William Bender, an investigative reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, got thrown onto covering Doug Mastriano’s campaign for governor of Pennsylvania during the 2022 midterms. It wasn’t a traditional gubernatorial bid for many reasons — but in terms of access to the candidate himself, it’s possibly the type of campaign that more reporters could potentially find themselves covering in the post-Trump era.
“On the campaign trail with Mastriano, dissent is squelched. Questions are neither asked nor answered. Paranoia is rampant,” Bender and colleague Chris Brennan wrote in September, describing how the state senator and Army veteran employed security workers who yelled at and body blocked reporters for a candidate who regularly engaged in freewheeling chats with conservative networks with a partisan slant. At a September rally in Wilkes-Barre featuring former President Donald Trump, Bender says, Mastriano did an interview with One America News and other right-leaning outlets but wouldn’t take questions from the general press.
Mastriano has literally fled from contact with reporters.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken a similar approach and had some success. His governing style and campaign are often-cited examples of what happens when not only a candidate, but a sitting public official tries to thwart the press. Reams of stories examine the administration’s hostility toward the press, many of them citing the scorched earth tactics of spokeswoman Christina Pushaw, who had her Twitter account temporarily suspended in mid-2021 for allegedly inciting threats against an Associated Press reporter. Pushaw later became the director of rapid response for DeSantis’ re-election campaign.
Mastriano lost his bid for the Pennsylvania governor’s mansion, but DeSantis won re-election. And their media strategy is one that candidates across the country — many of them conservative — employed in the hopes of exercising strict control over their messaging. And it’s a strategy that seems to be gaining steam in the run-up to the 2024 polls.
Conservative candidates are moving from attacking the press as “fake news” to completely ghosting them. With some already announcing their candidacies for 2024, and the pundit class speculating on potential presidential contenders, how politicians engage with the media — and how the media respond — will be decisive.
“Democracy requires dialogue,” but when politicians shut out all but partisan media, “you’re getting an echo chamber,” says Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College of the City University of New York. “You have a further polarization of an already fragmented society … [It’s] destructive of the democratic fabric, which relies on an informed citizenry — and ‘an informed citizenry’ doesn’t mean one that is a cult of one political party [or] individual.”
Political coverage is increasingly complicated by the growth of hyper-partisan local outlets, video streaming sites, and social media platforms that have changed the calculus of how candidates and public officials communicate with voters. For those running, it offers an opportunity to skirt traditional news outlets and talk to the electorate through the soft lens of a friendly, and even openly supportive, outlet.
In many cases, politicians are not necessarily shutting down all communication with traditional media; they may take a question at a news conference, grant a short interview, or have a spokesperson answer specific queries in writing. But for members of the legacy press, there is a new balancing act in covering politicos who consider attacking the “mainstream” media both a reliable crowd-pleaser and a defense mechanism. They are grappling with the influence of new platforms while using the interviews politicians give via those outlets to shine a light on reclusive or openly hostile subjects.
For voters, it means the candidates — and even eventual winners — control their messaging in a way that both reinforces deeply held biases and obscures key challenges facing society. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Political Science found that, even if it’s true that a relatively small proportion of people consume media that favors a particular point of view, partisan media “does, in fact, have a large effect on public opinion.” In short, they found, “Those who watch and are impacted by partisan media talk to and persuade others who did not watch.”
Tension between politicians and the press isn’t new, although the intensity undoubtedly ratcheted up during the Trump era. Reporters have since struggled with how to regain the trust of the public, or at least segments of it, after years of being broadly slimed by the former president and his supporters as “fake news” — particularly when confronted by questions and stories they don’t like.
While that trend continues, those politicians are also working in concert with a slew of partisan outlets that not only throw softballs, but openly amplify those politicians’ views, even when they are based on mis- or disinformation. In return, the quotes, interviews, and attention politicians are giving these right-wing outlets are helping to build a following for these sites.
