Ahead of New Hampshire, the Democrats’ top candidates meet the press

Yesterday, on the final Sunday before the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which is tomorrow, the top four finishers in Iowa—Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden—all did prominent TV hits. Buttigieg toured the Sunday shows on NBC, CNN, CBS, Fox News, and ABC; Sanders was on all the shows bar ABC’s; Biden and Warren did one each. (Amy Klobuchar—who finished fifth in Iowa and has been a Sunday-show regular—was absent in person, if not in spirit; her debate performance on Friday, which the pundit class rated as strong, fueled chatter, not for the first time this cycle, about a possible late “Klobucharge.”) Top-tier candidates fighting for airtime on the eve of a crucial primary is hardly surprising; this year, the inconclusive mess in Iowa only heightened the incentive. In some ways, however, the Sunday show dash—and other interactions outside the studio—represented a striking convergence for candidates who, to this point, have had very different media strategies.

The ubiquity of Buttigieg yesterday was no surprise—his campaign has offered a high level of access to the press. In its early days, Buttigieg gave interview after interview, and succeeded in boosting his low national profile in the process. A CNN town hall, last March, was key in lifting him out of the crowded also-ran category. In the weeks that followed, people began to recognize him in airports; Buttigieg quipped, to Politico, that he was sometimes mistaken for a reporter, since he was on TV so much. He was the first Democratic candidate to go on Fox News Sunday, and has since done multiple town halls on the network, while some of his rivals boycotted it. As Olivia Nuzzi, who wrote a buzzy early profile of Buttigieg for New York, told CNN in April, “Nobody else is that accessible right now and I think that really counts for a lot.” Even as he surged, Buttigieg kept offering openings to the press, including an on-the-record bus tour modeled on John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” (of David Foster Wallace fame). His top comms adviser, Lis Smith, has become something of a media star in her own right—on Twitter, and as the subject of magazine profiles. Last year, Smith told Politico Magazine, of Buttigieg, “I want him on everything.”

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Spokespeople for Sanders are media personalities, too, but their candidate has not always been on everything. As the AP’s Juana Summers reported last summer—in a piece headlined, “Bernie Sanders thinks media is unfair, so he created his own”—the Sanders campaign has developed a sophisticated in-house media apparatus as a way of reaching supporters directly, including a web show, called The 99, which Sanders has used to make policy announcements; a podcast, called Hear the Bern, hosted by Briahna Joy Gray, a former editor at The Intercept; and an email newsletter, called Bern Notice, written by another former journalist, David Sirota. Their output has sometimes taken aim at corporate media, and Sanders has echoed such criticisms on the campaign trail. Still, Sanders has not walled himself off. He’s contributed op-eds on his thinking to print outlets, including CJR, and has given network interviews, too. In April, he became the first Democratic candidate to do a Fox town hall, and drew the highest ratings for any such event on any network to that point.

Biden’s campaign, by contrast, has often sought to keep out the press. As the Washington Post reported in May, he started out running “a limited-exposure campaign”—a bid, it seemed, to limit his potential for gaffes, and to keep the memory of Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, at the front of voters’ minds. There were exceptions to Biden’s stonewalling—interview rounds with local TV and radio stations, for instance, and an affecting interview with The Atlantic in which he opened up about his childhood stutter—but he skipped a bunch of national media availabilities that almost every other candidate seized. Then, on Saturday, something seemed to change. With his campaign in the doldrums, Biden finally held forth to reporters in New Hampshire; as Mark Z. Barabak, of the LA Times, put it, Biden was “was like a dam burst open. Or a shaken soda bottle, uncorked.” Aides repeatedly tried to curtail questions, but Biden “talked, and talked some more.”

Unlike Buttigieg and Sanders, Biden only did one of the Sunday shows yesterday—This Week With George Stephanopoulos, on ABC—but that, in itself, was a departure; it marked Biden’s first Sunday show hit of the campaign so far. Warren was also on This Week yesterday. Unlike Biden, she’s run a relatively open campaign—last summer, her aides told Politico that she’d done 82 “gaggles” and 170 interviews to date. Still, as The Hill’s Amie Parnes noted in October, as 2019 progressed, Warren mostly steered clear of big set-piece interviews. She didn’t do a single Sunday show in the whole of the year; her first such appearances were last month, with her campaign, like Biden’s, badly in need of a jolt.

