Don't Cover Me Bro

What this senator’s battle with the press tells us about campaigning in 2016

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Voters in North Carolina, a battleground state riven by a bitter political climate, can now add another line item to their woes: A Republican senator has chosen hyper-partisanship over the public’s right to be informed. That’s what happened when Senator Richard Burr took a disturbing cue from Donald Trump: blacklisting the press.

On Monday, Raleigh’s News and Observer, one of the state’s biggest local newspapers, received an email from one of Burr’s spokespeople informing them that they would neither get responses to inquiries nor notifications for press events until the paper can “demonstrate the ability to cover this race from a balanced point of view.” It wasn’t clear which articles, exactly, Burr took issue with, but The News and Observer pointed to a fairly mundane, albeit critical, piece published last week about Burr’s senate attendance that his campaign had pushed back on.

While conservative attacks on the “liberal media” are nothing new—outlets as varied as Politico, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Fusion have all been blacklisted by Trump at some point in the last year—Burr’s very public fallout with the paper marks another low.

Burr’s campaign seemed to have invited a public confrontation with The News and Observer, or at the very least, didn’t mind it. The feud with the paper is ammunition to fire up his hyper-partisan and media-wary base just before the election, while putting the paper in an awkward position to report the story.

“Once the News and Observer writes the story, then Burr supporters see it and say, ‘Yeah, screw that liberal rag,’” said Ryan Thornburg, a former Washington Post editor and director of the journalism and communications masters program at the University of North Carolina. “And Dems say, ‘Yeah, screw Burr. He’s just like Trump.’”

In polarized political environment—see, for example, North Carolina’s trans bathroom fight and ongoing voter suppression controversies—preaching to the choir might be a means of energizing supporters. But ensuring that an independent political press can’t do its work is a threat to the notion of a “fourth estate,” a term coined by 18th century political philosopher and British parliamentarian Edmund Burke to describe an essential part of democratic governance. If this sort of Trumpism takes hold, future generations will have to suffer the consequences of less and less reliable information about their candidates in elections.

“Burr supporters see it and say, ‘Yeah, screw that liberal rag.’ And Dems say, ‘Yeah, screw Burr. He’s just like Trump.’”

- Ryan Thornburg

It’s a shocking move for Burr, who, as a 22-year veteran of the senate, should presumably be the adult in the room. But Burr has made his intransigence in the normal course of politics a centerpiece of his campaign. He has taken credit for initiating the probe into Hillary’s emails and boasted about having the longest unfilled judicial seat in history—the result of a grudge against Barack Obama. He has also refused to distance himself from Trump after endorsing him earlier this year. “Some day all of us are going to need to be forgiven for something,” Burr said of the candidate’s misogyny and sexual assault allegations.

It turns out, however, that his move to blacklist a major newspaper isn’t unprecedented in North Carolina politics. Bruce Siceloff, a former News and Observer reporter, wrote in a Facebook post that Burr’s action “recalls the elusive Lauch Faircloth, who never would let us know about his Senate campaign events in 1992.” Siceloff added, “Dodging reporters worked pretty well for Faircloth, who became one of North Carolina’s one-term senators.” Ouch.

Politicians have long been sensitive to unfavorable stories about them. And candidates from both sides of the aisle have deceived or misled the press. Misdirecting the press, though, is quite different from explicitly telling a paper that you won’t invite them out unless they play nice. Apart from being fundamentally undemocratic (see: First Amendment), it may even be counterproductive in an election where you’re running a dead heat with your opponent. Conventional wisdom dictates that politicians would want to limit any bad press and try to win over key swing votes. But this—as if anyone has to be reminded—isn’t a conventional election.

Thornburg, the UNC professor, said election campaign strategies, thanks in no small part to Trump, look very different in 2016.

“Candidates used to think they needed journalists to legitimize their claims,” said Thomburg. “But now it seems they’ve just decided to discredit the media and make their own assertions via social so that each voter’s friends provide that third party endorsement the media used to provide.”

“The problem is that our friends don’t actually have the time or ability to question candidate assertions,” he added.

But while Trump purports to battle the “disgusting” press—an adjective Burr himself has employed recently to describe the North Carolina press—it’s no secret that Trump has strategically employed key media relationships over the course of this campaign, most notably with the right-wing media’s most infamous pro-Trump propaganda machines, the website Breitbart and FOX News’s Sean Hannity. Politicians down-ballot have surely taken note.

One obvious pitfall of manipulating press access to fire up your base—apart from defecating on the bedrock of the republic—is that it assumes you haven’t already reached the ceiling with your constituents, or hit the limits of the partisan news outlets of your choosing. It’s a gamble, and one that could cost Burr reelection.

Either way, the sure losers are North Carolinians who haven’t made up their minds or are simply seeking reliable information.

Burr “will more and more look like jerk with the public,” said Richard Reeves, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, author and veteran reporter. “He’s trying to avoid—not us, but the people of North Carolina.”