The Media Today

The media, ‘Klomentum,’ and the ‘erasure’ of Elizabeth Warren

February 12, 2020

Yesterday, people voted, their votes were counted, and we got (most of) the results. Normally, that observation would be routine, but it’s already been quite a year. Shortly before midnight, the Associated Press—which gave up on naming a winner in Iowa last week—projected that Bernie Sanders would win the Democratic primary in New Hampshire; as of early this morning, with 87 percent of results in, Sanders was slightly ahead of Pete Buttigieg, who will finish second. Not that everyone had their eyes on the winner. While voting was still underway yesterday, Adrienne Elrod, who was a spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said on MSNBC that the “real thing” she was looking at was “that key third-place finish”; if Amy Klobuchar could snag that, Elrod argued, it would almost “be stronger and more important than a first-place finish for Bernie.” (The remark reminded more than one reporter of Marco Rubio’s third-place “victory” in New Hampshire in 2016.) Klobuchar did, in the end, finish third, and decisively so. “Everyone counted us out—even a week ago,” she told her supporters, victoriously, before waving sarcastically at the news cameras. “Thank you, pundits!”

Feeling aggrieved at media coverage is practically obligatory for political candidates. In Klobuchar’s case, it doesn’t really feel justified—not uniformly, at least. On numerous occasions, we’ve seemed keen to count Klobuchar in, even before we saw much evidence that she appeals to voters. “Despite Klobuchar’s consistent position just outside the top tier of candidates, pundits cannot get enough of her,” Libby Watson wrote last month, in the New Republic. “She satisfies every self-evident truth in the pundit bible about what Americans want. Most importantly, she is Midwestern. But she is also this field’s queen of Tellin’ It Like It Is—by which they mean being outspoken about what Beltway elites consider to be objective truths about the limits of political possibility in policymaking.” The Klobuchar-surge narrative has tended to peak after debates: after the most recent one, hosted by ABC on Friday, the notion of a “Klobucharge”—or “Klomentum”—attracted ample Kloverage (sorry) in major newspapers, and on cable news. Klobuchar’s coffers swelled—her campaign took $2 million in donations between the debate and 1pm the next day—and so did her crowds. In the same window, her numbers in New Hampshire jumped from roughly 8 percent to almost 12 percent. As things stand, her vote share is nearly 20 percent.

Related: Coverage of Bernie Sanders suffers from a lack of imagination

Between them, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar mopped up the delegates on offer in New Hampshire. Neither of the other top-tier candidates—Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, who are fourth and fifth, respectively—has broken the 10-percent mark. In her speech to supporters, Warren singled out Klobuchar for praise, and echoed her dig at the press; Klobuchar, Warren said, had shown “just how wrong the pundits can be when they count a woman out.”

Warren, unlike Klobuchar, does seem to have been counted out in recent days. She came out of Friday’s debate on a down note; she told MSNBC afterward, “I just didn’t say enough, didn’t fight hard enough, didn’t tell you how bad I want this,” and coverage since then has mostly echoed that negativity, when it’s mentioned Warren at all. In recent days, Warren’s supporters—including US Rep. Joaquin Castro, who, along with his twin brother, Julián, has endorsed her—have complained that the media has erased Warren’s candidacy. Journalists including Joan Walsh, of The Nation; Jennifer Rubin, of the Washington Post; and Charles P. Pierce, of Esquire, have made similar points. This, in a sense, is odd: Warren (eventually) finished third in Iowa, and while Klobuchar’s New Hampshire third looks stronger, there isn’t that much difference between them. (In national polls, Warren is doing about the same as Michael Bloomberg, and yet, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has noted, “the media takes his chances a lot more seriously than it takes hers.”) Last night, CNN didn’t carry Warren’s speech live, but did show Biden’s, even though he finished behind her, and had preemptively fled New Hampshire for South Carolina.

For some time, Warren and Klobuchar’s respective candidacies have felt tied. When Kamala Harris dropped out, they became the only women left in the race with substantial support. (Sorry, Tulsi Gabbard.) Since then, some media discussion has taken on an either/or hue, as if there couldn’t be room for two top-tier female candidates at once. Last month, the editorial board of the New York Times made room for both Warren and Klobuchar when it jointly endorsed them for president, but that choice was as binary as it was inclusive—Warren and Klobuchar, the Times said, were respectively the best advocates for two very different approaches, “the radical and the realist.” Now, taken together, they’re a case study in a different dynamic: the horserace journalism model’s obsession with momentum. Last summer, Warren was up, but she’s trended down since then, whereas Klobuchar has (sort of) gone the other way. Their respective results in Iowa and New Hampshire are similar, on paper, yet the dynamics behind each have dominated coverage. (Inconveniently for Warren, no syllable of her name rhymes with “the Big Mo.”)