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The top four candidates’ appearances yesterday, then, were rare in their simultaneity. Did the Sunday shows make the most of them? Buttigieg faced some useful questions on race—particularly as it pertains to drug policy and the criminal-justice system—but his interlocutors also all confronted him with an attack ad that Biden’s campaign released over the weekend. (“When President Obama called on him, Joe Biden helped lead the passage of the Affordable Care Act… and when park-goers called on Pete Buttigieg, he installed decorative lights under bridges.”) Buttigieg’s political experience, or lack thereof, is fair game, but did every network really need to give Biden’s ad free exposure? On ABC, Biden faced questions about his son Hunter, who has become a favored target of Republican smears. On CNN, Jake Tapper asked Sanders to defend a comment he’d made in 1974 (“Did you go back to my third-grade essay when I was in PS 197 about what I said?” Sanders shot back); on CBS, Margaret Brennan asked Sanders if the mess in Iowa had dented public trust in the Democrats’ ability to govern. (Need it really be said that the Iowa Democratic Party and a putative Sanders administration are not the same thing?)

Candidates’ sitting down for questions is to be applauded, of course. But it’s only useful if the questions we ask are sharp. Yesterday, we saw a mixed performance on that front. As New Hampshire passes and the field starts to winnow, we’ll need to bore down harder when those who are left in the race meet the press.

Below, more on the primaries:


Some news from the home front:
This week, CJR is launching “The Year of Fear,” a weekly series of dispatches that will follow the 2020 election in four places—McKeesport, Pennsylvania; Bowling Green, Virginia; McAllen, Texas; and Macon, Georgia—where local news has been scaled back. We’ll publish the first dispatch tomorrow.

 

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, a Friday night massacre: Trump, freshly acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial, moved to fire officials who gave evidence against him, recalling Gordon Sondland from his post as ambassador to the European Union, and removing Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council. (Vindman was escorted from the White House along with his twin brother, Yevgeny, an NSC staffer who did not testify during the process.) Other witnesses already left their posts, and as the Times reports, some of them look ready to speak out. Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted ambassador to Ukraine, has signed with a leading literary agency, while Bill Taylor, her acting replacement, has been talking to the press of late. (Yovanovitch retired from the State Department last month.)
  • For Friday’s episode of The Daily, the flagship podcast of the Times, Megan Twohey, who, with Jodi Kantor, broke the #MeToo story on Harvey Weinstein, spoke with Donna Rotunno, who is representing Weinstein in his criminal trial. Twohey asked Rotunno if she has ever been sexually assaulted; Rotunno replied that she has not, “because I would never put myself in that position.” In court, prosecutors alleged that the interview violated the judge’s order that parties not discuss witnesses in the media. Rotunno said the interview was taped “a long time ago” and that she didn’t know when it would appear—but the Times said it was recorded on January 28, after the trial started.
  • In local-news news, lawmakers in Florida advanced a bill that would end local officials’ obligation to place paid notices in newspapers—the bill, Mary Ellen Klas writes for the Miami Herald, “could strip legacy newspapers of an important revenue source.” And a Fox affiliate in Charleston, South Carolina, illustrated an item on Jaime Harrison, a US Senate candidate, with a mugshot of a Black woman. The station apologized.
  • For the final instalment of CJR’s series on faith and journalism, Stephanie Russell-Kraft spoke with Tom Junod, who profiled Mister Rogers, and befriended him in the process. “Fred showed me a lot of different things about religious practice,” Junod says. “It was definitely, like, my own personal reformation. I think Fred turned me into a Protestant.”
  • In China, the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor whose early efforts to flag the coronavirus were silenced by the state, sparked rare, harsh criticism of government censorship, including from officials and business leaders. Fears abound that Chen Qiushi—a citizen journalist who had been covering the virus, and is now missing—has been silenced, too.
  • In October 2018, the government of Nicaragua seized ink and paper supplies from La Prensa, a newspaper that has been critical of President Daniel Ortega. The move, Ismael Lopez writes for Reuters, forced the paper to shrink its print edition, leading to a loss in revenue and layoffs. On Friday, the government finally released the supplies.
  • Manchester United, the leading English soccer club, is alleging that The Sun, a top tabloid, knew of a planned attack on the home of Ed Woodward—a senior club executive who is unpopular with many supporters—yet did nothing to stop it. The club has filed a complaint with Britain’s press regulator. The Sun denies any wrongdoing.
  • And the South Korean movie Parasite made Oscars history last night, becoming the first foreign-language film to win the best picture award. In total, Parasite scooped four awards, including the best director prize for Bong Joon Ho.

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Update: This post has been updated to clarify that Mary Ellen Klas writes for the Miami Herald.

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