The Media Today

Iowa distorts our campaign coverage. We should challenge that, not reinforce it.

January 14, 2020

This article was also published by Guardian US.

And then there were 12. Yesterday, Cory Booker, the US senator from New Jersey, became the latest contender to drop out of the Democratic presidential primary. The field is still very big, but it has narrowed in one meaningful sense: it was once historically diverse, but with Booker out, just three candidates of color remain, only one of whom, the former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, is Black. Booker blamed the distraction of jury duty in President Trump’s impending Senate impeachment trial for his exit, as well as his winnowing finances, exacerbated by his failure to qualify for recent Democratic debates, including tonight’s. It will take place in Iowa, which is 91-percent white. Every single candidate on stage will be white, too.

As is ritual in campaign coverage, after Booker dropped out, reporters and pundits chewed over the reasons for his failure—among them, media obsessions with the campaign horse race (Booker never really cut through in the polls), and with shiny new objects (Exhibit A: Pete Buttigieg). “I think a big part of Booker’s problem, why he never had ‘a moment,’ was that he’d had so many moments before,” Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent at New York magazine, wrote on Twitter. “He’d been on magazine covers and the subject of glowing profiles since the mid-2000s. The political media was overly familiar with Booker and voters weren’t familiar enough.” Amid all the postmortems, we saw paeans to Booker’s personal decency and to his love-centered campaign rhetoric. On MSNBC, Booker emphasized that tone in a valedictory interview with one of his media admirers (and his old friend from Stanford), Rachel Maddow. “Uniting Americans to a larger purpose,” he said, is his “prayer” for the Democratic Party. (Elsewhere on TV, Booker’s exit got buried under Elizabeth Warren’s allegation that Bernie Sanders told her, in 2018, that a woman can’t win in 2020—a claim Sanders strongly denies. For all their avowed disapproval of division, political pundits often find fighting more interesting than peace and love.)

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Yesterday’s Booker coverage also re-upped conversations about the structure of the Democratic primary, and its effect on voters and candidates of color. In recent weeks, Booker complained repeatedly that their perspectives have been excluded by the party’s current debate-qualification rules, which prioritize polling and fundraising. Yesterday, pundits reiterated that critique, and there was renewed discussion, too, of Iowa’s place at the top of the primary calendar, which earns the state disproportionate attention every four years. “The whiteness of [the] donor class and early states really matters,” Astead W. Herndon, a politics reporter for the New York Times, tweeted. “Their vision of electability impacts viability.”

These might look like conversations for the Democratic Party, but they’re important for the media, too. We could do much more to mitigate the distorting effects of imperfect democratic structures, and yet, too often, we reinforce and amplify them. Our preoccupation with “electability” is one such distortion. The concept is a hydra of conventional wisdom and internalized biases, and its predictive value is flimsy. (See: Trump, Donald.) And yet so many of our discussions about politics rest on it. If you’ve listened to campaign reporters this cycle, you’ll have heard ample evidence—albeit anecdotal, for the most part—that many Democratic electors intend to vote not for their favored candidate, but for the one they think stands the best chance of beating Trump.

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The press is integral in molding such judgments. And yet, as Sawyer Hackett, a staffer on Julián Castro’s shuttered presidential campaign, told the Washington Post’s David Weigel last week, voters of color are underweighted in its calculus. “I have to believe that if newsrooms were more diverse we wouldn’t be stuck with this narrative that’s made voters think they’re choosing between their minds and hearts,” Hackett said.

It’s not the news media’s job to advocate for given candidates—but it is our job to challenge assumptions that unfairly benefit some at the expense of others. (Errin Haines, national writer on race and ethnicity at the Associated Press, put it best in a recent piece for Nieman Lab: “Election coverage is about choices—of who gets seen and heard in our democracy.”) Similarly, it’s not the media’s job to change the primary calendar—but it is our job to ensure that issues pertaining to race, and its intersection with every other issue of substance, continue to shape the conversation, regardless of the demographics of the state that gets to vote first.

As the Times acknowledged back in September, as media focus started to turn in earnest toward Iowa (five months before any actual voting), the state’s caucuses “disenfranchise huge blocs of voters,” and yet, “to a greater degree than in recent campaigns, this unrepresentative and idiosyncratic state is proving that it is the only electoral battleground that matters for Democrats.” We should be counterbalancing that logic, not eagerly indulging it. And yet, as in so many cycles past, the Iowa feeding frenzy is kicking in again, to the exclusion of other issues, and voices, that matter.

Despite its homogenous candidate line-up, tonight’s debate is an opportunity to be more inclusive. Its moderators will bear a greater responsibility than usual to channel the perspectives and concerns of communities that don’t look like most of Iowa—and not just in a one-off question halfway through the running order. Given all the noise around Sanders and Warren’s crumbling non-aggression pact, the temptation to center conflict, instead, will doubtless be strong.

Below, more on 2020:

  • The race beat: For CJR’s recent print issue on disinformation, Haines explored how disinformation campaigns are seeking to suppress the Black vote. Haines also wrote for our Fall 2018 print issue, on race and journalism, about her life on the race beat. If you missed it at the time, you can find all our content from that issue here.
  • Speaking of Sanders: The editorial board of the Times is bringing readers (and viewers) inside its 2020 presidential endorsement decision. (Its verdict is expected January 19.) Yesterday, it published the first of its in-depth candidate interviews, with Sanders, Tom Steyer, and Booker, since he dropped out. Sanders told Charlie Warzel, a tech columnist for the Times, that he doesn’t have any apps on his phone. (Questions remain as to his plan for big tech.)
  • Is it happening again?: The Russian military has been busy hacking Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company at the heart of unevidenced GOP corruption claims against Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Nicole Perlroth and Matthew Rosenberg write for the Times that while the hack remains murky, its scale and timing “suggest that the Russians could be searching for potentially embarrassing material on the Bidens” ahead of the election.
  • FECless: Dave Levinthal, of the Center for Public Integrity, reports that Trump has so far declined to fill three vacant slots on the Federal Election Commission, rendering the regulator inquorate in an election year. Senate Republicans want Trump to take action, but as things stand, Levinthal writes, 2020 “will simply be staged without the FEC playing any meaningful law enforcement role.” (You can guess who stands to benefit.)
  • The debate: The debate tonight will kick off at 9pm EST on CNN. Drake University in Des Moines will host, with Wolf Blitzer and Abby Phillip, of CNN, and Brianne Pfannenstiel, the top politics reporter at the Des Moines Register, moderating. (The Times has a useful profile of Pfannenstiel.)

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.