12:30pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Reacting to Kamala Harris VP Pick, Networks Play to Type
The frequently made joke in recent election cycles is that the vice presidential sweepstakes closely resemble a reality show, specifically ABC's The Bachelor — and that the next cycle's process would have presidential candidates announce their running mates in some sort of primetime ceremony, with or without roses.
Certainly, Tuesday's revelation of California Senator Kamala Harris as the other half of Joe Biden's Democratic ticket pushed that template one step forward.
The night before, news broke that Biden's pick was "imminent," which then evolved into "locked in" by mid-afternoon on Tuesday, with the tantalizing prospect that we could find out at any moment. At! Any! Moment!
CNN went into breathless coverage mode, reporting that, one after another, the 11 women rumored to be on Biden's shortlist (or maybe "11" was the long list and the short list was closer to 5) had been notified it wouldn't be them.
After nearly an hour of "Gretchen Whitmer ... pack your knives and go" and "Karen Bass, you are no longer in the running toward becoming America's next second executive," voters on Biden's phone list received the text confirming that Senator Harris would become the third female veep contender for a major American party and the first woman of color to take one of the top two places on the ticket.
Harris was probably the least shocking veep selection in several cycles, a frontrunner through much of the process even with clear demerits like her own unexpectedly truncated presidential run and the occasionally bickering between Harris and Biden during that run.
But she was always a top name associated with the campaign; reactions from the major TV entities, in theory, required almost no preparation at all, adhering to a script that was already familiar and instantly became repetitive. Like the company of a long-running play, everybody knew their lines and talking points.
For CNN and MSNBC, that meant emphasizing the historic nature of Harris' nomination, all of the firsts that it represents — as well as the questions of what she does or doesn't bring to the ticket in terms of outreach to battleground states and how Harris, painted by CNN and MSNBC as a pragmatic moderate, would play to the more progressive wing of the party.
Fortunately, Fox New already decided the answer to the latter question. Sean Hannity introduced Harris as "California liberal Senator" and declared "This pick now solidifies what is the most extreme, radical, far-left, out-of-the-mainstream ticket of any major political party in American history." The best part of this statement, unquestionably, was his decision to include "of any major political party," just in case anyone was wondering if there had ever been a radical, far-left Republican ticket. (Though speaking of "out-of-the-mainstream," if Trump's popular vote margin of victory in November is greater than LBJ's margin over Barry Goldwater from 1964, you have my promise that I'll get Trump's face tattooed on my lower back.)
Like Laura Ingraham later in the evening, Hannity went on to straight-up call Harris a Socialist, which will surely reassure all of the Bernie Sanders supporters who are also regular Sean Hannity viewers.
As a preamble to Republican talking points going forward, Fox News offered Jesse Waters opining, "She's kinda a phony who never caught on," though he credited Harris with being "tenacious." For his part, Tucker Carlson offered reasonable critiques about Harris' occasionally fungible political stances, as well as her statement that she believed women accusing Biden of inappropriate touching. He undermined those questions by aggressively mispronouncing Harris' first name at every turn and feigning outrage when a guest tried telling him that her name is and was pronounced "Comma-Luh." "So what?" Carlson responded, before comparing that clarification to the notion that Harris is immune from criticism and then, after the flustered indignity, promptly mispronouncing her name again.
The timing of the Harris reveal was not especially amenable to late night comedy writing schedules, especially in quarantine. On The Daily Show, Trevor Noah was able to squeeze in a couple of flat punchlines at the very top — "Everything she's done in her career appeals to Trump's base," Noah tried, alluding to what has been portrayed as her pro-police political and professional past — before never mentioning it again.
As right-wing news was debating Harris' racial identity in general — her mother is Indian, her father is Jamaican — Stephen Colbert cracked that "Trump's going to have a hard time deciding exactly how to be racist about her." Filling in for Jimmy Kimmel, quarantine comic breakout Sarah Cooper began her monologue by joking that the veepstakes was down to her and Harris, but didn't mention her again. Jimmy Fallon said something about how Harris' background makes her like a Stephen King novel to Trump.
Stay tuned to see what the denizens of late night are able to do with a little more time to contemplate.