Nancy Pelosi’s media flip

For months, Nancy Pelosi was written off by many in the media as a has-been and an electoral liability. Starting in March, as Democrats contested tight special elections across Trump country, Republican operatives and their boosters in the right-wing press filled the airwaves with ads and stories tagging her as a toxic asset. In June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted Rep. Joe Crowley, one of Pelosi’s deputies in Democratic leadership, in a stunning New York primary victory. Suddenly, press chatter was all about the progressive vanguard to Pelosi’s left, as mainstream outlets reflected on their failure to see Ocasio-Cortez coming. The New York Times editorial board called on Pelosi to step aside and “make way for young Democratic leaders.” News headlines reflected her vulnerability to encroaching threats from both wings of her party.

After Democrats won back the House early last month, coverage of Pelosi hardly let up, despite her instrumental role in the campaign. Even as Trump, mass shootings, and wildfires crowded the post-midterms news cycle, political press cast attention on how divisions in the new Democratic majority could hamper Pelosi’s bid for speaker: Politico Playbook, an indispensable daily newsletter aimed at Beltway insiders, for example, repeatedly gave the story top billing. In late November, Pelosi won a key vote, but reporters still voiced skepticism. “Many of the newly elected Democrats in the House have voted to make Nancy Pelosi their next speaker,” Michael Barbaro said, introducing an episode of the Times’s Daily podcast. “That doesn’t necessarily mean she has their support.”

ICYMI: Voices on the left are rising in the US. Why aren’t they in mainstream media?

This week, finally, Pelosi has seen a narrative shift. Much of that had to do with a fiery meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday—in front of TV cameras—during which Pelosi stood up to President Trump, calling out his falsehoods and goading him into owning a potential government shutdown. Afterward, footage of Pelosi walking away from the White House to take press questions, wearing shades and a funnel-necked orange coat, attracted almost as much media adulation. Memes flooded Twitter (“Me leaving your Holiday Party after starting major drama,” a popular one read); CNN reported that the coat, by designer Max Mara, would be re-released from an old line in 2019. Columnists used the coat as a metaphor. The coat “helped to transform her from a seemingly tired symbol of the establishment to one of well-dressed revolt,” Vanessa Friedman, a fashion critic, explained in the Times. “Like Pelosi, not only is the coat classic, sharp and staid, it won’t be forgotten, even if it lived in the back of the closet for a while,” Elizabeth Wellington said in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pelosi was back. Yesterday, a flurry of coverage greeted Pelosi’s flipping eight lawmakers who had previously called for a changing of the guard; she had all but secured her speakership. Yet this was not a clear victory for Pelosi: in return for the votes, she had to commit to stepping down either in 2021 or, if she can command two-thirds support among her caucus, in 2023. A month ago, that concession might have been reported as an another embarrassing blow to an increasingly embattled figure. Yesterday, however, it appeared below glowing headlines: “How Pelosi beat the rebels and got her gavel back” (in Politico), “‘Her skills are real’: How Pelosi put down a Democratic rebellion in bid for speaker” (in The Washington Post). On MSNBC, Katy Tur asked: “Is Nancy Pelosi having the best week in Washington?”

Pelosi, as she has done so many times before, played an astute media hand this week: electrifying a Washington press corps that had forgotten what divided government looks like. Whether the positive coverage will last depends on how Pelosi manages her caucus going forward. Writing in the Post, however, Monica Hesse suggests the media may give Pelosi more leeway now she’s back in office, rather than slugging it out on the campaign trail. This week “readers filled my inbox suggesting that I should laud her, weeks after readers in my inbox suggested I should loathe her,” Hesse writes. “It felt like an illustration of a known conundrum: The public seems to like female politicians when they do their jobs. But it dislikes them when they’re campaigning for those jobs.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on Nancy Pelosi and the press:

