Joe Biden created unwanted headlines for his campaign on Friday when he appeared on “The Breakfast Club” and, responding to a question from the show’s co-host, Charlamagne tha God, announced, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” Biden apologized within hours, saying his comments were “much too cavalier," in terms of speaking for black voters.
On Sunday, the New York Times produced Day Three coverage of the minor story. By contrast, over that same three-day window Trump denounced his former, hand-picked Attorney General as not being "mentally qualified" for the job, accused a cable news host of murder, retweeted a fat-shaming message aimed at Biden's possible vice presidential running mate, and shared a tweet that derided Hillary Clinton as a "skank." Also, during the previous week, Trump accused former President Barack Obama of being a criminal. Yet the Biden "gaffe" coverage generated more media attention and pundit chatter over the weekend. ("Biden" and "black" were mentioned together nearly 200 times on cable news since Friday.)
What could possibly explain that kind of drastic imbalance during a presidential election season? And more importantly, is the campaign press rooting for Trump?
By rooting for Trump, I don't mean journalists and news organizations want him to serve four more years. Rather, are news outlets hoping Trump keeps the race close so the election story will generate clicks and ratings through November? Remember, almost every presidential contest since 1996 has been closely contested, and the Beltway press wants to keep it that way, even though Biden has opened up a sizeable and consistent polling lead as the coronavirus pandemic continues to do lasting damage to Trump's presidency.
Here's the dirty little secret about 2020 campaign coverage: Prior to Covid-19, major news outlets had already dedicated huge amounts of resources to the election and set aside vast amounts of coverage for this election cycle. (Campaign seasons are indeed big business for the news media.) But now that White House campaign doesn't really exist. There are no rallies, neither candidate is barnstorming the country, and might not for months. News outlets still need Biden coverage, though. So his slight misstep on Friday got completely blown out of proportion because news organizations have a shortage of Biden stories.
At the same time, news outlets have too much Trump coverage, since he functions as a human fire hose, relentlessly pumping out false claims and misinformation under the guise of news. Trump's weekend behavior, which resembled a public panic attack, gets downplayed, as Biden's gaffe gets treated as big news. That way the coverage of Biden and Trump appears equal because the press is being balanced covering both candidates.
And then there's the type of campaign coverage that actively pumps up Trump's electoral chances. "Trump has a real shot of winning," announced a CNN piece last week. After acknowledging that Biden leads in virtually every national poll taken this year, and most key swing state polls, CNN stressed, "Biden may be favored, but this race is far from over."
Whenever I read analysis like that I can't help thinking it's an effort by campaign journalists to tap into Democratic anxieties about Trump, in hopes of ginning online traffic and TV ratings. It's hard to imagine that if a Democratic incumbent were overseeing a failed pandemic response, with the country suffering staggering losses that include 100,000 deaths and 40 million lost jobs, the Beltway press would be scrambling to find electoral rays of hope for the Democratic candidate.
CNN's Chris Cillizza last week stressed Trump can win in November because he "gets stuff done," which seems like a bizarre argument to make with 40 million Americans suddenly out of work. Cillizza never mentioned that stunning number, only that the pandemic had "significantly weakened" Trump's economic case for re-election.
It's curious that the last time a Democratic incumbent president ran for re-election, the common media narrative was, 'He might lose.' Today, Trump's running for re-election and the common media narrative is, 'He might win.' Both play off Democratic fears.
Fact: Arizona has voted Republican in eleven of the last twelve presidential elections. Yet Trump hasn't led there since early last winter. That would be like if Biden were trailing in the deep blue state of Massachusetts.
Caveat: I don't know who's going to win and my point here is not to suggest that the press must announce Trump's defeat months in advance. Based on decades of modern campaign coverage, journalists take polling into account in terms of framing the unfolding race, and the person who trails in virtually every poll, as Trump currently does, is tagged as the candidate who faces a stiff uphill challenge.
I can hear the media chorus today: Polls suggested Trump would lose in 2016, which means 2020 could be just like 2016, so we shouldn't pay attention to the polls.
Not true. In late May of 2016, according to all the national polls posted at RealClearPolitics, Trump was tied with Hillary Clinton. Today, according to the same RCP tabulation, Trump trails Biden by six points. Note that Trump leads in just one of the last 55 national polls taken, dating back to mid-February, or just two percent of all polls. Four years ago, during that same stretch from mid-February to mid-May, Trump led in 6 of 37 polls taken, 16 percent of all polls. Also, we've been through a national election cycle since 2016, and Democrats won the 2018 midterm cycle in a rout, just as the polling suggested they would.
Covering the 2020 campaign, the press should make sure they don't put their thumb on the scale for Trump in hopes of marketing a close race.