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On Record Covid Hospitalizations and ISIS Raid That Left 6 Children Dead, Media Asks: Will This Help Biden’s Approval Ratings?
Western media treats life-and-death issues like a game. This breeds cynicism.
Following revelations of Russia's use of bots and Facebook content to “sow discord” among the American public in 2016, it became a number-one cause célèbre among Western pundits to consternate about foreign enemies pushing cynicism on the American public. Why had voters grown so checked out of the political process? Why had they lost faith in institutions? Why was voter turnout so low compared to other “developed” countries? Clearly it must be sister foreign actors. While efforts by Russia were real, their impact was relatively minor. And while a far greater right-wing media machine has been pushing cynicism for decades, its existence can’t explain the sheer scope of the public’s discontent with the political process.
Another culprit mostly goes unnoticed: routine, everyday horse race press coverage that ignores essential issues that impact working people’s lives, glibly glides over the human stakes, and instead treats serious life-and-death issues like one big game. Coverage of two recent events paints a grim picture.
First was the news that the Biden administration had ordered a raid in Northwestern Syria and the killing of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who, the White House claims, blew himself up, killing 10 civilians. U.S. officials have lied about key details of counter-terror actions in the past, so this detail is far from certain. (Initially, the Obama White House said bin Laden used his wife as a human shield and fired on U.S. troops, a claim the White House later walked back. For days, the Biden White House insisted its August 2021 airstrike killed high valued ISIS targets and foiled an active terror plot. It was later revealed to have killed 10 aid workers who had nothing to do with terrorism.) But, even granting al-Qurayshi blew himself up, killing 10 civilians—10 civilians, including 6 children, still died. This is a sober event: Innocent humans died and, regardless of the strategic value of the target, it’s a tragedy in a long line of civilian deaths in the so-called War on Terror that ought be handled by U.S. media with context and care.
Instead, we got soulless meta-commentary about how greasing a terrorist bad guy would help Democrats in November. “Can Biden Overcome Accusations of Weakness With ISIS Raid?” U.S. News & World Report national security reporter Paul D. Shinkman asks. “Is Joe Biden on a bit of a rebound? ISIS strike, Omicron ebb give besieged president a boost,” USA Today asserts. “Can a situation room picture be worth millions of votes? Democrats hope Isis strike will show Biden ‘back in charge,’” wonders the Independent’s Andrew Buncombe. “The daring U.S. helicopter raid deep in Syria that ended in the death of one of the world's most wanted men gives Joe Biden the kind of dramatic military win presidents crave—and one the Democrat particularly needed,” the French news agency AFP writes. “Americans’ fears of the Islamic State suggest the death of Qurayshi will come as welcome news to many. It’s less clear whether the successful raid will boost Biden’s lackluster approval ratings,” the Washington Post speculates. “Biden lands a presidential moment,” CNN White House reporter Stephen Collinson cheers.
Like with Trump’s Syria airstrikes that won him uniform praise from American media outlets—which declared him, in one voice, “presidential”—the only means by which American leaders are said to be “presidential” is when they’re dealing out death. Caring for the vulnerable or sending out anti-poverty stimulus checks and child tax credits is never called “presidential.” Centering those with disabilities in the Covid response isn’t “presidential.” Providing paid sick leave, preventing evictions, protecting the rights of domestic workers, lobbying for universal pre-K—none of this is ever said to be “presidential.” Blowing away a revolving door of faceless terrorists and state enemies is.
Another glib example of “it’s all a game” style coverage of Biden’s policies—this time, his Covid strategy—can be found in the D.C. outlet Politico. In an article about Biden’s controversial pivot to a “new normal” of “learning to live” with Covid deaths, the focus was largely on how this strategy would help or hurt Democrats’ midterm prospects, with nary a mention of the potential risk to public health outcomes. The article, “So long, Omicron: White House eyes next phase of pandemic,” breezes by the current state of record hospitalization and near-record deaths, to paint a rosy, largely speculative picture of Covid in decline come summer. While the words “disability” and “immunocompromised” are nowhere to be found in the article, we do get several mentions of how the plan would maybe, perhaps help Biden and the Democrats’ electoral chances in the midterms:
“officials anticipating a spring lull that could boost the nation’s mood and lift President Joe Biden’s approval ratings at a critical moment for his party.”
“Democrats now view an improvement in the pandemic over the next few months as the party’s only clear shot at boosting their midterm prospects.”
“Among administration officials, there is similar widespread belief that Biden’s popularity is closely tied to public perception of the health crisis—and that as the Omicron surge recedes, so will voters’ dissatisfaction with his administration.”
“‘The best political strategy is not to have it dominate the news every day,’ said Leslie Dach, a former Obama-era senior health official and chair of the Democrat-aligned group Protect Our Care.”
Details of a newly announced—and potentially dangerous—strategy of “living with Covid” are glossed over and, instead, the reader is provided with several paragraphs of guesswork about how Biden’s strategy may or may not help one party’s political prospects. Buried at the very end of the article is the actual news: that the Biden White House doesn’t have the funds to combat a new variant should it likely emerge:
“We are out of money,” one of the people with knowledge of the matter said.
The administration has floated tucking additional Covid funding into the upcoming bill that Congress must pass to keep the government open. But the amount needed to build out its supplies of vaccines and therapeutics could stretch into the tens of billions of dollars. It’s still unclear how much lawmakers will be willing to appropriate, or whether they’ll be able to reach an overall funding deal by the Feb. 18 deadline.
What we should see is a headline of “White House Says It Doesn’t Have Funding to Combat a New Variant,” or, “New Covid Strategy Could Impact Most Vulnerable,” with a focus on the potential risks posed by this underfunding, and the White House’s seeming unwillingness to prepare for the next surge. Instead, we get a largely horse-race non-story speculating about how perceptions of Covid ending may or may not affect midterm results six months from now.
Substance is skirted for speculation, the human stakes of children dying in military raids or Covid’s impact on the vulnerable are buried in paragraph 17, and readers come away with the distinct impression that no one in power actually takes any of these life-and-death issues that seriously. And a thousand more cynics are born.