Mainstream media outlets have responded to Brandon Johnson’s election as mayor of Chicago on Tuesday by treating it primarily as a local story of a narrow progressive victory, whereas many of the same outlets treated Eric Adam’s 2021 mayoral win in New York City as a bellwether event with national significance for Democratic policymakers. The decidedly different responses showcase how mainstream media editorial decisions often promote so-called “tough-on-crime” candidates under the guise of straight reporting — sometimes because the outlets are following the cues of right-wing media, and sometimes because their institutional class interests align with more conservative candidates.
Johnson is a progressive who won with support from the Chicago Teachers Union against Paul Vallas, a conservative opponent who relied heavily on racist, “tough-on-crime” dog whistle messaging. Vallas also closely aligned himself with the right-wing Chicago police union — representing one of the most corrupt, violent departments in the country — while Johnson promoted a holistic approach to public safety and health that sees investment in public schools, stable and affordable housing, and easily accessible health care as the foundations of safer communities. In the zero-sum game of city budgeting, increased funding for police crowds out these other approaches, which some evidence suggests can lower crime and recidivism rates.
Many mainstream outlets had wildly different responses to the Chicago and New York City races, but The New York Times’ approach is illustrative of the general trend.
In two fairly good pieces over the past two days, the Times covered Johnson’s win as a local story. Both articles address Vallas’ police ties as potential liabilities, a rare but welcome practice in political journalism. Neither piece drew national conclusions from the outcome of the race, which is entirely appropriate — but it also highlighted a problem in the paper’s pattern of coverage when that restraint is selectively applied to more progressive candidates.
A follow-up piece from the Times on April 5 framed Johnson’s win as a possible “Blueprint for Democratic Messaging on Crime,” but was still tempered with caveats.
“Analysts also cautioned that Mr. Johnson’s victory most likely had less to do with ideology than with Mr. Johnson’s consolidating the Black vote after a divided primary and with Mr. Vallas’s failing to make up for that with a larger-than-expected Hispanic turnout,” the Times wrote. It’s not clear which analysts the paper was referring to.
The Times’ coverage of Adams’ victory in 2021 was far more editorially heavy-handed, signaling to readers and other news outlets that he represented a paradigm shift in Democratic politics nationwide.
“The apparent victory of Mr. Adams, who embraces a relatively expansive role for law enforcement in promoting public safety, amounts to a rebuke of the left wing of his party that promoted far-reaching efforts to scale back the power of the police,” the Times wrote after Adams’ primary win that July. “The race was a vital if imperfect test of Democratic attitudes around crime amid a national wave of gun violence in American cities.”
Noting that Adams was “the only leading candidate with a law enforcement background,” the paper added that “some Democrats, aware that national Republicans are eager to caricature their party as insufficiently concerned about crime, have taken note of Mr. Adams’s messaging.”
The Times’ breathless coverage of Adams continued later that month, with a headline that read “Why Top Democrats Are Listening to Eric Adams Right Now.” The subheadline underlined the point: “Some prominent Democrats think their party’s nominee for mayor of New York offers a template for how to address issues of public safety.”
Stories from Axios exemplified this bifurcated approach to covering each candidate’s victory as well.
Reporting the morning after Johnson’s win, the Beltway-focused outlet wrote that his victory “reflects a progressive shift in Chicago politics.” The piece noted Johnson’s expected local policies on taxes and education, but it didn’t draw any conclusions about what his victory signals for Democrats nationwide — or about the more general political salience of public safety policies that don’t rely on hiring more police.
Tellingly, Axios linked to another story about the city’s mayoral race that the outlet published on March 1, with the headline “Why Chicago matters for the Democratic debate on crime.” That story, which framed the race as nationally significant, situated Vallas as a candidate “leading a real-time transformation of the Democratic Party in a post-pandemic world where voters demand more forceful answers on public safety solutions.”
Axios also followed up on Thursday with a piece examining the larger context of Johnson’s win but framed it primarily as a regional story, pairing it with the victory of progressive Judge Janet Protasiewicz in Wisconsin. Like the Times, Axios tempered its analysis, offering three supposed counter-examples — including Adams’ 2021 victory in New York — to show criminal justice reform “as a major wedge issue for Dems” and suggest Johnson’s victory was not a more general emerging trend.
Compare that with Axios’ coverage of Adams’ win. Adams, a former registered Republican, ran by juxtaposing himself with the progressive movement, like Vallas, and appealing to the same “tough on crime” business and police interests. Following Adams’ victory in the city’s Democratic primary — all but assuring him of victory in the general election — Axios heralded the “rise of the anti-’woke’ Democrat.”
