We are now in the grip of the 'News Media Primary'

We are now in the grip of the 'News Media Primary'
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Voters will not get a chance to cast ballots on their Democratic presidential favorites until February — seven months from now. But the news media are casting ballots every day with their coverage, or lack of coverage, of the large field of Democrats seeking the chance to oust President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE in the 2020 election.

In other words, until the voting begins next year in Iowa and New Hampshire, the most-powerful players in the process are the news media. They are voting for and against candidates every day by choosing who to play up and who to play down, who to criticize and who to praise, who to adore and who to ignore. And on those choices made by editors, reporters and commentators ride the fortunes of the those seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

By the time actual voting begins in February, many of those now running will be gone, largely due to lack of media attention, too much negative media attention, or both. Those still standing will be on their feet largely because the media mostly liked them and provided a solid boost.

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Right now, the media are boosting California Democratic Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisO'Rourke hits back at Buttigieg over criticism of his gun buyback proposal Warren leads Democratic field by 3 points in new national poll Analysis: Warren and Booker most cyber-aware 2020 candidates MORE. The boost comes on the heels of her late-June debate clash with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSupport drops for Medicare for All but increases for public option Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE over the 1970s fight over forced busing to achieve racial integration of public schools. Biden has been pushed, first by Harris, and now by the news media, to defend his civil rights credentials because he was not a proponent of busing back then.

Nearly two weeks have passed since the Harris-Biden debate over busing, yet the news media won’t let it go. A search of the internet shows dozens of news media stories on the issue. On Monday (July 8), the Washington Post featured two stories on the topic, one on its front page and one on Page 6.

The Page 6 story is on how Biden was in South Carolina Sunday trying to make amends with black voters over his stand against busing nearly a half-century ago.

“I say let’s talk about the future instead of talking about the past,” Biden pleaded at a town hall event in Charleston.

Sounds reasonable. But he can only get away with talking about the future if the news media let him. The busing topic as it relates to Biden has been a mainstay of discussion on the 24-hour cable TV networks: CNN, MSNBC and Fox News for the past week.

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And in addition to The Washington Post, a key agenda-setter in influencing what other news media cover, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, NPR, NBC News, Forbes, The Hill and many other news outlets featured stories, columns, editorials and analyses on the controversy over the past few days.

Clearly, Biden will get little traction talking about the future until the media allow him to get past the busing fight.

Harris has seen a rise in her poll numbers since the issue gained so much media attention. Biden’s have dropped. He still leads all Democratic hopefuls in the presidential race, but much will hinge on if the media allow this racial issue to go away.

Meanwhile, Harris is now emerging as a media favorite, thanks in large part to her clash with Biden. She received a ton of coverage since the debate. Over the past weekend, she was interviewed by the Associated Press, the newswire service subscribed to by nearly all major USA news outlets. The interview got plenty of play across the country.

AP Interview: Kamala Harris on Race and Electability in 2020,” said the Monday headline on the San Francisco Chronicle website.

On that same day, Biden couldn’t catch a break.

’He wanted to kill me’:  How a former South Dakota senator battled Joe Biden on busing,” reported USA Today.

As the Harris-Biden busing dustup continued, media coverage for other Democratic candidates receded. Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSupport drops for Medicare for All but increases for public option Hillicon Valley: Warren takes on Facebook over political ads | Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservatives | Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill On The Money: Trump touts China trade deal | Wall Street, Washington see signs for caution | Trump threatens sanctions on Turkey | Sanders proposes sharp hike to corporate taxes MORE, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegO'Rourke hits back at Buttigieg over criticism of his gun buyback proposal Chasten Buttigieg fundraising for husband Pete overseas Progressives fume at Buttigieg, warn him not to attack Warren at debate MORE, New Jersey Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerHillicon Valley: Warren takes on Facebook over political ads | Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservatives | Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill O'Rourke hits back at Buttigieg over criticism of his gun buyback proposal Progressives fume at Buttigieg, warn him not to attack Warren at debate MORE, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, ex-HUD secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroAnalysis: Warren and Booker most cyber-aware 2020 candidates 2020 Presidential Candidates Krystal Ball: Yang campaign a 'triumph of substance over the theatre' MORE and Minn. Sen Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharHillicon Valley: Warren takes on Facebook over political ads | Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservatives | Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill Analysis: Warren and Booker most cyber-aware 2020 candidates Poll: Democratic support for Warren climbs to record high MORE are starving for coverage, good or bad.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSupport drops for Medicare for All but increases for public option Hillicon Valley: Warren takes on Facebook over political ads | Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservatives | Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill Feehery: Trump may be down, but he's not out yet MORE is getting a media boost from reports she raised $19.1 million in the second quarter, more than Sanders and Harris. We’ll see if it draws some attention away from Biden, Harris and busing.

Thus, the media hold great power over the fortunes of candidates running for president. At the same time, there are few rules they must follow in how they conduct their coverage. Harvard University Kennedy School of Government Professor Thomas Patterson wrote in his book “Out of Order” that the path to the presidency runs through the newsrooms of America, for better and for worse.

“The United States is the only democracy that organizes its national election campaign around the news media,” Patterson said. “It is an unworkable arrangement: the press is not equipped to give order and direction to a presidential campaign.”

Nonetheless, the news media try. And with no real votes being cast until February, the media are doing all the balloting. If the process seems chaotic, you are right — it is.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the spelling of Cory Booker's first name.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund For American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.