One of the familiar dynamics from the 2016 election season is the tendency of anyone involved in Democratic campaigns to downplay the media’s coverage of debate performance.
“There’s been a professional debate moderator bias,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii in April, not long after she lost an Iowa straw poll to Bernie Sanders. “All the media want to do is be journalists and have the debate all spoonfed to them. So they’re not reporting that the candidate actually had an opinion or an opinion in another subject. And so it’s like a circus instead of getting at the real discussion.”
For the most part, candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have said the same thing to reporters. But if you want to look at the way the press has covered the start of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, there is one new wrinkle.
At the debate last night, Joe Biden got an immediate boost, which reporters quickly noted. He was mentioned five times in the opening minutes of CNN’s debate coverage as their top of mind (ahead of Hilary Clinton, whose comments were the second to last comments). And roughly eight of his contributions were inside the first minute of debate coverage.
Compare that to what was said about all seven of Clinton’s mentions for the most part during the first two days of debate coverage. Clinton was a topic of discussion, with several notes about her State Department emails appearing within the first two minutes of CNN’s debate coverage. Only a small number of her contributions to debate coverage — less than 10 total — came within the first minute. And over 80 percent of her mentions came from the second through fifth minutes of debate coverage.
Several reporters noted the moment as well. Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker: “Biden gets his biggest bump of the night.” Jonathan Martin of The New York Times: “Looks like Biden leaves with big lead after feisty CNN debate debut.” Yamiche Alcindor of PBS: “It would seem that Biden may have #POTUS momentum.”
In other words, Biden gets off to a very good start; but, then, we’ve seen that drama before. In the opening minutes of the Democratic debate in South Carolina, for example, a few new notes about Sanders in the context of his age came into play. It didn’t take much more time for reporters to discover, again, that Sanders was a top political story despite his second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll and a third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.
More will emerge about Biden’s debate performance, which for all the attention to it has not yet been factored into polls taken for the early presidential nominating contests. But it’s clear that the media, for better or worse, are factoring it into the calculations.
From: Nate Cohn
To: Nate Cohn
Subject: The Democrats’ debate and the media’s rush to the Biden endorsement
I’m thrilled to read and write about your reporting on the media and the 2020 presidential campaign. In my mind, you’ve done it all: go after the horse race (the horse race, I mean, which strikes me as a little ridiculous), the cognitive dissonance about “the 2016 shoe gores” (that’s a very contemporary sound bite), and the mistakes.
But most of all, you’ve done your reporting on the desire for these young women and men to somehow unite our party around some ideological ground. You’ve highlighted the power of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young Hispanic woman from Queens, to electrify the political discussion. You have also highlighted the importance of “progressive” language from “progressive” reporters, who as we know went all out in favor of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
Despite a welcome and obvious energy in the air, however, my sense is that the media are willing to bet on Biden’s best, if far from self-evident, moment of the night. That bet seems clearly to suggest that the news is that the selection of Biden, as opposed to any other candidate, is going to be the news.
It’s true that the Democrats still have not addressed important questions about policy, which will become more and more urgent as the year progresses. It’s also true that Iowa may well disappoint the trend toward the left — yet another reminder of how shortsighted the mainstream media are. But based on this first debate, I don’t see much news here, except for the permanentization of a story, which, for some reason, media