Analysis: Why the news media got the midterm ‘red wave’ narrative so wrong
By Oliver Darcy, CNN Business
The White House believes that the press has “egg on their faces, yet again.”
That’s according to a White House official who spoke candidly with CNN on Wednesday about the media’s “red wave” narrative that wasn’t.
Heading into Tuesday, the dominant narrative in the press — especially right-wing media — was that Republicans were on track to have a big, if not monster, night. Focusing largely on the fragile state of the economy, coupled with the fact that the incumbent party historically doesn’t perform well in such elections, the press had all but declared that Democrats would get trounced from coast-to-coast.
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But as election results came in Tuesday night, the great wave turned into a mere ripple. Pundits such as Ben Shapiro noted the view had gone “from red wave to red wedding.” Even on Fox News, the right-wing cable network that had heavily hyped the red wave presumption to its audience, pundits acknowledged the reality. Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, called it an “absolute disaster” for the GOP.
So what happened?
Norman Ornstein, emeritus scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, suggested that a few factors were at play. Chief among them, a reliance on bad polls (i.e. InsiderAdvantage and Rasmussen), a herd mentality that swept the press, and the tendency to treat this election like midterms of the past when other significant issues (like democracy and abortion) were at play.
But Ornstein also warned of a “more troubling” factor that he believed impacted coverage. “There is so many in the mainstream press that are just fearful to a remarkable degree of being branded as having a liberal bias. And what we see is that the reaction to that is to bend over quadruply backwards to show there is no bias.”
In other words, Ornstein argued, mainstream journalists went along with a red wave narrative because it showed that they were being tough on Democrats. “This business of both-sidesism to show that there is no bias gives us another kind of bias,” he said.
“You put all of that together and it is a s–t show,” Ornstein said.
And while it is likely the GOP will still take the House and could eke out a victory in the Senate, the White House official dinged the press for taking jabs at the administration for its focus on issues outside the economy.
“We talked about fighting inflation constantly,” the official said. “There is also a very significant constituency in this country that is extremely concerned about reproductive rights after Dobbs. The same with political violence and extremism. These all overlap, too.”
“The idea that because inflation is a big problem, we aren’t supposed to address any other issue, that’s just a fallacy and not how campaigns are supposed to work,” the White House official continued, adding that “oversimplification is a trap that it’s important for the press not to fall into.”
It turned out it wasn’t all about the economy as some media pundits had suggested. As CNN’s exit poll showed Tuesday, abortion and the state of democracy were also significant factors in the election.
More than a quarter of voters listed abortion access as a top issue. About 61% said they were unhappy with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and about 7 in 10 of those voters backed a Democratic House candidate. Voters were also deeply concerned about the state of the country’s democracy: about two-thirds said they felt that democracy in the country is somewhat or very threatened.
Bottom line? “Politics has become extremely volatile,” the White House official said, “and I’m not sure that these kinds of sweeping narratives and this obsession with predictions helps anyone.” It’s hard to argue with that.
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