  • “Nancy Pelosi doesn’t care what you think of her”: Battling an avalanche of bad press and political threats from all sides, Pelosi gave a pugnacious interview to Time’s Molly Ball. Ball’s September story was the first time Pelosi had appeared on the cover of any national news magazine—even though she served as speaker from 2007 to 2011.
  • Sexist questions: Pelosi has been quick to call out unfavorable coverage in the past. In August, she accused NBC of consciously undermining her prospects as speaker. (It was “one of their priorities,” Pelosi said). Just after the midterms, she blasted reporters for posing questions about her future, saying they were sexist and ageist. “When was the day that any of you said to Mitch McConnell, when they lost the Senate three times in a row—lost making progress in taking back the Senate three times in a row —‘Aren’t you getting a little old, Mitch? Shouldn’t you step aside?’” Pelosi asked.
  • Public enemy number one: Pelosi’s status as the right-wing media’s top liberal hate figure has been alleviated by Ocasio-Cortez’s arrival on the scene. Last week, Vice’s Eve Peyser reviewed obsessive recent media coverage of Ocasio-Cortez, who has shown she is not afraid to punch back at her critics.
  • “Who is this deal good for?” Slate’s Jim Newell had a less positive take on the deal which secured the speakership for Pelosi this week. “Throughout the process, Pelosi had refused the so-called rebels’ demands to put a timeline on her retirement plans, arguing that lame-ducking herself would weaken both her position and the Democratic caucus’ strength,” Newell writes. “But per the deal that Pelosi formally announced Wednesday night, she’s agreed to do just that.”


Other notable stories:

  • The Senate unanimously approved a resolution holding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, moments after voting to end US military assistance for the Saudi-prosecuted war in Yemen. While the votes were largely symbolic, they represented “the strongest show of bipartisan defiance against President Trump’s defense of the kingdom” over Khashoggi’s killing, the Times’s Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Eric Schmitt report.
  • The Times continued its aggressive reporting on behind-the-scenes chaos at CBS: Rachel Abrams and John Koblin write that the network paid a confidential $9.5 million settlement to the actress Eliza Dushku, who was written out of Bull after confronting the show’s star over remarks he made on set. Earlier this week, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo described the fury inside CBS after a draft report on the conduct of Les Moonves, the network’s former chairman and CEO, was leaked to the Times.
  • Journalists working with Facebook’s fact-checking partnership have lost faith in the platform, citing concerns over their treatment, the efficacy of their work, and Facebook’s corporate stumbles, The Guardian’s Sam Levin reports. After the story published yesterday, Facebook hit back, dismissing the piece as primarily being based on the account of a single former partner (the piece actually cites several current and former fact-checkers). Also yesterday, The Information reported that Facebook is poised to cut funding from some news shows on its Watch service.
  • For CJR, Amanda Darrach writes that Post Reports, a daily news podcast launched by The Washington Post last week, “is still casting about for its voice.” On CJR’s podcast The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, chatted with Martine Powers, the host of Post Reports.
  • The Correspondent, a reader-funded news publisher based in the Netherlands, yesterday hit its crowdfunding goal of $2.5 million, allowing it to move forward with plans to launch an English-language edition. According to cofounders Rob Wijnberg and Ernst Pfauth, 42,780 people chipped in—smashing the world record for a journalism crowdfunding campaign, which was set by The Correspondent’s Dutch edition in 2013.
  • For The Ringer, Alyssa Bereznak looks at the role Hollywood gossip websites have played in the #MeToo movement. “For decades, blind items—unsourced, name-free gossip reports—were considered the lowest rung of celebrity journalism,” she writes. “In the post-Weinstein era, they can launch blockbuster investigations.”
  • The Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News & Observer, and Park City, Utah, Park Record were among a wave of organizations nationwide which received emailed bomb threats yesterday. The threats, which appear to have been automated, demanded that affected organizations hand over $20,000 in Bitcoin.
  • And in Arizona, Joseph Soldwedel used the pages of the Prescott Daily Courier, which he owns, to accuse Felice Soldwedel, his wife, of trying to poison him: the AP reports that the paper alluded to her in three stories, and named her in an advert bordered with images of skulls and rats. Joseph Soldwedel is seeking $18 million in a lawsuit despite a prosecutor declining to file charges, citing a lack of evidence. Felice Soldwedel says the poison claims were made in retaliation after she sought a divorce.

ICYMI: A law firm in the trenches against media unions

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.