The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion SNL has better coverage of Herschel Walker than the mainstream media

Georgia Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker speaks during a campaign stop in Wadley, Ga., on Oct. 6. (Meg Kinnard/AP)

The mainstream media persist in portraying unfit Republican candidates as normal and the midterms as an ordinary clash of policy differences. As New York University’s media guru Jay Rosen put it on Twitter, “Election coverage begins by positing the existence of two parties operating in roughly the same way, but with different ideologies. That picture is the foundation, on top of which consensus practices rest.” He adds, “With the foundation now in ruins, the practices are snapping and breaking.”

Put differently, voters can get a more exact picture of the election from “Saturday Night Live.”

Coverage of Herschel Walker’s shambolic debate performance on Friday provides a clear example. Mainstream media “takeaways” mostly portrayed the event as clashes on abortion, inflation, President Biden and Medicaid. Walker beat expectations, some reported. He helped himself!

What debate were they watching? (It was so bad, Walker didn’t bother to show up to a second debate on Sunday.) Surely, the event’s significance boiled down to Walker’s decision to defend his claim to have worked for law enforcement by holding up an honorary police badge, which has no official significance, and declaring, “I am work with many police officers.”

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The devastating moment should have been the story coming out of the debate, as SNL’s “Weekend Update” recognized. The parody newscast captured just how bizarre the moment was and, unlike many in the media, highlighted Walker’s inability to put a simple sentence together. The same could be said of social media, where the stunt quickly became a meme.

The New York Times, by contrast, mentioned the badge stunt as one of its five key moments from the debate and included Walker’s remark that the badge is “not a prop. This is real.” But the article didn’t explain that the badge was only an honorary recognition, nor did it include quotes showing Walker’s incoherent syntax.

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This moment was as devastating as former Texas governor Rick Perry’s “oops” moment or Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s stumble in the 2016 GOP presidential debate. Yet too many in the mainstream media chose to downplay Walker’s unfitness and habitual lying.

Likewise, Walker’s rejection of a price cap on insulin because “you got to eat right” didn’t even make some media outlets’ takeaway lists. It was as if the difference between the candidates amounted to sober disputes over health-care policy.

In mainstream publications, you had to leave the news pages and go to opinion columns to understand what was going on. The Times’s Charles M. Blow, for example, explained that Walker has “a base inability to convey his ideas in complete thoughts or sentences. And like a child, when his words fail, he fills in the gaps with energy and emotion, hostility and humor.”

That is a factual observation, yet reporters shy from conveying such information for fear of seeming biased. The result: They failed to inform voters that Walker is truly unqualified for the position.

The media’s unwillingness to accurately describe Republican candidates is nothing new. They spent four years refraining from making simple observations about President Donald Trump’s incoherence and uncontrolled rage, as if pointing out what was in front of their noses would have violated some journalistic code.

The mainstream media may not intend to help the GOP with their lack of candor or their refusal to force Republicans to contend with the crazy statements from their fellow party members. But that is precisely what their coverage accomplishes. Because they are unable to call out candidates as bonkers or unintelligible, they make Republicans more acceptable to voters. That’s a disservice to our democracy.