The Media Today

As Kamala Harris drops out, critics decry a double standard

December 4, 2019

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.”

ICYMI: A tweet about Kamala Harris that was reposted thousands of times turned out to be false

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.

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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:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Impeachment polls and the risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy

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.