Hillary Clinton sure didn’t look like an “awful” candidate up on the debate stage this week.
“Awful” was how ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd derided the Democratic nominee over the summer on This Week. “She is an awful candidate. Everybody knows it,” he stressed.
Dowd was hardly alone. The Beltway pundit class has relentlessly portrayed Clinton as someone who’s supremely uncomfortable in her own skin and ill-suited to be the Democratic nominee or the next president.
So why the huge disconnect between the way the press portrays Clinton, often with a relentlessly caustic and cynical eye, and the reality of who Clinton is as a candidate, as seen during the debate? A large chunk of viewers, regardless of whether they support her or not, must have been genuinely confused by the person they watched for 90 minutes, and the person they’ve seen depicted in the press throughout this campaign.
She certainly didn’t resemble the supposedly phony, unlikeable, calculating politician the press has been describing most of this year. She didn’t come across as the deeply secretive, distant, “scripted,” figure who can’t connect with voters. (Fact: Clinton accumulated more votes than any other candidate during the presidential primaries.)
Aside from her agenda and her politics, the press has been nearly universal in the way they’ve described Clinton as a person and as a candidate. She’s “afraid to say what she thinks about anything for fear of alienating this or that constituency,” explained The Washington Post, while emphasizing, “She often comes across as inauthentic or lacking a basic core of beliefs.”
Bottom line: Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate, and possibly a deeply flawed person.
And that has been the nearly universal media theme since the beginning of this campaign. Last summer, The Wall Street Journal suggested Clinton sounds too “scripted and poll-tested,” while Politico this year marked her victory in the Kentucky primary with the downer headline, “Hillary Clinton’s Joyless Victory.”
But instead of that scheming Clinton caricature showing up at the debate, viewers saw a confident, at-ease candidate who at one point even shimmied with delight on the national stage.
“[T]ens of millions of Americans saw the candidates in action, directly, without a media filter,” noted New York Times columnist Paul Krugman following the debate. “For many, the revelation wasn’t Mr. Trump’s performance, but Mrs. Clinton’s: The woman they saw bore little resemblance to the cold, joyless drone they’d been told to expect.”
Unfortunately, as Media Matters has been noting for years, there has existed over time an almost open contempt for Clinton from the press corps. Last year there was even talk about how journalists were primed to “take down” her campaign.
Obsessive Clinton tormentor Maureen Dowd at the Times, for example, has spent years looking past what Clinton stands for (does Dowd even care?) in order to belittle her as a person. Over two decades, Dowd has robotically represented Clinton as an unlikeable, power-hungry, phony.
Author Neal Gabler made this key point over the summer (emphasis added):
Hillary Clinton has always been under a media microscope. They assess her pantsuits, her hairdos, her gestures, her expressions, her “grating” voice. They assume that there is always some ulterior motive or calculation to everything she says and does — as if there isn’t for any presidential candidate. Whether you like Hillary Clinton or not, she labors under the media’s presumption of guilt.
And again, the most troubling aspect is that so much of the press pile-on regarding Clinton is oddly personal, and rarely revolves around her politics. (Except when it comes to her emails, which journalists have been weirdly obsessive about.) The press seems utterly determined to portray the nominee as a blemished individual.
And that’s one of the reasons why presidential debates are so important: They force the campaign press to get off the national stage for 90 minutes and allow candidates to speak directly to viewers, without a heavy-handed media filter and without journalists trying to fit everything into preferred narratives.
Meanwhile, did you notice how few members of the Beltway media’s elite foresaw Clinton’s lopsided debate win?
Think about all the hours and days of pre-debate commentary, all the analysis on radio, television and in print that commentators provided during the run up to the debate. Did you see, hear, or read many (any?) pundits confidently predict that Clinton would, as it turned out, easily win the debate and it wouldn’t even be a close call?
Seemingly committed to the Clinton narrative that she’s a cautious, calculating pol who can’t connect with voters, lots of commentators seemed certain Trump would be able to equal her debate parries, even as they lowered the expectations for him to absurd depths.
But even graded on an entirely different and gentler scale, Trump still wasn’t able to construct a coherent performance. With the media’s nasty Clinton caricature set aside for the duration of the debate, viewers were able to make up their own minds about the candidate.