Reprinted with permission from Press Run
Stepping into the role of theater critic, CNN this week panned Vice President Kamala Harris' first foreign trip, as she traveled to Guatemala and Mexico. The negative review wasn't based on the substance of Harris' diplomatic excursion, instead the network deducted points for style, following the direction set by Republicans who were dead set on giving the trip a negative slant.
Leaning heavily on Republican talking points, CNN declared the Central American visit had been marred "by her seemingly flippant answer" given during an interview with NBC News. "Republicans are using this moment to ramp up their attacks on Harris" the network announced, as if that somehow determines Harris' fate.
CNN's coverage was relentlessly negative, attacking her "defensive" behavior, questioning her "political agility," stressing her "political missteps," mocking her "clumsy" and "tone deaf" media performance; her "shaky handling of the politics" surrounding immigration.
Over and over, the CNN report stressed that because Republicans and conservatives didn't like Harris' trip, it must be considered a failure — it was a "bad week" for the VP. And all because of a single back-and-forth she had with NBC's Lester Holt, who pushed a favorite GOP talking point, repeatedly demanding to know why Harris hasn't visited the U.S. southern border — the one that the press and the GOP insist represents a "crisis."
Doubling as the Gaffe Police, CNN uniformly announced that her brief response to the border question had "overshadowed" her entire trip. But who decided it "overshadowed"? News outlets like CNN, which were busy singing off the GOP chorus, and noting how Republicans had "pounced" and "piled on" the kerfuffle. CNN insisted Harris' trip had produced "poor reviews," but CNN and Republicans were the ones producing them.
The lack of context was also telling, coming after four years of Trump and his team ransacking the norms. In light of his dangerous tenure, the Harris controversy this week about a single border question and whether she was too casual in her response, seems quaint and rather absurd. The last time Trump's vice president made news was because he was in danger of being killed in the halls of Congress by a roaming, insurrectionist mob unleashed by his boss. By contrast, Harris got hit with days of bad news coverage for possibly mishandling a policy question during a television interview. (By the way, CNN.com published a Mike Pence valentine this week.)
Would Harris likely answer Holt's question differently if given a second chance? It's possible. But the idea that her 30-second border response "overshadowed" her entire Central American trip is absurd.
Harris' foreign visit coverage was part of a larger media push recently to try to trip up the VP with Beltway gotcha coverage — her Memorial Weekend tweet was all wrong! She's hiding her Asian heritage!
This kind of eagerly negative coverage springs from a media yearning for conflict. Frustrated by the No Drama Biden era, which has been completely absent of backstage White House gossip, and the kind of daily and hourly tumult that marked the Trump years, journalists are constantly overreaching, trying to create news where none exists.
Consider this bewildering media narrative that's become commonplace in recent weeks: It's bad news for Harris that she's taking on substantive responsibilities as vice president, such as leading the administration's response to stemming the flow of migration from Central America, and organizing the Democratic fight against a slew of Republican suppression laws being passed nationwide. This bad-news VP meme has been relentless ("Is Kamala Harris Being Set Up to Fail?" Slate asked), and it defies logic. Instead of giving Harris credit for tackling the nation's tough problems, the press is preemptively dinging her for possible failures. "Harris can't win," New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently announced.
As for the role Harris has played in the administration's stunning Covid-19 vaccination success story, that mostly gets buried in the coverage of her tenure to date, as the press scrambles for missteps to highlight.
Note that a recent Atlantic profile of Harris was dripping with condescending commentary, calling her "uninteresting," "having a hard time making her mark on anything," and stressing that, "she continues to retreat behind talking points and platitudes in public, and declines many interview requests and opportunities to speak for herself." Of course, the piece was loaded with quotes from Republicans demeaning her, which appears to be the basis for most Harris coverage these days.
Last year, when Biden announced Harris as his running mate, the conservative media machine set off allegorical bomb blasts all around her, frantically trying to depict Harris as radical and dangerous, not a mainstream U.S. senator from the largest state in the union.
"In style and policy, Harris epitomizes an authoritarian," the National Review gasped. The far-right Federalist warned panicked readers that Harris, a former prosecutor, represents a "radical threat to America." And Fox News' Sean Hannity announced the Biden-Harris duo was "the most radical ticket of a political party in our lifetime by far."
The right wing loves to vilify Harris. The mainstream media fails when it treats those attacks as news.