Nets Filibuster for Wendy Davis

Forty-six stories with just two minor criticisms? It’s not the media’s fault she’s losing.

  • Few Critics: Ninety five percent of (44 stories out of 46) broadcast network stories ignored critics of Wendy Davis.
  • Hide How Bad She’s Losing: Although Davis has trailed Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott throughout the race, the networks have mentioned polls just twice.
  • What Color Were Those Shoes?: The networks have made Davis famous via her pink tennis shoes and mentioned those same shoes 23 times.
  • Journalists Love Her And Don’t Hide It: Network reporters and anchors heaped positive adjectives on Davis – “passionate,” “motivated” and “rising political star” to name a few.
  • Biographical Baloney: Even when The Dallas Morning News pointed out flaws in Davis’ story, all three networks refused to correct the record. Only CBS admitted there was even a controversy.
  • Abortion No Longer An Issue: The nets ignored the fact that Davis has run away from abortion, the issue that brought her to national prominence, not even mentioning the word on the Issues page of her website.

For Wendy Davis, the hits just keep on coming. On Oct. 21, the Texas Democrat gubernatorial candidate (or her campaign) tweeted a picture of some young people with the accompanying text: “Go #GenWendy! MT @Lisa_in_Austin My friends and I just voted for a candidate who stands for ALL Texans! #MyTexasVotes

Except they weren’t Davis voters. They weren’t even Texans. They were Virginia College Republicans, and one of them had posted the picture Oct. 20, after “door knocking for @ScottRigell and @EdWGillespie,” GOP candidates in Virginia.

The errant tweet is just another misstep in a campaign marked by incompetence, nastiness and a singularly unimpressive candidate.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In June 2013, when then Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis staged an 11-hour filibuster against a bill restricting late-term abortions, the national media claimed they’d found a rising liberal superstar, and they’ve been campaigning for her ever since. Davis has few more enthusiastic backers than ABC, CBS and NBC.

From the beginning, Davis’ network fans were enchanted. Here was an attractive blond woman in pink tennis shoes (as the networks reminded viewers 23 times) who “took a stand” over a cherished liberal issue amidst the circus-like atmosphere of a Texas State House overrun with vocal abortion supporters. It was great TV, and the networks made the most of it, giving Davis three times more coverage in 19 days than they did the entire 58-day murder trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell.

Since then, despite a terrible debate performance and disastrously backfiring attack ads and a procession of amateurish campaign miscues, the networks have kept up their unrelentingly positive coverage of Davis. They’ve praised her as a “firebrand,” “passionate” and “motivated” “folk hero” and “national political star.” Network anchors and reporters enthused over her “compelling biography,” as a “single mom turned Harvard grad,” never returning to correct the record when parts of that biography proved too good to be true. Criticism of Davis appeared in just two of the dozens of stories on her, while they mostly ignored polling that showed her trailing.

If, as appears likely, Abbott defeats Davis in November, it will be no fault of ABC, CBS or NBC. They’ve worked hard for their candidate. 

The Networks Choose a Nominee

Davis’ lackluster (to put it mildly) campaign must be a shock to her early backers at the broadcast networks. Immediately after her filibuster, they pushed Davis into the 2014 Texas gubernatorial spotlight. It took Davis 14 weeks and two days more to admit she agreed.

On June 27, 2013, after peppering Davis with tough filibuster questions like “How did you do it physically? How tough was it?” and “But did you think you could stop it by this filibuster or you just simply want to make a very powerful statement?” CBS “This Morning” hosts Norah O’Donnell and Charlie Rose got to the point.

Now that the filibuster had “catapulted [Davis] in the political limelight,” Rose asked her, “Will you run for governor or for state – national office now?”

When she demurred, O’Donnell pushed, “But I did hear you say you’d be lying to say that it – that it has crossed your mind about running for higher office, right?”

“This Morning” also featured an appearance by Brian Sweany of the liberal Texas Monthly, who gushed over Davis and her filibuster – or “galvanizing moment.” “We saw the national media chime in. We saw social media jump in. The Obamas were tweeting about it. Hollywood movie stars were tweeting about it,” he said.

Those were heady days for liberals dreaming of turning red Texas blue. During the July 1, 2013, “Today” on NBC, National Journal Hotline’s Reid Wilson said, “You’re already seeing Wendy Davis’ filibuster as a rallying cry for Democrats not only in Texas but also around the country.”

