2008 An Open Letter to the Liberal Media
posted by January 21 at 12:05 PMon
From: Erica C. Barnett
To: The New York Times, NPR, etc.
Re: Your coverage of the 2008 election
Dear liberal media: Please stop pretending Hillary Clinton doesn’t exist. I know the narrative you’ve written is one in which Barack Obama triumphs against all odds to defeat the baby boomers’ Democratic Party machine and achieve the American dream, but for fuck’s sake, this is an election, not a coronation, right?
Look at the evidence. Throughout this race, the media—NYT, I’m looking at you—has fallen all over itself to paint Obama in a favorable light, giving Clinton faint praise, at best, and ignoring her, at worst. For example, when Clinton won Nevada, the initial Times story began something like, “Obama struggles against Clinton juggernaut, heads to South Carolina.” I mean, they might as well have said “Obama finishes surprising second”! The followup story was a little more balanced, but the headline—”Vote of Women Propels Clinton in Nevada Caucus”—put Clinton in a completely passive role, as if victory was something that happened to her, rather than something she achieved. Same thing when she won New Hampshire, when the two post-primary headlines read “Retooled Campaign and Loyal Voters Add Up” and “Her Message and Moment Won the Day.” (See also: “Momentum Shifts to Clinton.” “For Clinton, Government as Economic Prod.” “Michele Obama Vs. Hillary Clinton”(!!!), etc.) I mean, seriously, could they be more tepid? Is Clinton a candidate, or an agencyless automaton?
Compare that to the Times’ treatment of Obama, which casts him as active, effective and engaged: “Obama Takes on Question of Religion”; “Obama Urges Unity”; “Obama Fights Back”; “Obama Giving Clinton a Race in Her Own Backyard”; “Obama Calls for Unity to Heal Divisions.” “Obama Tries to Stop the Silliness.”
When Clinton wins, she’s propelled by invisible forces; when Obama wins, it’s because he communicates to voters that he’s the better candidate. (As a corollary, when Clinton loses, it’s because voters perceive her vulnerability; when Obama loses, it’s because the Clinton Democratic machine was just too much for him.) The uniting factor isn’t logic (obviously!) but the narrative—a narrative the media decided to embrace way back in Iowa, when the headlines read: “Obama Takes Iowa in Big Turnout”; “Embracing His Moment, Obama Preaches Hope in New Hampshire”; and “Daring to Believe, Blacks Savor Obama Victory.”
Mark my words, when Obama wins South Carolina, the Times is going to play it as the story of the year: Miracle long-shot candidate comes back from near-death to triumph against impossible odds. (Never mind the fact that, as Josh noted below, he scored 79 percent of the black vote in Nevada—and half the Democratic primary voters in South Carolina are black.) One headline I can guarantee you won’t see? “Blacks Propel Obama in South Carolina Primaries.” The headline I predict: “Obama comes from behind to win surprising SC Victory with Black Support.”
Update: Jay Rosen addresses some of this stuff in Salon today, noting the way the media completely wrote Hillary off after Iowa, even suggesting she should withdraw from the race! TPM, for example, wrote that “Camp Hillary insiders … are worried about the long term damage that could be done to Hillary if she decides to fight on after a New Hampshire loss, though there’s no indication they are yet urging an exit.” As Rosen says, “Campaign news in the subjunctive isn’t really news.”