Over Thanksgiving, the Washington Post and the New York Times both published brutal stories about the state of Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign. The Post said she was “teetering,” burdened by “indecision within her campaign, her limits as a candidate, and dwindling funds.” The Times obtained a scathing resignation letter in which Kelly Mehlenbacher, a senior aide, criticized campaign leadership for inconsiderate management, including laying off employees without notice. “This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly,” Mehlenbacher wrote. (She has since joined Michael Bloomberg’s campaign.) On Friday, Politico’s Playbook newsletter shared both pieces, calling them “two nail-in-coffin stories for Kamala Harris.”
Yesterday, Harris called it quits. “I’ve taken stock and looked at this from every angle, and over the last few days have come to one of the hardest decisions of my life,” she told supporters. “My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue.” The inevitable postmortems blamed the internal dysfunction and rancor; Harris’s enduring slump in the polls, aided by other candidates, including Joe Biden, eating away at her early support; her vacillation on important policy issues, most notably healthcare; and her past criminal justice record, which made her candidacy anathema to many progressives. Most centrally, they cited Harris’s failure to pick a clear message and stick with it. “Kamala Harris was never as easy to put on a bumper sticker as some of the others,” Chelsea Janes, who wrote the Post’s Thanksgiving story on Harris, said on PBS. “She sort of lost clarity in exactly who she was and why she was running.”
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Some commentators identified another culprit: the media. On Sunday, before we knew Harris would drop out, MSNBC’s Joy Reid said the Harris-crisis stories illustrated a broader truth about the standards to which different candidates are held: “The narrative around the Democratic primary seems to be very bullish toward white, male candidates, and lukewarm on women and minorities.” Yesterday, post-dropout, the Reverend Al Sharpton echoed Reid’s point. “I’ve never seen a candidate taken apart the way she was in the last several days,” he said, also on MSNBC. “Yes, there were organizational problems. Yes, there were financial problems. But you have people on that debate stage who have no organization at all.” On Twitter, Times columnist Frank Bruni said it had always been “curious” to him that Harris got less publicity than was afforded Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg in the early days of their respective presidential campaigns. (O’Rourke dropped out last month; Buttigieg is currently considered a front-runner.) Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway, replied to Bruni via Twitter that women of color “can tell you why [Harris] didn’t get the star treatment that white male candidates got in the media.”
Julián Castro, Harris’s erstwhile rival for the Democratic nomination, also came to her defense. After effusively praising Harris to CBS, Castro paused, then added, “I will say that the way that the media treated Senator Harris in this campaign has been something else.” The articles in the Times and the Post, and another in Politico, Castro said, “held her to a different standard—a double standard—[which] has been grossly unfair and unfortunate.” He elaborated in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Nidhi Prakash. “Just because somebody is willing to talk doesn’t mean that reflects a reality or that necessarily gives it front-page coverage in your publication,” he said, referring to the insider sourcing of the stories. “Donald Trump was very willing to talk to journalists in 2015 and ’16 and because of that journalists gave him a lot of coverage. There has to be more responsibility in the profession than that.”
Campaign dynamics are fair game, especially when they pertain to allegations about the treatment of staff. It’s also true that a wide range of pundits treated Harris as a very serious proposition when she launched her campaign in January (she was CNN’s first town hall invitee, right ahead of Howard Schultz) and that she made avoidable missteps since then. But the complaints of a double standard carry weight. In recent months, it does feel as if Harris has had to work harder than white, often male rivals for attention—a dynamic that has intensified as focus has started to shift decisively to Iowa and New Hampshire, the very white early nominating states. As several observers, including Castro, noted yesterday, too much campaign discussion remains fixated on “electability,” a notion that has always been friendlier to white male candidates and was only amplified by the way Trump won in 2016, and the conventional wisdom about—and stakes involved in—beating him.
Some of yesterday’s valedictory Harris coverage reflected on a perceived high point for her campaign: the first Democratic debate, in June, when she grilled Biden on race. As I wrote at the time, their exchange was both a riveting viral “moment” of the type many in the press crave, but also illuminating of crucial matters of substance. With Harris gone, the top candidates in the Democratic primary—and those who could still join them in that tier—look more homogeneous than ever. The press must ensure that its campaign coverage doesn’t echo this homogeneity.
Below, more on Kamala Harris and the Democratic primary:
- Respect for the craft: Castro’s Harris intervention wasn’t the first time he has critiqued the press during this campaign: in the summer he said, of the media’s response to Trump’s racism, that “American journalists are so steeped in a ‘both sides’ dynamic.… That presents a problem when things are generally right and wrong.” Yesterday, Jennifer Fiore, a senior Castro adviser, tweeted that Castro once aspired to work in journalism, and studied it in college. “When he criticizes ‘gossipy’ horserace journalism, it’s based in respect for the craft and the knowledge it can be done well,” Fiore said.