When Davis did announce her candidacy in October 2013, the networks were still enthusiastic. CBS correspondent Manuel Bojorquez admitted that, with less money than Abbott, “the early odds are against Wendy Davis,” but added hopefully, “Democrat gains here [in Texas] could influence American politics.” Over at ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer,” correspondent David Muir lionized Davis as the “single mom who took a stand.”

On Dec. 30, 2013, NBC’s Matt Lauer and Founder Jordan Roth highlighted the “top-10” “events that shaped the world in 2013” on “Today.” “At number 10,” Lauer began, “the event that everybody said should make the list was Wendy Davis defending abortion rights.”

According to Roth, “People really felt like if we had more leaders like Wendy Davis willing to stand for what’s right, might just get somewhere.”

On March 4, NBC’s Chuck Todd was keeping hope alive. “Democrats,” Todd said, “hope Wendy Davis’ meteoric rise to national prominence translates into an upset over Republican Greg Abbott in the governor’s race.”

Bio Baloney

A big part of Davis’ appeal to her media admirers was her “compelling biography,” as ABC’s Dan Harris put it on June 26, 2013. “Davis became a single mom at age 19 and then put herself through Harvard law school,” Harris explained. Along the way she lived in a trailer park and worked two jobs while taking community college courses.

That was the refrain the networks sang again and again as they touted what NBC’s Maria Shriver called Davis’ “long, hard road.” Unfortunately, some elements of the Davis story weren’t quite accurate, according to a Jan. 18 report from The Dallas Morning News. “Davis was 21, not 19, when she was divorced,” the paper explained. “She lived only a few months in the family mobile home while separated from her husband before moving into an apartment with her daughter.”

Then there was this:

“A single mother working two jobs, she met Jeff Davis, a lawyer 13 years older than her, married him and had a second daughter. He paid for her last two years at Texas Christian University and her time at Harvard Law School, and kept their two daughters while she was in Boston. When they divorced in 2005, he was granted parental custody, and the girls stayed with him. Wendy Davis was directed to pay child support.”

That sort of takes the sheen off the bootstrap story the media were relishing. (It turns out that Wendy left Jeff Davis just as he made the last payment on her Harvard student loan – an inconvenient fact for a feminist icon.) When a politician and her supporters make her bio a central feature of her campaign, that bio had better be exact.

But Davis is a liberal Democrat, which means she got a pass. After The Dallas Morning News article came out, none of the networks corrected what they’d reported of her bio. Only CBS ever acknowledged the issue, in a segment that counts as one of just two criticisms of Davis since the June 2013 filibuster. “This Morning” co-anchor Gayle King said on Jan. 29, “Parts of her life started coming into question,” before playing a clip of Davis defending herself. Correspondent Anna Werner recognized The Dallas Morning News article that “called into question [Davis’] background as a single mother.” But Werner also provided Davis’ defense.

She continued to note a letter from Davis’ daughters defending against accusations of “over how old Davis was when she became a divorced single mother and how much time she spent living in a mobile home.” Although “Davis has admitted that some of the details may have been wrong,” Werner said, Davis still “insisted that she did struggle.”

Werner interviewed Jay Root, a political reporter for the Texas Tribune. “If her narrative falls apart, then her message – part of her message falls apart.” But that message, the details of “the trailer, who paid for what in college, I don’t think that’s going to be the A-1 story throughout this entire campaign,” he concluded. Werner translated: Root “is not convinced [Davis’] message is tarnished.”

NBC and ABC never acknowledged the bio controversy. In fact, even on Sept. 8, when Davis appeared on “Good Morning America” to flog her new memoir, anchor Robin Roberts ignored the issue. The book, Roberts said, featured “very painful details about her personal life” including the “decision to terminate two pregnancies.” She even enthused about how comprehensive the book was, saying without a trace of irony, that “there is nothing left aside in ‘Forgetting to be Afraid.’”

Bad News Is No News

With the media behind her, it’s a wonder that Davis needed to purchase any extra campaign ads. But purchase them she did, much to her campaign’s detriment.

One was an attack ad against the paralyzed Abbott that featured a wheelchair image and said Abbott didn’t want others to be compensated the way he was when a tree fell on him. This drew one of the only two instances of criticism of Davis by the networks.

