FLASHBACK: The Media’s Skewed Coverage of Past Super Tuesday Primaries

March 3rd, 2024 10:35 AM

To political junkies, Tuesday is “Super Tuesday,” when 16 states (plus American Samoa) hold primaries or caucuses to choose their 2024 presidential nominees. Unlike years past, there’s not much drama this time, as both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are the overwhelming frontrunners in their parties’ nomination races.

But a review of the NewsBusters’ archives shows this is typically the week that the national media deduces the identity of each party’s nominees, and pivots toward the talking points that best position liberals in the general election. Here’s a quick re-cap of how the media elite have spun the last four Super Tuesday primaries.

■ 2008: Sixteen years ago, the media were riveted by the competition between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. After the duo’s final debate before the February 5 Super Tuesday primaries, ABC’s Good Morning America drooled over the possibility of a “dream ticket” featuring both candidates, as correspondent Kate Snow cooed: “The nominees for best performance in a televised debate go to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”

On Monday, February 4, Today co-host Meredith Vieira suggested nobody in her Manhattan liberal bubble was thinking about voting Republican: “I was with a group of friends who, actually were trying to choose between Clinton and Obama and the, for example, the ones who were for Clinton said, ‘Well I want to vote for her but I think I’m gonna vote for Obama because I think he, he can win the general election.’ And then some of the Obama people said, ‘Well, I’m gonna vote for Clinton because I think she’s gonna win.’”

Over on CBS’s Early Show that same morning, the hosts gushed over the liberal celebrities endorsing Obama. Co-host Maggie Rodriguez raved about “the power of ‘O’ in California....You’re seeing Obama’s girls on the campaign trail. All powerful women recognized by their first names. We’re talking about Oprah, Caroline, Michelle and now Maria.”

[For those wondering, she was talking about Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy, Michelle Obama and Maria Shriver.]

And on ABC’s Good Morning America, reporter Deborah Roberts featured an interview with the “fascinating,” “straight-talking” and “charming” Michelle Obama, “the spouse of politics’ newest star.”

The next day’s Super Tuesday results left the Clinton and Obama race as deadlocked as ever, but Arizona Republican Senator John McCain surged to the top of the GOP pack. McCain’s top challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, dropped out two days later (February 7), leaving only former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to challenge the frontrunner.

True to form, the media painted McCain’s biggest problem as “hard-line” conservatives, not the army of Democratic operatives who would work to defeat him in November. “While McCain may be close to locking up the Republican nomination, he still faces a tough battle to win the support of hard-line GOP conservatives,” CBS’s Harry Smith claimed on the February 7 Evening News.

On FNC’s The O’Reilly Factor that same night, however, former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg realized that McCain’s previously sympathetic media coverage would quickly shift. “The media like him because he’s the one who pokes his thumb in Republican and conservative eyes, mostly conservative eyes. But as soon as it’s McCain against Obama or Clinton, the media goes over to the other side,” Goldberg predicted.

And as we all know now, that’s exactly what happened.

■ 2012: By Super Tuesday (March 6), the GOP race was down to Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, with Romney in the lead. But the media were already pushing the Democratic line that all of the Republican candidates were “extremists,” especially when it came to social issues.

“Who woke up in the Republican Party one day recently and said, ‘I know what, let’s go after reproductive rights in the United States’? What was that about?” NBC’s Brian Williams snorted during his network’s Super Tuesday results coverage.

Over on MSNBC that same night, co-anchor Rachel Maddow said the prospect of Santorum going head to head with Obama was “a hard thing to get your head around.”

“But that’s the debate I want to see,” exclaimed her fellow host Lawrence O’Donnell. “I want to see hardcore Republican conservatism put up there on a debate stage with President Obama’s practical approach to governing, and I want to see hardcore Republican conservatism crushed.”

The secular media especially enjoyed mocking the religious Santorum. “If Rick Santorum is your youth minister, you’d ask your parents to switch you to the one who just molests,” HBO’s Bill Maher sneered a few days before Super Tuesday.

During MSNBC’s live Super Tuesday coverage on March 6, Hardball’s Chris Matthews unleashed a furious assault on Newt Gingrich: “I think Newt’s a negative force....he looks like the Devil. I mean, he does look like the Devil, and he has that maniacal look to him — a diabolical look, I should say — and he is a menacing force in American political life.”

After Super Tuesday, Romney extended his lead, but failed to knock out either Santorum nor Gingrich. MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough popped up on NBC’s Today show to helpfully suggest that the GOP start all over again: “I would be asking others to get into the race....This is a party that’s on its way to a historic defeat in the fall unless they’re able to drag in some other candidates.”

Scarbrough had pitched the same defeatist line earlier that week on PBS’s Tavis Smiley: “This has been the worst month for the Republican Party since August of 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned, and I mean that.”

2016: By Super Tuesday (March 1) 2016, liberal reporters — who had earlier been swept up in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — finally recognized that Donald Trump was likely to win the Republican nomination.

A few cheered the notion. “I’m rooting for Donald Trump to win the Republican nomination,” Amanda Marcotte wrote in Salon the day before the primaries. “Hillary Clinton can wipe the floor with him in November.”

That same day, the Hollywood Reporter quoted CBS President (and Democratic donor) Les Moonves cheering Trump on: “It may not be good for America, but it’s good for CBS....The money’s rolling in and this is fun....It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Others decided that it was time to scare voters that the end of America might be at hand. “If they’re [Democrats] not motivated to vote for, you know, the guy with the progressive economic message that really would finally make this country work for everyone, or the woman who’s running with the impeccable and vast record of experience, if that’s not enough for people, at least stopping us from being Nazi Germany would hopefully get Democrats and others to turn out,” the Daily Beast’s Sally Kohn thundered on CNN’s New Day the morning after the primaries.

