Democrats Should Push Back On Lazy Media Tropes

[ Posted Monday, February 25th, 2019 – 18:58 UTC ]

Democrats are, if the political media is to be believed, in a soul-searching phase right now, deciding what exactly the party stands for and what they should run their next campaign on. They are deeply divided, the pundits tell us, between the "far left" and the pragmatists who don't want to win the primaries only to lose the general election. They can't even agree on which demographic will be the key one to delivering victory in 2020.

In reality, Democrats are actually a pretty united bunch right now, laser-focused on one overriding shared goal: defeating Donald Trump and his Trumpist Republicans. This singleminded dedication to defeating a sitting president is nothing new in American politics, of course, and goes back (at the very least) to the formation of the Whig Party in response to Andrew Jackson's perceived monarchical rule (the party's name was even a continuation of this theme, as the British Whigs were anti-royalist). Democratic politicians and rank-and-file voters all largely agree that the 2020 campaign should primarily be about booting Trump out of the Oval Office, and everything else is secondary to that larger goal. This was so apparent in the 2018 midterm elections that Democratic politicians barely even had to mention Trump, because it simply was not necessary -- Democratic voters were already fully on board with that goal to such an extent that it didn't even need to be said by the candidates, which freed them up to campaign on more concrete issues.

Party unity, however, doesn't sell newspapers. Which is why, throughout the 2018 campaign season, the mainstream media desperately tried to convince Democratic candidates that the real election issue they should be debating was whether to immediately impeach Trump or not. Thankfully, Democrats refused to take this bait and ran their campaigns on protecting Obamacare and people with pre-existing conditions. To great effect.

This time around, the inside-the-Beltway media chorus will whip itself into even more of a frenzy over non-issues within the party. So here's a novel idea: why not push back against all the false equivalencies and false dichotomies in the press? Democrats should steal a page from the Republican playbook which they've been using (with various degrees of success) for the past three or four decades. In short, Democrats need to learn how to "work the refs" better.


False dichotomies

The most obvious first candidate for some Democratic pushback is debunking all the false dichotomies the media loves to draw within the Democratic Party itself. How many articles have been written on the theme: "Democrats struggle to decide whether to run a campaign targeting minority voter concerns or one which appeals primarily to Midwestern blue-collar white voters" so far in this election cycle? Whatever the qualitative answer to that question is, it can be summed up as "far too many." Democratic pushback on this one is pretty easy, because it could easily fit on a tweet: "Why can't we focus on both?"

Attacking economic injustice and inequality just is not mutually exclusive with championing minority voters' concerns. Does the media really think black and Latino families don't worry about making ends meet? Economic injustice and the rigged nature of American capitalism aren't solely the concern of white people in states touching the Great Lakes, after all. Focusing on creating a fairer playing field is important to all, and it's time to call the media out for always acting like it is a racially-exclusive issue. Kitchen table issues affect everyone's kitchen table.

Democrats should also call out the Republican-led false dichotomy of whether the party stands for capitalism versus socialism. The media is already running with this one, to the delight of Republican strategists everywhere. Democrats need to point out that everything they have achieved over the last century -- back to F.D.R.'s New Deal and beyond -- was called "socialism" by Republicans in an effort to demonize popular ideas like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. There is a big difference between textbook socialism and creating a much more level playing field, and Democrats should point this out -- with historical examples -- as much as possible. Basic fairness isn't socialism. Adding some more rules to the game so Main Street is on a more level playing field with Wall Street is actually quite popular, and will not instantly transform America into Venezuela. It just won't, no matter what Republicans say. The socialism label is already a big campaign theme for Trump and the Republicans, so Democrats need to push back against the media getting swept up into this false dichotomy.


False equivalencies

Democrats also need to fight hard against lazy media tropes about how the two parties are essentially equal when they most certainly are not. This, in fact, should be an ongoing effort by Democrats, because it is the result of all those years of Republicans working the media refs in their favor. If the Republican Party as a whole is getting away with murder, equating it to one Democrat who had one verbal stumble is simply wrong, period. This "whataboutism" must be strongly pushed back against, if only for the fact that it has become so pervasive.

Take but one example -- Elizabeth Warren's DNA test. How much media ink has been spilled endlessly obsessing over the ramifications of this event? How many articles have been written on the theme of: "Warren has absolutely disqualified herself from the presidential race due to her handling of her DNA test"? This test, it is seldom actually reported, proved exactly the claim Warren has been making all along. It vindicated her oral family history of a Native American ancestor in her distant past.

But let's just pretend for a moment that it hadn't. Say her test had come back showing zero Native American DNA. Then, perhaps, some of those stories might have had a shred of justification. But only a shred. Because the basic media premise still would have been that Warren had disqualified herself from the running for telling a story she had been told as a child and believing it, while Donald Trump has gotten a gigantic free pass on over 8,000 blatant lies he has told while president. This would be a textbook definition of false equivalency in the media -- if it had turned out that Warren wasn't telling the truth. Of course, she was, so it doesn't even qualify as such.