During “Today” on Oct. 14, NBC correspondent Peter Alexander said the ad caused a “storm of controversy.” Davis was under fire, he said, “for making her challenger’s physical disability an issue.” While Alexander was “Still unclear whether it will help or hurt her campaign,” he took a step no other network journalist has yet accomplished: acknowledging Abbott’s “comfortable lead” in the polls. “Political analysts agree,” he detailed, “that these are the types of ads that typically come from a campaign that is behind, not one that`s in the lead.”

Fast forward to Oct. 20, when Davis’ official Twitter account tweeted:

“Greg Abbott won’t say whether he’d defend an interracial marriage ban—troubling but not surprising from someone who defends a ‘poll tax.’”

Besides the nasty, desperate race-baiting, there’s one really big problem with this tweet: Greg Abbott is in an interracial marriage. His wife is a Latina, and will be the first Latina first lady of Texas should he win the race.

For this misstep, the networks reverted to form and ignored the flap. They also ignored the fact that Davis has largely retreated from the issue that made her a star.

Back on Oct. 29, 2013, NBC’s Natalie Morales explained on “Today” that Davis “gained national attention in June” with her filibuster over the state’s new abortion law. “It is likely to be a major issue as Davis seeks the 2014 Democratic nomination for Texas governor.”

Except that it isn’t. The word abortion appears nowhere on Davis’ website. Her page contains some vague language about “Fighting Against Closure of Women’s Health Centers” – not exactly the bracing speech that would have her sisters manning the barricades.

Worse, from the abortion absolutist perspective, was her February flip-flop on the late-term abortion ban she found so abhorrent just seven months before. She told The Dallas Morning News that:  

“I would have and could have voted to allow that to go through, if I felt like we had tightly defined the ability for a woman and a doctor to be making this decision together and not have the Legislature get too deep in the weeds of how we would describe when that was appropriate.”

Writing in The Washington Post, Nia-Malika Henderson did her best to translate. “Davis’s position seems to be that she supports a 20-week ban, except when doctors and women don’t want it be a ban — which is no ban at all.”

Shrinking from abortion has drawn some criticism from the left, but the networks aren’t about to hurt their girls chances by pointing out a weakness.

And that’s how they’ve handled the relentlessly negative poll results confronting Davis. 

The Real Clear Politics average of polls for the race shows Abbott leading 50.3 to 38.0 percent. Huffington Post puts the odds of an Abbott victory at 95 percent. Davis has never led in the race.

These facts underscore the networks’ ridiculous Davis hype – how many other long-shot gubernatorial candidates have gotten so much national air time? They also make any mention of the actual state of the race something of an event.

The networks have talked about the polls just twice – odd for organizations that place so much store by polling. The first mention came from ABC’s Robin Roberts. During “Good Morning America” on Sept, 8, Roberts hyped Davis’ new book, and offered as an aside, “She’s trailing Greg Abbott in the polls.”

The more surprising mention came from NBC’s Peter Alexander on Oct. 14 during “Today.” “Recent polls have consistently shown that Greg Abbott has a comfortable lead over Wendy Davis.”

Try and Try Again

In those first exciting days after her filibuster, when the networks were making Wendy Davis a star, they couldn’t have known the campaign they dreamed of would be limping toward November trailing by double digits.

They did their part, gushing over her bio, her courage, her cute pink tennies, offering her scads of free air time and mostly ignoring the existence of a GOP challenger. They didn’t plan on a campaign that wounds itself almost weekly, that dropped the “A-word” almost completely. They might have guessed that Davis herself wasn’t much of a candidate, but that would have meant easing off on the hero-worship a little – a tall order for a group only now figuring out that President Obama didn’t actually stop the oceans from rising or make America popular in the Middle East.

But the networks should take heart. Another progressive superstar will inevitably arise, championing his or her own liberal issue, and they’ll fall in love all over again. Hope springs eternal.


MRC Culture analyzed network morning and evening news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC. The stories ranged from Davis’ filibuster in June 2013, to Oct. 20, 2014, just two weeks before the election.

— Katie Yoder is Staff Writer, Joe and Betty Anderlik Fellow in Culture and Media at the Media Research Center. Follow Katie Yoder on Twitter.