Mini Tuesday in the shadow of the coronavirus
By Jon Allsop
Wild electoral swings and global public-health crises come at you fast. Two weeks ago, Bernie Sanders was in the driving seat of the Democratic primary, and the coronavirus—while certainly of growing concern—had yet to cause a death in the US; when seven Democratic presidential candidates (all but two of whom have since ended their campaigns) met for a debate in South Carolina on February 25, they didn’t face questioning on the coronavirus for 82 minutes, and the word itself was spoken a total of six times in two hours. Now Joe Biden is the runaway favorite for the Democratic nomination—FiveThirtyEight gives him a greater than 99 percent chance of winning a majority of delegates—and the virus is wreaking havoc across America, including on the campaign trail. “If you ever need a reminder how fast politics/world events can be turned upside-down, early last week we were talking about a possible contested convention,” Dave Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, tweeted last night. “Now, maybe no convention?”
Six states voted yesterday on “Mini Tuesday.” Biden won four of them—Mississippi, Missouri, Idaho, and, very importantly, Michigan—with North Dakota and Washington state not yet called. All day, the contests jostled for attention with the coronavirus, about which there were far too many important developments to begin to list here. At times, the two stories collided. Yesterday afternoon, Biden and Sanders both scrapped their planned election-night events, which were slated to be held in Ohio, after the state’s governor, Mike DeWine, requested that large indoor events be canceled. (Instead, Biden gave a subdued speech in Philadelphia; Sanders did not appear publicly at all.) Biden’s campaign also canceled a rally which had been scheduled for Thursday in Tampa, Florida. And we learned that while Sunday’s debate in Phoenix will proceed, there’ll be no studio audience, and media access will be severely restricted. (Those decisions lengthened the list of limitations that the virus has placed on the practice of journalism, which I wrote about in yesterday’s newsletter.)
Last night, as the primary results started to come through, the all-consuming anxiety gave way, at least in part, to the comfortingly familiar sight of horserace punditry. The homepages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and other major news organizations splashed banner headlines about Biden’s sweep, atop snapshots of the results. On cable news, the David Chalians and Steve Kornackis of the world broke down the returns and other data points. There were amusing flubs—like when CNN accidentally called Mississippi for Sanders (“Not, not, not happening,” a bemused Wolf Blitzer said)—and gloating from establishment pundits, not least Terry McAuliffe and Jennifer Granholm, the former Democratic governors of Virginia and Michigan, respectively, who were on CNN. (Biden “won women by 20 points,” McAuliffe said at one point. “Women! Women! Tell it! C’mon, Terry!” Granholm cut in. “I’m so excited,” McAuliffe said.) On MSNBC, the Democratic strategist James Carville said it’s time to “shut this puppy down,” referring to the primary as a whole. On NPR, Rep. Jim Clyburn—the South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement of Biden ended up being highly significant—echoed that point. Andrew Yang—the former presidential candidate who is not part of the Democratic establishment but is now a paid-up member of the pundit class—endorsed Biden live on CNN. “Bernie… inspired my run,” he said. “But the math says Joe is our prohibitive nominee.”
Early last week, I wrote that parts of the media were doing an inadequate job of linking the campaign to the coronavirus. Since then, the two stories have mixed more—the coronavirus, after all, is affecting pretty much everything. And yet, logistical complications aside, they still feel siloed from each other in important respects. That continues to be a missed opportunity. As I wrote last week, the coronavirus raises questions of national leadership mere months before Americans will vote on their national leader.
And the linkages go deeper than that. Already, the virus is shining a harsh light on deep-rooted societal problems—our employment model, healthcare, homelessness, and so on—that should be central to coverage of electoral politics, but too often feel divorced from it. Media critics spend a lot of time complaining that horserace coverage is superficial. The criticism, while valid, can sometimes feel abstract. The coronavirus is helping illustrate the stakes, for November and beyond. Policy discussions needn’t stop just because a frontrunner looks inevitable.
Below, more on the campaign and the coronavirus:
- Meanwhile, on Fox: Sean Hannity and others trained fire on Biden yesterday, casting doubt on his cognitive capacity, and alluding to his son’s dealings in Ukraine. “Quid Pro Quo Joe kinda looks pretty frail to me,” Hannity said. “Is he going to invite Putin to a fight or pushup contest or even Little Rocket Man? Because, I think, frankly, anyone would be able to kick his ass!” We can expect to hear a lot more of this going forward.
