Warren’s bid for president, and how the media can do better ahead of 2020

On the last day of 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren formalized her intentions for 2020. In a big-theme-hitting, four-and-a-half-minute video message on Monday, Warren announced she is forming an exploratory committee ahead of a presidential run. In doing so, she became the first Democratic heavyweight out of the blocks and ensured the media’s next round of horse-race coverage could start in earnest going into the new year—a full 22 months before the 2020 election.

Political reporters have already spent months weighing the likely runners and riders for 2020. Warren’s reveal redoubled speculation about the intentions of prominent rivals. The New York Times ran a deep dive on the “campaign-in-waiting” of Joe Biden, while articles in the Times and The Washington Post namechecked Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, and Beto O’Rourke as seriously considering a run or likely to announce soon. However a crowded field shapes up, many commentators agreed that Warren will be a serious contender: veteran Democratic strategist David Axelrod, who helped Barack Obama win in 2008 and 2012, wrote for CNN that Warren’s economic populism and impressive early operation could be key factors in the race to come.

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While Warren’s economic message—honed by years of rhetoric taking aim at Wall Street excess and big money in politics—was prominent in coverage of her announcement, so, too, was her October decision to release a DNA test confirming her Native American heritage, a response to longstanding right-wing mockery including Donald Trump’s labeling of her as “Pocahontas.” The gambit was poorly received by tribal leaders as well as by progressive activists and commentators: some criticized it as insensitive, others called it a strategic error that played into Trump’s hands. In a New Year’s Eve interview with Fox News, Trump re-upped the line of attack, pushing it further up the news cycle. (Asked if Warren believes she can beat him, Trump replied, “you would have to ask her psychiatrist.”)

This week’s Warren coverage also raised the specter of the 2016 presidential election. The Times asked if she may have missed her moment by sitting that race out. And Warren was compared to Hillary Clinton. A Politico piece asking how Warren might avoid a “Clinton redux” acknowledged the argument that perceived parallels between the two—for example, that they are both “cold”—are unfair (and often sexist), but nonetheless caught blowback on social media. “Not a criticism of this piece, but I’ve covered both of them and Hillary and Warren are NOTHING alike… except for their anatomy, and they both seem to like dogs,” the Times’s Amy Chozick tweeted.

With 2020 coverage cranking up, the media should reflect on what it got wrong last time: principally, its tendency to skew the balance between perceived scandal and substantive policy talk. Warren’s candidacy, in particular, recalls some familiar pitfalls for the press: for “Hillary’s emails” see “DNA test,” for “crooked Hillary” see “Pocahontas,” for “cold and unlikable” see “cold and unlikable.” Early coverage of Warren’s bid foreshadowed these tropes. But none of them is set in stone. To the optimist’s eye, Warren is a welcome opportunity for the media to do better.

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Below, more on Elizabeth Warren’s big announcement:

  • Taking aim at Fox: Trump loomed large in Warren’s video announcement, although she did not name him in her voiceover. Also on screen, as she said the words “an echo chamber of fear and hate,” were Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and the hosts of Fox & Friends.
  • Upping her Instagram game: In a live broadcast on Instagram after her announcement, Warren cracked open a beer in her kitchen. Politicians are increasingly using the platform to convey an informal image directly to voters. O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have emerged as early masters.
  • Engaging the media: Warren also held a press conference outside her house on Monday. The Times’s Jonathan Martin tweeted that the move set a “good precedent… let’s hope other candidates follow suit and don’t hide behind prefab videos and statements.” Warren has been criticized in the past for her standoffish relationship with the Washington press corps. Last September, she told reporters she planned to open up.
  • Ignoring the polls: Warren has polled poorly of late, including among Iowa Democrats, but she shouldn’t be that worried yet. On Sunday, Sally Buzbee, executive editor of the Associated Press, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the media’s New Year’s resolution should be to scrap early polling coverage. “I can guarantee you that not a single one of them in retrospect will prove to be accurate or really that useful at all,” Buzbee said.
  • There’s no place like home: Late last year, The Boston Globe’s editorial board, which backed the Massachusetts senator to run in 2016, poured cold water on Warren’s presidential prospects this time around. “While Warren is an effective and impactful senator with an important voice nationally, she has become a divisive figure,” it wrote. “A unifying voice is what the country needs now after the polarizing politics of Donald Trump.”
  • GOP-ed: Across the aisle, Mitt Romney, the defeated Republican nominee in 2012 and incoming US senator for Utah, took aim at Trump in a vicious Post op-ed last night, sparking speculation about his motives. “For now at least Mitt Romney has become the leader of the Republican Resistance to Trump,” conservative commentator Bill Kristol tweeted.


Other notable stories:

  • With the federal government still shut down and Democrats set to assume the House majority tomorrow, Trump largely squandered his chance to own the issue over the holiday period: “The president has the unique ability to mold the news cycle to his liking—especially with Congress out of town. Yet he hardly did anything publicly,” Politico’s Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman wrote on Saturday. While Trump was active on Twitter, many of his missives were demonstrably false, including his claim that former President Barack Obama’s Washington home is surrounded by a 10-foot wall. Official information out of the White House was also lacking. “Instead of ‘no comment,’ Trump’s press representatives often don’t bother saying anything at all,” the Post’s Paul Farhi writes.
  • Over the weekend, the LA Times’s Molly O’Toole scored an exit interview with Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly. Among other attention-grabbing quotes, Kelly punted responsibility for the administration’s family separations policy onto former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and admitted that Trump’s border-security plan is “to be honest. . . not a wall.”
  • After a delayed presidential election finally took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Sunday, the internet went down in key cities, including the capital, Kinshasa, and opposition strongholds. “Opposition candidate Martin Fayulu’s campaign team accused the government of ordering the shutdown to avoid broadcasting his ‘overwhelming victory,’” the BBC reports.
  • In Saudi Arabia, Netflix blocked an episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj at the government’s request. The episode is sharply critical of the regime’s war in Yemen and murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
  • Meet the Press dedicated its final episode of 2018 to climate change, with host Chuck Todd refusing to “give time to climate deniers” because “the science is settled even if political opinion is not.” (Meet the Press was criticized in late November on similar grounds.) In the Times, meanwhile, opinion columnist David Leonhardt writes that climate change was the most important story of 2018.
  • ICYMI over the holidays, CJR’s Amanda Darrach, Andrew McCormick, and Zainab Sultan rounded up the biggest media stories of last year. Mathew Ingram reviewed the year in tech, or, as he put it, “Facebook, Facebook, Facebook.” And we recapped our 10 most-read stories of 2018. You can find them here.
  • Abderrazak Zorgui, a Tunisian TV reporter, died after lighting himself on fire on Christmas Eve to protest socioeconomic conditions in the country. The move echoed the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which many consider the spark for the Arab Spring uprisings that convulsed the wider region in 2011. While Tunisia has since undergone the most hopeful transition of any affected country, unemployment and poverty rates remain high, The New Yorker’s Robin Wright reports.
  • And as the Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests, protests continued in France over the holiday period, a reporter, photographer, and editor from Charente Libre, a regional newspaper, were questioned by police for “provocation” after covering the decapitation of an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron. Writing for CJR last year, Martin Goillandeau and Makana Eyre tracked the attacks on journalists that stemmed from the protests.

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