joe Biden, even while expressing uncertainty around the idea. Jonathan Chait, in a piece arguing that Biden should be primaried, admitted that “there are four examples of incumbent presidents facing serious primary challengers, and none of those presidents went on to win reelection.” And David Ignatius, in calling for Biden to drop out, conceded that “right now, there’s no clear alternative to Biden—no screamingly obvious replacement waiting in the wings.”

Then exactly why, you ask, should Biden drop out?

Well, we’re told he’s too old. And while Biden may be two and a half years Trump’s senior, you wouldn’t know it by the looks of a recent AP-NORC poll, which noted that the president is “widely seen as too old for office”—even if “Trump has problems of his own.” Problems of his own? Is that the multiple indictments or the civil charges? Google searching “Is Biden too old?” bears countless results. Meanwhile, search “Trump is too old,” and you’ll get stories about Biden’s age. Which raises the question: How much does writing about something make it real in the eyes of the electorate? If Hillary lost the 2016 election to “but her emails,” could Biden lose 2024 to “but his age”?

Age aside, you’ll also hear that Biden is still just plain old unpopular. A lot of this comes from editorials and “news analyses” that are based on polling. But if you’ll remember from November, it was polling that put Clinton ahead of Trump by one to seven percentage points in the popular vote. It was polling that told us there would be a “red wave” in 2022, whose nonexistence was summed up by the New York Times postmortem: “The skewed red-wave surveys polluted polling averages, which are relied upon by campaigns, donors, voters and the news media.” And it was polling that told us, even as far back as 1995, that Bob Dole would wipe the presidential floor with Bill Clinton. But nearly 30 years later, like Lucy and the football, we are yet again treating junk polls as gospel.

Take, for example, a recent CNN poll, which consisted of 1,503 respondents who reflected “an oversample of…898 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.” This poll was used as the basis of a New York Times story, which proclaimed, “Party leaders have rallied behind the president’s re-election bid, but as one top Democratic strategist put it, ‘The voters don’t want this, and that’s in poll after poll after poll.’”

Now, it’s worth asking how a poll like this even makes it into the paper of record. Well, it’s simple: Republicans work the refs. By pushing the narrative that the mainstream media is left-leaning, they prompt anxiety-induced overcorrections from the press, which is utterly paranoid about the appearance of bias. That’s why, as former top Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer writes, we end up with a situation where false equivalencies are used: “In a desperate attempt at balance, the media is equating Biden’s age with Donald Trump’s criminal behavior emanating from stealing classified documents and trying to overturn an election.”

But the most effective way Republicans work the refs is by leveraging their own opinion-based news. Fox News, which effectively functions as the propaganda arm of the GOP, picks up stories that Republicans don’t like and tries to bully their authors—like Taylor Lorenz, Brandy Zadrozny, and Lauren Duca—into silence. Journalists of color are especially vulnerable: For example, Fox News’ website has more than 3,000 hits for “Joy Reid,” many of them involving supposed controversies like “Joy Reid admits she was ‘hesitant’ of COVID vaccine under Trump.” The goal here is clear: to remove the friction that Republican candidates face by silencing a Black female host with a highly rated prime-time show.

This week, we can all expect Welker to go through the same media meat grinder for facing off with Trump. But to what end? Giving the public a “better understanding” of the terrifying autocrat we’ve all been watching for the past eight years? Trump, who has been lying for years about the last presidential election, no longer deserves to get the benefit of the doubt heading into the next one. And there is no reason for the media to give it to him.

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