“If the Republican Party is a gumbo,” echoed CNN host W. Kamau Bell that night, “the roux of that gumbo is white supremacy, and the core of that is the Ku Klux Klan.”

Over on MSNBC, there was sudden respect for former Ohio Governor John Kasich, hopelessly mired in last place behind Trump, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. “He is alone occupying the dignity lane of the Republican Party,” applauded analyst Nicolle Wallace.

Rachel Maddow agreed: “He is running in this dignified way, staying away from Donald Trump, essentially running as a general election moderate.” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson marveled, “back in the day, [Kasich] was thought of an arch-conservative. And now he is a moderate in today’s Republican Party.”

Trump’s Super Tuesday success prompted more than a little establishment Republican panic, with suggestions the billionaire might still be beaten at a contested convention if he hadn’t achieved a mathematical majority of delegates. Liberal reporters (perhaps thinking Trump would be easily beaten by Hillary) insisted thwarting Trump’s voters would be like attacking democracy itself.

“If they go to Cleveland, and in the Trump supporters’ minds, try to take the nomination away from him, you know, I worry for the Republican Party,” the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart warned on MSNBC March 2.

“If the GOP establishment tries to silence their [Trump voters’] voices, would that be an attack on the basic principles of why we have elections?” former anchor Tom Brokaw agreed on that evening’s Nightly News.

“I actually have some sympathy for Trump,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews groused, “because all of a sudden I realize democracy, for whatever it is, is at least democracy. It’s not this thing they [the anti-Trumpers] are talking about.”

When they weren’t panicking over the state of the Republican Party, reporters still found a few moments to pitch the Democrats to voters. “It feels like the Democratic Party is moving towards the center,” CBS’s John Dickerson reassured during live coverage on March 1.

And over on NBC, anchor Lester Holt enthused over the notion of another barrier being broken if a Democrat was elected: “Eight years ago, we were talking about, ‘Wow, we may see the first African-American president.’ After tonight, will people begin to talk in terms of, ‘Wow, we might see the first female president?’”

■ 2020: Just days before Super Tuesday, socialist Bernie Sanders was the frontrunner in the Democratic race, tying for first place in Iowa, followed by victories in New Hampshire and Nevada. According to Vanity Fair, MSNBC was readying the red carpet for the left-wing Vermont Senator.

Media reporter Joe Pompeo quoted an MSNBC insider: “He [Sanders] is now very possibly gonna be the nominee. He’s winning.” In reaction, an MSNBC executive, also anonymous, said the network would “seek out more smart, pro-Sanders voices from people who can make our coverage more insightful.”

Instead of resisting Sanders’s radicalism as dangerous for both Democrats and the country, some in the media touted his appeal. On the February 27 Today show, former Vice President Joe Biden dismissed Sanders (“Americans aren’t looking for a revolution”), co-host Craig Melvin retorted: “But Mr. Vice President, some seem keen on a revolution.”

Then, just three days before Super Tuesday, Biden won South Carolina, reviving his beleaguered campaign. The next day (Sunday), former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg dropped out, giving the Biden campaign a desperately-needed boost.

CNN’s pundit panel was especially pleased with Buttigieg, gushing over his drop-out speech as “presidential timber,” “well done,” and Obama-like in “oratory.” Contributor Bakari Sellers was giddy: “That was an awesome speech. That’s why everybody fell in love with Pete Buttigieg.”

Over on MSNBC, Deadline: White House host Nicolle Wallace applauded: “He gave one of the most eloquent and elegant speeches last night I’ve ever heard for someone coming short of a dream of winning his party’s nomination.”

Then on Monday, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar also dropped out, joining Buttigieg that night to deliver their endorsement of Biden in person. MSNBC’s Mike Memoli pretended the Democratic politicians were somehow super heroes. “It’s almost like they’re building an Avengers sequel in Dallas tonight,” he gushed.

Thanks to the consolidated field, Biden won 10 of the night’s contests, leaving just four for Sanders (American Samoa went for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg). “What a night it has been for Joe Biden,” CNN’s Don Lemon exclaimed. “I took a nap because I knew I would be up late. And I woke up and I thought I was still dreaming. Joe Biden, you can only say is over-performing....”

The next morning, Bloomberg dropped out. Reporters consoled the billionaire by suggesting his massive spending on anti-Trump TV ads might still bear fruit. “That money may not have helped Mike Bloomberg, but it does lay a predicate for an evaluation of President Trump later on and it might not have been money ill spent in the long run,” Major Garrett hoped on CBS This Morning.

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham essentially endorsed Biden for the general election: “Biden is historically the more rational choice....That’s just a historical fact. We tend to elect people like Joe Biden more so than people who are farther to the extremes of either side.”

[Meacham would soon make his endorsement explicit at the Democrats’ 2020 “virtual convention.” And after the election, it would be revealed that Meacham had secretly aided Biden as a speechwriter while still on the MSNBC/NBC payroll.]

Two days after Super Tuesday, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race after a disappointing third-place finish in her home state. MSNBC’s Ali Vitali offered a tribute only a die-hard progressive could love: “This campaign was unabashedly feminist every single day that we were out here on the campaign trail.”

The following week, the country began shutting down because of the spreading coronavirus pandemic. Just before Super Tuesday, on the February 28 PBS NewsHour, New York Times columnist David Brooks speculated that the virus “could take over the election....If we start canceling events, if the economy goes down, if we can’t gather in crowds, that is suddenly a gigantic event.”

And, he opined, the political benefit would accrue to big government liberals: “To look at it in the crass political terms, I don’t see any upside for Trump, I do see significant downside. And a lot of upside for the Democrats, since they are the party of health care, and since they are the party of government.”

And we all know how that turned out, don’t we.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.