New York Times Post-Debate Coverage Goes Full-Infomercial for Clinton

Deciding who "won" a debate is an inherently fraught exercise loaded with ideological bias and meta-questions of perception and groupthink. Making this determination not only involves divorcing one's self from one's own prejudices, but attempting to internalize the feelings of tens of millions of people.

After all, the question of who won isn’t only supposed to be about one’s perception, but how the win will affect the race — a question that requires the reviewer to hypothesize the reactions of the viewing public. Put another way, it’s a silly parlor game that’s designed primarily to spin public perception rather than offer some objective, to say nothing of useful insight.

This horse race mentality led to some noticeably fawning articles in the New York Times this morning. Let’s begin with the headlines of its top three debate stories:

Hillary Clinton Is Calm, Cool and Effective

In Democratic Debate, Hillary Clinton Paints Bernie Sanders’s Plans as Unrealistic

Who Won the Debate? Critics Say Hillary Clinton Shone

Headlines are in and of themselves important because, according to one 2014 survey, 60% of Americans get their news from only headlines. A quick glance at the Times debate section and the consensus is clear: Clinton was the runaway victor.

Now let’s examine the text. Clinton-beat reporter Jonathan Martin’s piece led like a David Brock press release:

Facing off against Senator Bernie Sanders on Thursday night, Hillary Clinton did not comport herself like someone who had just suffered a landslide loss in New Hampshire. She did not raise her voice or express anger. She did not demonize Mr. Sanders or suggest he would be a dangerous choice for Democrats. She remained calm as he pungently sought to highlight their differences.

Instead, she behaved like someone heading into Nevada and South Carolina with every reason to be confident and little to fear but her own missteps.

Okay, that’s all very subjective. Punchy, good for a counter-narrative, but still just a guy’s opinion who happens to work for the New York Times.

The text of the second story is pretty down-the-middle reporting, but the framing is entirely Clinton-centric, which isn’t a major journalistic crime, but is worth noting in the context of the Times' other coverage.

The third story is by far the goofiest, settling on a “critics” consensus based on eight cherry-picked tweets.

In the aftermath, many commentators and critics felt that Mr. Sanders held his own on domestic affairs, but that Mrs. Clinton outshined him on foreign policy and scored some points by cornering him as a single-issue candidate.

“Many commentators”. “Many” is what’s known as a weasel word. Weasel words, according to Merriam-Webster, are used to “create an impression that a specific and/or meaningful statement has been made, when only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated” 

Put another way, Alan Rappeport at the Times hot-take factory First Draft needed to curate consensus and arbitrarily chose a few “experts” to form this consensus, presumably based on his network of vetted, acceptable opinion-havers. Two right-wing flacks, one a reliable Clinton-booster and a scattering of other insiders — only two of which, GOP pollster Frank Luntz and Tufts professor Daniel Drezner—actually said Clinton won the debate. Again, it’s a fairly benign attempt at trendspotting, but in the context of the Times' broader coverage and its editorial support for Clinton, the stench of bias reads apparent.

The Times has claimed that Clinton has either directly or indirectly “won” every debate so far, yet her poll numbers in the aggregate continue to go down relative to Sanders'. One possibility is that what the average voter finds desirable in a debater is not necessarily what our pundit and journalist classes find desirable.

Perhaps Clinton’s bombing of Libya and desire to bomb Syria is more likely to turn off voters than the Beltway “strong-on-foreign-policy” consensus that emerges entirely divorced from the empire fatigue most Americans share. Perhaps meta-questions of tone and command of lingo don’t register as much as Sanders’ perceived honesty. Perhaps they do. It’s impossible to know, because post-debate coverage, like virtually all election coverage, is as much about shaping public perception as accurately capturing it.

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