FLASHBACK: The Media’s Skewed Coverage of Past New Hampshire Primaries

January 21st, 2024 10:21 AM

The earliest primary and caucus states don’t yield very many delegates, but they get a huge amount of publicity, which is why the presidential campaigns put so much effort into them. The media know this, too, so their editorial decisions take on magnified importance when it comes to events such as Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.

Since 2008, the NewsBusters archives shows the intensive political coverage has been a chance for journalists to take gratuitous potshots at conservative candidates, while liberals (often referred to as “moderates”) are treated to rock-star treatment. Here’s a quick re-cap of how the media elite have spun the four most recent New Hampshire primaries:

■ 2008: As with their coverage of the Iowa caucuses the previous week, the media elite were far more excited about the Democratic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton than the equally contentious GOP battle. The day before the January 8 primary, for example, ABC’s Good Morning America devoted 15 minutes to the Democrats’ race, allotting just 31 seconds for the Republicans, a whopping thirty-to-one disparity.

Over on CBS This Morning, co-anchor Harry Smith enthused: “There is no question that Barack Obama with his big win in Iowa is the candidate of the moment.”

That night, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams hopped aboard Obama’s New Hampshire bus to share with him a flattering Newsweek cover that hailed the candidate as “an icon of hope.” There was no trace of hard news in Williams’s questions: “How does this feel, of all the honors that have come your way, all the publicity?...Who does it make you think of? Is there, is there a loved one?”

“From a reporter’s point of view, it’s almost hard to remain objective,” confessed NBC’s Lee Cowan, assigned to cover the Obama campaign. “It sort of goes against your core to say that as a reporter, but the crowds have gotten so much bigger, his energy has gotten stronger. He feeds off that.”

That same Monday, Hillary Clinton appeared to cry as she told a New Hampshire voter that the election “is very personal for me.” Her allies in the media swooned. “From this woman in particular,” ABC’s Claire Shipman gushed on Tuesday’s Good Morning America, “who has cultivated such an image of strength and invulnerability, it was a surprise that just might pay off.”

That afternoon, as journalists waited for the polls to close, CNN’s Jack Cafferty fawned: “In a brief, unguarded moment yesterday, Hillary Clinton gave us a peek behind the curtain, and it was terrific....She became one of us, just for a minute.”

When Hillary won that night in an upset (the last pre-primary polls had shown Obama leading by about eight points; Clinton won by nearly three), the media crowned her a “comeback kid,” echoing the 1992 spin following Bill Clinton’s post-scandal second-place showing in the state.

“Some observers believe that moment when you got emotional on Monday, when your voice cracked and your eyes welled up, that that humanized you and made you much more attractive to women voters,” a friendly Katie Couric told Clinton the next day. “Will you be willing now to reveal more of yourself and be less reserved?”

Over on the Republican side, the far less covered contest was between John McCain and Mitt Romney. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough observed that the media had a favorite in this race, too: “The press corps — for the most part, there are exceptions — loathe Mitt Romney. And the press corps loved to see all of the Republicans [at the ABC debate this past Saturday night] kicking the tar out of him, and they were all sitting there smirking,” Scarborough pronounced on Morning Joe in advance of the primary.

“I think every last one of them would move to Massachusetts and marry John McCain if they could,” he added.

McCain beat Romney by five points, with Iowa winner Mike Huckabee a distant third. Reading viewer emails on that Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams admitted the media had been too swept up in their coverage of Obama and Clinton: “A viewer from Richmond correctly noted John McCain didn’t get all the attention he deserved in last night’s victory.”

■ 2012: With no contest on the Democratic side, the Republicans were the main event in 2012. The weekend before the primary, both ABC and NBC hosted candidate debates anchored by their networks’ stars. Instead of asking questions of interest to GOP primary voters, ABC’s January 7 debate hit the candidates with a six-to-one liberal agenda; the next day’s debate on NBC was skewed eight-to-one.

That Sunday (January 8), Politico’s Roger Simon posted a column (“They Are Not Worthy”) reflecting both the arrogance of the media elite and their disdain for conservatives: “This gym at St. Anselm College is packed with the most talented political journalists in America....The real question I have is this one: Is the Republican field worthy of the press that covers it?”

The media lobbed criticisms at virtually all of the major candidates. The day before the primary, NBC’s Ann Curry suggested Mitt Romney’s success outside of government would hurt him among voters. She asked MSNBC’s left-wing host, Dylan Ratigan: “How vulnerable do you think Mitt Romney could be in highlighting his business background, given this sort of anti-Wall Street/Occupy climate we’re in?”

Journalists joyfully distorted a remark Romney had made against government-run health insurance, saying “I like being able to fire people” when their service is poor. The morning of the primary, CBS’s Bob Schieffer hooted that “the only thing worse you could say is... that Herbert Hoover is my hero or something like that.”

That night, ABC’s World News Tonight treated as meaningful a crackpot screaming at Romney as the candidate held a small child outside of a polling place. “Those shouts there, ‘Are you going to fire the baby?’” ABC’s David Muir explained for the hard-of-hearing, as he promised: “These are words that are going to follow Mitt Romney beyond New Hampshire right into South Carolina.”

Over on CNN, the primary-day bashing was aimed at Rick Santorum, who had surged following a strong showing in Iowa. Commentator L. Z. Granderson claimed (without evidence) that Santorum’s Christian rhetoric was to blame for despicable violence, including murders: “His anti-gay rhetoric justifies, for some people, the bullying in school, the senseless beatings of people perceived to be gay and the under-reported murders of transgender people.”

