The Media Today

Kamala Harris, history, and a break from pandemic TV

August 12, 2020

Yesterday, shortly after Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for president, picked Kamala Harris, the senator for California, as his running mate, Peter Doocy, a Fox News correspondent, tweeted, “But… you told me on Saturday…” That day, Doocy asked Biden—who was zipping past on a bicycle, wearing a t-shirt, shades, and a face mask, and surrounded by an entourage—whether he’d reached a decision yet, and Biden shouted back that he had. “You have?” Doocy responded. “Who is it?” Biden looked straight into the camera, and said, “You.” Later, Doocy reported on air, with a completely straight face, that while Biden “didn’t know the follow-up was coming, he did answer with a direct ‘yes’: he has picked a running mate.”

Biden (obviously) was joking. Doocy took some flak from other journalists on Twitter, but his report was little more than the ridiculous tip of an increasingly breathless—yet not equivalently fact-driven—“veepstakes” news cycle. The Biden campaign, which proved remarkably impervious to leaks on the vice-presidential selection process, initially promised a formal announcement last week, but then pushed it back to this week. As many reporters ruefully noted in the interim, given Biden’s past form, even the later deadline was not certain to be met. On Monday, however, the New York Times reported that Biden’s pick was, indeed, “Said to Be Imminent.” Several Twitter users congratulated “Imminent” on their nomination (even though one said he’d really hoped it’d be “Forthcoming”); soon, cable news got in on the bit. As yesterday dawned, Politico Playbook led with a “veep stalking” guide. “Aviation spotting is a relatively silly hobby,” it began. There followed four paragraphs of possible air routes into Delaware, where Biden is based.

ICYMI: When the news becomes religion

By the afternoon, media Twitter and cable news were ready for the announcement already. “What tea leaves do you choose to read?” Brian Williams, who was anchoring special coverage on MSNBC, asked Claire McCaskill, the commentator and former Democratic senator. “This is so hard for journalists,” McCaskill replied, before citing the difficulties of aviation spotting in the age of Zoom. Between 3 and 4pm Eastern, we started to learn some facts. Karen Bass had not been selected. Neither had Stacey Abrams. Finally, Biden put the press out of its misery, naming Harris as his pick in a message to supporters. Everyone on Twitter repeated the news. There followed jokes about Maya Rudolph, who has played Harris on Saturday Night Live, as well as jokes about there being too many Maya Rudolph jokes. The news broke while actual Rudolph was taping a panel discussion with Entertainment Weekly. “Oh shit,” she said.

Across the mainstream news media, coverage quickly settled around an important topline: the historic nature of Harris’s ascent. She becomes the first Black and first Asian-American woman to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket, and only the fourth woman of any background to do so. Online, major outlets published their prewritten Harris stories. On cable, the reaction was as you might expect: “Joe Biden deserves tremendous credit for making that history happen,” Joy Reid said on MSNBC; “It is a historic night in this country regardless of your politics,” Anderson Cooper said on CNN; “There are time-share salesmen you could trust more than Kamala Harris,” Tucker Carlson said on Fox, pronouncing “Kamala” wrong. Several pundits noted that Harris was always the obvious choice for Biden; the Times wrote that her pick had “a certain foreordained quality.” (Try telling that to pre-announcement Twitter.) There was chatter about Harris’s character, biography, and potential impact on Biden’s electoral prospects. “For a lot of Black women in America today, this is the ultimate affirmation,” Reid said. “The loyalty that Black women have uniquely shown to the Democratic Party has not always been returned.”

There was also speculation as to how President Trump would seek to “define” Harris. We didn’t have to wait long to find out; at his daily coronavirus briefing, he called her the “meanest” and “just about the most liberal” person in the Senate. The former characterization was habitually sexist; the latter was ludicrous. Many pundits rebutted the sexism, but on TV, in particular, the substantive ideological issues with Harris’s candidacy—left-wing criticisms of her prosecutorial record, for instance—felt like something of an afterthought. They got more consideration online. “Progressives will have to defend the California senator’s personal identity,” Derecka Purnell wrote for The Guardian, “while maneuvering against her political identity.”

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In the days leading up to Biden’s decision, we heard numerous calls for the media to avoid sexist and racist tropes in coverage of his pick. (He had already pledged to choose a woman, though not necessarily a woman of color.) Last week, a group called We Have Her Back wrote an open letter demanding that newsrooms treat Biden’s running mate with “the same kind of internal consideration about systemic inequality as you undertook earlier this year,” following the police killing of George Floyd. Leaders from NARAL, EMILY’s List, Time’s Up, and other progressive causes signed on; reporters and columnists echoed the call. Going forward, it’s urgent that we heed their advice in our coverage of Harris. When she ran in the Democratic primary last year, she faced clear double standards compared to the buzzy coverage of white, male rivals such as Pete Buttigieg; more recently, as the veepstakes intensified, she was the subject of an excruciating mini news cycle about her perceived surfeit of “ambition.”

