How We Know What We Know
I learned a lot about a lot of things when I was running for President. One of them was that media narratives had a way of getting formed ahead of time. Before running, I had a relatively naïve point of view where I thought journalists would simply report on what they saw.
My first big indication that this wasn’t the way it worked was in Iowa. I was invited to speak at a major Democratic grassroots fundraising event – the Wing Ding - in Clear Lake, Iowa in August 2018. It was a huge coup for my fledgling campaign at that point. I later found out that the reason I was invited was that one of the organizers had heard my talk on the Sam Harris podcast and decided that I was worth hearing from.
For me, this was the first time I was getting the chance to address such a large group of people – 1,000 - in Iowa in front of dozens of reporters. I had spoken in any number of contexts but it was my first major political speech and it’s not my custom to make emotional appeals. I approached it as a huge opportunity and potentially make or break for the campaign – the speech of my life up to that point. My team approached it the same way; they had me practice with them several times so that I could speak without notes, hit my major points and not go beyond my allocated time.
The four major speakers were me, Tim Ryan, John Delaney and the headliner – Michael Avenatti. John and I were the only declared candidates for President as of summer 2018. Tim was openly signaling that he would run. But at the time Michael Avenatti was the headliner and the draw. The press was salivating over the pugnacious lawyer as a possible opponent for Trump. John on the other hand had already spent $4 million, including on Super Bowl ads in Iowa, and had opened 10 offices in the state. I, of course, had zero staff and offices in Iowa at the time.
Approaching the Surf Ballroom I saw it was surrounded by “John Delaney for President” signs that had been planted earlier that day. John’s giant blue tour bus and sign spinners – two guys who were very talented at spinning giant ‘John Delaney’ cardboard signs - were very conspicuous in the parking lot. It was my first brush with presidential campaign pageantry as a candidate. It immediately made me feel small and self-conscious showing up with my three young staffers and a meager table with our one brochure in the face of John’s operation.
The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa is most famous as the place where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and JP Richardson played right before their plane crashed 6 miles away in 1959, which was later christened ‘the day the music died’ by Don McLean in ‘American Pie.’
I went into the darkened ballroom and began shaking hands with whomever was nearby. Most people didn’t really know who I was so it was a struggle to seem busy and not look awkward. One of my staffers started to bring people over to meet me including local officials.
The program was at least 2 hours long, as there was a long procession of local candidates and luminaries who were there to generate support for their races. I met local candidates like JD Scholten. Eventually it got to Tim, John, me and Michael Avenatti. Tim gave a rousing, fiery speech about America never being knocked down. John spoke earnestly about consensus and bipartisanship.
It was my first time seeing their speeches, but not the last. Eventually if you’re a candidate you see each other’s stump speeches over and over again. Late in the cycle, Democratic fundraisers should have us draw names from a hat and deliver another candidate’s speech. Donors would pay big money to see it. By the end, I thought I could do a decent rendition of Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders giving their go-to stumps. I can imagine someone parodying my stump: “The robots are coming, we’re doomed, give everyone money right now.”
I heard my name called, jogged up to the stage and delivered my first big political speech. I talked about how our economy was transforming before our eyes, and Iowans have to lead the country in a new and better direction. It felt great. I got a standing ovation from much of the crowd, though that was likely inflated by Iowa courtesy. If you want to see the speech you can judge for yourself by googling ‘Andrew Yang Wing Ding 2018.’
As I stepped off the stage, there was a small line of people who wanted to shake my hand and commend me. I wound up in conversation with John Delaney and his wife April, who came over to compare notes. While we spoke, Michael Avenatti came up to deliver the last speech of the night. I was curious about how it would go, so I turned to pay attention.
Objectively, I thought Michael’s speech was awful. He read from notes the whole time – word for word. He went way too long at the end of a two-hour program – a full five minutes over the allotted time. Reading. His speech was filled with cliché-ridden talking points, and the Iowans in attendance politely applauded on cue.
I thought, “Okay, anyone watching this will take from it that Michael Avenatti is not serious.”
