What will the big media outlets of America do when Joe Biden is officially sworn in as president? For those on the Right, like Fox and Newsmax, there’s little question. Biden can be every bit the foil Barack Obama was, and right-wingers have new progressives to vilify, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. The script has already been written: radical socialism is taking over America, and only God-fearing Republicans stand between you and violent anarchy.
For the other cable TV networks, Donald Trump was the hard drug they could not quit. In the Obama years, CNN and MSNBC were also-rans, trailing badly behind Fox News in the ratings wars. CNN, a twenty-four-hour news network that could not subsist without a daily crisis, seemed to bottom out around 2014, posting disastrously low ratings. Then, in 2015, Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, would air Donald Trump rallies live and uninterrupted, fueling the candidate’s ascent in a crowded Republican primary. Zucker knew a good story when he saw one.
In 2017, MSNBC, unable to marshal much of an audience during Obama’s presidency, became a place where every Trumpian outrage and conspiracy could be parroted and expanded to maximalist proportions. Ratings soared. Rachel Maddow became one of the biggest stars in television, rivaling the reach of any Fox host. CNN, too, made a fortune on liberal angst and rage, branding for the Resistance.
For mainstream liberal outlets — both those that openly identify that way, and those that keep up the pretense of neutrality — the future is less clear. For four years, the top media organizations in America universally benefited from Trump. The New York Times and the Washington Post, which received a remarkable surge of subscriptions from beleaguered readers, almost all Democrats who turned to them for news of Trump’s potential downfall, also rebranded for the Resistance. From Russiagate to impeachment to Trump’s unhinged tweets, content was never lacking — the show always went on. The Post even devised a new grandiose motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Smaller liberal outlets like the New Yorker, New York magazine, Vox, and the Daily Beast trod a similar path.
Many media organizations played a role as an aggressive and necessary watchdog in the Trump years. The bankrupt access-journalism model, in which reporters allow themselves to be co-opted by powerful actors for mostly meaningless scoops, lost favor in the Trump years, as more journalists and readers recognized that it could not function with a White House that offered so little in the way of reliable information. Trump did revive gossip-infused palace intrigue reporting, with so many staffers cycling in and out, but that did not cause mainstream outlets to abandon their adversarial stance, at least toward Trump himself. The Mark Halperin model of reporting was rightfully discredited.
But a new problem arises now: Can these many media organizations, so closely linked to the project of anti-Trump resistance, leave behind their role as Democratic Party activists and Biden apologists? As Branko Marcetic wrote in Jacobin in October, the collective decision to entirely suppress the New York Post’s dubious, though hardly fabricated, reporting on Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and cheer on the censorship efforts of Facebook and Twitter — the latter social media giant, in an unprecedented move, locked the Post’s main account and temporarily blocked sharing of the story — could be a harbinger of what’s to come. The Post’s story should not have been promoted uncritically, but most media outlets failed in their first duty to the public: to report and find out what’s true and what’s false. Instead of attempting to verify the facts of the story and then deciding whether to dismiss all of it as bunk, media organizations blacked out the story without making even a perfunctory attempt to explain what it was that had been revealed in the first place and if any of it could be relevant to the public.
Still traumatized by 2016, when Democratic Party operatives attributed Trump’s victory to Wikileaks’ release of hacked emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, media organizations were determined not to be perceived as aiding and abetting a candidate they regarded as a threat to democracy itself. Once Trump was deemed a fascist — never mind that Trump was a historically weak president who accomplished relatively little beyond judicial appointments, as Corey Robin has convincingly argued — any and all reporting that could be perceived as damaging to his rivals was viewed by the Democratic readership as the greatest of transgressions.
But as long as Trump was president, at least none of this hindered the practice of accountability journalism vis-à-vis the executive branch.
What now? There is a real danger of slipping into a new normal, in which liberal-leaning newspapers and websites fail to report as aggressively on the Biden White House as they did on its predecessors. Aaron Rupar, a prominent Vox editor, recently dismissed an investigative report into the lucrative private-sector careers of Biden’s wealthy foreign policy team. “Blinken participated in society. The horror,” Rupar tweeted, referring to Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
Apparently, to some journalists, founding a high-dollar consulting firm with clients in the defense industry, Silicon Valley, and various hedge funds while also being a partner in a private equity firm can now be equated to the mere act of “participating in society,” as if this were an unavoidable part of everyday life. Had a Trump cabinet pick boasted a similar background, it’s unlikely Rupar would have been so blasé. The danger is that in the post-Trump era, Democratic corruption will be seen as acceptable because it’s not Republican corruption.
Those on the Biden beat should remember that the machinery of American government can be plenty destructive without Trump calling the shots. If they don’t, democracy can indeed die in darkness.