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“Deathwatch Coverage”: Why The Media Are Digging Jeb Bush’s Grave

Why hasn’t Jeb Bush started complaining about the liberal media yet? Maybe it’s because he knows that at this critical moment for his campaign, it’s important to look sunny and optimistic. But he’d have a much better case to make than his primary opponents, who are all whining about how CNBC was mean to them at their last debate. The coverage of Jeb’s campaign right now is unremittingly negative, in ways that are, if understandable, not exactly fair. The Jeb Bush Deathwatch has begun, and it’s going to be awfully difficult for him to get past it.

Back in 1983, scholars Michael Robinson and Margaret Sheehan first wrote about “deathwatch coverage” in their book about the media’s role in the 1980 presidential campaign, Over the Wire and on TV. “The deathwatch generally begins with a reference to the candidate’s low standing in the polls,” they wrote, “moves on to mention financial or scheduling problems, and ends with coverage of the final press conference, in which the candidate withdraws.” Even before it gets to that terminal point, however, the press can decide as one that you’re circling the drain, and the result will be a wave of intensely negative coverage.

Let’s take a little tour of the articles about Jeb in the media just from one day, last Friday. “Can Jeb Bush Come Back?” (Washington Post). “Jeb Bush’s Existential Crisis” (CNN). “All the Money In the World May Not Save Jeb Bush’s Campaign” (Los Angeles Times). “Jeb Bush Campaign Faces Criticism, Skepticism Following Debate” (USA Today). “Jeb Bush Seeks to Recover Momentum After Debate” (Wall Street Journal). “Jeb Bush: Campaign ‘Is Not on Life Support'” (NBC News).

The headlines only partly convey how brutal things are getting for Bush. All the questions he now faces are about process—not “How would your tax plan work?” but “Why aren’t you doing better?” They’re questions about the campaign itself, not about what he wants to do if he becomes president. Reporters have also taken to asking Jeb whether he’s having fun on the campaign trail, which has a whiff of cruelty about it. He plainly isn’t, but what is he supposed to say? It’s almost as though they just want to see how he’s going to squirm. They might explain that they’re asking him this question because in January 2014 he said he intended to campaign “joyfully,” and there’s not much joy in Jebville right now. But that’s an excuse, not a justification.

So the frame of almost every story about Bush is how he’s floundering, struggling, and sinking. When you’re operating within that frame, it determines the kinds of questions you ask, not just of Bush himself when you get the chance, but of the other people you interview, and of yourself as you’re writing your story. Those questions will be things like: What’s he doing wrong? Why don’t people like him? What mistakes has he made?

When you set out to answer those questions, everything you produce will reflect poorly on Bush. That doesn’t mean there’s anything inaccurate about the coverage, just that it focuses on one particular aspect of reality and not others.

Now let’s compare that to Marco Rubio, whom most knowledgeable people have now concluded is the most likely Republican nominee. If you wanted, you could ask similarly uncomplimentary questions about him. Why has this guy who was once hailed as the savior of the Republican Party been unable to get more than 10 percent or so of the vote in national polls? Why is he stuck in fourth place in Iowa and sixth place in New Hampshire? How come he’s being beaten in fundraising by the likes of Ben Carson and Ted Cruz?

Those are perfectly legitimate questions, but if the focus of your story about Rubio is how he’s on the rise, they’re the kinds of things you’ll either leave out completely or deal with quickly (in the inevitable “To be sure…” paragraph).

Now for my own “To be sure…” paragraph: To be sure, there are perfectly good reasons why a reporter would describe Jeb’s campaign the way it’s being described and ask the questions he’s being asked. Expectations for him were very high. He was supposed to be this year’s version of the well-established, middle-aged white guy the GOP always nominates, and his super PAC quickly raised a staggering $100 million. For a time, he was indeed the frontrunner (though he never averaged more than 15 percent in the polls), so the fact that he’s now in fourth place or so is a significant fall. And Jeb hasn’t been particularly compelling on the stump, to say the least. He has struggled with things like trying to figure out whether the Iraq War was a mistake, and he seems flummoxed by the competition he’s gotten from other candidates, particularly Donald Trump.

But let’s not forget that no one has actually voted for president yet. The Iowa caucuses are still three months away. Super Tuesday isn’t until a month after that. The voters of California, our most populous state, don’t vote until June, a full seven months from now. A heck of a lot is going to happen just between now and Iowa.

Not only that, while Jeb’s place in the polls is certainly nothing to be proud of, other candidates getting much more positive attention aren’t doing much better. In the Huffpost Pollster average, Jeb is at 7.5 percent, admittedly no great shakes. But Rubio, who is now luxuriating in an invigorating bath of positive press coverage, is at a whopping 8.5 percent. Everyone seems to think Rubio is probably going to be the nominee, but the voters themselves don’t seem to be aware of it yet. Ted Cruz, whom insiders think has shrewdly positioned himself to be a strong contender as the race winnows? He’s at 5.5 percent.

One of the attractions of the deathwatch story for reporters always looking for a new angle on the presidential race is that it’s novel and, in its way, rather dramatic. And like much of what the press does, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Say that a candidate is toast often enough, and before long donors won’t want to contribute to him and voters won’t bother to support him. But we’re still far enough away from the primaries that another new story, the exciting Jeb Comeback, is still a possibility. He might even earn that exclamation point after his name. Is it likely? Maybe not. But you never know.


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, November 2, 2015

November 3, 2015 - Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Media | , , , , , , ,


  1. Probably the reason Jeb Bush isn’t asked what he would do when he is
    president is because he still hasn’t answered a question like that! His
    answers are the stock political reply with how bad things are and that he can “fix” everything, just not how he will “fix it”!


    Comment by lrfalstad | November 4, 2015 | Reply

  2. Jeb needs a lot of work and a heavy dose of chutzpah. Yet, we should all remember that Herman Cain was ahead of Mitt Romney at this point in the 2012 election and he was not even close to presidential material with his 999 tax plan which even he could not explain.


    Comment by Keith | November 3, 2015 | Reply

    • Agree. “It ain’t over til it’s over”!


      Comment by raemd95 | November 3, 2015 | Reply

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