Biden allies say media missing the mark on Afghanistan
Biden allies are heaping criticism on the national media for what they say is unfair coverage of the president’s handling of Afghanistan.
More than a dozen American troops died in a terrorist blast at the Kabul airport, an event that prompted several of the most seasoned voices in Democratic politics to unleash strong condemnation of the free press, claiming journalists have become cheerleading warmongers and suggesting that the news industry has made matters worse for the administration’s delicate operation on the ground.
Comparisons to the way the press reported on former President Trump have been drawn this week, causing some to scrutinize the coverage, as tragic scenes played on loop, stunning audiences at home and abroad.
“From 2015 until COVID, the media dishonestly refused to call a lie a lie. Now, equal coverage of Biden somehow translates to being identically acute,” said Philippe Reines, a media aficionado and longtime senior adviser to Hillary Clinton.
“The penalty for vehicular homicide is appropriately far harsher than doing 40 in a 25 zone. You’d never know it, though, watching cable news,” he said.
The influx of critiques from many in the Democratic Party is unusual in the post-Trump media landscape after the former president routinely reveled in the everyday bashing of journalists for what he saw as blanketed personal biases against him, his administration and his closest associates.
Following countless attempts by Trump to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his press coverage, often singling out reporters he didn’t like and riling up crowds to join in, Biden pledged on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office that things would be different.
The president promised not only to strike a more cordial tone but also to respect the media’s role as a critical component of a thriving democracy. In May, Biden acknowledged that concept explicitly by writing in an official White House statement, “Journalists uncover the truth, check the abuse of power, and demand transparency from those in power.”
But following his first major foreign crisis as commander in chief — a colossal geopolitical decision that past Democratic and Republican administrations had punted for years — some sympathetic to the president’s strategy have quickly come to his defense.
“Every Biden misstep or setback is treated like Trump said COVID will just go away, windmills cause cancer or that he won reelection,” Reines said. “If the goal is to be truly honest, accurate and fair when covering Biden, there are thousands of adjectives and countless degrees of indignation for the media to choose from. This isn’t hard.”
Reines is hardly alone in airing public fury. His tough appraisal is shared among other prominent operatives, party loyalists and liberal columnists who have massive online followings. Many have direct experience wrangling the press.
“Although I can’t subscribe to the idea that Biden is above criticism here — I think some of the criticism has been legitimate — I also think there are large sections of the media that are sensitive to the idea that they spent five years kicking the shit out of Donald Trump,” said Dan Kennedy, a professor at Northeastern University and veteran media critic.
In contrast to the Trump years, Biden has long appeared to enjoy comments by Democrats meant to flatter about the boring style of his politics, often promising he would give the public a much needed “return to normalcy.”
“Biden comes in, things are much more normal, they’re much smoother, and so he had gotten fairly favorable coverage,” Kennedy said, comparing the way major news events have played out between the administrations.
“While there were some fairly obvious mistakes that were made in this situation, I think there’s been an overreaction because a lot of elements of the press finally said, ‘Oh, thank God. We get to even it up.’”
The White House has stayed out of the press fight for the most part.
After early days of relative quiet from the president, Biden appeared before the national stage multiple times to brief the public in detail about the status of the evolving international situation. National security adviser Jake Sullivan also joined White House press secretary Jen Psaki to deliver additional context.
But things took a turn after detrimental images of Kabul in the Taliban’s control replayed on television networks, and there was an uptick in media disapproval from some Democratic defenders.
Over the past few days, officials have gone on Twitter to retweet allies who have taken on various press reports. That social media offensive has carried over from Biden’s presidential campaign, where staffers regularly sparred with reporters over what they perceived as unfavorable coverage.
Things became significantly more dire on Thursday evening after a suicide bomber killed 13 troops and left many more injured.
Biden sought to reassure Americans nervous about the foreign policy maneuver in an late-scheduled East Room briefing. “We can and we must complete this mission,” he said.
At another juncture, the president responded to a reporter’s question about the idea of personal responsibility as the nation’s top executive.
“I bear responsibility for fundamentally all that's happened of late,” Biden said before following up with a caveat that attempted to redirect some of the attention back to Trump. The former GOP president also wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan.
“You know as well as I do that the former president made a deal with the Taliban,” Biden said.
The pointed question was asked by Fox News’s Peter Doocy, with whom Psaki has occasionally clashed and dismissed at the podium.
Throughout the week, top Democrats became increasingly vocal about how Biden’s movements have been correct and how the press has been too harsh when reporting on the scene from Washington.
“Why the media is worse for Biden than Trump,” read a New York Magazine article written by Jonathan Chait. A few days prior, the magazine published another piece titled “The media manufactured Biden’s ‘fiasco’ in Afghanistan.” The story received a retweet by former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile, who added a bit of editorialization. “Hot off the Internet,” she wrote.
Another Democratic strategist well versed in media optics sharply lampooned journalists for their reporting on the administration’s withdrawal on air.
“There’s no elegant way to lose a war,” James Carville said in a late-night MSNBC appearance with anchor Brian Williams. “We lost this war 15 years ago. All Joe Biden was doing is telling us what time it is.”
“And the hysterical and stupid coverage of the mainstream press has been awful,” he said, visibly fed up.
The criticism, however, has not been confined to moderates. Many within the party’s left flank who are generally more outspoken about perceived media bias also accused reporters of, in one instance, “looking for blood” in the storyline.
“The establishment media loved Joe Biden until he did a good thing and tried to end the war in Afghanistan,” writer Branko Marcetic asserted in the far-left magazine Jacobian. “Now they’re looking for blood.”
Other observers who follow media trends say the criticism is just flat out unreasonable. They, in turn, are calling for a more nuanced approach.
“They’re upset that journalism is doing what it ought to be doing,” said Robert Thompson, a media scholar who is the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “The disturbing thing would have been covering Biden positively on this story.”
Thompson pointed to favorable coverage of Trump on partisan networks such as Fox News during his term in office. With Biden now at the helm, he said Democrats are clearly wondering why outlets such as CNN and MSNBC aren’t carrying water in the same way.
“Good journalism is not supposed to be good for administrations,” he said.
Likewise, others think news organizations and individual reporters shouldn’t be blamed for their coverage of a fumbled, albeit complex, attempt to bring a decades-long lost war to a halt.
Some former foreign policy hands who are particularly adept at dealing with the press are calling for more introspection from the White House, arguing that a lot of finger-pointing distracts from the more urgent point of exiting with key relationships intact.
“It's always easier to lie about war than be held accountable for what it's wrought,” said Elise Jordan, a former George W. Bush White House and State Department aide who worked on Afghanistan issues and is now a political analyst for NBC and MSNBC.
“When any administration blames the media rather than acknowledging that something might be wrong with their policy, the only thing that's inevitable is that more innocent lives will be lost. The Biden administration should focus on salvaging the effort to save our Afghan allies rather than wasting time blaming the media,” she said.