- Another conversation we need to have: A Harris aide pointed out, to the Wall Street Journal, that by the end of this week, Bloomberg, who only just got in the race, will have spent about twice as much on advertising as Harris raised in her entire campaign. Yesterday, Sam Sanders, of NPR, tweeted that Harris’s exit should probably push us to have a fresh conversation about money in politics, “but we probably won’t.”
- Up for debate: With Harris out, the lineup for the next Democratic debate, on December 19, is currently all white. Yesterday, Tom Steyer, a California billionaire, qualified, joining Biden, Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar in the lineup.
- McKinsey: Yesterday, the Times and ProPublica detailed consulting firm McKinsey’s role in executing Trump’s immigration policies, including proposals that Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff viewed as too harsh. Buttigieg used to work for McKinsey, but says he can’t talk about his work there due to a nondisclosure agreement. His campaign previously told BuzzFeed he’s trying to get out of it. Buttigieg’s work for the firm came long before the events detailed by the Times and ProPublica.
Other notable stories:
- As expected, the House Intelligence Committee concluded—in a report that was published yesterday, then adopted on a party-line vote—that Trump abused his office when he pressured Ukraine to lend him election help. Among other eye-catching details, the report establishes frequent calls between Lev Parnas, a since-indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani, and John Solomon, formerly of The Hill. The report said Solomon fed a “smear campaign” against Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted US ambassador to Ukraine; Bob Cusack, The Hill’s editor in chief, reiterated yesterday that the paper is conducting a “meticulous review” of Solomon’s columns. The House Intelligence report also identifies calls between Parnas and Devin Nunes, the committee’s top Republican. Parnas’s lawyer recently told CNN that Nunes discussed efforts to get dirt on Joe Biden with a former Ukrainian prosecutor. Yesterday, Nunes sued CNN for defamation. (He’s also currently suing McClatchy, Esquire, and some parody Twitter accounts.)
- For CJR’s new print issue, Errin Haines, national writer for race and ethnicity at the AP, explains how disinformation campaigns suppress the Black vote. Such propaganda, Haines writes, is not new, but “social media has transformed its nature and scale.” Also for the issue, Emily Bell assesses the state of the fact-check industry. “The number of fact-checking organizations is growing,” Bell writes, “but their association with traditional journalism outlets is weakening.”
- The Post’s Paul Farhi details a “considerable effort” by management at Fox News “to stop its on-air personalities from promoting Republican events and causes”—in recent months, it’s intervened to prevent appearances by Jeanine Pirro, Brian Kilmeade, Shannon Bream, and Pete Hegseth. Still, Pirro, Bream, Dan Bongino, Mark Levin, Gregg Jarrett, and Rachel Campos-Duffy have all appeared at such events.
- Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, are stepping down from executive roles at its parent company, Alphabet; Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, will become CEO of Alphabet, too. In other Google news, the search giant’s recent move to ban the narrow targeting of political ads has a big loophole, Bloomberg’s Gerrit De Vynck writes.
- Content moderators employed by Facebook and a third-party contractor are suing their bosses in Ireland, claiming their vetting work has given them “psychological trauma.” Facebook is facing a similar lawsuit in California, but, per David Gilbert of Vice, the new action is a bigger threat, in part due to Europe’s tighter workplace-safety standards.
- Emily Nussbaum is leaving her role as TV critic at The New Yorker—she’s taking leave to write a book about early reality TV, then will return to the magazine with an expanded writing portfolio. Doreen St. Félix, currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, will replace Nussbaum as TV critic. (In 2017, I wrote for CJR about Nussbaum’s work.)
- In October, I linked to a story about Carlo De Benedetti, an Italian media mogul who was trying to buy back into GEDI, a newspaper company he founded, after berating his sons for mismanaging it. Now the De Benedetti family is selling up: the Elkann-Agnelli family, which also owns much of The Economist, will become GEDI’s largest shareholder.
- Protesters laid siege to the offices of Dawn, a newspaper in Pakistan, after it reported in a headline that the perpetrator of last week’s terrorist attack in London was of Pakistani origin. Protesters also gathered at the Karachi Press Club, toting signs calling for Dawn’s editor and publisher to be hanged. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more.
- And Bloomberg is rebranding TicToc, its social-media news product, in part to avoid confusion with TikTok, the wildly popular—and controversial—Chinese-owned video app. TicToc will now be known as QuickTake by Bloomberg.
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Update: A previous version of this post included Diamond and Silk in the list of Fox News personalities who have appeared at events promoting Republican events or causes. Diamond and Silk host a show on Fox Nation, a streaming service, but are not formally employed by Fox News, and so are subject to a different set of standards. The post has been corrected.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.