How media drove Joe Biden’s political plunge
The mainstream media have played a huge, underappreciated role in President Joe Biden’s declining support over the past year. Their flawed coverage model of politics and government is bad for more than just Biden — it results in a distorted national discourse that weakens our democracy. The media need to find a different way to cover Washington.
One of the sharpest dips in Biden’s approval rating — which has dropped from 55 percent in January 2021 to less than 39 per cent today — happened last August, when it declined almost five points in a single month. There was not a huge surge in petrol prices, nor some big legislative failure. What caused Biden’s dip was the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan — or, rather, the media’s 24/7, highly negative coverage of it.
To be clear, Biden deserved criticism. The early stages of the US exit were tumultuous, with desperate Afghans clinging to US military aircraft and massing outside the Kabul airport. The Taleban took control far more quickly than the administration anticipated. But for much of August, the homepages of major newspapers and cable news programmes were dominated by Afghanistan coverage, as if the chaotic withdrawal was the only thing happening in the world. Journalists and outlets tore into the President, with Axios calling the withdrawal “Biden’s stain”, NBC News correspondent Richard Engel declaring that “history will judge this moment as a very dark period for the United States”, and CNN’s Jake Tapper asking an administration official on his show, “Does President Biden not bear the blame for this disastrous exit from Afghanistan?”
Biden’s poll numbers plunged, closely tracking the media hysteria. As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote in December, data analysis showed a marked increase in negativity in media coverage of Biden that started last August. After the withdrawal, the media lumped other events into their “Biden is struggling” narrative: infighting among Democrats over the party’s agenda, Democrats’ weak performances in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races, rising inflation, and the surge of the Delta and Omicron variants. Biden’s role in these issues was often exaggerated — there are many causes of inflation besides Biden’s policies; presidents cannot stop the emergence of coronavirus variants. This anti-Biden coverage pattern remains in place.
Afghanistan was an important turning point in media coverage for two reasons. One, it provided journalists the big anti-Biden story that I think many of them were desperate to find. And it drove down Biden’s popularity with the public, giving the media justification for even more coverage that cast the President as struggling.
Biden coverage shifted in this direction because of the media’s longstanding biases towards “bothsidesism” and strong criticism of those in power. (When I say “mainstream media”, I’m referring to the news coverage in national newspapers such as the Post and The New York Times, major broadcasters such as CNN, wire services such as the Associated Press, local newspapers and TV stations, and publications with elite audiences such as Axios and Politico. These outlets do not co-ordinate their reports, but they take cues from each other and have similar coverage approaches. I’m not referring to opinion pieces in these outlets or the work of news organisations that have a clear ideological bent.)
Reporters tend to view their role as a check on politicians. This means presidents are always covered sceptically — but when one party dominates Washington, the political media often scrutinises that party’s president even more. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump got very negative coverage at times when their parties also controlled Congress.
Also, the media’s “equally positive and negative to both sides” approach has been challenged by the increasingly radical and antidemocratic Republican Party. Honest coverage of political news often seems anti-GOP. The mainstream media covered Trump very harshly, particularly in the final months of his presidency as he worked to overturn election results. Some journalists, consciously or unconsciously, were poised to “balance” that negative Trump coverage with criticism of Biden, even if his actions were not nearly as deserving of condemnation. In the post-Trump era, leaders at CNN, The New York Times and other major outlets have emphasised that they don't want to be perceived as more aligned with the Democrats.
In the first few months of 2021, many in the media focused on narratives that seemed like they could turn into big anti-Biden stories but did not pan out. Before most public schools were open, journalists focused on closures because Biden had pledged to get children back in the classroom. Biden’s first news conference as president, in March 2021, featured numerous questions about a surge in migrants across the southern border and some about his 2024 plans, but not one on Covid-19, which the administration seemed to be handling well.
In August, the hunt found its mark: the Afghanistan withdrawal. And as high inflation became entrenched, the media had a perpetual issue to ding the President on.
Relentless negative coverage is toxic for politicians. As University of Minnesota policy analyst Will Stancil has argued, US news coverage often has a collective tenor — what he calls a “main signal”. This signal seeps from traditional news sources into social media, with stories shared on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Biden’s arc shows what happens if this broad tenor turns against a politician. There seems to be a generalised frustration with him, as opposed to unhappiness over a single issue or two, even among people who don’t closely follow traditional news outlets or are generally supportive of his views.
The political strategy Team Biden took — focusing on showing the President competently managing the pandemic and the economy, and reducing partisanship in Washington — was particularly harmed by the media's coverage approach. It is difficult for a president to demonstrate competence with a media perpetually looking for something negative. For one thing, when Biden got an issue under control, such as coronavirus vaccine distribution, many journalists simply moved on to a new problem without crediting him much for fixing the old one. By making reduced political gridlock a metric of his success, Biden positioned himself to look bad when congressional Republicans and Democratic senators Joe Manchin, from West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, from Arizona, blocked his proposals.
Now, Biden is polling worse than Trump was in July 2020, when thousands of people were dying each week of Covid, a situation much worse than the real and serious problem of high inflation in the Biden era. You cannot credibly argue that Trump, with his constant inflammatory statements and incompetent management, was a better president than Biden. These poll numbers reflect something gone wrong.
And in my view, media coverage is a big factor in those warped polling results. Media commitment to “equal” coverage of both parties has resulted in a year and a half of coverage since Biden entered office that implies both parties are similarly bad, as if the surge of inflation and some of Biden’s policy mistakes rival a Republican Party that is actively undermining democracy in numerous ways, such as continuing to voice baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, passing measures making it harder to vote, and gerrymandering so aggressively in states such as Wisconsin that elections are effectively meaningless.
Yes, I am calling for the media to cover Biden more positively. Not in the sense of declaring Biden a better man than Trump — although that is obviously true. Instead, political coverage should be grounded in highlighting the wide range of our problems and assessing whether politicians and parties are working towards credible solutions. Such a model would still produce a lot of stories about surging inflation, Afghanistan and other issues where Biden’s policies have not worked. But there would also be more stories about other issues important to Americans, even if they were going well under Biden — like the huge job growth during his tenure. Ideally, on every issue, the media would compare the Republican and Democratic solutions. You can see how this model might help Biden — but the bigger benefit would be to readers.
It is too early to say whether Biden is a great or even good president. But most Americans are not getting a fair look at that question. Instead of telling us whether Biden is effective, the media have focused on showing that it is not too biased towards Democrats. Better that journalists actually cover America’s problems and whether Biden is solving them — or at least has better policies than the Republicans. That’s the kind of journalism we need.
• Perry Bacon Jr is a Washington Post columnist. Before joining the Post in May 2021, Perry had stints as a government and elections writer for Time magazine, the Post's national desk, theGrio and FiveThirtyEight. He has also been an on-air analyst at MSNBC and a fellow at New America. He grew up in Louisville and lives there now