On October 8, Joe Biden told Americans that he would be keeping some policy positions—notably, his feelings about adding justices to the U.S. Supreme Court—to himself until after they made him president. “You’ll know my opinion on court-packing when the election is over,” he said. The next day, pressed by a reporter about whether or not he thought the American people “deserve to know” his position on such an important issue, Biden was tetchy: “No, they don’t deserve to.”
What happened in the wake of these remarks offers a glimpse into how the mainstream media will likely operate if Biden wins the White House. Although the exchanges took place only a few weeks before Election Day, they marked the first time the press applied any meaningful pressure on Biden once he’d secured the Democratic nomination back in February. The press had largely downplayed or ignored the kind of statements that would have filled several news cycles if Biden were President Trump or any other Republican candidate. Remember in May, when Biden appeared on the talk-radio show “The Breakfast Club” and said to African Americans, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black”? Probably not, since mainstream media reporters never brought it up again.
The pressure on Biden was not very intense even so. When he was asked about court-packing again on October 10, he staked out a position that was blatantly false but eagerly embraced as gospel truth by the press: “The only court-packing that’s going on right now is going on with Republicans,” Biden said. Three days later, Biden repeated the claim: “I’ve already spoken on—I’m not a fan of court-packing. But I’m not—I don’t want to get off on that whole issue,” he said on WKRC TV. “I want to keep focused.” His focus was less on clarifying what he meant by “not a fan” than on continuing to promote the Big Lie about court-packing. Biden pointed to Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and said, “That’s the court-packing the public should be focused on.”
The press quickly embraced this as the last word on Biden’s position and continued referring to “court-packing” as something Republican senators do when they fulfill their constitutional role of filling vacancies on the federal courts rather than as it is traditionally defined: that would be, passing legislation to increase the number of seats on the Supreme Court that could then be filled by judges more amenable to the party in power.
Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post called the constitutionally mandated Senate confirmation process of Judge Barrett “slow-motion court packing in plain sight,” while the New York Times accused Republicans of trying to “weaponize growing calls for court expansion.” CNN anchor Don Lemon complained that the media shouldn’t even be asking Biden about his position: “I think it is a red herring because you don’t want to talk about how Mitch McConnell has packed the court over the years. Mitch McConnell has packed the courts, so if you want ask about packing the courts, why don’t you ask Mitch McConnell.”
Listening to mainstream media outlets recently, you would never know that for years, liberal activists have embraced the idea of increasing the size of the U.S. Supreme Court as part of an effort to dilute the influence of conservative justices. As Aaron Belkin, the director of liberal activist group Take Back the Court told the Times recently, he and others have been waging “a campaign to inform the public about the urgency of court expansion as a necessary step to restore democracy.” As for those claiming it is Republicans “weaponizing” this idea, consider the tone of the slogan on Take Back the Court’s home page: “Democracy will die unless we take back the Court.”
Take Back the Court’s idea of democracy is almost identical to that of most progressives—and their many allies in the media. They argue, “To restore the right to vote, ensure reproductive freedom, protect workers, halt our climate emergency, and save democracy, Congress must add seats to the U.S. Supreme Court.” The group boasts that as of September, “17 progressive groups including Sunrise Movement and NextGen America are calling for expansion; and prominent leaders such as Eric Holder have endorsed expansion.”
Nicole Hemmer, who works with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project, went even further, urging Democrats to embrace a fully politicized third branch of government. As she argued on CNN: “That likely means court expansion, but also a raft of judicial reforms ranging from Supreme Court term limits to narrowing its jurisdiction. It likely means coming to terms with a reality most Americans have never really confronted: The court has never been apolitical, and even with reforms, there will be fights over its composition and power—fights Democrats must be willing to take up.”
This eager embrace of Biden’s misleading messaging masks another fact: It should have been politically simple to craft a message acknowledging that, on this issue, most Americans, and even most Democrats, don’t think court-packing is a good idea. A survey commissioned by the New York Times in July found that only “19 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of Democrats favored expanding the court.” By rebranding court-packing as something Republicans are already doing (which they’re not) rather than as something only the most extreme activists want, reporters have failed to do their job of informing the public and holding elected officials to account for their views.
This media re-norming has been going on for some time, but it has accelerated during the Trump presidency. You see it in calls for journalists to embrace “moral clarity” and “my truth” over objective reporting, particularly on matters related to race and sex. You see it in newsrooms that cave to the ideological demands of their staffers, regardless of whether or not those demands comport with journalistic integrity. As our politics become more polarized, and the mainstream media more progressive, they are increasingly committed to re-norming journalistic standards toward the Big Lie, so long as the lie suits their ideological preferences. Hence we get riots and violence described as “mostly peaceful”; the Associated Press style guide advising journalists not to use words such as “looting” because of their “racial overtones”; and now, a conclave of journalists embracing the lie that senators filling vacancies constitutes “court-packing.”
It’s worth noting that while Biden has branded himself the anti-Trump—a moderate who will return the country to pre-Trump, pre-pandemic normalcy and civility—he is nevertheless running on the most liberal platform the Democrats have ever devised, with a running mate considered one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate. Few in the mainstream media appear to have any interesting in exploring this sharp leftward shift in the Democratic Party, perhaps because they welcome it.
Today, many in the mainstream media believe that Donald Trump is an existential threat to democracy and so have abandoned any attempt to practice tough but fair-minded journalism. According to this mindset, gaslighting isn’t gaslighting if it’s done in the service of saving democracy, words can be redefined so long as it is for ideological gain, and inconvenient truths can be memory-holed to suit the correct narrative. The media have effectively become the Resistance. If their recent behavior with regard to Biden and court-packing is any guide, it will be impossible for them to be properly skeptical toward a Biden administration, because they have already created an ideological infrastructure that won’t allow for it. After all, how can you challenge the man who saved democracy from Donald Trump?
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