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Why the news media can’t stop talking about Biden’s dogs

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

President Biden’s dogs Major and Champ are back in the news. And the coverage of the presidential pooches is generating some strong reactions — with some people arguing that the canine behavior isn’t newsworthy at all.

To be sure, Biden’s infrastructure plans are certainly the more important story emanating from the White House this week. But the Biden’s-best-friend news is revealing in its own way. First there were those biting incidents. Then on Wednesday there was an instance of “dog poo on the floor,” which was dutifully (doo-doo-tifully?) reported by the White House press pool.

Reactions to the doggie coverage have run the gamut, showcasing the many feelings and gripes and questions people have about the American news media.

More than anything, the doggie drama heralds a return to a more mundane post-Trump news cycle. The Biden White House is largely scandal-free (by design) so a problematic pet counts as newsworthy. Of course, even the word “problematic” is a problem in some corners. There are Major defenders who think this subject is being botched by the press. So let’s unpack this a bit.

‘Ruh roh!’

More than anything, in this always-on age, Major and Champ are #content, hashtag included. In the same way that presidential puppy photos are a reliable viewer draw, good dog/bad dog debates are traffic bait.

When the canine accident was spotted at the White House on Wednesday, played it straight: “Biden dog poops on White House floor.” The Daily Mail went with “the eagle has landed!” The AP’s playful headline was “Ruh roh! Biden pooch drops doggie doo in White House hallway.” The AP’s story seemed to generate the most ire on Twitter.

There was something for everyone so to speak: While right wing trolls called the doo-doo a metaphor for the Biden era, The Daily Caller came up with an editorial defending Major as a “patriotic American dog.”

The Discourse’s Jack Crosbie took a faux-controversial stand, “The Biden Dogs are Bad Boys,” writing on Wednesday that “the truth demands to be heard.” Manny Fidel went even further in an opinion piece for Insider: “Biden’s dogs must resign.” Even The Onion got in on the fun: “Secret Service Worry Major Biden’s Behavior Influenced By Time Spent On Far-Right Dog Forums.”

Every website gets clicks and everyone wins, except for the readers who aren’t in on the jokes.

A chance to learn

Hot takes and humor aside, there’s been some serious coverage of the dogs, and rightly so. For example, the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia interviewed experts who said Major, a rescue, is “likely dealing with social anxiety.” This is common: “It’s a problem that many dogs face in new environments…”

The age of abundance

A quick Twitter search reveals hashtags like #MajorGate and supporters chanting “Free Major” and many, many complaints about the volume of news coverage about the dogs. Political analyst Matthew Dowd channeled all of it on Wednesday: “Our democracy is under assault, we are still in midst of a global pandemic, white supremacy is rampant, and GOP refuses to do anything about gun violence and voting rights, and some in the media are focusing on Biden’s dogs?? Come on folks.”

“Come on” is what the AP’s DC bureau chief Julie Pace also said when Dan Pfeiffer, the former Obama aide, mocked the AP’s “Ruh roh!” coverage of the dogs. Pace said people should view the newswire’s coverage in its totality: “We have important stories out today on Biden’s infrastructure plan, DOD’s transgender policies, EPA returning scientists to key boards, more $$ going to the Palestinians, a new poll on Biden’s high pandemic approval ratings. And yes, a light, 273 word story on a dog.”

I agree with Pace, but most people don’t see all of the AP’s Biden stories in one place — they see scraps of stories shared in social feeds. Gone are the days when the dogs would be the subject of a single People magazine spread or weekend TV segment. We live in age of news media abundance, when one bowel movement is covered a dozen different ways, and where the internet makes it all searchable. Then writers like me weigh in, and comedians, and contrarians, and the quantity of coverage causes normal people to roll their eyes and dismiss the media writ large. Not good!

The bottom line

CNN’s Kate Bennett, who broke the stories about both biting incidents, has been on the receiving end of a ton of “this isn’t news” commentary. I asked her about the news coverage of these human, or canine, interest stories, and she pointed out that “the Bidens made a big deal about these dogs, heralding their arrival, letting them run free, posting pics of them all over the White House.”

But not all pet stories are the same. “I could have done without the poop anecdote” that was reported by the White House press pool on Wednesday, Bennett said, “mostly because it was Champ who had the accident and he is 13, and any of us who have raised a dog into old age are very sensitive to the ways in which our beloved dogs show decline. It broke my heart. I couldn’t find it funny, or newsy.”

“Yet, with the biting, in a very real news way, I did a good deal of reporting” about the incidents, Bennett said. She found that “there are a good deal of people who work on the campus, inside and out, who have had strong feelings about Major’s behavior since he arrived in late January.” When the president said in mid-March that 85% of the White House staff “love” the dog, he was acknowledging some of those strong feelings.

The bottom line, Bennett said, is that “the stories that rile up the Twitterverse…the most are the ones that are human. And there’s nothing more ‘human’ than a story about a pet dog. Right?”

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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