A number of media outlets are trying to spin a comment Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden made during a virtual town hall on racial justice Thursday night into a controversial statement that it most obviously is not.
During the online event, held with actor Don Cheadle, Biden said he has come to realize American history is a “constant push-and-pull” of progressive values and the forces of hate. He sought to appeal to people’s better aspirations, saying, “There are probably anywhere from 10 to 15% of the people out there that are just not very good people — but that’s not who we are.”
News outlets have homed in on the line about the “10 to 15% of people.” In doing so, they are on the verge of once again initiating a false coverage cycle of a candidate’s comments about fighting hate throughout the country — instead twisting it into a condemnation of people at large.
Media infamously did the same with Hillary Clinton when she said in 2016 that a “basket of deplorables” supported then-candidate Donald Trump (this media reaction came despite the mountain of evidence about hate groups supporting him and his own racist and misogynist comments throughout the campaign).
And at a time when polling shows the vast majority of the public disapproves of Trump’s handling of racial tensions in America, there will nevertheless be a major trend in right-wing media to somehow cast Biden as a divisive figure, and mainstream outlets will risk falling into the same framing trap.
The New York Times’ report on Biden’s comment was a case study in false equivalence and “both sides” journalism:
Mr. Biden’s comments harked back to controversial statements by past presidential nominees who generalized in negative terms about portions of the population. In 2012, Mitt Romney, whose taped comments at a private fund-raising event were later leaked, said “47 percent” of voters would never support him because they were “dependent on the government.” And in 2016, Hillary Clinton said half of Mr. Trump’s supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables.”
Mr. Trump, for his part, has made harsh, denigrating and insulting remarks about many individuals as well as whole groups of people and countries, including African-Americans, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, women, Jewish donors, and Haiti and some nations in Africa.
Likewise, USA Today posted a headline that directly compared Biden’s remarks with Clinton’s: “Biden says 10-15% of Americans are 'not very good people,' draws comparisons to Clinton 'deplorables' remark.” The article also mentioned “2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney's remarks about 47% of Americans being dependent on the federal government and not paying income tax.”
Fox News also dug in on Biden’s comment, seeking to cast it as some kind of terrible statement about a great number of Americans. Fox’s misrepresentation comes at a time when the network has been pumping up racist conspiracy theories, including known hoaxes, and alleging that the current protests and civil unrest over the police killing of Black Americans including George Floyd are really being organized for the violent overthrow of society and are inciting “vigilante justice.”
In the opening block of Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy compared Biden’s comment to both Romney’s infamous “47%” moment, as well as Clinton and the “basket of deplorables.”
Fox News correspondent and guest co-host Griff Jenkins chimed in: “Maybe Joe Biden will clarify who he’s talking about. But remember, this is a man who’s been in politics for more than four decades, and he just violated one of the golden rules — which is, don't alienate the electorate. Don’t discount potential voters at a moment like this, an inflection point of the nation.”
During a discussion about the violence that has broken out at demonstrations, former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders proclaimed, “One of the things that makes us so unique and so special is that we value all life — we value human life in all forms.” Co-host Ainsley Earhardt used that remark to pivot to Biden’s comment.
“Yeah, every life is important, and that's who we are as Americans,” Earhardt said. “If you listen to Joe Biden, though, he says there’s a percentage of them that are not good. Listen to this.”
Later on, Earhardt again attempted to cast Biden’s comment as a bad thing — and it was a stretch: “We all know that there are bad apples. It was just interesting that he considers, you know, 15% of America, 10 to 15%, bad apples. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Doocy also added: “When you look at the United States, which has got over 300 million Americans — if you talk about 15% of America being bad people, that is about 50 million people. And I got news for Joe Biden — Joe Biden would like most of those people to vote for him. Of course, we don’t know exactly who he’s talking about.”
Doocy also told Fox News correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera that Biden’s comment is the “number-one political sound bite of the day.”
“I think it's preposterous,” Rivera added. “You start limiting the American people — 15% is larger than many countries. It's a preposterous suggestion, it's another malaprop from the former vice president. I have a feeling that in the next 150-odd days, Vice President Biden will get plenty of fodder to this and other morning shows. He just seems to step on his tongue almost every time he opens his mouth.”
And during Fox’s daytime “news”-side coverage, guest anchor Trace Gallagher said on The Daily Briefing with Dana Perino that Biden was “taking heat for a comment he made about a big chunk of Americans.” Gallagher brought on Fox News contributor Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, who in turn condemned Biden in strong terms:
But when it comes to somebody being “divisive and polarizing to all extents,” as Fleischer accused Biden of being, it is worth remembering just the events of the past week: The Trump campaign dishonestly demanded that media outlets retract their reports that U.S. Park Police used tear gas against nonviolent protesters in Lafayette Square in order to clear the space for Trump to stage a photo-op outside a nearby church. Members of the clergy were also driven off of the church premises, and at least one was tear-gassed. And after the clergy members and other faith leaders criticized Trump’s actions, the response from both Trump administration figures and right-wing media has been to attack them.
The media focus on gaffes by Biden — whether they are genuine, or distortions — is in so many cases an attempt to distract from the sorts of things Trump does and says on a daily basis, which are invariably much worse. Fox News can be counted on to carry this tactic as far as it will go, while more mainstream outlets will fall into a “both sides” trap and spread it further.