Wednesday, June 5, 2024

When it comes to converging on a narrative, Politico can still give the NYT a run for its money

Within minutes of the verdict being announced, jokes started to circulate on twitter from people like James Fallows and NYT pitchbot, speculating on how long it would take for pundits and political journalists to start cranking out articles and think pieces explaining how the multiple conditions don't matter. Sure enough, that very afternoon we started seeing examples including an inevitable entry from Frank Bruni.

I'm going to focus on this (also inevitable) Politico piece because it provides such an instructive example of the way the press converges almost instantly on a convenient narrative, even when there is absolutely no evidence to support it.

The article by Melanie Mason and Lara Korte posted at 5:00 AM on the 31st, only a few hours after the verdict, and unlike the Bruni piece, this had some original reporting (though not the reporting the narrative needed, but we'll get to that later).

I'm not sure what the terminology here is, but the title that showed up when I shared the article over email and appears when I mouse over the tab is "Trump's guilty verdict unlikely to sink California's battleground Republicans." Obviously, there is no way that anyone can know this, and the piece itself doesn't really even try to argue it (if anything, the opposite, but I'm getting ahead of myself). Instead, we get a slow walk back through the length of the article, with each successive section failing to support and by the end actually contradicting the thesis.

The moonwalking starts right out of the gate with a title that greatly tones down the previously mentioned subject line.

"Trump’s guilty. Republicans could still win in California."

Notice how we've gone from likely to win to "could still win." Now take a look at the opening paragraph.

California Democrats indulged in some schadenfreude over Donald Trump’s guilty verdict Thursday, but when it comes to pivotal House races, they shouldn’t be celebrating prematurely. There’s no guarantee that his legal troubles will sink California Republicans down-ballot.

This is a perfect Politico lede, and I mean that in the worst way possible, "savvy," snide, disapproving, reporting subjective impressions as fact, and pouring cold water on the Democrats. You'll also notice a disconnect, a strawman, and some subtle moving of the goalposts. Pretty impressive for such a short paragraph. We don't get any examples of the "schadenfreude," not even a link, nor do we get any indication that California Democrats believe this will hand them multiple house seats. There is certainly no indication that anyone thought these gains were "guaranteed." That is, of course, an impossible standard, but it nicely sets up what is already becoming the standard narrative.

Then we get to the only part of the article that briefly even comes close to arguing its thesis.

GOP Rep. David Valadao, for example, eked out a win in his Central Valley seat in 2020, even when that district backed Biden by 11 points. His seat tilted more Democratic after redistricting, yet Democrats were unable to oust him in 2022.

Orange County Rep. Michelle Steel is another Republican who was able to topple a Democrat in 2020, even as the district narrowly sided with Biden. She held her seat in 2022.


For the most part, Rob Stutzman, a Republican Trump critic, said he expects GOP House contenders to “stay away” from the former president’s legal troubles. “Probably not much of a factor by [November] in House races,” he said.

That's pretty much it. The fact that two Republican House members had been previously able to win seats in districts that went for Biden, along with a quote from a Republican campaign consultant who unsurprisingly said he didn't expect Trump's legal problems to be much of a factor.

After that, takes a very strange turn. The focus shifts to actual reporting which largely undercuts what had come before.

California Republicans in swing seats have largely stayed silent about the verdict so far. Those who have commented, such as Rep. Ken Calvert, echoed Trump’s complaint that the trial was a partisan frame-up — an argument that reinforces Democrats’ messaging about Republicans doing Trump’s bidding. 


Shortly after the verdict, Democratic House candidate Will Rollins tweeted a video clip of his opponent, the GOP’s Calvert, previously urging Republicans to rally around Trump. The Palm Springs Democrat added, “We deserve a representative who cares more about the 750,000 of us in Riverside County than one convicted felon in New York.”

Coby Eiss, Rollins’ campaign manager, predicted the verdict could help Democrats flip Calvert’s seat due to the larger number of independent voters in the inland district that is sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Diego. He argued voters want the government to look “more like what you see on CSPAN, less like a soap opera.”

Despite Stutzman's prediction, at least one (and based on the "Those...such as" phrasing, apparently more than one) of the at-risk house members has lashed himself to the mast on this, and given what's happening to Larry Hogan, there will be considerable pressure for others to do the same. 

While there's no way of knowing how this will play out, California Democrats are clearly looking to make this an issue, which given Trump's unpopularity in the state would seem to be a good bet. Not a sure thing, but not evidence that "Trump's guilty verdict unlikely to sink California's battleground Republicans" either.

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