Note that when Clinton served as secretary of state, her favorable ratings were extremely high. It wasn’t until Republicans teamed up with journalists to launch the But Her Emails narrative that “likability” became an issue. (During a crucial four-day stretch late in the 2016 campaign, “email” was mentioned more than 2,000 times on the three cable news channels.)
“How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?” Politico recently asked. The news site got rightfully roughed up on Twitter for its awful piece, which was dripping with sexist themes. But there’s no indication this kind of ridiculous narrative will stop, simply because the D.C. press remains so deeply invested in the framework.
And it wasn’t just Politico. Right after Warren made her announcement, the New York Times fretted that she had missed her window to run in 2016, and that perhaps “her moment has passed.” Yet within 24 hours, the Times published a large takeout on how former Vice President Joe Biden had “paved the way” for a possible 2020 run. The newspaper refused to ponder the idea that Biden may have missed his window in 2016, even though there was massive media speculation at the time that he would enter that White House race.
Apparently, in the eyes of the Times, only the unsavvy woman miscalculated about 2016.
The problem today, as candidates and journalists gear up for the next White House election cycle, is that there’s been so little introspection and public accountability from newsrooms about their historically bad 2016 performance. For instance, that year the network evening newscasts aired just 32 minutes of policy coverage amongst the three of them during the campaign. (Eight years earlier, the same three networks aired 220 minutes of policy coverage during the 2008 campaign.) Meanwhile, they aired 100 minutes of frantic Clinton email coverage during the same cycle.
Clinton’s White House run was drenched in facts and policy initiatives, while Trump barely masked his lack of interest in the pressing issues of the day. Clinton’s campaign website posted more than 112,000 words detailing her policy positions; Trump’s website posted less than 10,000 words. And in the end, the press punished Clinton by walking away from policy and inventing a sprawling news category just for her: But Her Emails.
Today, the campaign press seems similarly uninterested in issue coverage, as Warren is discovering. But instead of hounding Warren about her email use, journalists are obsessing over the GOP-produced kerfuffle over Warren’s ancestry. Previously ignoring the racist taunts Trump has routinely hurled toward her over claims of Native American heritage, the press has quickly concluded that the issue could be a game-ender for Warren. Journalists are covering the story with a strange intensity.
Is Warren’s ancestry fair game for news coverage? Sure, because all candidates ought to be transparent. Should the story define her presidential run and the progressive politics she’s championing? Good grief, no. Yet the press is doing its best to relentlessly hype the obscure GOP attack line. “On her first official swing through Iowa, Elizabeth Warren was forced to quickly confront an issue threatening to dog her throughout her presidential campaign,” Politico breathlessly announced over the weekend. But when you read the story, you learn that what happened was Warren went to Iowa and someone asked her about her ancestry. Period. Locals asked Warren about an endless array of topics while she was in Iowa. But Politico decided one issue in particular—the one the GOP has been pushing for years— could essentially end her White House hopes.
2020 news coverage doesn’t have to be a repeat of 2016’s hallmark failure. But right now, it’s looking the same as it ever was.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.