I could not have been more wrong.
As soon as Michael finished speaking he was immediately encircled by a half-dozen television cameras and a dozen journalists peppering him with questions about his presidential run. I didn’t even know half of these journalists were in the room until they swarmed Michael. They followed him in a scrum as he slowly gravitated toward an exit.
The next day the headlines ran “Avenatti’s ‘swagger’ stirs Iowa Democrats” and “Avenatti: Democrats need to ‘fight fire with fire’” with glowing quotes from Iowans in attendance about how Avenatti had fired up the crowd and was an appealing counterpoint to Trump.
These stories barely mentioned me or Tim or John. To the national press it had solely been the Michael Avenatti show.
I realized then that they had come to Clear Lake, Iowa for a story that had already been written in their minds. Michael Avenatti, the media darling, was exciting voters. Michael’s actual performance was incidental, and the speeches of any other candidates who happened to be there – including my big debut - may as well not have happened.
There’s a conception that people run for President because they have big egos and it serves their sense of self. Everyone has to listen to everything they say. They are rewarded with lucrative TV contracts, speaking gigs and a larger following.
This is seriously off-base. Generally the opposite is true – running for President is for the most part an ego-destroying, humbling process. And the media is a very big part of that.
Imagine yourself as the author of 13 books, including four New York Times number one bestsellers, and a spiritual leader with a following of millions. You count some of the most famous people in the world as your friends and confidantes. You have founded a non-profit that delivers food to people struggling with AIDS and co-founded a non-profit for world peace. You have improved the well-being and spiritual life of droves of people and are adored and respected by them. You are wealthy, serious and philosophical.
Then you decide to run for President.
Reporters respond with ridicule, scorn and eye-rolling. Journalists interview you with a patronizing air of skepticism when they decide to interact with you at all. Individual quotes are taken out of context and used to ascribe to you beliefs that you do not hold. Eventually, you are denigrated as a wacko and a crystal lady. Everyday Americans contribute millions to your campaign, but that doesn’t seem to matter. You move to Iowa in order to connect with people and campaign your heart out for months on end, and it’s essentially ignored.
That’s Marianne Williamson, whom I found to be warm, generous, thoughtful and driven by a genuine desire to improve the world.
Or imagine yourself as a former three-star admiral in the U.S. Navy who served for over three decades and commanded the USS George Washington aircraft carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf in 2002. You have led thousands of sailors who put their trust in you for their very lives. You have a PhD from Harvard and were 2nd in your class at the United States Naval Academy. You were a two-term Congressman from a swing state and led a non-profit that promoted STEM education around the world. You see the direction that the country is going and its increased polarization, and you feel that a different type of leadership is needed.
So you decide to run for President.
You are ignored by most of the press. When they do talk to you journalists regularly ask you “Why are you running for President?” even though you spent decades in service and the answer ought to be pretty obvious. To the media, you are nearly a nonentity – major networks tell you they will not have you on-air even to talk about foreign policy, which you are clearly better qualified to discuss than just about anyone, because they don’t consider you a legitimate candidate. You walk across the state of New Hampshire as a way to generate attention and meet with people, and that is generally ignored too.
That’s Joe Sestak, who struck me as a patriot and great man when I saw him and spent time with him on the trail. His daughter Alex suffered from cancer, which is one reason he got in late. She passed away in 2020.
I could go on and do the same exercise with perhaps a dozen other candidates. Running for President doesn’t serve your ego generally – quite the opposite. It is already difficult showing up to events that are poorly attended and stumping to disinterested audiences. I remember driving all day to New Hampshire to meet with a ‘crowd’ of one person in a coffee shop, or spending Labor Day in Iowa to address a tiny rally. You have to believe in what you’re doing. The day-to-day positive reinforcement is spotty to say the least.
You hope that your message will catch hold, and that reporters will share your ideas with others who will then take an interest in you. And if you do start to grow you hope that journalists will cover your growth.
Instead, many members of the national media feel they have a responsibility to reinforce particular candidates and narratives and dismiss others. They don’t just report on the news – they form it.