June 8, 2020
While protests continued around the world today, it felt like a pause for breath after the past two weeks. If you are overwhelmed with news and need a break, today’s letter is an excellent one to skip. Nothing happened today that you can’t live without knowing.
But for those still interested, there were a number of things today pointing to a change in the media. The day started with Trump melting down over political polls that showed him trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by almost 15 points. A CNN poll begun the day after the teargassing of peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square so Trump could walk through it for a photo op showed Trump’s approval rating at an abysmal 38%, and his disapproval rating at 57%. According to the poll, 55% of registered voters back Biden while only 41% support Trump. (The poll has a 3.4% margin of error.)
Aside from the significance of the polls themselves, the president’s reaction to them revealed that his control over the political narrative that has bolstered his presidency is slipping. “CNN Polls are as Fake as their Reporting,” the president tweeted this morning. “Same numbers, and worse, against Crooked Hillary. The Dems would destroy America.”
He announced he was hiring Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who made his career in the 2012 contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney when he claimed that political polls were deliberately skewed toward Democrats in order to discourage Republicans from voting. McLaughlin invented better numbers for Romney that were proven to be imaginary in November, but nonetheless his accusations of bias gained traction. “The latest skewed media polls must be intentional,” McLaughlin wrote in a recent memo to Trump. Media outlets “are consistently under-polling Republicans,” he wrote, “and therefore, reporting biased polls.”
Trump and the GOP are trying to change the poll numbers because they have lost control over the country’s narrative. The president rode to the White House on the argument that people of color and women were criminal socialists demanding a government handout, paid for by taxes on hardworking white men, but all of a sudden, with white police officers murdering a handcuffed Black man, and police riots during protests over that killing, it is clear that narrative has gone sour.
Suddenly, the White House is trying to pivot to unity and safety. There is talk of Trump giving a speech on race, and today, Trump’s people, including Jared Kushner, held a roundtable with law enforcement officials, where Kushner told reporters that officials had heard the cries of the community and had come together to back safety and national unity. (At the end of the video clip of Kushner’s speech, you can hear Trump saying of Kushner, “My star.”)
Even more indicative that the national narrative is changing was the announcement yesterday that James Bennet had resigned as the editorial page editor of the New York Times. Bennet ran an op-ed last Wednesday by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton titled (by the Times, not by Cotton) “Send in the Troops.” The inflammatory piece blamed “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” for an “orgy of violence” during the recent protests and claimed that “outnumbered police officers… bore the brunt of the violence.” Neither of these statements is true, and they clothe a false Republican narrative in what appears to be fact. Cotton’s solution to the protests was to send in the military to restore “law and order,” and he misquoted the Constitution to defend that conclusion.
The kerfuffle over this op-ed seems like it’s more than a normal media skirmish. For more than a century, American media has tried to report facts impartially. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Federal Communications Commission enshrined this principle in the Fairness Doctrine, which established that public media must base its news in facts and must present both sides of an argument fairly, honestly, and equitably. Beginning in the 1950s, Republicans who were ideologically opposed to the New Deal state complained that this principle, embraced by the “liberal media,” discriminated against them. In 1987, after President Ronald Reagan had placed new members on the board of the FCC, it abandoned the Fairness Doctrine.
With that abandonment, talk radio took off, presenting an ideological narrative that showed white taxpayers under siege by godless women and people of color. The Fox News Channel was not far behind, calling itself “fair and balanced” until 2017, when it dropped the slogan, because it presented the ideological narrative that mainstream media rejected. Other media outlets tried to defend themselves against charges that they were biased against that narrative, so they opened up their pages and television shows to that ideological story. Increasingly, the extreme Republican narrative spread into the mainstream on the grounds that the media must show “both sides.”
By 2014, though, cell phones and Twitter offered images and reports from the ground in places like Ferguson, Missouri, that showed up the police version of events, echoed by Fox News Channel personalities and talk radio hosts, as dishonest… and dangerous. Young Black journalists called out the reigning narrative that people of color were “thugs” and “criminals,” but their protests did not change the basic media pattern of “both sides-ism.”
Until now. The backlash over Cotton’s op-ed was so great that the day after Bennet published it, he tried to explain his decision to publish the incendiary piece by saying that it was important to provide both sides of a debate, “to help you think for yourself.” But this didn’t fly. Journalists objected that the piece endangered them.
The next day, June 5, the New York Times blamed the editing process for letting a “rushed and flawed” essay through, and said that a review of the piece led the editors to conclude “that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.” Two days later, Bennet left the editorial page desk.
It appears that the both-sides principle of the past generation is falling to what younger progressive journalists call moral clarity. But also at stake is the Enlightenment principle of fact-based argument. The Cotton piece was not rooted in reality; it was a narrative based in falsehoods and thus was fatally flawed. It could not contribute to public debate.
For his part, Cotton used the fight to advance the old Republican narrative. He told the Fox News Channel: “Within a day it turned into something like a struggle session from the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China, where the adults had to prostrate themselves and apologize in front of the woke children that apparently now run the New York Times newsroom.” Republicans have applauded Cotton for exciting the Republican base by angering their opponents. He has raised $200,000 from the issue.
But it feels like Bennet’s resignation marks a shift in the media that has been building for months as newspapers and television chyrons increasingly check political falsehoods in favor of fact-based argument.
The right has always been better than its opponents at driving a clear narrative. That discrepancy showed today, as protesters have begun to call for Americans to “defund the police,” a phrasing that already has Republican opponents talking about keeping constituents safe. What most reformers mean by that phrase reflects that, as we have defunded education, housing, mental health facilities, and so on, our towns and cities increasingly have turned the functions of those institutions over to police. Reformers want to shrink police responsibilities and decrease funding from police budgets, investing instead in the other community resources that have lost money as police departments have gained it. Most are not calling for abolishing police departments altogether. They are using “defund” in the same way Republicans have called for defunding social programs.
But those who want police reforms are fighting over the phrase as they disagree about what, exactly, it means.