Five takeaways from Iowa caucus media coverage

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio addresses supporters at a caucus night party in Iowa at the Marriott hotel.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio addresses supporters at a caucus night party in Iowa at the Marriott hotel. (Pete Marovich /Getty Images)

Here are five takeaways from Iowa caucus-night media coverage:

1. Is there anything more obnoxious than a TV correspondent and camera crew making themselves part of the story rather than trying to cover it as unobtrusively as possible?


MSNBC's Jacob Soboroff had me screaming at the TV when he and his crew, while reporting on a caucus site at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, pulled one of the groups out of its assigned place on the gymnasium floor and had the caucusgoers walk over to them. The reason for moving the group: The cable on Soboroff's crew's camera appeared to keep them from reaching the group.

The caucusgoers had been divided into four groups: Those who preferred Bernie Sanders, those who preferred Hillary Clinton, undecideds, and those who preferred Martin O'Malley. O'Malley's group was the smallest. (The former Maryland governor would suspend his campaign before the night was over).

MSNBC had an overhead shot of the gym floor showing the groups, but it did not include O'Malley's group. After co-host Rachel Maddow said she could not see O'Malley's group in the overhead, Soboroff and his hand-held camera operator approached the group before the length of the chord stopped them.

At which point, he called the group to him.

"Come over here, guys," he said.

"I'm actually moving the Martin O'Malley preferred group live on television," he told viewers as the group came his way. As if that was something to be proud of.

God bless C-SPAN with its fly-on-the-wall style of coverage, which shows that TV can cover such events and cover them well with respect for the democratic process.

It is moments like this that remind me how much I love C-SPAN.

(See the MSNBC video here.)

2. If I heard one more host or cable correspondent say, "This is what democracy looks like," or, "What you are seeing is democracy," I swear, my head would have exploded.

"This is democracy in action," Maddow said as the overhead shot showed Soboroff and his crew strutting around the floor.

No, this is hot dog television, and neither the producers nor the host and correspondent seemed to understand that the story is about the Iowans standing on the floor — not them.

3. Brian Williams was co-anchoring on MSNBC with Maddow. To his credit, during that sequence, he cut into the conversation between Soboroff and Maddow to say, "And, Jacob, we should probably point out how unrepresentative this is of the state. Remind folks of where you are, what type of gathering this skews toward."

Good call by Williams in nudging the reporter to do what the reporter should have already done in explaining that a university field house filled with student caucusgoers is not representative of the state. Viewers needed to know the huge advantage for Sanders shown in the bird's-eye shot was probably not the story everywhere.


As for Williams' performance, overall, he seemed tentative and brittle to me. At one point in the early going, I wrote, "the ghost of Brian Williams," in my notes. But his instincts and deft handling of the Soboroff-Maddow excess were commendable. And I was happy to see someone on MSNBC who understood what it meant to present information in a proportional way.

4. This year, it seems like all political stories are ultimately about media.

You knew Donald Trump's decision to ditch the GOP debate on Fox News last week was going to be revisited in explaining his second-place finish to Ted Cruz in the caucuses, and Fox analyst Charles Krauthammer did just that in a segment with Megyn Kelly, a favorite Trump Twitter target.

I thought Krauthammer was on the money in saying that there were two ways Trump's decision not to debate might have hurt him: It gave Marco Rubio, who finished a close third to Trump, a chance to shine in the debate, and some Iowa voters who are proud of the caucuses might have seen Trump's decision not to participate as a slap in the face.

I predicted that kind of possible reaction by voters in a piece last week saying there were no winners in Trump's decision, so maybe that's why I thought Krauthammer was so on the money.

But I thought Krauthammer and Kelly handled the exchange and analysis professionally and intelligently given all the holy hell Trump has tried to cause Fox since the first debate the network hosted in August.

Krauthammer also explained that the Cruz's win might have been the result of a much better ground game in Iowa.

If that's true, there might be a big counter-media message here for Trump and other candidates who would follow his lead in future races: Riding Twitter all night and calling into every show on cable all day might not be enough. Maybe you still have to get some mud on your shoes, too.

5. I am one of the folks who believe this is going to be a landmark election for this country. In keeping with that, I hope the people who design and run the coverage at the cable channels and networks will rethink it.

Everything in journalism is in flux: business models, methods of delivery, lifestyles and habits of consumption. Technology has changed almost everything. We all know that, so why are we still doing election coverage as we did 10, 20, 30 years ago?

The red, white and blue gimmicky and row upon rows of pundits felt tired as heck to me Monday night. I especially hate the use of operatives who are still on candidates' payrolls or raising money for them as talking heads. I'm sick of hearing them spin shamelessly.

All the cable channels do it. But having two lying liars lying back and forth at each other does not add to our clarity as voters one bit. Instead it compounds the confusion when you showcase some of the best liars money can buy doing what they used to do at White House press briefings or in spin rooms.