The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The media repeats the central error of 2016

Former vice president Joe Biden, center left, speaks with an attendee as he joins Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin at a wreath laying after a service at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15. (Ivana Hrynkiw/The Birmingham News via AP)

Nate Silver hit the nail on the head when he warned, “I’m pretty sure that if you lined up how favorable/unfavorable media coverage has been for each major Democratic candidate so far, it would be almost perfectly correlated with which candidates appeal to college-educated vs non-college voters.” In other words, the media finds it hard to judge candidates through the vantage of their sturdy base of supporters but instead assesses them on criteria important to the media (e.g. gaffes). Hmm, haven’t we seen this movie before?

This precise problem in 2016 hobbled media outlets’ coverage and understanding of then-candidate Donald Trump’s appeal to his base. In properly tabulating his gaffes, inaccuracies and lies, they failed to appreciate what his actual appeal to his base was and why these factors were irrelevant.

In the 2020 cycle, the media blind spot concerns former vice president Joe Biden. No matter how many gaffes Biden survives with no appreciable change in his poll standing, the media breathlessly explains there’s real concern he won’t survive. Concern among whom, exactly? Not the African American community, which warmly embraced him and cheered his heartfelt remarks on the 56th anniversary of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. Among progressives favoring other candidates? Sure.

This doesn’t mean Biden’s gaffes won’t slowly erode his appeal or that the media should ignore these comments, but they should not substitute their own evaluation for those who are voting for him, particularly older African American voters. These voters are using an entirely different set of criteria (like familiarity, loyalty to President Barack Obama, emotional connection) to assess him. The next time media outlets swarm after a rambling monologue by Biden, they should speak to voters to whom he appeals before warning of an impending collapse.

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By the same token, the media is effusive in praise of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s file cabinet of policy plans. In three Democratic presidential debates, however, she has yet to be pressed on the efficacy of her wealth tax — whether the super-rich will hide their money, why she doesn’t recognize the failed experiment in Europe, how risky it is to peg funding for a critical program to narrow revenue base (what happens if members of the $50 million club start transferring wealth to their children? What happens when a few suffer huge stock losses or the real estate market plummets?). Print outlets have raised these issues, but the political press and the debate moderators fail to interrogate Warren on these obvious problems. Thrilling to her policy productivity, they don’t hunt for flaws in the way they do Biden gaffes.

One might surmise that the political media’s awe of a wonky law professor has swamped their critical thinking. Moreover, in noting the rise of Warren, rarely do they point out that her success has largely come with voters remarkably like her (and them) — rich, college-educated, white, very liberal.

Critical African American voters are unmoved by Warren’s 101 plans. The conventional wisdom is that African American voters just don’t know her. That’s certainly a possibility (although insulting insofar as it assumes ignorance on behalf of very engaged voters), but maybe they should be asked. Why doesn’t Warren impress them? Do they believe she’ll deliver on all these policies? Do they feel connected to her?

Recriminations over coverage in 2016 prompted the press to obsess (to this day) over the older white guy in the Rust Belt dinner. Before losing perspective once again, journalists might camp out in some African American churches, some Sun City retirement communities and the Democratic version of the guy in the diner (i.e. union member, lower income, over 50 years old).

None of this assumes intentional bias, but the most valuable lesson of 2016 may have been that, to truly understand what’s going on in a campaign, you have to view events from the perspective of the majority of Americans who are not college educated and from critical segments of the party’s coalition. We already know how the media regards certain candidates, but it’s time to fully explore how voters do.


Read more:

Lawrence H. Summers and Natasha Sarin: Be very skeptical about how much revenue Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax could generate

Jennifer Rubin: The staying power of Joe Biden

The Post’s View: Elizabeth Warren wants a ‘wealth tax.’ It might backfire.

Jennifer Rubin: Joe Biden’s appeal actually isn’t a mystery

Max Boot: Elizabeth Warren has lots of ideas. Bad ideas.