We complain about U.S. media organizations’ shitty political coverage a lot around here, and with damn good reason. Hardworking, underpaid reporters toiling at local dailies still expose corruption and bring relevant facts to light for voters, as do similarly motivated national players like ProPublica.
But with few exceptions, the multimillionaire celebrity TV journos are hacks, and horserace-obsessed outlets like Politico and Axios trivialize issues with life-or-death stakes because in reality, their job is to sell space to people angling for government contracts.
This isn’t new, but a more recent scourge is politics desk reporters building personal brands on social media and squirreling away stories gleaned from assignments to repackage in books. That’s not exactly new either, but it seemed to reach a grotesque nadir (as so many things did!) after the 2016 election.
Some political reporters aired their mommy issues in dissecting Clinton’s campaign while others monetized access to Trump, both repugnant spectacles. But according to this piece by David Graham in The Atlantic, that era may be coming to a close because of Joe Biden and Elon Musk, who the author says are respectively helping to “kill the demand and the means for journalists to brand themselves.”
Donald Trump isn’t responsible for the celebrification of the press, but he supercharged it, especially in political journalism. During his presidency, the American public was more fixated on the news than it had been in decades. Journalists, in turn, became celebrities in their own right: Maggie Haberman of The New York Times became a household name thanks to her perpetual stream of Trump scoops. CNN’s Jim Acosta’s press-room grandstanding elevated his renown. The TV-retread Tucker Carlson found his moment as Trump’s greatest media apostle. Books about Trump seemed to shoot up the best-seller lists on a weekly basis.
This has all slowed to a crawl in the Biden era. The president has intentionally pursued a strategy of being boring and normal, and the result is much-reduced attention from the press. It’s hard to think of any reporter who has become a new, massive star since 2021. No Biden-book boom has ensued. Readership at news sites dropped after the 2020 election, and so have TV-news audiences. The calmer mood reverses an infamous tweet: The change is good for our country, but this is dull content.
Musk’s purchase and gradual demolition of Twitter is an even bigger part of the equation. Twitter was a branding machine that allowed reporters to make a direct connection with consumers. A clever or funny or piquant or simply hyperactive journalist could bypass the traditional gatekeepers of their outlet and become famous for something other than—or in addition to—whatever appeared under their byline. Now Twitter is disintegrating for reasons of both ideology and technology.
Graham believes Twitter will eventually collapse (at least as a de facto “town square”) under the weight of its owner’s penchant for rightwing trolling and technical/managerial flailing. Instead of its journo userbase and, critically, those users’ audiences reconstituting on a successor platform, Graham thinks we’ll see “a much more fragmented landscape.”
I don’t know if he’s right. But if a combination of Biden’s aversion to drama and Musk’s world-historical business incompetence puts a dent in the Beltway branding scam and diminishes direct-to-consumer sales of recycled reportage, who knows, maybe the hacks will do their damn jobs or leave so someone else can. If so, it might be the best thing to happen to political coverage since the invention of movable type.