That's just one discrete example, but the problem is much bigger than one Democrat's candidacy. When a Republican politician is caught saying blatantly racist or sexist things, the rest of their party essentially shrugs their shoulders and sweeps it under the rug. When Democrats are caught in such situations, the entire party is called to account by the media -- every member of Congress that can be tracked down is asked what their reaction is, and every one of these quotes is pored over for significance by the media. Why does the Republican Party get such a free pass? Because Democrats don't point out the false equivalence hard enough.

Republicans have perfected their answers to such scandals within their own party, which is why political wonks now know the term "whataboutism." A Republican is quoted saying something odious and other Republicans respond with: "But what about that time when [Bill Clinton / Hillary Clinton / Al Franken / Al Sharpton / etc.] said or did this?" The media happily goes chasing after this red herring and writes yet another "both parties are to blame" story. Meanwhile, journalists never seem to get around to getting a quote from Mitch McConnell or other GOP leaders reacting to the odious Republican gaffe which prompted the subject in the first place.

Donald Trump, of course, is a master of such red herrings. One tweet from him and the pack of media hounds is easily distracted by whatever squirrelly subject he tosses out. The initial scandal is all but forgotten in the rush to cover the Trumpian tweet. Democrats need to point out how the parties themselves react to scandal within their ranks, because the difference between the two parties is anything but equivalent.


Work the refs

Democrats should not shy away from directly taking on the media's laziness and willingness to use Republican frames when writing their articles and opinion pieces. Bernie Sanders just brilliantly showed how to do this in one of his first interviews after announcing his second run for the presidency. When asked about the possible independent candidacy of Howard Schultz, Bernie immediately reframed the issue and threw it back at CBS interviewer John Dickerson:

Oh, isn't that nice? Why is Howard Schultz on every television station in this country? Why are you quoting Howard Schultz? Because he's a billionaire. There are a lot of people I know personally who work hard for a living and make 40 or 50 thousand dollars a year who know a lot more about politics than, with all due respect, does Mr. Schultz. But because we have a corrupt system, anybody who is a billionaire and can throw a lot of TV ads around on television suddenly becomes very, very credible.

Dickerson was visibly taken aback by this answer, because he (and plenty of other journalists) are just not used to such pushback from Democrats. Bernie correctly pointed out why Schultz was getting so much free airtime -- without even declaring a run for the White House, mind you -- and the thought had quite obviously never crossed Dickerson's mind, or at the least not framed quite so bluntly.

Again, this is just one example. Bernie's certainly not the only Democrat pushing back in such a fashion, on multiple issues. But they need to get better at it because Republicans have had so much success in working the refs up to this point.

The most obvious candidate for some pushback is the GOP talking point that progressive Democrats are the "far left" or the "extreme" of the Democratic Party -- and, by extension, of American politics as a whole. You hear this trope in just about any story about the Democratic presidential candidates or Democratic Party politics in general.

The reality, however, is that what both the GOP and many in the media label "far left" is actually solidly mainstream among nationwide voters. Democrats need to point this out as forcefully as possible:

"You call the issues Democratic progressives are running on 'far left,' but that's just using the Republicans' false language to describe what is really going on out there. On progressive issue after progressive issue -- from raising the minimum wage to Medicare-for-all to taxing the wealthiest Americans far more than we do now -- a majority of the American public agrees with what progressives are proposing. Let me repeat that term, because it is the one you should be using: a majority. Check the polling if you don't believe me. Taxing the rich more polls at anywhere from 50 percent to as high as 80 percent. Ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage have passed in some very deep red states in the past few years. Progressives are not some species of radical or extremist, they are in fact responding to what the public actually wants from politicians. A clear majority of the public, in fact, and sometimes very large majorities. This means that all of these ideas are not 'far left' or 'radical' or any other Republican scare word, but in fact they are where the mainstream of American politics is right now. Calling it anything but mainstream is simply fearmongering from the right over issues their own base actually wants to see happen, and I really wish you'd call it what it actually is rather than buying into their fearmongering."

The media as a whole is oversensitive to accusations that they are biased. They try to remain as neutral as possible, but for the past three decades (at the very least) this has been defined as: "let's give the Republican position some deference so we aren't labelled the 'liberal media'." This is because conservatives have been so successful at working the media refs. It doesn't matter how false the equivalencies are, they are always trotted out to "provide balance."