Axios led the July 2021 story with an unambiguous message for its readers: Adams’ win had national implications that spelled doom for the left.
“A growing number of Democrats are ringing the alarm that their party sounds — and acts — too judgmental, too sensitive, too ‘woke’ to large swaths of America,” it warned.
“Former NYPD captain Eric Adams, who this week won New York City's Democratic mayoral primary, showed his party the power of a message that supports police while including justice and reform,” the piece added.
The piece concludes as it began, with a dire warning for President Joe Biden and Democrats more broadly that “the rising left in his party, while great for fundraising and media coverage, could be electorally disastrous.”
Politico followed a similar pattern of heralding Adams as the new standard-bearer — both in policy and messaging — for the Democratic Party.
Just days after Adams’ win, Politico’s influential Playbook newsletter asked if it signaled, “The death of ‘defund the police’?”
Other coverage from Politico followed suit. “What Eric Adams taught Joe Biden about the politics of crime,” read a headline in another Playbook, which went on to claim that “the Adams race was catalytic” in a turn away from progressive approaches to public safety.
Still another Politico headline blared: “National Dems are calling in a new communications expert: Eric Adams.”
By contrast, Politico’s initial report on Johnson’s win was decidedly focused on the local level, albeit with an outsized emphasis on issues of law and order.
“Johnson takes office next month facing challenges to bring together a city divided by race and a view on how best to quell persistent crime, a subject that loomed over the months-long campaign and set him apart from moderate rival Paul Vallas, who has called for swelling the streets with police,” the second paragraph noted.
The article also included a shoddy characterization of outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s tenure, claiming, “Johnson’s victory signals a shift to the left from the already progressive governance of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.”
The piece makes a passing mention of Adams’ win, but avoids making sweeping pronouncements about what Johnon’s victory, and Vallas’ defeat, mean more broadly for Democrats across the country.
Politico’s next-day story, like Axios’ follow-up article, paired Johnson’s win with the results in Wisconsin. Although the piece framed both victories in a national context initially, it later naturalized the salience of “tough-on-crime” rhetoric as the default, logical position and claimed that in both races, “the through-line issue” was crime.
“It wasn’t lost on state or national officials that had Johnson lost the race, they would have been forced to push back hard on the narrative that his ‘defund’ position cost them the keys to City Hall,” Politico wrote.
Politico's Playbook made the point even more clearly: “The Chicago results have fewer national implications” than those in Wisconsin.
CNN’s reporting followed this faux-neutral pattern as well. The morning after Johnson’s win, co-anchor Don Lemon asked if his winning message should have been more like his opponent’s losing message – that is, the solution is always more cops.
The background to Lemon’s angle is that after the police murder of George Floyd, Johnson introduced a nonbinding resolution as county commissioner that called to “redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement.” That proposal was seized by his opponents as a smear during the campaign and was truncated to a decontextualized call to “defund the police,” absent a clear alternative vision for public safety.
“You know the defund the police – you made a reference to that in 2020, that slogan,” Lemon said. “You walked it back a little or explained the nuance on this program and others. I'm not going to play it but quickly, if you will: Do you think that that hurt you in any way? I know that you won, but do you think you would have won over more folks if you had not said that?
“I think it's clear that people are smarter than, you know, in many cases than the pundits give the constituents credit for,” Johnson responded. “I'm confident that people are fully aware that when we talk about investments, that we have to be strategic and smart about it. When you spend more per capita on policing here in Chicago than you do anywhere else in the world, and we're still not as safe, people start to call that into question.”
CNN covered Adams’ rise very differently, even before his primary win. On June 23, 2021, anchor Dana Bash rhetorically asked: “What can we learn about the state of the Democratic Party right now from the very early New York City mayoral primary?”
Bash then told viewers that Adams was “currently leading the Democratic field, beating out progressives with a tough-on-crime message and approach as that city, like others across the country, grapple with a spike in violent crime this summer.”
“Again, there isn't a winner yet, but so far the results show this race as an example of moderate candidates and that wing of the Democratic Party thriving,” she continued.
Underneath Bash, a chyron read: “New York City Mayoral Primary a Warning Sign for Dems?”
Attempts to draw sweeping conclusions from city and state races often obscure more than they illustrate, and while such analysis typically has little predictive power, it frequently if inadvertently exposes the underlying preferences and ideology of the outlets putting it forward. Accounts like those listed above are not merely descriptive. They also define conventional wisdom and the acceptable window of policy positions for the mainstream pundits who, for better and for worse, help to shape national opinion — especially on perceptions of crime.