Friday, February 26, 2016

ABClinton

ABC News has a serious Clinton problem. Hillary Clinton is currently locked in an ever-tightening race against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. The public may hold to the quaint notion that it's the job of the press to cover this, not to try to decide it, but those in the corporate press apparently have a very different idea about their role in the campaign. Most big news outlets have adopted a two-pronged strategy for how to approach the matter. The first is what Sanders supporters have called the "Bernie Blackout." Sanders is simply ignored. The second, closely related, is that Sanders, when he is mentioned, is marginalized, treated as a fringe, unelectable crank, his presence in the race analyzed solely in terms of how it affects Clinton, as if Clinton is inevitable and he's just some annoyance. The Tyndall Report gives a good overview of how the evening newscasts of the Big Three networks have handled this. In 2015, these programs devoted 121 minutes to coverage of the Clinton campaign while the Sanders campaign received only 20 minutes. All three programs have done a wretched job but ABC's World News Tonight was the worst offender. When Sanders officially entered the race in April, WNT devoted less than 20 seconds to this development, with even part of that devoted to recording Hillary Clinton's reaction. News from or about the Sanders campaign then disappeared from the newscast through December.[1]

On paper, Sanders is a great news story. When he jumped into the race, he was over 50 points behind Clinton in most polls, a bare blip of whom few had ever heard. Since then, he's managed to float a campaign funded by small donations from his supporters until he's within a few points of his Big Money-financed, long-established Establishment rival and not only beat her in one contest but destroy her. As of this writing, the two are tied in the delegate count. On paper, it's like a ROCKY movie, a tale of an underdog making it to the top. Something Americans love.

Except Sanders is a candidate of the left. His policies may represent the broad American political center but they make him absolutely unacceptable to the media gatekeepers of American "democracy." A big part of Sanders' Rocky story is that he overcame the resistance of nearly the whole of the American corporate press and that's not a story that press is willing to tell any more than he's a candidate with whom that press is going to do anything except ignore and marginalize.[2]

ABC News has been a leader in this effort.[3] On weekdays, ABC's coverage of the Democratic primaries is handled by Cecilia Vega. Vega is senior national correspondent and an anchor of the weekend WNT newscast. She isn't a stringer narrowly assigned to covering just the Clinton campaign--not officially anyway--but day after day, that's what she mostly does. She certainly isn't in the pay of Hillary Clinton but far too often, her "news" reports on the Democratic race are virtual Clinton campaign ads.

By every available metric for judging such things, viewers of the first Democratic debate, held in Las Vegas in October, seem to have concluded Bernie Sanders won the evening but in a phenomenon much remarked-upon by media critics and liberal writers, the mainstream press overwhelmingly presented Hillary Clinton as the winner. In her WNT report on the event, Vega opened by showing a smiling Clinton being cheered on by supporters while, in Vega's words," taking a "post-debate victory lap" and asserted "Clinton gets high marks for her center-stage performance." Vega's entire report is, in fact, built around Clinton. How Clinton intends to respond to the email controversy from her time as Secretary of State, how Clinton is "setting the stage" for her appearance before the House Benghazi committee, how Clinton is "trying to show a likable side." Vega plays a clip of Clinton's rehearsed responses about wanting to get past the email issue and "talk... about what the American people want from the next President of the United States" and an extended clip of Clinton jabbing at her enemies. There had been four other Democratic candidates on the stage that evening, all with programs of their own, and they'd engaged in a spirited debate on a wide range of issues but viewers of WNT would have no way of knowing that. The others were barely even mentioned, the only clips shown of them being those that bolstered Clinton--Lincoln Chafee briefly challenging Clinton on the email matter followed by Clinton's dismissive, applause-line reply and Sanders defending Clinton on the same question. In the post-report discussion, anchor David Muir also opted to focus on Sanders' defense of Clinton and while Vega notes the Sanders campaign had raised more than a million dollars after the debate--itself a record and a pretty significant story that went unmentioned in the report itself--she ends by saying "Hillary Clinton's team is calling yesterday's debate the best day of the campaign so far." If the Clinton campaign had released a summary of the debate, it would have looked exactly like this report. And other than a later segment in which, in part, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump was asked to critique Clinton's performance, this was the only coverage of the event offered by WNT.

