I spent Saturday night in the DNC Media Room, watching the media watch the debate. Some of my observations:
Only about half the press showed up. There were an incredible number of empty seats. More on this, later.
There was no “news value” to the debate. At all. The candidates carefully stuck to their scripted talking points. One reporter behind me sometimes said their lines right along with them… the same way people do, when they’ve watched the same movie too many times. And if the reporters are that bored, why would ordinary voters be interested?
I couldn’t help thinking: the reporters who did show up probably felt they had to… the same way White House pool reporters tag along behind the President “just in case something happens.”
Even the campaigns were having a hard time finding “news” in what was going on onstage. During the debate, they were sending reporters emails like “FACT CHECK: The Truth About Bernie Sanders’ Plan to Create Universal Healthcare” and “Unlike Sanders, Clinton Would Not Put Control of Health Care in Hands of GOP Governors.” I suspect their “open rate” on those emails was really low.
Nobody mentioned unions or the Labor Movement. Neither of the moderators – and none of the candidates – said a word about organized labor and our history of building the Middle Class.
Which, in context, is absolutely bizarre. Just eight days before, organizers had removed one of the debate sponsors because of a labor dispute. The timing was so close that debate organizers didn’t manage to get the WMUR branding off of everything in the Media Room.
And that should have been a huge part of the debate story – a “David and Goliath” moment – the Democratic Party chooses to side with 20 union members versus a $160 million television station.
All three candidates had already weighed in:
- “I am a strong supporter of the collective bargaining process,” Secretary Hillary Clinton said in a letter to WMUR General Manager Jeff Bartlett.
- “The right to form a union is an important part of this country’s democratic process and something I strongly support,” Senator Bernie Sanders said in his letter to Bartlett.
- Martin O’Malley’s campaign released a statement that “Throughout his career, Governor O’Malley has been a strong champion of organized labor and he stands in solidarity with the workers of Local 1228.”
But what should have become a news story… wasn’t discussed at all. Not by anyone. It wasn’t mentioned by ABC’s moderators (can’t help wondering whether that was because WMUR’s owner, Hearst Television, is “the largest ABC affiliate group”). And it wasn’t mentioned by any of the candidates, either.
A demographic fact-check: union membership is rising in New Hampshire. Last year, 9.9% of Granite State employees belonged to a labor union (a 3% increase in membership rate since 2013).
Nationwide, public approval of labor unions is also on the rise. According to Gallup, nearly six in 10 Americans now “approve of unions” and 37% want unions to have more power. Given how politically divided our country has become… that level of agreement is nothing to sneeze at.
And particularly here in New Hampshire, union membership crosses party lines (yes, there’s a reason why Donald Trump was so eager to get a union endorsement a couple of weeks ago).
But what could have been a story… what should have been a story… wasn’t mentioned by anyone. The only time anyone used the word “union” was when Martin O’Malley was talking about Africa.
Almost all of the press was siloed. The Media Room was on top of the hockey rink – separated from the debate audience and from the campaign volunteers who lined the roadways around St. Anselm. There was a “free speech area” for issue activists located on the other side of the campus – but I didn’t see anything about it in the materials I received from the debate organizers. (Which might explain why that protest was only covered by the NH Labor News.)
So reporters were limited to just covering the debate itself, and what the “spin” people from the campaigns had to say about it afterwards. There was no easy way to get reaction from actual voters, or from the ordinary people who care enough to get involved in the political process. Instead, reporters’ access was limited; it was just a bunch of talking heads – very sanitized – and, frankly, not very interesting.
Which might explain why so many reporters didn’t show. Why sit around in a hockey rink watching the debate, when you could watch it from the comfort of your own home or office (or wherever) and get the same information to write your story with?
And the siloing reinforced the lack-of-newsworthiness. The moderators didn’t ask any questions that hadn’t already been answered – the candidates themselves didn’t provide anything “new” or spontaneous – and the reporters didn’t have access to actual voters, who might have said something newsworthy.
Which left the media reporting about things like Secretary Clinton’s delayed return after a commercial break. Rather than the number of New Hampshire activists who want to #GetMoneyOut of politics. Or are concerned about climate change. Or want a more equal economy. Or are worried about US military policies. Or want to know what the candidates will do about a range of family issues, such as the heroin epidemic. (Read about the issues rally that happened before the debate here.)
They had handwarmers for swag. And ballpoint pens, and decorated plastic boxes of small pills that I assume were breath mints (although probably aspirin would have been more useful).
And they had a handout package about St. Anselm College.
But they didn’t have anything to help an out-of-town reporter make the story more interesting. No history of New Hampshire’s First in the Nation primary (100 years old!). No listing of city and town party committee chairs, who could be called for debate response and color quotes. Not even any handouts from the campaigns themselves, talking about “what to look for” in the debate. (Which might have been a useful exercise… Who knows? One of the campaigns might have thought to mention those 20 members of IBEW Local 1228.)
Bottom line? I have two:
- Primary campaigns help educate and energize voters. If the Democratic primary campaign continues on this “no news” – “stay the course” path, it may be really hard to get voters interested on Election Day.
- IBEW Local 1228 scored a huge win by getting WMUR removed as a debate sponsor. But that isn’t going to get those 20 workers a contract. Please take the time to “sign” the NH Labor News petition calling on management to negotiate fairly with the workers, and then share it with all your friends on Facebook. You can read more about it here.