As Joe Biden enters the 2020 presidential race, his pattern of intimate physical greetings linger as a potential early liability, but media coverage of his “inappropriate touching” appears to be fading, along with coverage of the broader #MeToo movement.
Late last month, as it became ever clearer that Biden intended yet another run for the White House, his fledgling campaign-in-waiting was hit with its first major negative story: The candidate’s history of using close intimate contact in his greetings elicited concerns from several women who said it had made them deeply uncomfortable.
The timeline below shows the percentage of airtime across CNN, MSNBC and Fox News since March 27, 2019 that mentioned “Biden” along with “sexual” or “touching” or “touched” or “touch” or “metoo” or “uncomfortable” or “inappropriate” or “inappropriately” or “harassment” or “creepy,” using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive processed by the GDELT Project.
Fox News appears to have taken the lead in covering the issue, devoting 0.42 percent of its airtime to the story since March 27, more than CNN’s 0.19 percent and MSNBC’s 0.17 percent combined.
Yet, as with nearly all major stories, within a week the media had moved on. From a high of 26 percent of all mentions of Biden on the three channels at its peak, the story has dropped to almost zero.
Even the former vice president’s formal candidacy, announced earlier this week, does not appear to have resurrected the story in any meaningful way, suggesting his campaign has succeeded in largely defusing what might otherwise have been a major story in the #MeToo era.
Global online media coverage has focused more heavily on the Biden touching story, but even there it has continued to fade in recent weeks from a total of 86 percent of online stories about the candidate at its peak to less than 40 percent and falling.
The issue of Biden’s physical greetings has received far more attention online than on television news, but even online outlets appear to be moving on in the face of no new developments.
Another Democrat, Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, has also seen media interest in his #MeToo scandal fizzle out. Despite two separate allegations of sexual assault, Fairfax refused to resign and vehemently denied the allegations.
As the timeline below shows, television news airtime devoted to the allegations against him evaporated within a week and the story has largely died in both television and online news.
As with the Biden story, Fox News took the lead here, covering the Fairfax allegations 30% more than CNN and MSNBC combined, with 0.11% of its airtime compared to 0.04% for each of the other two news channels.
In fact, Fox News has emerged as the de facto home of #MeToo coverage on television news since the term’s emergence in September 2017, mentioning the phrase “metoo” 20% more often than its two competitors combined, with 0.025% of its airtime compared with 0.01% on each of the other two stations.
As CNN and MSNBC have largely discontinued their mentions of the term since the end of last year, Fox News has actually been steadily increasing its coverage to its third highest level in the last year and a half.
Looking to U.S. web search interest according to Google Trends over the same time period, public interest in the term has been slowly waning over the past year and a half but it remains quite popular. This suggests Fox’s continued attention to the topic is more in keeping with the public’s interest than CNN and MSNBC’s choice to largely move on.
Putting this all together, the #MeToo movement was expected to be one of the defining social policy features of the 2020 election for the Democratic field. Instead, it seems the tide has turned dramatically since last year, with the stories that proved fatal to politicians and celebrities in 2018 being easily surmountable in 2019. As Biden and Fairfax remind us, a politician grappling with #MeToo issues need not resign or abandon his presidential aspirations, he can merely wait it out and within a week the media will tire of the story and move on. In fact, it seems the media are growing tired of #MeToo itself, with CNN and MSNBC largely phasing out the phrase from their coverage over the last four months, though Fox News has steadily increased its coverage.
In the end, these trends suggest that in 2019 allegations of “inappropriate touching” or even sexual assault are no longer disqualifying and raise the question of whether the #MeToo movement’s influence is permanently on the wane.