Vega's work on the campaign is persistently plagued by this same Clinton-centric approach. She spend most of her time on Clinton, tends to analyze every development from Clinton's perspective and frequently extends to Clinton or Clinton surrogates a platform from which to offer their perspectives themselves, a courtesy not extended to Sanders. She positions Clinton as something akin to the heroine of a reality show and rather than treating Sanders as a candidate for President of the United States, Vega reduces him to some mysterious outside force the heroine must overcome.

Clinton and Sanders went into the final leg of the Iowa competition in a statistical tie but the final WNT report before the caucus was again mostly focused on Clinton. "To the Democratic side tonight and Hillary Clinton," opens David Muir, setting the tone for what follows. Cecilia Vega's report shows Clinton at a campaign stop waving her fist and preaching to her followers with great vigor while Vega helpfully notes "Clinton is fired up." We get images of Bill and Chelsea Clinton smiling, waving and speaking on Clinton's behalf. "Tonight, Clinton feeling the love" from Iowa "and packing in the crowds" and we get a shot of a long line waiting to see the heroine. "Look at how far back it stretches."[4] Vega gives us Clinton's campaign mileage then turns to Sanders, asserting the Clinton rival was "still on the attack, accusing Clinton of smearing him" on the matter of healthcare and showing a brief clip of Sanders on the stump. Clinton was smearing Sanders with her assertion that he wanted to dismantle reform and leave people with nothing while he tries to institute an all-new and difficult-to-pass program. The matter is unexamined by the report; Clinton is all smiles, family and confidence, Sanders is the bitter guy "accusing Clinton of smearing him." Vega spends a whopping 30 seconds on Sanders, part of it showing musicians singing "This Land is Your Land" at a Sanders event (!!!), then quickly gets back to Clinton, devoting the rest of the report to Clinton's suggestion that a recent story about emails containing "top secret" information being found on her private server from her time as Sec. of State was, as Vega, puts it, "a dirty trick." The post-report discussion is focused on Clinton's last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts in the state, with a few words about Sanders volunteers knocking on doors.

The New Hampshire primary presented a much more one-sided contest--going into it, Sanders led by double digits--but while Sanders fared somewhat better than usual in the final WNT report before the primary, "somewhat better" still meant the Clinton campaign got most of the time and all of the love. Vega is on the case again. There's a smiling Clinton meeting with supporters then Bill Clinton hitting the stump on his wife's behalf, confidently joking he expects to be the next president's spouse and charging that Sanders supporters on the internet make grossly inappropriate comments to female Clinton supporters. This remarkably ugly effort to play the Sexism Card has been repeatedly floated by the Clinton camp and its surrogates but though its substance has been repeatedly debunked, Vega doesn't challenge it. Worse, when she briefly speaks to Bill Clinton herself, she instead prompts him to continue the attack, asking, "Do you think the Sanders campaign is playing dirty?" Bill, to his credit, declined. Next, there's former Sec. of State Madeleine Albright on the stump with Hillary: "Just remember, there's a special case in hell for women who don't help each other!" Big applause. Finally, Vega gets to Sanders, noting that he's "feeling confident" then showing half a sentence from Sanders on the stump and a brief segment from Sanders' appearance over the weekend in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live. Following her usual pattern, Vega doesn't speak with anyone from the Sanders campaign, not for a reply to Bill's charges, not for anything.[5]

The Nevada caucus presented another case in which polls were showing an extremely tight contest. In the lead-up to it, Vega turned in the worst report I've ever seen from her insofar as the present subject is concerned. She introduces her report by, as always, analyzing the developments in the election from the perspective of how it affects Clinton. As the report opens, Clinton is shown smiling and posing for pictures with supporters. Vega says Clinton is "putting her best face forward," while a Vogue headline--"Will Hillary Clinton make history?"--floats across the screen. In Vega's telling, Clinton, in an interview with the magazine, was "revealing one weakness with the campaign: herself." She quotes Clinton as saying "I'm great at advocating for other people... But I'm not so good at really promoting myself. I just find it hard to do." That Clinton is really something, eh? So humble she sees her humility as so great as to be a disadvantage but she persevered anyway. Vega notes that both Clinton and Sanders "are trying to promote themselves to minority voters ahead of Nevada and South Carolina" then decides to give Clinton a hand at it, showing a clip from a Clinton ad of Clinton comforting an Hispanic child! Then Clinton at a campaign stop with "the tearful mother of Sandra Bland," a black motorist picked up on a minor traffic violation who then ended up dead in her jail-cell under mysterious circumstances, sparking outrage. A clip of Bland's mother: "I'm one of those mothers who met with her [Hillary Clinton] and was able to make it through." While standing behind a Clinton campaign logo that says "Fighting for us." Vega continues: "With Clinton and Sanders now in a virtual tie, we went to her Brooklyn headquarters to ask her campaign manager about those polls." Vega asks said campaign manager, "What is Bernie Sanders doing in Nevada that you're not? He's ahead right now." It would seem to make a lot more sense to ask someone from the Sanders campaign such a question, the thing Vega never manages to do in her reporting and doesn't do here either. Clinton's campaign manager even says so: "You'd have to ask him what he's doing." Vega closes her report by asking the fellow his prediction on the Nevada caucus; he unsurprisingly says "we're gonna' pull it off."