In Florida, DeSantis is scarcely confrontational with right-leaning outlets, many of which see him as the future of the post-Trump GOP. In March 2022, he “hailed his record in the state, blasted political and media critics, and opened up a bit about his personal life” in a “lengthy, wide-ranging” interview with Guy Benson, political director of Townhall, an outlet that says in its self-description that it “breaks down the barriers between news and opinion, journalism and political participation — and enables conservatives to participate in the political process with unprecedented ease.” Appearances on Fox News are a staple of the DeSantis media schedule — and other outlets have looked into how those come together. The Tampa Bay Times reported in mid-2021, based on records requests, “There are few surprises when DeSantis goes live with Fox. ‘Exclusive’ events like Jan. 22,” which aired last year and featured a World War II veteran receiving his first Covid shot, “are carefully crafted with guidance from DeSantis’ team. Topics, talking points and even graphics are shared in advance.” In May of 2022, DeSantis signed a bill that increased identification requirements for voting by mail — with only Fox allowed to cover the event and other press locked out.
As Semafor reported in December, DeSantis declined in August an interview with The View, which would help him reach millions of people, booking instead a sit-down with the three-day-old Florida Standard, “the brainchild of pro-DeSantis donors in Florida, who wanted to start a right-of-center publication to push back against what they saw as unfair legacy media coverage of the governor.” As Semafor further notes, “the governorwas easily reelected without doing a single sit-down interview with a traditional newspaper editorial board in his state.”
DeSantis goes beyond avoiding traditional media. Part of his strategy is to publicly antagonize legacy news organizations. DeSantis said flat out at the Sunshine Summit, the state Republican Party’s annual conference, “We in the state of Florida are not going to allow legacy media outlets to be involved in our primaries … I’m not going to have a bunch of left-wing media people asking our candidates gotcha questions,” Politico reported in July 2022. Politico Florida Bureau Chief Matt Dixon obtained and tweeted the press access list for the event, which showed those that got the green light to cover the full event included right-leaning outlets like Florida Conservative Voice, Florida Standard, Daily Wire, Washington Free Beacon, and the New York Post.
The governor’s combative approach to traditional media questions he doesn’t like has been highlighted by many media outlets — and by DeSantis himself, whose re-election campaign in August ran a “Top Gun” parody ad featuring a supercut of him scolding and cutting off reporters at news conferences. In an exclusive on-camera talk about Hurricane Ian response with Florida’s Voice founder Brendon Leslie in October, DeSantis said the “national regime media” had wanted to see Tampa get hit by the hurricane because that would have been bad for Florida. In the clip, Leslie wore a t-shirt with the logo of the militant “Three Percenters” group. Like other right-leaning outlets, Florida’s Voice coverage of the hurricane in the context of DeSantis’s leadership has been overwhelmingly positive, while traditional news outlets have been more evaluative.
Florida reporters have noted that the DeSantis press shop, in formal communications, has begun to direct the press to footage of government events posted not only on the state’s official Florida Channel and Facebook, but also on Rumble and Grabien, two platforms popular in conservative circles.Candidates have long made calculations about which media outlets to speak with and when. That may mean choosing smaller, local outlets over bigger ones, or simply opting to focus on papers and stations in areas where the campaign thinks there’s a better chance of picking up votes. A candidate may not want to cooperate with an outlet that’s run tough stories or whose editorial board has endorsed the opposition.
Of course, covering a political campaign or public official isn’t predicated solely on direct or extended interaction with the candidate, because that would cede decisions about what is or isn’t news to the person running or governing. Under the “Citizens Agenda” model of reporting, the focus should be the concerns of the people voting in elections, not those competing in them. The ability to get close to a subject can be useful and prized, but there are also substantial criticisms of “access journalism” in political coverage, particularly if it can lead to sitting on or blunting negative information for fear of “burning” a source or getting burned or used by one.