Yet there was one Republican that the liberal media embraced. “If I were voting here I’d vote for [Jon] Huntsman because he’s American. He’s a kind of a guy who says, “I’m an American dammit, I’m not one of these stupid ideologues,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews confessed on Morning Joe.

Huntsman, however, came in a distant third, trailing both Romney and Ron Paul. He dropped out of the race January 16, leading CBS’s Jan Crawford to observe: “Huntsman’s campaign never really took off, except among newspaper editorial boards.” ABC’s Jon Karl despaired: “With Huntsman gone, the field of Republican candidates has lost the only candidate who favored civil unions for gay couples and said he was concerned about climate change.”


■ 2016: At the final New Hampshire debate on February 6, Marco Rubio hammered a key talking point about President Obama, only to earn the media’s derision. “So, to be called ‘MarcoRobot,’ to see a headline that said you choked. That doesn’t bother you?” NBC’s Lester Holt asked Rubio in a Monday (February 8) interview on Nightly News.

Holt’s colleagues Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd were nastier the next day during MSNBC’s live primary coverage. Recalling the 1980s song by Styx, the duo mocked Rubio in unison: “Domo arigato, Marco Roboto.”

On Morning Joe, Chris Matthews derided Iowa winner Ted Cruz: “There’s a troll-like quality to Cruz. He operates below the level of human life....There’s something about that guy — who’s always reminded me of Joe McCarthy — and there’s something about him that is negative and menacing.”

As for the Democratic race, Esquire’s Charles Pierce posted an item before the primary extolling how Hillary Clinton, locked in a tight race with Bernie Sanders, “might be the most qualified presidential candidate that we’ve seen since James Monroe.”

“If she combined her background with her husband’s natural political skillz, we’d likely wake up next November to find her Empress Of The Universe,” added Pierce. (As it turned out, Hillary woke up that November to find herself unemployed.)

Sanders clobbered Clinton in the Democratic primary, while Trump bested Rubio, Cruz and John Kasich and Jeb Bush in the GOP contest.

During live coverage that night, ABC’s Matthew Dowd likened the results to an earthquake: “This is a 7.0 on the Richter Scale with major foundational earth shattering of the establishment in the course of this and only the aftershocks are going to be felt going forward.”

Primary winner Donald Trump phoned into MSNBC’s Morning Joe the next day to thank Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski for their support. Scarborough bragged that he saw the potential in Trump early on: “There were a handful of people who for six months have been saying what happened last night could happen, and the rest of the media world has been mocking and ridiculing exactly what he’s done.”

Brzezinski joined the admiration society: “It’s not like Donald and I have the same world view... but we knew that he could do this from the get-go, so I think the sense is that we believed that his talents actually could follow through and translate into something, while everyone else underestimated him.”

As for the Democrats, Hillary’s weak showing in Iowa coupled with her outright loss in New Hampshire, had some of her media fan club worried that “history” would be again “thwarted” as it was in 2008. PBS’s Gwen Ifill even challenged Sanders directly at a debate one day after the primary: “Do you worry at all that you will be the instrument of thwarting history, as Senator Clinton keeps claiming that she might be the first woman president?”

“I think a Sanders victory would be of some historical accomplishment as well,” the socialist candidate replied.

■ 2020: Four years ago, the media attempted to dupe viewers by claiming the liberal Democratic candidates crowding the field in New Hampshire were actually “moderates.” The morning before the primary, for example, CBS’s Ed O’Keefe pretended it was a battle among sensible centrists: “Our CBS News poll shows [Pete] Buttigieg is now leading among moderate Democrats in New Hampshire. He’s stealing support away from former Vice President Joe Biden, who was first among moderates last month....Another moderate, Senator Amy Klobuchar is surging in late polls.”

And after socialist Bernie Sanders won the primary, NBC’s Chuck Todd took satisfaction in noting the combined vote for Buttigieg and Klobuchar was even greater. “The moderate lane appears a little wider tonight,” agreed Nightly News anchor Lester Holt.

Readers saw the same spin in the New York Times that Wednesday: “Mr. Buttigieg split the centrist vote with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who surged in New Hampshire....”

On primary night, MSNBC treated Buttigieg as if he was the second coming of Barack Obama. “If you go back and read the transcript of his speech, it’s like he typed it out and he has the comma and everything perfectly because he speaks in perfect sentences. It’s impressive. He’s an amazing human being,” a thrilled Vaughn Hillyard noted. 

Earlier that same night, Nicolle Wallace insisted Elizabeth Warren was “a really, really, really good candidate.” NewsBusters’ editor Tim Graham shot back: “No, obviously not. She just came in fourth, a single-digit finish in the state right next to hers.”

Over on CNN, Van Jones admired the strength in Sanders’ victory: “This guy is on the march....He’s never actually been a part of this party but he’s transformed the party without joining it, and now the voters are coming with him.”

As for Joe Biden, reeling after a fourth-place showing in Iowa, his fifth-place finish (behind Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren) prompted MSNBC’s Scarborough to pen a sycophantic Washington Post op-ed extolling the former Vice President’s virtues.

“Whether his campaign can survive the body blows delivered by Iowa and New Hampshire remains to be seen, but Joe Biden has endured worse,” Scarborough wrote. “Like that gravely ill father accompanying his sons so many years ago, millions of Americans do not need to see how this political race ends to know they are already proud of Joe Biden. And you can put me at the top of that list.”

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