This article about the abrupt shift in news coverage of President Biden’s performance, which features a Q&A with media scholar Thomas E. Patterson, was republished with permission from The Harvard Gazette, where it first appeared.
President Biden’s abrupt move from the political outhouse to penthouse in a few short weeks has been head-spinning.
His approval ratings had been in a slump for nearly a year, hitting a low in July. The dominant media narrative was that he and the Democrats were accomplishing little despite having control of both Congress and the White House and that voters would make them pay in the November midterms. In fact, as Biden battled COVID through late July, some Democrats even started saying he should not run for re-election in 2024, intimating that he was too old and unpopular.
Then, things shifted. Democrats pushed through several major bills, including one on gun safety, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, and suddenly these, along with Biden’s earlier legislative wins and foreign policy achievements, drew renewed attention in news stories and praise from pundits — and voters — saying the president is giving Democrats momentum heading into the fall.
The Gazette asked Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard Kennedy School who studied the media’s coverage of the 2016 and 2020 presidential cycles, to explain the hasty shift in tone on Biden. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: All presidents go through ups and downs in the press, but this 180-degree shift on Biden seemed unusually swift. What happened?
PATTERSON: The press always does this. There is a meta narrative that settles into the news coverage and that frames even how journalists look at developments. With some of the bills coming through the Congress, there was more talk about what was dropped out of them than what benefits were in them, as if he was dealing with the same kind of Congress that Obama had. Obama, up until Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death, had a filibuster-proof Senate and a huge majority of the House. Biden has a very narrow House majority, and unless you keep all the Democrats together on these bills, most times you don’t have a chance.
There’s almost no accounting of the context in which leadership is taking place — that’s been a longtime complaint about the press back to the Hutchins Commission of the late ’40s. There’s very little context, very little attempt to put into a shape and a form and background that gives people a more complete understanding. They just go for the bottom line: “He’s not doing all that well.”
Those are longstanding tendencies and weaknesses in coverage and a lot of it goes to a space limitation. They don’t always have the time and space to dig into context, to let people know what’s actually going on, so they go for the quick and easy, which is “Boy, did he screw this one up.” He’s probably getting too much credit at the moment for the good things. A lot of the “turnaround” is the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
GAZETTE: Was this a justified reaction to a spate of significant news that occurred within two weeks or was it a case of the press caught flat-footed on two huge stories — the Inflation Reduction Act and the death of an al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri — that sparked a collective reevaluation of the prevailing narrative of an ineffectual White House?
PATTERSON: I think you’re onto something here. Even if you go back and look at the abortion coverage and how Biden was portrayed, the reporting was all about why didn’t he have executive orders already in place? Why was he behind the curve? I wrote a book in the ’90s about media narratives. When your poll numbers are bad, almost everything that’s said about you is going to be bad because it fits the narrative. So, the press is always looking for where the weakness is that illustrates why you’re stumbling around. On the other hand, when things are on the rise, the press is picking out, from all the things going on at any given time, those things that shed someone in a good light.
GAZETTE: What does this episode tell us about how the press covers politics?
PATTERSON: If you think about political journalists, they read each other; they talk to each other a lot. There’s kind of a groupthink about where things are. And then, they have some common indicators, and, obviously, with Biden’s poll numbers being in the tank, it’s hard to tell a good story about a president. But, in some ways, that’s the point: It’s the external environment that often drives the narrative as much as the realities.
It’s died down recently, but age was a very big sub-theme of the narrative about Biden. I never saw a single story that ever connected his age to questions of how would a 50-year-old have dealt with a Senate that was 50-50? There was no accounting for how much is age and how much is other factors, but that became almost like gospel and then every time somebody talked about “maybe we need to change horses in 2024 because of age,” suddenly because age is on the radar, that’s more likely to be a story.
All the things we know about cue-taking within journalism are always in play and go a long way to explain these things. What studies have shown — the economy is a very good example of this — is usually the coverage is about a month or two behind the reality. The press turnaround in Biden’s case was pretty fast, but ordinarily, when the conditions on the ground change, it takes a while for that to work its way into the journalism narrative. You started this narrative; you’re building off this narrative. Pieces that support it stand out more when they happen because that is the way you’re looking at the world: “Biden’s weak,” “things aren’t going well,” “he didn’t get that done.” You start to see those things. We all do this; this is the way our minds work. It’s not just journalism. We’re looking at normal human behavior here.
GAZETTE: Has the coverage of President Biden generally been more negative than warranted? How does it compare to the way Trump, Obama, and other presidents were covered?
PATTERSON: I think it’s journalism as usual, even though I think he’s had a tough ride. Those may seem contradictory, but Trump had a better hand his first year. Congress was more favorably balanced for Republicans — he didn’t need all of them to get something done. He got one big bill through, that was the 2017 Tax Cuts and jobs bill. Biden has done a lot more than that.
It’s hard to compare him with Obama. Democrats had large majorities then, but they didn’t deal with “the Dreamers;” they didn’t deal with immigration reform; they didn’t deal with climate change in any significant way. And yet, Obama got quite good coverage. He also got much better coverage in 2008 than Hillary Clinton did. The press really hammered her. Press was as much the reason she lost that election as Obama.
Bill Clinton, in the first two years, had a much better Congress than Biden. He got quite a bit done, but he had the better hand. That, in my mind, means journalists have to look at the conditions under which presidents are operating. Once in a while, like LBJ in ’65, Franklin Roosevelt in ’33, you can do great things as president if you have huge majorities in the Congress. When you don’t have this kind of majority, you can’t. It’s just not possible. So, is Biden maximizing a very bad situation? He didn’t get dealt a good hand. Has he done as much as he could possibly have done with that hand? That should have been the question. It was never the question.
GAZETTE: The press came under heavy criticism, by you and many others, for coverage of the 2016 and 2020 elections. Which lessons remain unlearned?
PATTERSON: If Trump runs again, throw the rulebook out. Journalism covered Trump unlike anybody they’ve covered before. And it’s not a Republican thing; it’s much more the press as a watchdog of democratic norms. It’s an undervalued role that they play and a really important one. Those supersede any kind of journalistic norm about fairness, objectivity, and the like. At the moment, the Republicans have gone deep into the dark side of democracy, so it’s a little hard for journalists to ignore. That would really go against their centuries-long tradition. This is about small “d” democracy; this isn’t about partisanship. I do expect the press not to get into the “he said/she said” false equivalencies. And anytime that a party begins to engage in bigotry and use prejudice as a cudgel, the press needs to call that out as a violation of democratic norms.