Are you not entertained?
Journalists are struggling to adapt to "boring" Biden. I'm struggling to care.
I don’t think the press will ever own up to the role it played, collectively, in bringing fascism to America. Two recent articles make clear that my worries have not been without merit.
Over at Tomorrow Will Be Worse, Julia Ioffe strings together a brilliant but depressing piece about the sickeningly symbiotic relationship between former president Donald Trump and the Washington, D.C. press corps.
Here’s a sampling of that:
Trump called journalists “enemies of the people,” he undermined the very idea of a free and independent press, and the media thrilled to the challenge. Cable television hadn’t seen ratings like this in a generation, and newspapers and magazines, once seen as paper dinosaurs edging into extinction, roamed the earth like proud behemoths again. Then, suddenly, as everyone began to understand that he was leaving, Washington journalists had to contend with an uncomfortable truth, which they’ve long known: Trump may have been terrible for democracy, but he had been unquestionably good for business. As one White House reporter told me, “Trump has been good for many journalists professionally, myself included.” What would they do when the Trump gravy train left #thistown? What would they do with a man who ran his campaign on the promise that he would bring boring back to the Oval Office?
Ioffe’s piece is a maddening portrait of an out-of-touch beltway press that got rich off the spectacle that Trump’s White House was. One of the anonymous insiders Ioffe quoted whined that the shift from Trump to Biden was like going “from a circus with flaming chainsaws to … what? An old man watching his dog?”
Elsewhere, Ioffe quotes New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi as being “fluent in Trumpworld,” but “learning the language of Biden and Bidenworld.” She lamented how “corporate” Biden’s White House is compared to the gossip factory of Trump’s reign. Requests for comment get rerouted and filtered through official communications channels, and things were… gasp… organized.
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“To go from a situation where the #1 priority every day is to use the press to spin or f*ck people over, to where the #1 priority is governing, and where the infighting is not the central story — I feel like I have to be resocialized,” Nuzzi told Ioffe.
Meanwhile, at The New York Times, Michael Shear goes right ahead and proves Ioffe’s point with an article whining that Biden is just too boring for his taste. “Mr. Biden can sometimes get lost in the minutiae,” Shear wrote, adding that “the details of governing are mind-numbingly tedious.”
Nowhere was that contrast more striking than with former President Donald J. Trump, whose bellicose, rambling, he-could-say-anything speeches were just as long — if not longer — than Mr. Biden’s but were rarely boring in the traditional sense. (In 2016, as a candidate, Mr. Trump ejected a MAGA-hat-wearing supporter who had the temerity to stand up during a speech and declare, “This is boring!”)
Voters, it seems, decided to choose boring over bombast. And for that, Mr. Biden and his White House advisers make no apology.
In fact, even after acknowledging that his speech on Wednesday had been less than enthralling — even to him — Mr. Biden offered another admonition to the audience in the room, and those watching on television.
It might have been a boring speech, he said, “but it’s an important speech.”
The “MAGA-hat-wearing supporter” Shear refers to was actually one of the members of The Good Liars, a political comedy duo.
Shear, you may remember, is the reporter who complained that Biden had made “almost no fig leaf even to the Republican Party” during the administration’s second ever press briefing:
You don’t have a Republican Cabinet member, like President Obama and, I think, President Clinton had. You — you know, the executive orders that he’s come out the gate have been largely designed at erasing as much of the Trump legacy as you can with executive orders, much of which the Republican Party likes and agrees with. You’ve put forth an immigration bill that has a path to citizenship but doesn’t do much of a nod towards the border security. And you’ve got a 1.9-trillion-dollar COVID relief bill that has, as folks have said, already drawn all sorts of criticism. Where is the — where is the actual action behind this idea of bipartisanship?
And when are we going to see one of those, you know, sort of, substantial outreaches that says, “This is something that, you know, the Republicans want to do, too”?
But to his point about Biden being “boring,” I ask: when was the last time Trump actually spoke about any of his policies in any amount of detail? Trump didn’t seem to know what was in most of the bills and initiatives he “supported,” he was almost never pressed for real details (which, once again, thanks for nothing, White House press corps), and would often just ramble on about how things would be “great,” “beautiful,” “fantastic,” “the best,” etc. He’d occasionally stand out on the White House lawn and scream for a bit in front of an idling helicopter, but he would never, ever get into real details about his policies. For the criticism that gets tossed Biden’s way about being some sort of clueless puppet of his White House staff, that seems to actually be what Trump was.
And maybe that’s what members of the elite DC press want: a policy-illiterate stooge who makes them feel more important than they are by picking fights. Reporters would feign shock at being called “fake news” before reveling in it and using their access to land massive book deals about how horrible it was being called “the enemy of the people” by the most powerful person on the planet. It’s all kayfabe.
I hate how often I revisit my past writing and think, “Well, looks like this is once again relevant…”
In February 2020, I wrote about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, which as pathetic as it may be, is one of my favorite books. For those who haven’t read it, I recommend it. For those who have, I’m sure you probably see where this is going.
“Mainstream journalists covered the 2016 presidential election like a soap opera, not like a competition between two competing visions for the country. It’s hard to believe that this year’s coverage will be any different,” I wrote at the time. Once again, we got a soap opera and not the battle of ideas we were owed.
No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters' invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Everything about a news show tells us this--the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials--all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping. A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.
The function of news as a business to profit from conflicts with the function of news as a way to inform the public. Unfortunately, given the choice between profit and being a pillar of democracy, profit wins every time. That’s how someone like Trump rose to power. That’s how he may return to it.
As you can see from this great 2013 find by The Washington Post’s Dan Diamond, this isn’t new.