“I believe we can win Texas and Florida, if you look at the polling data now,” Joe Biden was heard to say last Tuesday, in a clip on MSNBC’s Deadline: White House, a few hours before torpedoing his campaign.
“Is Biden putting the cart before the horse? Maybe not!” mused host Nicolle Wallace. “Maybe Biden’s onto something. A new poll, released just this afternoon, shows Biden beating Trump by nine in Florida…So maybe Biden’s not too far off in his optimism and predictions.”
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The previous week Wallace had run with a Quinnipiac poll giving Biden 13 points over Trump nationally, adding that Biden “inhabits every square inch of available real estate under Donald Trump’s skin.” And Wallace wasn’t alone: Chris Matthews, Steve Kornacki, and Chuck Todd had been making similarly confident predictions about Biden, all backed up with a bazillion polls.
But polls don’t matter at this stage—Hillary Clinton had an 18-point lead over Obama in December 2007 and went on to lose the nomination. It’s been frustrating to see meaningless polls and predictions stream by all day long, all across cable news. But they have been particularly prominent on MSNBC, which has been going out of its way—or was, until quite recently—to give the former vice president what seems like extra attention in the crowded democratic field. (When contacted for comment, an MSNBC spokesperson declined.)
I charted mentions of Biden on MSNBC in 2019 in comparison with his rivals using data from GDELT (the Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone), and the contrast is startling: Biden has received the lion’s share of coverage on the network since the announcement of his candidacy, on April 25. While it’s understandable that Biden’s higher public profile would warrant some added consideration, he hasn’t actually pulled ahead of the pack if you consider things like fundraising numbers and rally sizes; by those criteria, it makes no sense to describe him as the frontrunner.
In any case, to hear MSNBC tell it over the last few weeks, Joe Biden is as inevitable as Hillary Clinton was in 2007. Who knew that the wheels were going to fly off quite so soon?
On Tuesday night, 55 days into his campaign, Biden made his first serious gaffe—the first, at least, to draw immediate fire from several of his rivals at once. Kamala Harris, Bill de Blasio, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren all condemned remarks Biden made at a New York City fundraiser. He’d lamented the end of “civility” in Washington, and boasted of his success as a young senator working with segregationist congressmen James O. Eastland and Herman Talmadge. “He never called me ‘boy,’” Biden said of Eastland. “He always called me ‘son.’”
Booker responded: “Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place…Frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology…He should.”
Biden made matters worse by flatly refusing to apologize, telling CNN that “Cory [Booker] should apologize.” The lofty tone of an old white man attempting to school a younger Black man —regarding the advisability of joking about segregationists calling someone “boy”!—made the whole spectacle fractally queasier.
But Wednesday night, Chris Matthews attempted to excuse Biden in aggrieved tones, defending the much-maligned salt-of-the-earth gentlemen of the old school. The San Andreas fault line in MSNBC’s coverage, and in the Democratic Party in general, was encapsulated in this hour.
“Joe Biden, the guy who got along with the people who used to run the Democratic Party…When I first came here they were all Southern segregationists; even the food was all Southern,” Matthews said. Later: “I really like Joe Biden…I’m worried that he’s, like, one of the last moderates standing. . .if he gets knocked off, who’s left? Then it will just be [the] Left.”
Then Matthews’s guest, Joel Payne, former deputy press secretary for Senator Harry Reid, stepped in to address the tone-deafness of Biden’s nostalgia for the good old days of the good old boys. “You’re doing this in a room full of wealthy donors,” Payne said.
“White guys,” said Matthews.
“You’re essentially defending old white bigots to a room of old white donors,” said Payne, who is African-American.
“Well I’m not sure…” replied a flustered Matthews. “By the way, I know these people, and they’re all liberal Democrats!”
By Thursday, MSNBC was making up for lost time. Spirited debate, including a series of eloquent and informed Black voices, including Zerlina Maxwell, produced a day of deep, focused, and well-argued coverage, capped with the appearance of Ta-Nehisi Coates on All In with Chris Hayes. After discussing Coates’s appearance on Capitol Hill to testify about reparations, Hayes asked Coates to comment on l’affaire Biden.
“Ugh!” Coates said.
“Well?!” Hayes replied. “Because it relates directly, right? About the ways we configure our memory of the past, particularly vis-à-vis white supremacy and segregation.”
“The problem here is not that he had polite relationships with people who had deeply, deeply deplorable views,” Coates said. “There’s a reason why those polite relationships went away. . .[Part of the reason is that] Black people are now a voting force in the South.”
“The price of the [civility] was that you didn’t cross them on race,” Hayes said.
“That’s exactly it. . .What [Biden] is endorsing is the peace,” Coates said. “But the peace was actually built on something quite horrible and without that horrible thing, there never would have been that civility in the first place.”
“I mean . . . the peace built atop horror is the story of American politics,” Hayes said.
And with that, a fascinating evolution of MSNBC’s coverage of Joe Biden, weeks in the making, found a newly pluralistic, thoughtful and nuanced footing.
None of this is to say that the day might not come when Biden becomes the front-runner, as MSNBC spent the first half of June predicting. He’s good in a debate; you may recall how efficiently Biden put Paul Ryan away back in 2012, with the same “alpha-male” moves he’s showing off now. This week’s debate, in Miami, will provide a critical test for him as well as for MSNBC. It’s early days.
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Editors note: CJR has appointed its own outside public editors for four vital news outlets — The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC — that currently lack any public ombudsman. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Any messages will be treated as off-the-record unless otherwise agreed.)Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.