In May 2019, Time magazine put Elizabeth Warren on its cover. In describing the Massachusetts senator’s stumping on the campaign trail, reporter Haley Edwards gushed, “Just as her diagnosis of the problem reaches a crescendo, she takes a step back and performs a rhetorical swan dive into crystalline pools of policy: and here, she says, is how we fix it.” She said Warren was leading a “populist political revolution”—albeit a revolution that was, at the time, polling at just 8 percent. Projecting an image of her own behavior around the candidate, Edwards even described Warren’s dog as “panting amiably.”
Time wasn’t the only outlet to garland Warren in this way. The Guardian declared her “the intellectual powerhouse of the Democratic party” in April 2019; GQ announced, “Elizabeth Warren Deserves Your Undivided Attention,” in May; and the HuffPo went so far as to defend Warren’s skin-care routine as recently as January.
So favorable was the coverage of Warren in the early months of her campaign that supporters of Bernie Sanders felt shortchanged. The progressive magazine In These Times was so annoyed by the liberal media’s more favorable approach to Warren that they studied MSNBC’s coverage and found that “Warren had the lowest proportion of negative coverage of all three candidates (just 7.9 percent of all her mentions) and the highest proportion of positive mentions (30.6 percent).”
The uncritical coverage continued after a CNN-sponsored town-hall meeting on LGBTQ issues. After Warren was asked a planted question about opposition to gay marriage, she delivered a clearly rehearsed response: “I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that,” she said, adding, “Then just marry one woman—I’m cool with that. Assuming you can find one.” The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey devoted a story to Warren’s manufactured zinger, noting the millions of positive responses it received on Twitter and arguing, “She is quick-witted and sharp-tongued in a way that has played well in the Democratic primary and could prove effective against President Trump.”
Warren’s fabulations about her Native American heritage and her claim that she was fired from a teaching job because she had been pregnant at the time would have derailed almost any other candidate, but in Warren’s case neither gained traction because mainstream media outlets didn’t ask too many questions.
In fact, the pregnancy story likely wouldn’t have appeared in mainstream media outlets at all if it hadn’t first been broken by Collin Anderson at a conservative outlet, the Washington Free Beacon. Publications such as the New York Times covered it only after Warren was forced to respond. And the Times downplayed the fact that Warren had lied by spending most of the story discussing the legal history of pregnancy discrimination, which Warren had not, herself, suffered.
Even as her campaign began to founder in the polls, positive coverage continued. As Jack Shafer (one of the few non-sycophantic media observers of Warren) noted in Politico, “Warren got twice as many mentions on cable news as Buttigieg over the last three months of 2019, when she experienced the steepest decline in her Real Clear Politics poll. But she still took second place in mentions behind only Biden.”
Then she tanked in the first four states that actually voted. On Super Tuesday, she came in third in her home state. Despite the efforts of her superfans in the media to sell Democratic-primary voters on the virtues of Elizabeth Warren, they were not buying. She withdrew from the race.
Warren’s journey to oblivion pained reporters. As Annie Linsky and Amy Wang of the Washington Post wrote in the immediate aftermath, “Elizabeth Warren attracted big crowds. She won rave reviews in nearly every debate. Her organization was second to none. She developed plans, a strategy and a message. Yet when voting started, she not only lost, she lost by a lot.”
The media class that had spent a year celebrating Warren almost perfectly reflected the average Warren supporter. FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone noted matter-of-factly that “the media and its dominant demographic group (college-educated white people) are Warren’s base.” To a media establishment still nursing its wounds over Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016, she seemed like a political Athena, sprung fully formed from the Senate and armed to wage a kinder, gentler form of class warfare than Bernie Sanders while simultaneously breaking the presidential glass ceiling.
The tenor of the response among Warren-supportive media outlets demonstrates the extent of their misguided overinvestment in her—an investment that didn’t extend to other female candidates such as Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar. The New York Times claimed, “Ms. Warren’s impact on the race was far greater than just the outcome for her own candidacy.” Writing in Salon, Amanda Marcotte raged, “Americans apparently couldn’t see that she is a once-in-a-generation talent and reward her for it with the presidency. That is a shameful blight on us.” The headline for a story in Politico simply read: “‘White men get to be the default:’ Women lament Warren’s demise.”
The public mourning continued on television. Trying to make sense of it all with Representative Abigail Spanberger, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell confessed, “Well, Congresswoman, you brought up exactly a moment that was so emotional for me frankly and for a lot of others watching,” then played a clip of Warren saying, “One of the hardest parts of this is all those pinky promises and all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years. That’s going to be hard.”
Self-described “feminist journalist” Lauren Duca was more blunt. In a Substack post that she wrote “while sobbing into my partner’s chest,” she described a “pain not unlike the one that followed Donald Trump’s election and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. The agony of watching Elizabeth Warren be diminished by the mainstream media has been infuriating. To watch that dismissal be reflected at the polls is almost unbearable.” She lamented that Warren, whom she called “a geyser of brilliance and enthusiasm powered by pure love of democracy” was what everyone should have wanted and claimed, “We should all be so furious that we’ve been bullied into not only accepting less, but collectively fretting that, for a woman, the best of the best is still not good enough.”
Many other journalists also sought to pin the blame for Warren’s decline on sexism. CBS News political reporter Caitlyn Huey-Burns tweeted, “We cannot talk about Warren’s fail without talking about the sexism so prevalent in American politics.” Writing in the New York Times, Lisa Lerer asked plaintively, “Was it always going to be the last men standing?” Megan Garber of The Atlantic identified the culprit as “internalized misogyny,” suggesting that it was not Warren’s weaknesses as a politician, but the sexist false consciousness of nonwhite, non-college-educated Democratic voters, that led them to reject Warren.
But this gynocentric wishful thinking on the part of female reporters was belied by all the evidence of voters’ intentions. When reporters bothered to talk to actual voters, many of those voters were clear that they were going to cast their ballots based on who they thought could win against Trump, not on gender. “I’m not going to vote for someone simply because we share identity,” one young woman told the Times, by way of explanation for her vote for Biden over Warren.
Just before Super Tuesday, Duca tweeted, “Elizabeth Warren is the president we deserve.” Given the willful disregard of the weaknesses of her candidacy on the part of the journalists covering her, and their failure to acknowledge their own biases, Warren’s failure was the punishment her panting media followers deserved.