As in much of the developed world, the US media is in an existential crisis. For more than a decade, dwindling advertising revenue and threats to the authority and legitimacy exacerbated by the rise of digital and social platforms is putting relentless pressure on mainstream news organisations. As president, Donald Trump has provided them not just with opportunities to raise their ratings, but he has given them something to talk about. Every day.
Trump’s battle with the press – according to him “the enemy of the people” – has also given journalists a chance to reassert their power and, more importantly, their presence. Just as former CBS chief executive Les Moonves said in 2016: “Trump may not be good for America, but he is damn good for CBS”.
So now that it looks all but inevitable that Trump will have to leave the White House in January 2021, we need to start considering how the media will begin to cover a Biden presidency.
Biden has had a relatively good experience with journalists in the past. It helped he was under the umbrella of the 44th US president, Barack Obama – a darling of the media who was left largely unscathed by press attacks during his campaign and subsequent two terms in the White House. Reporters did, however, pick up on a few, small Biden gaffes, such as the time he was caught on camera telling Obama in 2010 that the signing into law of healthcare reform was “a big fucking deal”. That’s certainly not as bad as when the then vice president Dick Cheney was overheard on the floor of the US Senate to tell Senator Patrick Leahy to “Go fuck yourself” in a debate about judical nominations and Cheney’s ties to war-profiteering Halliburton.
There were a few other Biden gaffes during the recent campaign. His hypothetical reference to what would have happened had Barack Obama been assassinated during the 2008 campaign, for example, which was widely seen as a misstep or an occasion on which he confused Nevada and New Hampshire during the most recent campaign.
But we should put Biden’s gaffes at least in some context, the least of which is that his speech hasn’t led to major international political crises or ramped-up racial tensions in the US. He hasn’t encouraged people to inject dangerous chemicals to cure themselves of COVID. Trump did say these things – and plenty more.
How, then, will journalists handle Biden in office? For a start the media will need to tread lightly on the issue of Biden’s age – he turns 78 on November 20, making the oldest man to take on the presidency – so as to not appear ageist. But there are other, uglier tropes which have trended on social media, for example the tag: “Creepy Uncle Joe” for his supposedly inappropriate behaviour with women. At a time when personality politics remains so dominant in public discourse, this sort of thing won’t make for an easy transition.
Prominent commentator Jack Shafer writing in Politico has observed that, over the years, “media’s biggest favor to Biden was to ignore him”. So how journalism responds to Biden now will be key to the continuing credibility of the US news media. This is doubly important thanks to Trump’s own behaviour, policies and speech while in office. The feeling is that journalism needs to strain every sinew to reinforce its role as a legitimate and authoritative truth-teller.
Coming after Trump, who elite US journalists have largely found distasteful, will Biden be a new media star who gives journalists “good stories” to tell, who provides opportunities for expert opinion, analysis and heated debate, and whose Twitter feed can fuel the next news cycle? And, if Biden is “good for democracy,” how will journalists cover – as opposed to celebrate – someone that half of the country voted against?
I’ve written before that reducing a focus on Trump might provide journalists with a chance to focus on other issues elsewhere, ditching the distraction of the daily White House carnival for deeper and more serious reporting projects. But will a political sphere without Trump altogether mean journalism is back to being boring?
Many will argue that Trump’s policies were so divisive and dangerous that anyone in the office other than him is necessarily positive. But journalists and those who hold their purse-strings will have to find a new enemy if they wish to keep their increased ratings – and maybe even their reputation of being a critical eye – intact when Biden becomes president in January.
History suggests that conflict attracts more eyeballs than stable government. So there are urgent questions for the media in this new era. Trump’s outspoken opposition to what he called the “fake news media” offered news organisations a sense of legitimacy and relevancy (in most people’s eyes in any case). This will suffer if they don’t subject Biden to the same level of scrutiny.