Less than two weeks before Election Day 2020, Jill Biden famously tweeted: “Empathy is on the ballot.” Her message was that her husband, then-candidate Joe Biden, had traits that allowed him to feel and understand the pain people experience in times of great heartache, tragedy and stress.
That has turned out to be less than true, and you don’t have to be the seventh Biden grandchild — the until-recently ignored little girl fathered by first son Hunter Biden — to realize it.
When wildfires tore through parts of the Hawaiian island of Maui this month, killing more than 100 people (as known so far) and largely destroying the historic town of Lahaina, it seemed a perfect time for the king of empathy to live up to his reputation. But he did not.
The fires began spreading on Aug. 8 and generated scores of headlines and tons of television coverage, yet days later, President Biden still had not said anything about them.
Interrupted during a bike ride while on vacation in Delaware, he said, “We’re looking at it,” when asked if he intended to travel to Hawaii. Later that day, after spending several hours on the beach, he was asked if he had anything to say about the rising death toll, and he said, “No comment.”
It wasn’t until this past Wednesday, eight days after the Maui fires became national news, that the White House announced that he and Mrs. Biden would be going to Hawaii to see the devastation. Perhaps his wife had reminded him that she’d promised that he’d be empathetic as president.
The media was gently critical of Mr. Biden, with U.S. News & World Report noting that he had been “needled by the press” for his lack of response. And some questions posed to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, while not exactly softballs, were gingerly delivered.
“Should the American people be seeing the president on the phone, working the phones, talking to officials, rather than seeing him on the beach?” CNN’s Kayla Tausche asked.
Nevertheless, the main thrust of the media coverage of Mr. Biden’s ambivalence about the Hawaiian natural disaster was that it was those pesky Republicans who were the problem. In the latest version of the “Republicans pounce” media narrative, large news organizations decided it was better to report on who was criticizing Mr. Biden, rather than on what they were criticizing.
“Biden went four days without talking about the Maui fires, and Republicans say that’s proof he’s not addressing the devastation,” an NBCNews.com headline bleated. That story did detail Mr. Biden’s curious silence on the issue, but focused more on his detractors.
“Conservatives have seized on the president’s lack of comments,” The Washington Post wrote, using a variation of the “Republicans pounce” genre. Along with “seized,” it would have also been acceptable by current journalistic standards to use “Republicans raged,” “Republicans railed,” or any number of other vivid phrases.
Newsweek wrote that “Republicans continue to pile on” Mr. Biden, employing a pun that the “wildfire response ignites Republican anger.”
You see, the goal here in the media is to make Republicans the bad guys, no matter the circumstances.
For proof of this, let’s take a trip down memory lane to February 2021, when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas took a brief trip to Cancun, Mexico, while his state was experiencing a severe winter storm that had wrecked the power grid.
While it was terribly bad optics, the truth is that a U.S. senator is a legislator and has no authority to intervene in a state disaster, and the entirety of the media knows that.
Even so, virtually every news outlet in the country pounded on Mr. Cruz relentlessly, with some even doing detailed reporting on the resort hotel he had booked. One Texas publication even wrote a story two years later, observing the anniversary of the trip.
As for Mr. Cruz, he said he made the journey only to accompany his family for one night since his children were out of school for the week because of the storm before he returned.
Does anyone remember how the media savaged President George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina? Or the way they blamed President Donald Trump after the storm that ravaged Puerto Rico?
The double standard is impossible to miss, as is the choice of targets. The media excoriate Republicans during disasters, even when they have absolutely no official capacity to be of assistance.
But when a Democrat is president and is fiddling (or sunbathing) while Maui burns, the people who point that out are the ones put in the crosshairs.
• Tim Murtaugh is a Washington Times columnist and vice president for communication strategy at National Public Affairs, a political consulting firm.
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