The Media Today

Did the media fail Elizabeth Warren?

March 6, 2020

And then there were two. (And Tulsi Gabbard.) On the last day of 2018, Elizabeth Warren fired the starting gun on the 2020 Democratic primary; yesterday, two days after her poor Super Tuesday returns, she dropped out of the race. After announcing her exit, Warren went outside her house to address a throng of reporters. “Elizabeth Warren’s 430-day campaign for the presidency ended where and how it began,” the Washington Post’s David Weigel wrote afterward, “outside her Massachusetts home, talking to very skeptical reporters.”

Reporters have been skeptical of Warren’s electoral prospects for some months now: she crested as a frontrunner last year, and since then she has slid down in the polls, failing to break the top two in any of the year’s early primaries and caucuses. (On Tuesday, she finished a distant third in Massachusetts, the state she represents in the Senate.) Following her exit, however, skepticism was not the dominant emotion in coverage. The liberal media, at least, rung with praise for Warren’s candidacy—New York magazine ran an article headlined “An Appreciation of Elizabeth Warren As She Suspends Her Campaign”—and concern about its failure, and what that says about the place of women in American politics. Many noted that with Warren gone (and Gabbard a non-factor), the presidential race has narrowed to two white guys in their late seventies, fighting for the right to take on a president who is several years their junior as well as the oldest ever to have been inaugurated. In The Atlantic, Megan Garber wrote that America had “punished” Warren for her competence, which is a highly gendered concept. NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly tweeted that Warren’s post-exit presser had been “hard to watch”; on air, Mona Eltahawy asked Kelly’s colleague Audie Cornish, “How low can the bar be for men, and how high must it be for women?” It wasn’t just the news media. Late-night hosts told variations on the joke that America, ultimately, did not deserve Warren. And the Merriam-Webster dictionary said that searches for “misogyny” spiked 2,400 percent after she quit.

ICYMI: The infinite scroll

Warren addressed the sexism question with the reporters outside her home. One of the hardest parts of her exit, she said, was “all those little girls who are gonna have to wait four more years” for a female president. The impact of gender, she said, “is the trap question for every woman. If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’ And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?” Warren promised that she would have much more to say on the subject later on. Before the day was out, she got another chance, as she sat for an extensive interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Warren’s campaign ending “feels a little bit like a death knell, in terms of the prospects of having a woman for president in our lifetimes,” Maddow said. “Oh God, please no,” Warren replied. “That can’t be right.” Maddow told Warren that she’d been hearing all day, in her personal and professional circles, from “women who are just bereft. People are telling me they can’t get off the couch.” “I know,” Warren said. But “we can’t lose hope over this… We persist.”

After Warren got into the race, a pair of specters haunted early coverage of her candidacy: her much-criticized decision to take a DNA test establishing her Native American ancestry, and comparisons to Hillary Clinton, more than two years on from Clinton’s loss to Trump. (One Politico story asserted that Warren was “battling the ghosts of Hillary,” and risked a “Clinton redux”—being “written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground.”) The DNA story got its due scrutiny and then receded into the background. (It did not, as I feared at the time, become a Hillary’s-emails-sized albatross around Warren’s neck.) But, predictably, the sexist tropes stuck. In November, Donny Deutsch said, on MSNBC, that Warren has “a likability issue” due to her “high-school principal demeanor.” (Deutsch insisted this was “not a gender thing.”) News headlines probing the merit of such criticisms, Garber wrote the same month, may have had the effect of further implanting them.

