Announcing that Sen. Elizabeth Warren has become “hopelessly compromised,” that her fledgling presidential campaign suffers from a mighty “albatross,” and that “new doubts about her viability” have suddenly emerged, Washington journalists have recently returned to one of their favorite sports: trying to bury the populist’s campaign before it was even officially launched on Saturday, Feb. 9.
Confirming that it remains deeply committed to the story about Warren’s disputed Native American ancestry, a racist GOP narrative that has bubbled up since 2012, the same D.C. press corps that elevated “But Her Emails!” into a two-year national crisis during the last White House campaign is now taking it upon itself to saddle a possible Democratic front-runner with a “gotcha” story.
“She won’t be able to escape it,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza announced last week. And why won’t she be able to “escape” the overblown ancestry kerfuffle? Because people like Cillizza have announced they won’t let her.
The New York Times delivered a similar doomsday prediction: “The lingering cloud over her likely presidential campaign has only darkened.” And last week, Times White House correspondent Peter Baker claimed that the Warren ancestry story “threatens” to derail her entire image as a truth-teller.
Note that “threatens” is mediaspeak for journalists not able to find Democratic voters who actually care about the story, and a newsroom determined to relentlessly pursue it anyway. In fact, the Washington Post recently suggested the Warren ancestry story represented the most important part of her candidacy.
And don’t forget, this comes after Warren was recently dinged by the press for supposedly being “aloof,” “standoffish,” “cold,” “scoldy,” “shrill,” and “unlikable.” (She’s not.)
The ongoing media pile-on comes as Warren continues to post relatively strong polling numbers among Democratic voters. (She’s certainly considered a top-tier candidate.) And perhaps more important, the droning attacks come as Warren’s recently unveiled proposal to levy a 2 percent annual tax on a family’s net worth in excess of $50 million is being met with enthusiastic support among Americans.
Warren is, without question, helping to change the debate about equality in this country. So what’s with the media’s endlessly bizarre obsession over a GOP line of attack on the candidate? And why has the press mostly given Donald Trump a pass for his relentlessly racist attacks on Warren?
Let’s be honest: The Warren ancestry story has devolved into one about a soggy process. The press no longer really cares what the facts of her family background are, because they’re not especially pressing. Instead, reporters now claim to care about how the story has unfolded and what the “optics” are, as journalists press the claim that Warren has bungled the issue—i.e., what does this all tell us about Warren as a person, a politician, and a possible president? And to do that, the press has continually tried to hang the news hook on the idea that Warren’s ancestry claims have enraged Native American leaders, and that Warren has been hit with “criticism from both sides of the aisle,” as the Washington Post recently claimed.
But that’s simply not true.
In terms of Democratic members of Congress and key progressive leaders, it’s almost impossible to find any who have faulted Warren on this story. (Rep. Deb Haaland, one of two Native American members of Congress, has thoroughly backed Warren on this issue.) As for Native American leaders, an excellent HuffPost article last month detailed how the press has completely misplayed the story.
After interviewing a dozen tribal chiefs, Native politicians, researchers, and influencers about the Warren story and the endless media coverage hyping a supposed controversy, HuffPost concluded, “The consensus was clear: This narrative is incredibly overblown. Tribal leaders have far more pressing matters to deal with than a senator’s DNA test.” “It’s media fodder. It’s sensationalism. That’s what it is,” Richard Sneed, the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said. “All it takes is for one person to say they’re offended, and then everybody does a dog pile.”
“The thing that really, really got me about these articles is that the emphasis is on all of the outrage on behalf of Native Americans, but they’re not talking to any Native Americans about it. At all,” Crystal Echo Hawk told HuffPost. Hawk is a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and the CEO and president of Echo Hawk Consulting.
Meanwhile, in terms of the campaign politics involved, the idea that Democratic candidates who run against Warren are going to jump on this Trump-driven attack line and raise the issue of her ancestry against her seems absurd. In fact, California Sen. Kamala Harris, an announced presidential candidate, was recently asked about the controversy and quickly passed:
.@KamalaHarris was invited to attack @ewarren today by a reporter who asked whether Warren's "behavior" is any "less egregious" than the VA officials who wore blackface. "She's made a statement," Harris said of Warren. "I hear what she said. And I take her at her word."
— Christopher Cadelago (@ccadelago) February 7, 2019
Did you notice how absurd the reporter’s premise was? The state of Virginia is currently being rocked by one its biggest political scandals in generations, as two of the state’s top public officials are facing possible career-ending controversies. One revolves around the abhorrent practice of dressing up in blackface; the other involves allegations of sexual assault. Against that backdrop, a reporter on Capitol Hill asked if Warren inaccurately filling out forms several decades ago based on bad family-history information she had been given is similar to blackface or sexual assault.
It’s safe to say that the media has already lost perspective on the Warren story—and her candidacy is just a few days old.