Mainstream media outlets largely ignored Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker’s absence from a Sunday evening debate, after many journalists had celebrated an earlier performance by arguing Walker exceeded their low expectations.
The New York Times wrote about the second debate in a short piece as part of a running live blog about the midterms, rather than devoting a unique story to the topic. Politico devoted just a single paragraph to Walker’s absence in their widely read morning edition of Playbook, which also linked to the AP’s reporting for further reading. As of publication, it does not appear that Axios covered the second debate at all. The Washington Post didn’t offer original coverage, instead reprinting The Associated Press’ write-up. Both papers used the same headline, noting that Walker skipped the debate almost as an afterthought.
The Sunday debate was the state’s second between incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock and Walker, following an initial debate the previous Friday. Mainstream coverage of that debate largely praised Walker for clearing the low bar he had set for himself, allowing his campaign to control the narrative and launder an objectively weak performance into a relative victory.
New York Times national political correspondent Trip Gabriel epitomized this impulse in a widely mocked tweet, arguing that in “clearing the low bar he set for himself,” Walker “did what he set out to do.” (Gabriel also has not tweeted about Walker’s absence in the second debate.)
The New York Times’ regular coverage echoed that line. “But overall, Mr. Walker held his own after he and his campaign had assiduously tried to lower expectations ahead of the debate,” the paper reported.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough claimed that in the first debate, Warnock seemed “almost detached, almost robotic.” Scarborough then repeated the Walker campaign line, claiming that “Walker’s handlers were thrilled, saying it was the best debate that Walker could have had.”
Guest and reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Greg Bluestein echoed Scarborough’s analysis. “Even Democrats were saying they were surprised Herschel Walker held his own,” Bluestein said. “He handled himself, he didn't, you know, collapse on the debate stage, in a sense.”
“Herschel Walker had to basically show his campaign wasn't on the verge of collapse, and also give reason for some of these Republicans to back him and his allies, along with Democrats feel like, you know, he did that,” Bluestein continued. (In fairness, Bluestein wrote a comprehensive account of the second debate for the Journal-Constitution.)
Scarborough discussed Walker’s absence from the second debate, but it was largely to criticize Warnock’s initial performance. “He didn't seem to really find his footing until Walker wasn't there last night,” Scarborough said.
Other coverage of the first debate was less egregiously soft on Walker, but often still reverted to manufacturing false equivalencies between the two candidates or otherwise giving Walker a pass. The Washington Post headline read that the two “clash[ed]” over “abortion, trustworthiness.” In the article’s copy, the Post reported that “the candidates accus[ed] each other of being untrustworthy.” Like other outlets, the Post wrote that “Walker’s team sounded pleased with his performance on the stage.”
Politico’s headline about the first debate claimed that Walker had “soften[ed his] stance on abortion.”
In fact, Walker is an anti-abortion extremist and any rhetorical backpeddling – or moving to the center, in D.C. parlance – should be treated with extreme skepticism.
Much of the coverage of the first debate was dominated by a moment when Walker blatantly misrepresented himself as an official law enforcement agent, using a prop badge as evidence. The Wall Street Journal called it an “odd moment,” when it was something closer to overtly lying and impersonating an officer.