- Day by day: This week, for the first time, Trump didn’t counterprogram a round of Democratic primaries by holding a rally in one of the voting states. The Trump campaign said it would be announcing a rally yesterday; it didn’t, though it did pencil in a “Catholics for Trump” event for March 19 in Milwaukee. According to the Times, people close to Trump have advised him to lay off the rallies for now. Last night, reporters asked Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading Trump’s coronavirus response, whether the president’s rallies would, indeed, be halted. “That’ll be a decision that’s made literally on a day-to-day basis,” Pence replied.
- WFH: As I wrote yesterday, the coronavirus has already disrupted major US newsrooms. Yesterday, problems continued to pile up. An individual who attended the recent NICAR conference in New Orleans—which brought together more than a thousand journalists from outlets around the world—tested positive for the virus; as a precaution, the Times is deep-cleaning its offices in New York and Washington, DC, and staffers who attended NICAR will self-isolate. And according to Maxwell Tani, of the Daily Beast, the Post, Condé Nast, and CNN are all encouraging some staffers to work from home.
- Scaremongering: Axios’s Neal Rothschild and Sara Fischer report, based on data from NewsWhip, that panicky stories about the coronavirus are circulating faster on social media than more measured output. “Social media greases and amplifies dramatic headlines,” they write, “while more functional or nuanced information gets squashed.”
- In brief: Some Tinder users are changing their location on the app to Wuhan, China, so they can connect with people there and get direct information from the epicenter of the coronavirus, BuzzFeed’s Cameron Wilson reports. Politico’s Jack Shafer argues that Pence, who has been holding regular press briefings on the virus, should be made White House press secretary, because he’s playing the role “as if born to it.” A health minister in the British government tested positive for the virus, but Harry Potter did not. And lots of people had, and shared, tedious opinions about remote working.
Some news from the home front: Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, announced yesterday that Craig Newmark, the philanthropist and founder of Craigslist, has made another significant donation to support our work, particularly around disinformation and the intersection of journalism and the social platforms. My colleague Mathew Ingram has been leading much of this work; you can find his coverage here, and on Galley, CJR’s discussion forum.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, a federal appeals court ruled that the Justice Department must allow Congressional Democrats to see confidential grand-jury evidence collected in the course of the Mueller probe. In an opinion, Judge Judith W. Rogers argued that since the House impeachment inquiry was a judicial process, rules shielding grand-jury secrets from Congress didn’t apply. The government has the right to appeal. The Post has more.
- Slate and the Marshall Project are out with the results of a “first-of-its-kind political survey” that they conducted inside prisons, registering more than 8,000 inmates’ views on criminal-justice reform, as well as their party and candidate affiliations. Among other things, the survey found that views diverge on racial lines (a clear plurality of white respondents support Trump), and that “long stretches in prison appear to be politicizing.” You can read more here.
- Yesterday, the Post unveiled “The Technology 202 Network”—an “invite-only collective” through which officials, lawmakers, tech executives, and other experts will share their views on pressing technological issues. Cat Zakrzewski, a tech policy reporter at the paper, will survey the group regularly, and share their thoughts in her newsletter.
- For The National, Janine di Giovanni, a longtime war correspondent who teaches a journalism course at Yale, writes that conflict journalists urgently need a new, shared code of ethics. “I do understand how fast-paced journalism can blur critical thinking,” she writes. But “it should not. Because journalism is often a matter of life and death.”
- In January, I reported that France-Antilles—a trio of papers serving the French overseas regions of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana—had been liquidated. Now Xavier Niel, a telecoms magnate and shareholder in Le Monde, is trying to bring the papers back. Under Niel’s offer, more than half the papers’ staff would keep their jobs.
- And in Russia, President Vladimir Putin backed changing the constitution to allow him to run for reelection in 2024, and stay in office as late as 2036. Earlier today, Russia’s Parliament approved the proposed amendments, which will be put to a national vote in April. Putin is already the country’s longest-tenured leader since Stalin.