Michael Wagner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says it’s clearly not new that candidates are hunting for sympathetic ears — but there are many more of those thanks to the proliferation of partisan outlets on the web, television, and radio. “When candidates avoid mainstream news, it does a huge disservice to citizens because they don’t get to see how candidates handle tough and independent questions,” Wagner says.
As Wagner and his co-authors noted in their 2022 book, “Battleground: Asymmetric Communication Ecologies and the Erosion of Civil Society in Wisconsin,” when Republican Scott Walker was governor of the state, “he would regularly have conversations off-air with conservative talk show hosts talking about what the message of the day might be, talking about strategies to deliver those messages, and then going on those shows and having what appeared to be an organic conversation that in fact was planned out,” Wagner says.
Arizona provides another important example. In the run-up to the 2022 governor’s race, unsuccessful Republican candidate Kari Lake, who is still falsely claiming Donald Trump won the 2020 election despite her own loss, often used her background in news to go after mainstream reporters for asking her questions she doesn’t like, even when she chooses to engage with legacy outlets. As The Washington Post put it in a profile, “Lake has soughtto use her TV news credentials to her advantage — ‘I know Arizona,’ she often says — while simultaneously discrediting the entire enterprise.”
But Lake, who spent more than 20 years at Phoenix Fox affiliate KSAZ, not only deals extensively with partisan sites, but has also participated directly in their events and coverage. She invited guests at CPAC 2022 to join her at the booth of Right Side Broadcasting Network, which rose to prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign by carrying Trump rallies live. She also speaks with conservative talk show hosts such as Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, who grew a conservative nonprofit focused on young people into a multimillion-dollar empire — and drew serious questions about the group’s finances along the way.
This shift is happening against the background of a harsh reality: The traditional news business has real economic problems it hasn’t found a way to decisively counteract. Northwestern’s Medill School has reported that “between the pre-pandemic months of late 2019 and the end of May 2022, more than 360 newspapers closed … Since 2005, the country has lost more than one-fourth of its newspapers and is on track to lose a third by 2025.” Job loss numbers for newspapers and digital news sites did look better for 2021 than 2020, Pew Research Center found in an October report that also warned that “the decline in circulation at U.S. newspapers also may play a role in the decrease in publicly reported layoffs at newspapers in 2021. The number of daily newspapers with an average Sunday circulation of 50,000 or more — the threshold for inclusion in [the] analysis — declined from 110 in 2017 to 73 in 2021.”
Another related wrinkle: Priyanjana Bengani, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, notes that so-called “pink slime” sites may be gaining more of a foothold because of the damage done to local news in recent years — and escalated by the fallout from the coronavirus. These “pink slime” outlets present themselves as essentially garden-variety local news coverage, in some cases filling the voids left by “news deserts” where traditional media no longer have a presence.
However, as the Tow Center and others have detailed, the sites are part of multistate networks that can be funded by highly partisan sources, have deep-seated political agendas, and may even serve up articles produced by automation or by overseas writers who have no connection to — or even physical presence in — the communities. Depending on who owns them, these networks can advance the interests of the left or the right.
Bengani notes that the way the sites work together allows for the creation of “a kind of surround-sound effect, an echo chamber,” where one little-known site can cite what’s published by a similarly obscure partisan site, creating the appearance of legitimacy while pushing an agenda. These sites and their work don’t have the audiences of legacy outlets, but, as Tow has reported, “to be successful, the network does not have to be widely read or deliver broad impact, it simply has to gnaw away at the edges of the consciousness of the voting public.”Deprived of access to the candidates — an important component of campaign reporting — reporters have had to rely even more on mining social media posts for scoops and combing through financial disclosures and appearances on right-wing platforms to build their coverage. Longtime Georgia political reporter Greg Bluestein, for example, has written about how Herschel Walker, a marquee Trump-endorsed Republican nominee for U.S. Senate who was accused of padding his resume and was otherwise dogged by personal scandal, has sometimes taken a “velvet rope” approach to reporters during his tumultuous campaign.