At the heart of that narrative—and much of yesterday’s coverage, too—was the first Democratic debate last summer, when Harris held Biden to account for his past work with segregationist senators and his opposition to busing to achieve school integration. As CJR wrote at the time, the exchange was illuminating and substantive, yet some recent coverage has implicitly given less credit to Harris for sparking a necessary conversation than it has given Biden for “forgiving” her. There are racial assumptions at work in that dynamic, and it channels another familiar problem, too: the instinctive framing of campaign politics around feuds and optics, rather than policy and its implications. The media circus around Biden’s pick has often felt divorced from the massive stakes facing the country right now. Last night, Williams, of MSNBC, called the Harris news “a big enough story to displace the pandemic.” In reality, as my colleagues Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason demonstrated this week, the two stories should be treated as one.

When the pandemic did come up on TV last night, it often did so in the context of campaign rituals. MSNBC’s Chuck Todd pointed out that the typical “Kabuki theater” of the vice-presidential unveiling was impossible this year, and that that was a good thing; later, he remarked that Harris may be the subject of fewer uncomfortable stories than running mates past, because aggrieved delegates won’t have a physical convention at which to gripe to reporters about the ticket. It was a throwaway point, but a revealing one. The Harris pick would have been a huge deal in any news cycle. This year, it also had the air of a comforting ritual, when many others have been canceled. We still haven’t figured out how to take advantage of that absence.

Below, more on Kamala Harris and the campaign:

Other notable stories:

  • Facebook is moving to ensure that “news sites” with “direct, meaningful ties” to politicians and political groups will be held to the same advertising rules as transparently political accounts, Axios’s Sara Fischer reports. They will also be excluded from Facebook’s news tab. Fischer cites recent reporting by Priyanjana Bengani, for CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, on a network of more than 1,200 “pink slime” sites that pose as local news outlets while actually pushing a political agenda. Google recently moved to ban ads from such sites outright; Twitter has banned political ads, period.
  • COVID-19 may have killed thousands more residents of New York nursing homes than official figures show, the AP’s Bernard Condon, Matt Sedensky, and Meghan Hoyer report. Unlike other states, “New York only counts residents who died on nursing home property and not those who were transported to hospitals and died there.” Critics suspect a political fudge. Elsewhere, Dr. Sonia Angell, the director of California’s public health department, resigned this week after a computer failure led to a huge undercount of COVID cases in the state. (In July, I wrote about state data shortcomings for CJR.)
  • For CJR’s Year of Fear series, Jason Togyer reports on how COVID-19 has changed life in his hometown of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and the coverage challenges facing Tube City Online, the nonprofit news site that Togyer founded. “Our freelance writers are struggling to find different ways to report the same story over and over again,” he writes. “Things are cancelled, people are stuck at home, COVID-19 cases continue rising.”
  • Yael Taqqu and Raju Narisetti, of McKinsey, spoke with Mark Thompson, the outgoing president and CEO of the Times, about the paper’s success. “The ten-million-subscriber target, which is only about 18 months old… now looks too modest,” he said. “The opportunity now is to become one of the tiny handful of trusted independent sources of news in the world.” CNBC’s Alex Sherman also has an exit interview with Thompson.
  • In July, administrators at Wikipedia ruled that Fox News content on politics and science is not “generally reliable,” and said that it should be “used with caution to verify contentious claims.” Noam Cohen writes, for Wired, that the move deprives Fox “of the ability to frame how the public interprets political events and politicians on Wikipedia.”
  • Last week, Palace Shaw quit her job at PRX, a public-radio nonprofit, and circulated a letter detailing workplace racism, including disparities in advancement and pay. “I chose to be unemployed during a pandemic and economic crisis over continuing at PRX,” Shaw told Hot Pod’s Nicholas Quah. Kerri Hoffman, PRX’s CEO, has since apologized.
  • Authorities in Hong Kong released Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media magnate, on bail; Lai was arrested on Monday under the territory’s draconian new security law. Yesterday, Apple Daily, a newspaper that Lai owns, published five times its typical print run as an act of defiance, and locals lined up at newsstands to buy a copy. The AP has more.
  • And after Smash Mouth singer Steve Harwell downplayed COVID-19 at a biker rally in South Dakota, CNN’s Brianna Keilar asked on air if he is now “looking kind of dumb with his finger and his thumb in the shape of an ‘L’ on his forehead?” Keilar’s colleague Brian Stelter added: “Smash Mouth should try being Closed Mouth for a while.”

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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.