COUNTER-PROGRAMMING

Dems Give Up on Trying to Get Cable News to Care About Anything but Russia

The party wants to talk health care. They really do. But they can’t get cable bookers or programmers to care.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Throughout the spring and early summer of 2017, congressional Democrats put together a comprehensive legislative and messaging plan to serve as the party’s foundation for the 2018 midterm elections.

It centered around running against the concentration of economic power—chiefly within the pharmaceutical industry—and an ambitious, multi-faceted approach to enhancing conditions for workers both within and outside the workplace.

The title was a bit cookie-cutter—”A Better Deal”—but the document was the result of numerous stakeholder meetings, strategy sessions, and late-night conferring.

Naturally, the party wanted to have a flashy debut. So lawmakers went to Berryville, Virginia—a town in a district that Democrats had lost in the 2016 elections but were poised to flip in the upcoming cycle—to formally announce the plan. When they came back to D.C, they conducted additional press briefings in hopes of flooding the news cycle.

And then Jared Kushner stepped out of the West Wing to a horde of cameras, to proclaim his innocence in the still nascent probe into Russian election meddling. “Let me be very clear,” Kushner said. “I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else on the campaign who did so.”

In an instant, the public relations push was upended. Much of the media still covered “A Better Deal.” But cable news largely ignored it, choosing instead to chase the shiny new object presented before them by the president’s son-in-law.

“In print and other places [coverage] was great. It was online. The Times did two big stories on it. The Post had a huge picture and story. And it was everywhere else online,” said one senior Democratic Senate aide involved in the PR push. “But cable news focused on Kushner.”

For the past year, this has been the media landscape confronting Democrats. Eager to move a message that focuses on things like minimum wage hikes and health care premiums, they have been overtaken by a steady stream of stories of Russian meddling, porn star payoffs, and shady Trump-world figures. Ultimately, many offices and aides have come to the conclusion that they should simply give up on trying to break through on cable news at all.

“It’s impossible,” said one Senate aide, “unless you want to talk about Russia.”

In conversations with The Daily Beast, numerous other aides echoed this point, sharing stories of fruitless calls and emails to bookers and abrupt cancellations on pre-existing bookings. Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said she was bumped three times from a prime-time MSNBC show due to Trump scandals.

“It’s difficult to break through with stories about teachers’ strikes or assaults on voting rights because there’s a new bad thing that Trump has done or Scott Pruitt has done in every news cycle,” Post, whose group has helped flip 40 state legislative seats since Trump’s inauguration, told The Daily Beast.

The phenomenon has had ripple effects throughout both politics and media. Michael Avenatti, a previously little-known lawyer based in Los Angeles, is now a household name for political junkies. On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, a number of mid-level members have become veritable cable stars, owing to their posts on intelligence and oversight committees, while more senior members in traditionally powerful domestic policy posts remain off air.

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“If you don’t have some sort of nexus to foreign affairs, it is very difficult to get people booked,” said one senior House Democratic aide.

No one in Democratic politics views this as an existential problem, since the universe of cable news watchers is both small and confined largely to those who are already politically attuned. But there is also some fear that a perception is taking hold that the party is obsessively focused on a Russia-collusion message above all else.

Republicans are wrong and know that they’re wrong if they say the Democrats’ message is Stormy Daniels.
Josh Schwerin, communications director for Priorities USA

“Every Democrat in the country could say the same seven-word slogan about jobs and it wouldn’t shift what cable is covering,” Josh Schwerin, communications director for Priorities USA, told The Daily Beast. “Republicans are wrong and know that they’re wrong if they say the Democrats’ message is Stormy Daniels.”

To combat mixed perceptions, leadership has repeatedly encouraged lawmakers to ignore the noise, remain focused on other matters, chief among them wage growth and health care premiums, and push their messaging through alternate methods of communication.

A prime example of this is Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT), who has created a sprawling media empire of his own. Sanders, who still does appear on cable broadcasts, has hosted online town halls on specific issues like Medicare for All and income inequality. The health care town hall, which Sanders said networks were not receptive to, drew in more than a million viewers.

Leadership has encouraged lawmakers to do more local news outreach in addition to making use of live-streaming technologies. A number of Democrats, meanwhile, have taken to outlets geared to younger audiences to talk about major policy issues. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) recently spoke to Bustle about prison reform, while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) told NowThis News why she was co-sponsoring a marijuana-decriminalization bill. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) talked about his own marijuana bill with Vice.

“People are struggling to afford health care, child care, and college. They are working longer hours for lower wages. The American people want to hear how we can make their lives better and improve their standard of living,” Josh Miller-Lewis, spokesperson for Sanders, told The Daily Beast. “Yet for the most part, those issues are not discussed on a daily basis by cable news shows tracking the latest tweet about Russia.”

Although Democrats lament their inability to compel cable news to care about topics other than Russia, they don’t begrudge the programming itself. There is a recognition that the story of potential collusion is unique in its import. The party also isn’t exactly despondent about having the president’s legal troubles—and dalliances with porn stars—be the fixture of most nightly conversations.

And so, as the midterms near, Democrats are increasingly content to let Trump have cable, understanding that his ability to drive the conversation on that particular medium isn’t always an advantage.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that the people watching cable news is a pretty small percentage of voters,” Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, told The Daily Beast. “We’ve created a vicious feedback loop where Trump watches cable news, makes news based off of what he sees on cable news, cable news then responds to it, and it perpetuates the cycle of news begetting news. But that’s not true for most voters.”