“Chutzpah!” “Hoopla!” “Ambush!” Victory?

Reporting the Democratic results in Florida

Tuesday afternoon we wondered—as some campaign reporters were themselves wondering—how the campaign press might cover the Democratic results in Florida.

As polls indicated that Senator Clinton would—as she did—win the most votes in Florida, the Clinton and Obama campaigns lobbied reporters Tuesday afternoon and into the night to see things their way (Camp Clinton: Florida matters! Cover Florida!; Camp Obama: Florida means nothing! No campaigning! No delegates!). Senator Clinton tried to make the most of the outcome by flying to Florida Tuesday night for a Thank you, Florida rally, and by making herself available for television interviews. Obama’s camp distilled its message into a media-friendly sound bite: Florida is a tie: Zero delegates to zero delegates.

In print, most major newspapers kept coverage of Florida’s Democratic results off the front page Wednesday or limited it to a passing reference tucked within coverage of McCain’s win on the Republican side. The Washington Post gave the Democratic results more front-page play than most (an above-the-fold sub-headline read: “Democrats: Clinton Defeats Obama but Gets No Delegates;” below the fold, a photo of a smiling Clinton ran alongside a Dana Milbank “Campaign Sketch” headlined, “Much Ado About Not Much.”) The Florida papers—not surprisingly less willing to downplay their own Democratic primary, such as it was—for the most part gave both primaries front-page play, running a grinning Clinton photo alongside or just below one of a grinning McCain. (The Palm Beach Post went with this headline: “Clinton Thumps Obama”).

And how did the cable networks handle it, covering it all—the results coming in, Hillary Clinton’s Florida rally—live? They explained and re-explained, for viewers just tuning in, the facts of the primary—facts not easily reduced into an on-screen headline (MSNBC ran this unwieldy one: “BREAKING NEWS: Clinton will finish with most votes in FL Dem. Primary but no delegates are at stake”).

Here was one of Wolf Blitzer’s wordy explications for CNN viewers:

BLITZER: Hillary Clinton declaring her victory in the Democratic presidential primary in Florida as you can see right there, in Davie, Florida. She won impressively in Florida, unfortunately for her she’s not going to get any delegates because the Democratic National Committee decided that because Florida had moved up its primary they were not going to be given delegates at the Democratic Convention in Denver at the end of summer, but still a victory for Hillary Clinton in Florida. Right now she’s speaking to her supporters. …

It was clear that some in the cable commentariat felt played/duped/forced by the Clinton campaign to talk about something they considered a non-event. As if this—covering a politician’s photo-op, something “ginned up,” as NBC’s Andrea Mitchell put it—were somehow new to them. This one, however, seemed to stick in some craws, and the resulting commentary took on a surprisingly shrill tone, at times, even by cable standards.

For example, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann had this exchange as they awaited the start of Senator Clinton’s address to her gathered Florida supporters Tuesday night:

MATTHEWS: Just remember, for the people watching now, this doesn’t count, what we’re watching here. This is an unofficial, unratified, outlaw primary. It’s banned and doesn’t exist. We’re watching what looks like a victory celebration in every other aspect. If you were tuning in, you’d think they just won something that matters. They did win something, but the question is does it matter in delegate terms. The Clintons are the ones that every second say all that matters are delegates. Yet, here they are celebrating the event of not winning any delegates tonight. This is politics. It’s what you do with what you got. What they got tonight is a victory in the numbers in Florida. Look at the excitement down there.

OLBERMANN: Let me read the official terminology we’re using. In the Democratic primary, please note, no delegates are allocated based upon the results in Florida, at least according to how the rules are written tonight and the candidates pledged not to campaign there…That’s not the official terminology…that’s my terminology. However Senator Clinton finished with more votes…It really is, I almost said, it’s your definition of what the word…

MATTHEWS: Chutzpah!

OLBERMANN: …no, no, what the word campaign is.

MATTHEWS: They are really good, the Clintons. They have created a confection, a victory that will work for many of the newspapers out there, it’ll be on the wires….

OLBERMANN: It’s on our air now…

MATTHEWS: I keep forgetting, it’s on television as we speak. In fact, we’re talking about it! And watching it…

OLBERMANN: …We’re going to continue with our MSNBC coverage of the Republican primary and the Democratic whatever that is over there…


It’s “on our air now” — our hallowed air! Otherwise put to such noble use!

Olbermann later had this back-and-forth with Andrea Mitchell (who adopted a tone more Matthews than Mitchell):

OLBERMANN: What’s the celebration for? Have we figured that out yet?

MITCHELL: It’s a celebration of the fact this is not South Carolina. This was basically ginned up after South Carolina so [Clinton] could blunt, she hoped, some of the momentum of Barack Obama. That’s when they started talking up Florida, that’s why they came here. They knew they had a big advantage here, a lot of support. Of course there are no delegates. This is, I guess, the Potemkin Village of victory celebrations. When is a victory not a victory?

No one seemed particularly exercised on Fox News, or particularly unwilling to describe the Florida results as a “win” for Clinton (or to call Clinton the “winner”). About 8:30 Tuesday night, Brit Hume announced:

Hillary Clinton has won, we project, the Florida primary which was uncontested by any of the candidates with, according to the party rules, no delegates at stake. Nonetheless, she is in Florida tonight to celebrate her victory and let’s look in on the celebration just to get a sense of how much they are trying to make of a race won without campaigning…

Soon after 10 p.m., Fox News’ Chris Wallace segued into his interview with Senator Clinton as follows:

Another winner, Senator Hillary Clinton. Let’s welcome Senator Hillary Clinton who won a big victory in Florida…I want to ask you, the Obama campaign put out a statement that said that they tie you in Florida tonight, zero delegates for Clinton, zero delegates for Obama. The point seemed to be that whatever happened tonight was basically a beauty contest…

Wallace ended the interview by “congratulating” Clinton again on her “victory tonight in Florida.”

On CNN, senior political analyst Bill Bennett was feeling less magnanimous. Said Bennett at one point:

BENNETT: This was an ambush in Florida! This was not a competition. This was not supposed to be a competition… There’s no field and no competition and no teams. And she’s crying victory…This was no victory and [Obama’s] got do something more than be derisive and laugh about it.

(Perhaps Bennett was referring to Suzanne Malveaux’s earlier report that the Obama camp was “really kind of laughing at it and they’re looking at the victory rally and they see that this is really a hollow victory.”)

And then there was this exchange between CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Gloria Borger.

COOPER: Should people be taking Hillary Clinton’s win seriously in Florida?

BORGER: I agree with Wolf [Blitzer] that lots of Democrats turned out which gives you some sense of the energy of the Democratic party in this election, because of course, none of the candidates campaigned there. However, this is a talking point for Hillary Clinton. This is not a huge victory. This is not going to give her tremendous momentum going into Super Tuesday. This is a talking point for her.

COOPER: But impressions do matter and here you have her in a picture in front of an adoring crowd with the signs, victory, in the state of Florida. Some people aren’t paying attention to the details here…

BORGER: But it’s our job to say she’s doing that because she does want to have that picture…

If all of this somehow reminded reporters that part of their job is to call politicians out for doing something because they “want to have that picture,” then it will keep the press very busy the rest of this election season—and, one hopes, beyond.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.