Earlier this year, several commentators complained, relatedly, that the media had started to “erase” Warren—her third-place finish in Iowa, they said, was largely ignored, with lesser-performing candidates getting more hype. Lis Power, of the progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America, noted on Twitter yesterday that every cable news channel carried Warren’s withdrawal press conference live. “This type of media attention is something Warren was never privileged with while she was actually running, and that in my opinion, is a travesty,” Power wrote. “The media needs to reflect on who they privilege and why.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The question of whether the media failed Warren is not without nuance. She made herself available to the reporters covering her campaign, yet, as Amie Parnes noted in The Hill last year, she mostly avoided set-piece interviews; she didn’t appear on a Sunday show in the whole of 2019. And much coverage of Warren’s candidacy—especially at its polling peak—was highly favorable. The editorial boards of major newspapers—including the New York Times, the Des Moines Register, and the Boston Globe (which previously discouraged her from running)—endorsed her (jointly with Amy Klobuchar, in the Times’s case). In general, Warren was most popular among highly educated white voters, who, needless to say, are overrepresented in journalism. “I’m 46, I’m a professional, I live in New England, I have an advanced degree,” Maddow told her last night. “You have a lot of people of a lot of different stripes supporting you around the country—but like, I’m your stripe.”

Still, Warren’s campaign undoubtedly found itself on the wrong end of several political-media pathologies—among them, the prevalence of gendered tropes; our obsession with “electability,” which does not favor women or candidates of color; and our related obsession with momentum. Once Warren started trending down, an oversimplified decline narrative crystallized around her campaign that, in the end, she couldn’t shake. This narrative was based, in no small part, on data—but there’s no question that pundits put a greatly more positive spin on Klobuchar’s third-place finish in New Hampshire than Warren’s similar result in Iowa. As I’ve written far too often in recent weeks, our judgments about electability and momentum aren’t neutral observations; they feed directly into what voters think. Yesterday, multiple reporters and commentators attested that voters they spoke to liked Warren, but were concerned other people wouldn’t, and so didn’t vote for her. Presumably, they didn’t reach that conclusion in a vacuum.

In many ways, Warren fit many liberal media types’ Platonic ideal of a presidential candidate—passionate, highly detail-oriented, impeccably credentialed. That so much coverage of her campaign still lacked imagination—to the point that for no substantive reason, it discouraged people who liked her from voting for her—is, if anything, a testament to the staying power of the narrative traps we keep falling into, around women candidates, and more generally.

Below, more on Warren and 2020:

  • The eye of the storm: On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times—a small yet influential Iowa newspaper that also endorsed Warren—for a local perspective on the campaign circus. “Newspaper editorials are only important in the minds of the editors,” Cullen said.
  • Warren and Fox: Last year, Warren broke with many of her rivals and said she wouldn’t appear on Fox News; she called the network “a hate-for-profit racket,” and said she would not lend it credibility. Her argument mirrored that of Media Matters, an aggressive Fox antagonist. Yesterday, the group’s president, Angelo Carusone, wrote on Twitter that “no other Democratic candidate has demonstrated as deep and consistent an understanding of the information asymmetry that we are all dealing with.”
  • Sanders and MSNBC: The day before her Warren sitdown, Maddow taped an extensive interview with Bernie Sanders. Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin, of the Times, called the interview a “striking turnaround” from Sanders, whose campaign has been extremely aggrieved by MSNBC’s coverage; he’s also set to do a town hall on the network ahead of the next round of primaries. Sanders seems to be signaling “a newfound need to engage with a broader swath of a Democratic electorate that is rapidly coalescing around his opponent,” Grynbaum and Koblin write.
  • Meanwhile, in Trumpland: Yesterday, Judd Legum, of the newsletter Popular Information, highlighted Facebook ads in which Trump’s reelection campaign encouraged users to “take the Official 2020 Congressional District Census today,” then linked them through to a campaign site. (The real census has yet to be distributed.) Hours after Legum’s report appeared, Facebook removed the ads, calling them “deliberately deceptive and misleading.”
  • Qdogba: Warren’s dog, Bailey, snatched someone’s burrito yesterday, and ate it, as dogs do. A clip of the incident went viral online.  “He just said the pressure of running for first dog had finally gotten to him,” Warren told Maddow. “I think it was stress-eating.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The new coronavirus and racist tropes

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.