Which Came First?

Joe Biden answers an age-old question

It’s not quite chicken and egg territory, but it’s an equally endless query nonetheless. What leads to what? Does a presidential candidate’s popularity in the polls lead to more media coverage or does media coverage lead to popularity in the polls? Of course, the candidate, who believes wholeheartedly that everyone would support him if only his ideas could get more attention, thinks the media is responsible for whether his numbers go up or down. The journalist, on the other hand, invested in her role as objective observer, does not want to feel implicated in the process of choosing the president, and usually believes that it’s the polls that determine who she covers. It’s a conversation that usually happens behind the scenes with candidates lamenting that their numbers won’t go up unless they get more air time and journalists responding that they would get more air time if their numbers went up.

Rarely does this dynamic break out into public view, let alone in the middle of an article. But there it was today halfway through a piece about Joe Biden and his campaign’s lack of significant traction. The senator’s explanation for why his candidacy had not taken off:

“I didn’t think, to use a trite expression, that all the oxygen would be sucked out of the air for so long,” Mr. Biden said in an interview. And breaking through, he said, is difficult because his campaign has received such little attention from national reporters, especially compared with the wall-to-wall coverage his race for president drew two decades ago. “I thought you guys would be out here a lot sooner,” he said.

But no self-respecting journalist would let the candidate have the last word on this issue. In the subtlest of ways, the reporter here undermines Biden’s interpretation of how it all works. Here’s the sentence summarizing the dilemma of a second-tier candidate: “…it is a vicious circle: low poll numbers discourage news coverage, and a lack of coverage makes raising poll numbers difficult.”

Notice which comes first?

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.