Again, this is allegedly a news report on an American presidential caucus in which two candidates are competing but an update on the status of the campaign produced by the Clinton camp itself couldn't be any more favorable than this sorry spectacle. As a news report, it's so one-sided as to veer into unintentional parody.

And this is what's going out every day and night on ABC's major news programs. I've mostly kicked around Cecilia Vega here but the problems I've identified run throughout ABC's coverage of the campaign and of course the news division's higher-ups are who put all of it on the air. Much of it is also chronically superficial horse-race reporting, light on substance, stupid and with many partial sentences and quick, quick, quick cuts to hold the no-attention-span viewers among the audience--a slice of the ongoing conversion of mass-media journalism to reality tv. Anyone depending on this for actual information on a race to decide the next President of the United States is being terribly ill-served, while those who believe American democracy is a fundamental fraud will find nothing but confirmation in it.

--j.

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[1] In his count, Andrew Tyndall includes items either from or about the campaign. When candidates are merely mentioned in another story about something else or some other candidate, this isn't included in his total.

[2] Even big press outlets that outright despise Hillary Clinton (like, for example, the New York Times) will choose her over any left candidate (like, for example, the New York Times).

[3] Last year, elements of the fringe right got their panties all in a bunch over the fact that ABC's George Stephanopoulous had made a donation to a charity established by the Clintons but hadn't disclosed it on the air when he interviewed an author who had published a smear-book tarring that charity. The manufactured outrage spilled over until the head of the Republican National Committee announced that he wouldn't allow Stephanopoulous to MC any Republican debate (something that wasn't going to happen anyway). Entirely absent for the furor was the genuine conflict of interest involved in Stephanopoulous, a longtime Clinton loyalist and former Bill Clinton employee, working on the Democratic primary in his capacity as a newsman and, if Clinton is the Democratic candidate, covering the general election. I don't cover any specific infractions by Stephanopoulous in this piece but his position as ABC's chief anchor and chief political correspondent, doesn't look good in light of what I do cover.

[4] The moment can't help but bring a chuckle to political junkies who have noted the enormous, often record-setting crowds Bernie Sanders has drawn--far larger crowds than any other candidate of either party and often in very conservative localities--only to see the phenomenon almost entirely ignored or downplayed by the corporate press. Some candidates' crowds, it seems, are more equal than others.

[5] For months, observers have complained about and picked apart journalists' lazy habit of drawing transparently false equivalence between the campaigns of Sanders and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Sanders completely destroyed Clinton in New Hampshire. The next morning on Good Morning America, Vega's recap of the primary covered both the Republican and Democratic races and she deployed that same trope. "The consensus here this morning: voters are fed up with the Establishment. And the message they want to send: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump need to be taken seriously." Though Sanders had just won by the second-biggest margin in a contested Democratic primary in New Hampshire history, Vega actually gives him less time than any of the other candidates covered! While Trump drew a little over 100,000 voters, Sanders drew over 151,000 yet the report devotes 23 seconds to Trump and only 17 to Sanders. Even 2nd-place Republican finisher John Kasich was given more time (18 seconds). And guess who got more time than anyone? Hillary Clinton may have been flattened at the polls but she won the battle of the coverage. She was given 30 seconds--14 in the report proper and 16 in Vega's post-report comments, wherein Vega, as usual, insisted on analyzing the results solely from the perspective of how they affect the Clinton campaign. Sanders, in the report, remains a mysterious figure--while the report includes brief clips of post-primary interviews from both Trump and Kasich, the big winner of the evening is only shown in some brief moments from his victory speech.

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