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Media isn't partisan. Democrats need to stop claiming it is.

Too often, Democrats make the dangerous mistake of viewing the media as an ally. It’s got to stop.
Photo illustration: A television set with a red screen looming over a donkey standing under it.
Bad things happen when Democrats' trust in the media morphs into thinking of the media as an ally instead of as a business.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," Les Moonves, CBS president at the time, declared during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Moonves added, “The money's rolling in and this is fun … this is going to be a very good year for us,” concluding, “Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

There has never been a “liberal media” bias as the GOP claims; it has always been a pro-revenue bias.

Those brutally honest words by the former head of CBS should be posted in the offices of Democrats across the nation — including in that of President Joe Biden’s press secretary. Moonves may have created a mini-uproar at the time, but he was broadcasting in HD exactly what motivates the corporate media: profits.

This is not a secret. If I asked what the No. 1 goal of big insurance or pharmaceutical companies is, you would say making a profit. It’s no different for corporate media outlets. In 2020, major cable news outlets saw nearly $6 billion in revenue, according to the Pew Research Center. That doesn’t even include the revenue the network news divisions raked in. There has never been a “liberal media” bias as the GOP claims; it has always been a pro-revenue bias.

A Gallup poll released in October found that 68 percent of Democrats “trust” the media a “great deal or fair amount.” In contrast, only 11 percent of Republicans say the same. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t trust the media; in an ideal world, we wouldn't have to question the integrity or ethics of the information we get from news outlets. But the danger occurs when this trust morphs into thinking of the media as an ally, instead of as a business.

And the simple truth that Democrats must recognize here is that the corporate media is not our friend. It’s also not our enemy. It’s simply a vessel to make billions of dollars in profits.

The history of the partisan divide on the media is that the GOP has long been in the business of smearing media critics to undermine the credibility of the entire industry, dating back to the 1950s with the infamous Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy. Trump himself, like Moonves, said the quiet part out loud when he told CBS’ Lesley Stahl during the 2016 presidential campaign that his attacks on the media are for one reason: “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

That explains Trump’s nonstop attacks on the media as being “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” There’s also the fact that many of us Democrats reflexively defend the media in response to Republicans’ smear campaigns against it. And again, ideally, we should. The media at its best helps to hold the people in power in check. But constantly coming to the defense of media without some critical thinking has also contributed to a false and equally harmful feeling among Democrats that the media is on our side.

A Gallup poll released in October found that 68 percent of Democrat “trust” the media a “great deal or fair amount.” In contrast, only 11 percent of Republicans say the same.

That’s not to say there aren’t countless journalists who work at big media outlets whose top priority is good journalism and journalistic ethics. But everyone involved in corporate media understands that bad ratings can mean the end of a job, and this likely impacts the content we see — from story selection to framing issues to amplify the drama.

Democrats have to change their approach to address this reality. First, Democrats need to stop being hesitant to call out anti-Democratic media stories when we see them. For example, in the months before Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill last week, the media narrative was that Democrats were in disarray.

In reality, it was a small percentage of Democrats who were not on board with that bill. And where was the media when congressional Republicans overwhelmingly refused to back a popular infrastructure bill that would finally address our roads, tunnels, broadband and other needs of our nation?

Democratic leaders from Biden to the Democratic National Committee to elected officials should have been pushing back against the “Democrats in disarray” narrative in a coordinated campaign to reframe the narrative as Democrats trying to deliver for Americans while the GOP is united to block the bill. Healthy pushback like this is not to delegitimize the media as the GOP has long been doing, but to pressure the media to present a full and accurate picture of the facts.

Drama sells, democracy does not.

Second, Democrats need to craft messages that will get traction in the major media landscape. Drama sells, democracy does not. That may be overly simplified, but Democrats need to understand that accomplishments often won’t get the press they deserve unless there’s a good story to tell.

Look at Biden’s economic recovery, for example. In Trump’s last full month in office, December 2020, unemployment was 6.7 percent, our economy lost 140,000 jobs that month alone, and Black and Hispanic unemployment was more than 9 percent. Compare that to where we are today: The jobs report for November released Friday reported that unemployment fell to a remarkable 4.2 percent and the labor participation rate hit its highest rate since March 2020. Add to that the fact that the stock market keeps setting new record highs. Remember when the stock market under Trump hit new highs and we saw a deluge of press coverage?

We barely see much media coverage on Biden’s economic success. Instead, the media is hyperfocused on the negative: inflation. While that’s a real issue, the coverage of that far eclipses the good economic news.

That’s where the Democrats need to step up their messaging game. This doesn’t mean more press conferences behind a podium. It’s about creating effective messaging that a media predicated upon profits will want to run with.

So remember, the bottom line is the bottom line for corporate media outlets. And Democrats can and must evolve in order to get their message out and push back against pro-GOP media bias. Biden and the Democrats have turned the economy around and enacted policies that are helping millions of Americans — it’s time Democrats craft a message that the media will be compelled to cover so that voters know this.