Elizabeth Warren
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

It is not often that I agree with Matt Taibbi, but in a recent piece on the rush of negative articles about Elizabeth Warren’s potential 2020 presidential candidacy, he does a great job of identifying the current problem with media coverage of the upcoming primary. Here’s how he describes the development of a narrative about particular candidates, using Warren as an example:

Media critics like Adam Johnson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) have pointed out that early campaign coverage is often an absurd tautology. We get stories about how so-and-so is the “presumptive frontrunner,” but early poll results are heavily influenced by name recognition. This, in turn, is a function of how much coverage a candidate gets.

Essentially, we write the most about the candidate we write the most about…

Common phrases used to camouflage invented narratives include “whispers abound,” “questions linger” and today’s golden oldie from the Times, “concerns” (as in, the prospect of Warren and Sanders running has “stirred concerns”).

Warren recently also has been hit with bad-coverage synonyms like a “lingering cloud” (the Times), a “darkening cloud” (the Globe) and “controversy” that “reverberates” (the Washington Post).

The papers are all citing each other’s negative stories as evidence for Warren’s problems. It’s comic, once you lay it all out.

In an attempt to make the case that this kind of coverage doesn’t just happen to Warren, Taibbi documents how the media narrative about Jeb Bush in 2016 was all about the so-called “wimp factor.” But as an example of how we don’t recognize our own contributions to narrative development, Taibbi doesn’t mention how he participated in the same thing when it came to coverage of the “corrupt Clinton” propaganda that developed in the summer of 2016 with stories about the Clinton Foundation.

What we know is that Steve Bannon and Peter Schweizer weaponized that story by first getting the New York Times to publish an article about one of the claims Schweizer made in his book Clinton Cash. From there, the Berkman Klien Center at Harvard documented how the two ensured that the “corrupt Clinton” narrative took hold across major media platforms in an expose titled, “Dynamics of Network Propaganda: Clinton Foundation Case Study.” We also know that this was a coordinated effort among Trump’s team due to the recent release of emails between Jerome Corsi and Roger Stone.

In other words, the fabricated scandal about the Clinton Foundation is exactly the kind of media narrative Taibbi was writing about. But even worse, it was a pre-mediated plot by Clinton’s opponents to plant a false story. And yet, when it came to that kind of thing happening to someone Taibbi didn’t support, he fed right in to the whispers, questions, and concerns.

Last year, the New York Times dipped a toe into the “Clinton Cash” material and did its potentially damaging “Uranium One” story about a series of suspicious donations to the Clinton Foundation…

But the response of other non-conservative outlets was mostly silence and/or damage control. That left it to mostly circulate in the Washington Times and Breitbart and the Daily Caller, rendering it automatically illegitimate with most blue-state audiences.

Some people will say that is because the Uranium One/Clinton Foundation matter simply isn’t newsworthy. Maybe not. But if it isn’t, are we sure we would know?

I have no idea how Taibbi missed the fact that non-conservative outlets became consumed with the story he claims they were mostly silent about. But I would point him to major articles at the Washington Post and the Associated Press, along with all of the other documentation from the Berckman Klein Center. Just as he explained with the “whisper campaigns” about Warren, the “papers were all citing each other’s negative stories” that “raised questions” about the Clintons.

While I have questioned some of Warren’s proposals, and will continue to do so as she runs for president, I agree with Taibbi that the media’s treatment of her lately has been very troubling as an early indication of what their coverage might look like. But unlike Taibbi, I see a direct parallel to how so many major publications did the exact same thing to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In order to confront this issue head-on, we need to see it in all of its manifestations.

In the end, Taibbi gets back on track with this:

[Elizabeth Warren] has something to say, which is what primary seasons are for. All informed policy ideas should be welcome. Moreover, campaigns ultimately are about how people respond to candidates, not how candidates deal with negative press…

The frustrating thing about all of this is that the national press just spent two years praying for any president with the brains to stay off Twitter after midnight, avoid talking about “fine people” at a racist marches and eschew flirting with reporters during diplomatic calls. Yet they’re already inventing frivolous reasons to toss people with good ideas out of the race.

Over the next few months we’ll be hearing announcements from Democratic candidates who are joining the 2020 presidential primary. We need to be on the alert about how narratives developed by the media distract us from the fact that “all informed policy ideas should be welcome” and debated. That doesn’t just apply to Elizabeth Warren, it will be true for everyone that makes the decision to get in the race.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.