It's high time Democrats started playing this game too. Call out the false dichotomies and equivalencies when faced with them! Strongly reject the inside-the-Beltway "conventional wisdom" when it is so patently wrong. Taunt the journalists for being "out of touch with real Americans," because they are always extra-sensitive that they are somehow missing the larger picture (now even more so, after the 2016 election coverage fiasco). "You and your cocktail-party buddies all may think that, but the actual polls show that the voters think very differently" is a powerful goad, especially when backed up with solid poll numbers. Conventional media wisdom is often wrong, and Democrats need to leverage the doubts mainstream media pundits may have about such facile thinking by directly challenging it as nothing short of lazy political journalism. There's an easy way to point this out, and that is:

"Nobody in the political chattering class saw Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders coming. Nobody thought Bernie had even a prayer of beating Hillary Clinton, and yet he came very close to doing so, because he tapped into something that all of you people missed. Likewise with Trump -- all the pundits sneered at him and sneered at his popularity for far too long. Maybe this time around you'll make the effort to get out of Washington and New York and talk to some actual heartland voters before you start acting so dismissively of things you personally consider too radical or too unlikely to happen. Maybe then you'll stop parroting Republican talking points and start reporting on what the electorate actually wants from politics these days. But I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen, personally, because just regurgitating inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom is so much easier to do, isn't it?"

It's certainly worth a try.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


21 Comments on “Democrats Should Push Back On Lazy Media Tropes”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    The Democrats have something far more dangerous than Trump to overcome and that is the devolutionary American media culture, without which Trump wouldn't have been elected in the first place.

    Democrats should choose their nominee wisely.

  2. [2] 
    James T Canuck wrote:

    I'm not sure how many here sully themselves with FOX NEWS, but a few hours a day would mortify you into realising what CW is driving at. To listen to these pseudo-news people harp on about the 'extreme left' or 'socialist democrats' incessantly is as painful to watch as it is funny. Every man-jack of them seem to be playing some sort of swear-jar game where they get points for saying the democrats are being lead by the 'extreme leftist wing of the party'. It's embarrassing to see adults turn themselves into pretzels trying to shout down basic points like, healthcare being a right, taxing the rich and climate change. And the lies...shit, I've never seen so much bald-faced BS in my life. I know, in this country, if CTV or CBC wheeled out news figures who made shit up as they went along, they'd have the CRTC on them quicker than boiled asparagus. FOX's 'lie de jour' is that the dems have purposely booked Cohen into three days of house hearings to deliberately upstage Trump and his bed-in with Jong un. Utter crap. It's Trump who decided within two weeks to go out of town, to be elsewhere while Cohen spilled his guts. You wouldn't know it if you were wired solely to FOX.

    CW is spot on where certain media is concerned, Trump has been the gift that keeps on giving for three years. I hope traditionally left-leaning media have eaten their fill from the Trump-trough by the time 2020 comes around. Send cameras to Trump rallies, but don't air the nonsense live so you can sit around after and dissect it for your audience, everyone can imagine what Trump demagoguery looks and sounds like. Sure as eggs are eggs, FOX won't be doing full length coverage of Bernie, Biden or Harris political rallies, they wouldn't dare expose their viewership to the real dem message... nothing good can come from sensationalising such drivel, just look back to 2016 if I've missed my mark.


  3. [3] 
    neilm wrote:

    The Republicans ripped themselves to pieces and the weight of the media lambasted Trump as the clown he is and he still won.

    The right message, which will come out via the primaries, and anger at Trump will win the Democrats the house in 2020. I very seldom make predictions and I'm already wanting to hedge because I'm outside my comfort zone, but for God's sake, Trump is a disaster and 2018 was just a way to send him a message - can you imagine the passion when we get to fire his ass?

  4. [4] 
    neilm wrote:

    The campaign slogan for the Democrats just needs to be "Hey Trump - You're Fired!"

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Good luck with that.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    republicans made the same mistake going up against obama in 2012. they were too focused on their passion against their opponent, and they fielded a weak candidate with a weak message.

  7. [7] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Yes. They looked at their wins in 2010, and said, 'this is what we'll run on', and lost.

    This mistake is made nearly every time, because it's easier to follow the ideological crowd than to make the mental shift from 'midterms' to 'general election', as they should.

    But it's actually really easy: midterms are won on bread-n-butter issues, general elections are won on enthusiasm.

    So no offense, Liz, but Neil has it just about right.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    No offense taken, naturally.

    So, do you think the media had no role in Trump's electoral college win in 2018?

  9. [9] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    One could get the impression from this article that CW and all the rest of you Weigantians have totally forgotten that with the exception of Fox News, all media people and organizations are somewhere between left and far -left on the political spectrum.

  10. [10] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Liz M

    "The media" (defined as everybody but Fox), play a dual role in the world - that of advocating for their (left-wing) politics, and spreading the current news (defined as whatever sells papers or attracts viewers).

    Accordingly, any positive role that they played in Trump's win would fall under the heading of making people aware of Clinton's negatives, of which there was an abundance, and NOT of advocating in favor of Trump.

