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

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

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 TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary 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.


Right now, the media are boosting California Democratic Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris to host virtual Hollywood campaign event co-chaired by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling Democrats hammer Trump for entertaining false birther theory about Harris Hillicon Valley: 'Fortnite' owner sues Apple after game is removed from App Store | Federal agencies seize, dismantle cryptocurrency campaigns of major terrorist organizations MORE. The boost comes on the heels of her late-June debate clash with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris to host virtual Hollywood campaign event co-chaired by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling Trump plans to accept Republican nomination from White House lawn US seizes four vessels loaded with Iranian fuel 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.


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 SandersChris Wallace: Trump struggling with attacks on 'shape-shifter' Harris Kamala Harris: The outreach Latinos need Biden and Harris seen as more moderate than Trump and Pence: poll MORE, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Obamas, Clintons to headline Biden's nominating convention MORE, New Jersey Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerOn The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Harris make first public appearance as running mates Booker hits back at Trump tweet, mocks misspelling of name MORE, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, ex-HUD secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroCalifornia Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup Ocasio-Cortez to speak at Democratic convention The Memo: Trump team pounces on Biden gaffes MORE and Minn. Sen Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharElection security advocates see strong ally in Harris The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup MORE are starving for coverage, good or bad.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenChris Wallace: Trump struggling with attacks on 'shape-shifter' Harris Markey riffs on JFK quote in new ad touting progressive bona fides Howard Kurtz: Kamala Harris 'getting walk on water coverage' by media after VP pick 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.