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These dynamics may be mostly organic, of course—we can’t always know why voters vote the way they do. We do know, though, that “electability” has loomed larger than ever in our coverage of the primaries to this point. This, in part, is a reflection of Democratic voters’ anxiety about Trump, but they don’t decide in a vacuum, and media narratives can have a particularly important influence. Yesterday, Peter Hamby, of Snapchat and Vanity Fair, was listening to New Hampshire Public Radio, and tweeted that “like five straight women callers have said they switched from Warren to Amy K because Klobuchar is ‘feisty’ and ‘tough’ and she can take on Trump—but they’re worried Warren can’t win. Recency bias is a helluva drug in a crowded field.”

Below, more on the primaries:

  • Klostile environment: The early days of Klobuchar’s candidacy were overshadowed by claims that she has bullied staffers, but as Watson noted in the New Republic, more recent punditry has mostly glossed over the allegations. Not that coverage of Klobuchar is universally positive right now. Yesterday, Sunny Hostin, a cohost of The View, pressed Klobuchar on her past prosecution of Myon Burrell, a Black teenager in Minnesota who was found guilty of shooting an 11-year-old girl and sentenced to life in prison. “It gives me no pleasure to say this because as you know, I was a prosecutor as well,” Hostin said, but the Burrell case “is one of the most flawed investigations and prosecutions that I think I have ever seen.”
  • Running in the family: In addition to the Times, New Hampshire’s top newspapers, including the Union Leader, endorsed Klobuchar. (“Thank you, pundits!”) John Nichols argues, for The Nation, that more than any other candidate, Klobuchar still takes newspapers seriously. “Newspapering is in her blood,” Nichols writes. “Her father, Jim Klobuchar, was a popular columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She grew up around daily papers and continues to talk them up.”
  • Not with a Yang, but a whimper: Andrew Yang, the businessman whose longshot candidacy for the Democratic nomination defied many pundits’ expectations, dropped out of the race last night, following a poor showing in New Hampshire. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, was among those to mourn Yang’s exit. Michael Bennet, the senator for Colorado, also got out of the race last night. His brother, James Bennet, editor of the Times’s opinion section, will now be able to un-recuse himself from campaign coverage.
  • Year of Fear: Yesterday, CJR published the first dispatch in our new series, Year of Fear, which will track the election from four places where local news has declined. Greg Glassner writes from Caroline County, Virginia, a “pivot county” that went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, then Trump in 2016, a year after losing its local paper, the Caroline Progress. Voters’ intentions this year, Glassner writes, are still “anybody’s guess.”

Other notable stories:

  • While democracy played out in New Hampshire, it retrenched, again, in Washington. After federal prosecutors requested a seven- to nine-year prison term for Roger Stone—an associate of Trump’s who was indicted as a result of the Mueller probe—the president tweeted that the proposed punishment was “ridiculous,” and senior officials at the Justice Department intervened to recommend a lighter sentence. Four prosecutors withdrew from Stone’s case, seemingly in protest; one resigned outright. Ari Melber, MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent, tweeted that the developments have been seen “as a substantively *huge* deal in legal circles—a challenge to the rule of law.”
  • Two stories from a year ago saw updates yesterday. A judge sided with CBS in rejecting a defamation suit filed by Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor of Virginia; the network interviewed two women who have accused Fairfax of sexual assault. And a special prosecutor charged Jussie Smollett, the former Empire star, with staging a hate crime against himself—nearly a year after prosecutors in Chicago dropped such charges.
  • A trio of updates from Sara Fischer, of Axios: the sports division of CBS has struck a partnership with William Hill, a British betting company. Luminary, a subscription podcast service, is expanding to New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland. And YouTube will pay The Young Turks—a progressive outlet whose founder, Cenk Uygur, is running for Congress—to train people to produce digital local news. Media heads were scratched.
  • CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with Hamed Aleaziz, an immigration reporter at BuzzFeed whose recent story alleging medical negligence within ICE sparked a Congressional investigation. Aleaziz spoke with the family of Ronal Romero, who died in ICE custody. “It’s important to hear how these deaths affect families,” Aleaziz says.
  • After the San Francisco Chronicle asked for data on concealed-weapons permits in Sutter County, California, the local sheriff wrote about the request on Facebook, sparking a rash of threats against the Chronicle. The paper—which wasn’t planning to publish all the gun-owners’ names—has tightened security. The Sacramento Bee has more.
  • Last year, after Apollo Global Management, a private-equity firm, bought the Dayton Daily News in a package with Cox TV and radio stations, it moved to cut the paper’s distribution to three days per week—part of a creative bid to evade federal cross-ownership rules. Now, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton reports, Cox is buying the paper back, and keeping it as a daily.
  • A financial slump in Lebanon has hammered the country’s media industry, The Guardian’s Martin Chulov reports. In the past three months, “popular radio stations have closed, newspapers have stopped paying staff, or slashed salaries, and once omnipotent TV networks have been left scrounging for foreign backers,” Chulov writes.
  • In Northern Ireland, police investigating the murder of Lyra McKee, an independent journalist, made four arrests yesterday. McKee was shot while covering rioting in Derry last April. The New IRA took responsibility for her death, and apologized to her family.
  • And MCC is tilting at AOC. Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former journalist with CNBC, will mount a primary challenge to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her New York Congressional district. Caruso-Cabrera remains a CNBC contributor, but will take a break to campaign.

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

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.