Bluestein says his team kept close watch for anywhere Walker spoke. That included the partisan outlets and even sports podcasts. “They were asking about his fitness regimen and barely even mentioning [his] campaign. And so we were poring over an hour-long audio tape [of a] podcast for clues on what he’d do as U.S. senator at the time,” he says. To provide a fuller picture of the candidate, the AJC also relied on a group of Georgia political sources and advocates that might share audio of closed media events.
Bluestein also scrutinized financial disclosures and reported that while Walker had “spurned press conferences, avoided media interviews and held only a handful of public events since launching his U.S. Senate campaign,” he had also made hundreds of thousands of dollars from paid speeches in the prior six months, “including about $172,000 from six appearances since he announced his campaign in August,” having “continued his paid speeches even as he has steered his media appearances toward friendly conservative outlets.”
In Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and elsewhere, media outlets are making calculations about how and even whether to cover political events that are limited to certain partisan outlets, off-limits to media in general, or come with extreme stipulations for credentialed press.
In Ohio, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland refused to cover an August rally featuring DeSantis and Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance based on what it deemed “ridiculous” restrictions on the press, such as giving the organizers rights to all video captured at the event. In Pennsylvania that same month, NPR station WESA tried to find a middle ground when it came to appearances by DeSantis and Mastriano at an event sponsored by Turning Point Action, Turning Point USA’s political advocacy arm. WESA told its audience in a note from the editors that it planned to monitor the event via an online feed and speak to supporters outside “without binding ourselves to Turning Point’s requirements in order to attend the event itself.”
As political leaders forgo interviews with legacy media, some reporters are relying more heavily on public records — but those requests can come with delays, incomplete responses, and hefty price tags. In some cases, governments adversarial to the press — including the DeSantis Administration — have vacillated on how much Covid-case data they have released publicly, and how often. In Florida, that has meant news organizations have been hit with hefty fees to access public documents. “One recent public records request for emails about ‘pop-up’ clinics by the Fort Myers News-Press … initially came back with a $13,000 price tag,” the Tallahassee Democrat reported in an April 2021 piece about the DeSantis administration’s resistance to complying with records asks.
In April 2020, a coalition of papers from the Gannett and Tribune chains, as well as Scripps, The New York Times, and the Miami Herald, sued DeSantis for Covid records related to long-term care facilities for the elderly — and got them. The state data revealed the new information that at the time, “302 facilities in 45 counties [had] staff or residents who [had] tested positive for the deadly respiratory infection.”
The nonpartisan Florida Center for Government Accountability sued DeSantis’ administration to release records and communications related to his controversial transportation of migrants from Texas — not Florida — to Democratic strongholds like Massachusetts. The Herald and Tampa Bay Times reported in December that spending on the program had topped $3 million – but the state was doing little to release specific details about that spending. NBC6 South Florida reported later in December that a public records request showed DeSantis “public safety czar” Larry Keefe had used a private email, not his state account, to communicate with a major contractor involved in the flight program.
Watchdogs like Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, say that just as some national Republicans have cribbed heavily from the Trump playbook when it comes to the media, and what DeSantis does matters across his state. “It trickles down,” she says. “Local governments see how the governor just sticks his finger in [the media’s] eye [and] think, ‘Why shouldn’t we do it?’”
With the changing landscape, some media outlets are thinking more actively about how not to feed into polarization — but others directly benefit from stoking the political divide. Ultimately, though, civil society depends on parties engaging with each other — and public officials accepting scrutiny by an independent press — and it breaks down when people refuse to uphold those standards, just like it does when one political party refuses to play by the rules of democratic governance.
In the end, “If the candidate doesn’t want to speak with the traditional media, who are looking for evidence of things that they hear, and only wants to speak with right-wing outlets that don’t care about truth, then I think that alone tells you something about the candidate,” says Lilliana Mason, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of political science. “That choice is informative about the preferences of that candidate, because effectively, if they talk to a traditional media source, they’re going to be fact checked — and they know that.”