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“Live By The Media’s Favor, Die By The Media’s Disfavor”: After Pumping Him Up For Months, The Press Turns On Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio is in serious trouble, so he’s now attacking Donald Trump, something he hasn’t been as eager to do before. While it may produce a return slap from the Republican front-runner, it probably won’t be enough to shift the discussion around Rubio, who is now learning a very hard lesson: Live by the media’s favor, die by the media’s disfavor.

Rubio’s rapidly shifting fortunes demonstrate how capricious those ups and downs in coverage can be. As much as we might like to believe that we’re nothing more than observers, chronicling the events that take place in as fair a way as we can, the media inevitably shape events too. As Walter Lippman wrote in 1922, news coverage “is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision.” For a long time, the light shining on Rubio illuminated the things that people thought made him a formidable general election candidate. But when the light’s focus shifted, things got very bad very fast.

A lot of Republicans fail to understand media dynamics because they’ve bought in so fully to their own propaganda about how the liberal media are biased against conservatives. Here’s how Sen. Orrin Hatch explains Rubio’s fall:

“Democrats can run a younger person like John F. Kennedy because the media is with them. Republicans will have a more difficult time because if somebody’s young, they’re going to get beaten up like never before by this biased media.”

Putting aside the utility of Kennedy’s experience running for president 56 years ago in explaining what’s going on today, the notion that the media were biased against Marco Rubio is ludicrous. In truth, no other Republican candidate got more glowing coverage for months than Rubio did; as I and others have pointed out, there have periodically been waves of stories about how Rubio was about to have his moment and rocket to the front of the race, since those in the know understood just what a formidable general election candidate he would make.

The trouble was that Republican voters never seemed to clue in to what the insiders were telling them. And even though after the Iowa caucuses media outlets everywhere declared Rubio the real winner despite his third-place finish, the Rubio explosion never happened. So when last Saturday’s debate came, the stage was set for a new story about Rubio. Chris Christie mercilessly attacked him for repeating a line about how “Barack Obama knows exactly what he’s doing” was the hook for the new narrative.

Why was Rubio’s performance in that debate such a big deal? It wasn’t because there’s something objectively horrifying about a candidate repeating a talking point a bunch of times, even after getting called out on it by an opponent. The real problem was the substance of what he was saying: that Barack Obama is intentionally trying to destroy America, a rancid idea that is no less vile for being common on the right. The repetition got so much attention in part because reporters approach debates by looking for some supposedly revealing moment or exchange that can be replayed over and over again. All the better if it involves confrontation (as this one did, between Rubio and Christie) and all the better if if makes somebody look foolish (as this one also did).

It also created a new story to write about — Is Rubio too robotic? — that reporters may have been primed for by watching Rubio’s message discipline on the campaign trail. That’s critical to understand, too: among the media’s most important biases is a bias toward the new. A new event, a new story, a new narrative will always be more interesting than another iteration of a story you’ve written ten times before. After writing “Rubio Poised to Break Out” for months, the media was ready for the dramatic shift to “Rubio Crashes and Burns.”

And then, just two days after the debate, Rubio had a brain fart during a town hall meeting, repeating twice the same line about pop culture getting rammed down our kids’ throats — saying it, then immediately saying it in almost exactly the same words again. That was too good for the press corps to pass up, since it reinforced the emerging storyline. (This narrative has also been pushed forward by his opponents.) Then when Rubio came in fifth in New Hampshire, the cascade of negative stories continued, leaving him where he is today.

Though he has taken responsibility for his own poor performance in the debate, if he’s like most candidates (both Democrat and Republican), Rubio probably thinks he’s not being treated fairly by the media. But nobody gets to have it both ways. You can’t say that it’s entirely appropriate to characterize a third-place finish in Iowa as a grand victory, then say it’s unfair to characterize a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire as a crushing defeat. You can’t say that everyone should pay attention to all the things that on paper make you a strong candidate, but object when too much attention is paid to your real-life flaws. And you can’t bask in your positive coverage, then object when you screw up and that winds up on the front page, too.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, February 11, 2016

February 12, 2016 - Posted by | Chris Christie, GOP Primary Debates, Marco Rubio, Media | , , , , , , ,

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