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    It's decidedly not a question of advocating for Trump.

    The issue here is whether the devolutionary American media - in all of its forms - lack the prerequisite journalistic judgement to understand what is happening around them.

    Yes, there are many contributing factors to Trump's election but nothing enabled his rise to power more than the lavish attention heaped on him by the media, hopelessly coupled with their firm belief in the fantasy that Hillary was inevitable.

    The general practice of the ADD afflicted media continues. And, that is a worrisome thing.

  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Let's hope that the special counsel is every bit as adept at marshalling the media as Trump is. :)

  13. [13] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Liz M [12]

    Mostly in agreement, but it's worth noting that "lavish attention" pretty much meant pointing out that he was at best a marginally competent, morally repugnant misogynist of questionable character. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, except maybe like some Hollywood types say, "All publicity is good".

  14. [14] 
    Paula wrote:

    CW: Yep.

  15. [15] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Liz [9]: So, do you think the media had no role in Trump's electoral college win in 2018?

    No, but I certainly think they contributed to it in 2016, to excess. Some estimates are up to $2 billion dollars worth of free media. And they've never explained it, to my satisfaction. I mean, the moment that Trump did the racist rant should have been when the cameras went dark, right? Are we now giving bigger platforms to white supremacists? I think it's time to answer that.

  16. [16] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Hmmmm: Democrats generally believe that when they go low, .we should go high. So there's that.

  17. [17] 
    Paula wrote:

    So, today on twitter there's been a bunch of reactions to a tweet thread alleging that the woman who asked Bernie about sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign on CNN's Town Hall last night has been doxxed and harassed online by Berniers.

    So, at first I wasn't going to look into it - who knows if it's true? But it kept spreading and people started reporting the guy who appeared to start the whole thing to twitter police and it has evidently been taken seriously enough that Josh Orton, "Senior Advisor" to Bernie's campaign tweeted to that man that the behavior was inappropriate and did not help Bernie.

    Here's one of the many threads about it, fwiw:

    I bring this up for a couple of reasons.

    First, Berniers and fake-Berniers did/do harass people online, primarily women. Women who don't like Bernie and get too noticeable are targeted. The guy who started it all claims he didn't mean for this to happen although he left the tweet up for hours - it may still be up.

    The difference now is there's a much better understanding than there was in 2016 about it happening and people are much more likely to push back hard. So that's "good".

    Second: Josh Orton is smart enough to know this has to be dealt with. Whether he can in any useful way remains to be seen, but kudos for trying.

    Third: Bernie has not wanted to have to deal with any of this - and if it had stayed in the past, he might have been able to say it's old news. But because he allowed it to become so prevalent and virulent in 2016 he's got a problem on his hands now that isn't going to go away without some real effort.

    As can be imagined, Bernie's Town Hall elicited a range of responses, from his fans high praise to his detractors' criticisms. But to start the day after by having a fan rain hell down on a woman for asking a critical question will do nothing soothe detractors.

  18. [18] 
    Paula wrote:

    This tweet has a screenshot of the inciting tweet:

  19. [19] 
    Kick wrote:


    Quite right. In fact, the "socialist" drivel from the right-wing has been trotted out for several decades now; it is nearly matched by their "communist" drivel of prior elections, which "red" bashing we'll not likely hear during the 2020 election because Benedict Donald Treasonous Trump has such a "special relationship" with so many of his fellow Comrades. #Putin'sBitch

  20. [20] 
    Kick wrote:


    One could get the impression from this article that CW and all the rest of you Weigantians have totally forgotten that with the exception of Fox News, all media people and organizations are somewhere between left and far -left on the political spectrum.

    Wow, CRS, your initials really do suit you quite accurately.

    Here, let me help your pathetic and perpetual case of "CRS disease" with additional examples of instances of "media people and organizations" that aren't the least bit "left and far-left":

    * One America News Network
    * Blaze Media
    * INSP
    * RT TV... formerly Russia Today
    * Newsmax
    * Alex Jones
    * The American Spectator
    * The American Conservative
    * The Washington Examiner
    * The Weekly Standard
    * American Thinker
    * New York Post
    * The Washington Times
    * Drudge Report
    * The Blaze
    * The Daily Caller
    * The Daily Wire
    * The Bulwark
    * Independent Journal Review
    * LifeZette
    * The Gateway Pundit
    * PJ Media
    * The Federalist
    * Right Side Broadcasting Network
    * CNSNews
    * The Washington Free Beacon
    * Rebel Media
    * Twitchy
    * Free Republic
    * WorldNetDaily
    * Infowars
    * Freedom Wire
    * Hot Air
    * RedState

    If you need more examples from someone who Can Remember Shit, let me know. :)

  21. [21] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Kick- 21

    Nice work!

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