The Ghost of Elections Past loomed up before me as I read The New York Times' coverage of the first debate among the Democratic Party's presidential hopefuls.
There stood a shadowy Steve Schmidt, Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) senior campaign adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign, blasting the Times for being "an organization that is completely, totally 150 percent in the tank" — for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE.
Of course, Schmidt was referring to the Times' coverage of Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, but his words seemed to fit the chorus of praise for Clinton's showing that rang out from the Times' homepage and opinion page on Wednesday morning.
The Times' main news story called it "a dominant performance." The story commended Clinton's "agility" and her "assertiveness" and found her critique of Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Manchin: Biden told moderates to pitch price tag for reconciliation bill Biden employs flurry of meetings to unite warring factions MORE (I-Vt.) "forceful," her assessment of his logic "stinging." Plus, she laughed, smiled and joked, which never hurts, especially when there are concerns about a candidate's "likability."
The accompanying "News Analysis" characterized Clinton's performance as "commanding" and said she was "blunt" and "effective." Even the adverbs in the two reports favored Clinton: "aggressively," "crisply," "emphatically," "energetically."
Sanders, by contrast, was "exasperated," "unsure," "sheepish" and "reactive." One of his only positive moments was when he "zestfully defended" Clinton against attacks on her use of private email while secretary of State.
Over on the op-ed side, meanwhile, columnist Frank Bruni described Clinton as "energetic," "buoyant," "effervescent" and "poised."
Given the unanimity of the Times' coverage, Sanders and his supporters must have been astonished to read at the bottom of the "News Analysis" that he has been "getting a free ride from the media," according to Republican strategist Stuart Stevens.
Now before we conclude that the Times is "in the tank" for Clinton, it must be said that there were other news organization that essentially declared Clinton the winner of Tuesday's debate. Consider these ledes:
- "Front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton dominated the debate stage Tuesday night." (The Washington Post)
- "Hillary Clinton delivered a poised, polished performance in the campaign's first Democratic presidential debate, firmly defending herself against claims that she flip flops for political gain and likely quelling nerves in her own party after a stumbling start." (CNN)
- "Bernie Sanders' mission Tuesday was to broaden his appeal beyond liberal Democrats and come across as a potential president. He didn't, and the Democratic race for the White House remains Hillary Clinton's to lose." (McClatchy News Service)
Perhaps Clinton really did romp and stomp if so many keen observers think she did. But I can think of at least two other rounds that were scored in Clinton's favor that could have gone the other way. One was the Denmark exchange.
As reported in multiple stories, Sanders touted Denmark as an example of a country that does a better job than the United States when it comes to healthcare and family leave. That gave an opening to Clinton to deliver a zinger: "But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America."
In other words, it's silly to think that what works for a country with a population of 5.6 million people, as moderator Anderson Cooper helpfully mentioned, would work here.
Lost in this much-truncated version was Sanders's larger point about the "international embarrassment" of being "the only major country on Earth that does not guarantee health care to all of our people as a right of citizenship and ... family and parental leave to all of our families."
On the other side of the ledger, Clinton was seen as having successfully parried concerns about apparently swinging from progressive to moderate depending on her audience or the latest shift in the political winds when she said she was "a progressive who likes to get things done."
Spun one way, the statement bespeaks a mature understanding that the U.S. Congress is not likely to join Sanders's "political revolution," and that one must craft one's policy goals with a view toward what can realistically be achieved.
Spun another way, Clinton did little more than cleverly dodge the question.
Finally, it's worth considering why Sanders's declaration "that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails" was considered "one of the highlights of the evening," as the The Washington Post put it.
This is going to sound silly, but I think it was that word "damn." Politicians don't use minor oaths like that very often. When they do, reporters prick up their ears: Here's something unscripted, therefore authentic, maybe even passionate!
So here we have Clinton being asked about a relatively minor issue, Sanders voicing his exasperation with time being wasted on a minor issue and his pronouncement being granted the attention worthy of, well, a major issue.
Meanwhile, Sanders's passionate call for action on global warming — a major issue — was largely ignored.
I realize that much of what I have written here makes me sound like a dispirited Sandersista. My real point, though, is that news coverage spun in favor of one candidate could easily be spun in favor of another. Consider how the story of Tuesday night's debate might read if the reporter thought, not unreasonably, that Sanders or even former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley had some of the more memorable lines:
In the first debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls on Tuesday night, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) flashed the moral outrage over income inequality that has propelled his surprising campaign.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (Md.) may have elbowed his way into a three-candidate contest for the Democratic presidential nomination with a polished performance Tuesday night at the party's first debate.
The real question is: Should reporters be telling us who won a debate that is not scored by a panel of independent judges? Certainly, columnists like Bruni can offer that judgment — that's what they’re paid to do. But from the news side, how about a more evenhanded summary of the proceedings?
Some of the news stories I read resisted the urge to award a prize and focused instead on the "clash" of candidates, but if I were awarding a prize for the best debate coverage, I'd give it to the Los Angeles Times:
Sharing a stage for the first time, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Democratic challengers hashed out their differences Tuesday night over guns, foreign policy and Wall Street regulation in a pointed but largely polite debate that underscored the broad consensus among the party's leading presidential contenders.
That's the debate I watched.
Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University.