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It's not just you. The media really has had it out for Biden lately.
A new study finds Biden's coverage has been as negative as Trump's was when he was mismanaging the pandemic and scheming to end democracy
In recent months, my Twitter timeline has been filled on a near daily basis with Biden supporters complaining that coverage of his administration (and of Democratic lawmakers more broadly) is disproportionately negative in content and harsh in tone — loaded press that, in conjunction with right-wing media’s relentless onslaught against the president and his party, has eroded Biden’s popularity.
This sort of tweet illustrates what I mean:
A new study detailed by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank indicates that complaints of this sort are more than paranoia or isolated instances.
According to the study, which was put together for Milbank by a data analytics firm associated with FiscalNote, “Biden’s press for the past four months has been as bad as — and for a time worse than — the coverage Trump received for the same four months of 2020,” Milbank writes.
That’s notable because, as you might remember, from August to November of last year, we were teetering on the brink of disaster in multiple respects.
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Recall, for instance, that at the time there was no end in sight to a pandemic Trump barely pretended to care about, let alone address, as he galavanted around the country for campaign rallies that made a mockery of basic public heath precautions. Then, in September, Trump reacted to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death by rushing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett through the Republican-controlled Senate — a process capped off with an usually partisan celebration at the White House that was quickly revealed to be a Covid superspreader event. In October, Trump was hospitalized with Covid, and by mid-November, it was clear he wouldn’t accept his loss to Biden. We were then subjected to daily lies and conspiracy-mongering about the election that undermined democracy and culminated in the January 6 insurrection.
I could cite more examples of dysfunction, but suffice it to say it was an exceptionally bleak period. And while this fall hasn’t exactly been all sunshine and rainbows either, the notion that Biden has struggled to reach the standard Trump set last year doesn’t seem to square with reality.
And yet that’s the conclusion the new study reaches. Milbank describes its methodology thusly:
At my request, Forge.ai, a data analytics unit of the information company FiscalNote, combed through more than 200,000 articles — tens of millions of words — from 65 news websites (newspapers, network and cable news, political publications, news wires and more) to do a “sentiment analysis” of coverage. Using algorithms that give weight to certain adjectives based on their placement in the story, it rated the coverage Biden received in the first 11 months of 2021 and the coverage President Donald Trump got in the first 11 months of 2020.
The analysis found that while Biden received positive press in the early months of his administration — and deservedly so, given his administration’s remarkably efficient vaccine rollout and the stimulus bill that kickstarted the historic job growth he’s presided over this year — things took a turn in August, as Covid was resurgent and the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal provided an opportunity for critics to question Biden’s political judgment.
In fact, according to Milbank’s analysis, coverage of Biden in August was more negative than it was for Trump at any point in 2020 or 2019. From his piece:
Overall, Biden was slightly positive or neutral for seven months, ranging from 0.02 to -0.01. That plummeted to -0.07 in August — a lower number than Trump hit in all of 2020 (or 2019) — and has been between -0.04 and -0.03 ever since. Trump never left a narrow range of -0.03 to -0.04. (The data set doesn’t go far enough back to make a comparison to Trump’s first year in office.)
Milbank’s entire column is worth reading, even if it’s light on specific examples. A recent Politico piece, however, provides a case in point of the sort of anti-Biden bias he writes about.
Nearly identical polling, framed in very different ways
Biden’s approval rating among the general public and within his own party are about the same as Trump’s were at the same point in his presidency — a notable fact considering that at this time in 2017, Trump had already publicly defended white supremacists, fired the FBI director amid an active FBI investigation of his campaign, and implemented a travel ban targeting Muslims, among other outrages. But the different ways Politico presented that polling data is instructive.
Last month, Politico’s report about a Politico/Morning Consult poll pegging Biden’s approval rating at 44 percent overall and 80 percent among Democrats was framed as bad news for the president, with the headline stating “Voters’ doubts rising about Biden’s health, mental fitness” and the sub-headline noting that “just 44 percent of voters approve of Biden’s job performance.”
Compare that with a November 2017 Politico piece about a Politico/Morning Consult poll pegging Trump’s approval rating at a nearly identical 44 percent overall and 81 percent among Republicans. Instead of being framed around negative data points, however, that article led with Trump voters’ satisfaction with him. The headline read, “Trump voters: We’d do it again.”
The juxtaposition was first pointed out on Twitter by journalist Magdi Semrau, who noted that even the photos accompanying the respective pieces reinforce a narrative that Trump is strong and Biden is weak.
It should be emphasized that the drastically different framing of these pieces is an editorial choice. A 44 percent approval rating was validating for Trump, but represents a major failure for Biden. More examples could be cited. Even signing a bipartisan infrastructure deal into law was somehow framed as a loss for Biden by Politico.
In fairness, as Politico’s Ryan Lizza noted, his outlet was far from the worst offender in the FiscalNote analysis.
But, at the risk of putting words in Milbank’s mouth, that’s his point. It’s not just Politico. Whether they’re aware of it or not, major mainstream outlets more broadly have spent months beating up on Biden.
Less than a year removed from an insurrection that showed how deadly serious Trump and his supporters are about ending democracy, and heading into a midterm election where an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party is likely to retake control of one or both branches of Congress, journalists have big choices to make. Do we write about legislation and elections in a way that helps readers understand the stakes of what’s going on, or do we instead spend our time writing hit pieces about Kamala Harris or looking for a negative angle for everything we write about the president?
Too often lately, big outlets have opted for the latter approach. And as a result, wittingly or not, they end up running interference for those who have already made abundantly clear they’re willing to sacrifice democracy for power acquired by any means necessary.