In A News Vacuum, Politicians Construct Their Own Realities

In the Arizona Senate race, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema avoids the press while Republican Martha McSally attacks the media. And without vibrant local-news coverage, no one cares.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema
AP Photo/Matt York, file
Aug. 14, 2018, 8 p.m.

CHANDLER, Ariz.—President Trump’s frequent diatribes against the press have raised alarm in newsrooms across the country about whether the freedom to report—without fear or favor—is under assault from the White House. But from my time covering politics in Arizona last week, the bigger threat to democracy is a hollowed-out local press corps, which lacks the resources or the interest to aggressively cover state politics.

Arizona's Senate race, which could end up deciding which party holds power in Congress, features one leading candidate who regularly criticizes the press (Republican Martha McSally) and another who avoids the media like the plague (Democrat Kyrsten Sinema).

Trying to report on Sinema’s Senate campaign was like having to deal with an incompetent cable company. Calls and emails to her campaign went unreturned for days. The campaign didn’t provide a schedule of any events during my four days in the state, and a press secretary was unable to name the last campaign event she had held—before emailing me a few recent copies of the congresswoman’s campaign newsletter. This all took place as Arizonans were casting early ballots for the state’s Aug. 28 primary, and less than three months before the midterm elections.

After the campaign directed me to a non-campaign event with her Veterans’ Advisory Council at a suburban Phoenix library, the congresswoman’s legislative press secretary said she wouldn’t be answering any questions after the event ended. She speedwalked out of the event, racing to her SUV in less than a minute’s time.

What’s remarkable about the congresswoman’s press avoidance is that Sinema has a compelling story to tell. A social worker by trade, she has focused on veterans’ issues during her House tenure, even hiring social workers as legislative caseworkers to deal with their challenges. But when I asked her spokesman after the event if I could specifically ask her about her work on veterans’ issues (the topic of the event), he said: “Sorry, man, can’t allow it.”

One reason for her reticence: She may want to avoid talking about some dramatic shifts in her views on policy. Sinema rapidly evolved from one of the most liberal members of Arizona’s state legislature into a determined centrist as a congresswoman representing the Phoenix suburbs. “That’s what I want to be—independent,” she told one of her supporters at the event. The onetime Ralph Nader–supporting anti-war activist has morphed into a Blue Dog Democrat who won’t back Chuck Schumer for majority leader. She was one of seven House Democrats to join Republicans in investigating Hillary Clinton over Benghazi. The only atheist in Congress, she touted the role that faith played in helping her family get through tough times in a video announcing her Senate campaign.

“She’s discovered what it takes to win and she’s going to do what it takes to get there,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Farley, who served alongside her in the Arizona Senate. “I don’t put anything past her.”

One Arizona Democratic operative remembers being surprised that Sinema was absent from a huge Hillary Clinton rally at Arizona State University in her home district—one week before the 2016 election. This was at a time when the Clinton camp viewed Arizona as very winnable. By chance, he ended up spotting her at a local coffee shop, holding her own campaign event at the same time.

The Arizona Republic wrote a brief item about Sinema’s surprising absence. “She could not be reached for comment Friday,” the story said.

The sad reality is that, without dogged coverage, politicians are thriving by avoiding the press—even in an open-seat Senate race when candidates typically want to get all the attention they can. With newspapers struggling to survive in the state, there’s minimal downside to a press-avoidance strategy when you have millions of dollars to broadcast your message on statewide television. One national Democratic official defended Sinema’s behavior by arguing that she doesn’t do campaign events because there’s no one there to cover them. That’s a shame because Sinema’s political evolution has raised lots of important questions that she’s all too willing to dodge.

If Sinema was a case study in hiding from the press, her leading Republican opponent was a master of turning the media into the boogeyman. McSally, facing a competitive GOP primary, had the courtesy to participate in a 10-minute interview but couldn’t help criticizing the media’s single-minded focus on her views about President Trump. “We’re getting unprecedented hysteria from the national media. Don’t take it personally, buying into this hysteria about 'resist!' all while regular people here out here are asking questions about border security and jobs, and we’re seeing an optimism we haven’t seen in a very long time,” she told me.

At an earlier event where she received a critical endorsement from the National Border Patrol Council, she feistily sparred with Dennis Welch, a political reporter for the local CBS affiliate, who asked her about Trump’s anti-press “enemy of the state” rhetoric. “The media’s focus is insane. I see it myself in this race with all the fake news,” she said.

As notable as the candidates’ attempts to dodge or bash the press was the absence of a local reporting presence. When McSally received the endorsement—a significant event in an increasingly competitive GOP primary—there were as many national reporters (including myself) as local ones. The Republic, which has faced significant staff cuts in recent years, didn’t have a reporter at the event.

The governor’s race, which is one of the more compelling statewide contests in the country, has gotten even less coverage. A scandal involving the Democratic front-runner David Garcia’s hiring of a social-media director with a history of anti-American social-media posts was broken by a conservative blog, and coverage was driven by a hard-hitting political reporter at one of the local TV stations. It received little coverage in the Arizona Republic, aside from an op-ed from one of its liberal columnists. Farley, one of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, noted that the state’s leading newspaper just assigned a full-time reporter to the governor’s race that week—as early voting was already taking place.

Arizona is far from the only news desert in the country. Many once-proud local newspapers are struggling to make ends meet, laying off experienced staff, and cutting back on their political coverage for lifestyle clickbait. The absence of regular coverage is making it all too easy for politicians to create their own realities, without the accountability that’s necessary for good governance.

There’s a lot more reason for alarm about the absence of quality local-news coverage across the country than about Trump’s hateful tweets. National publications are thriving under Trump’s presidency, increasing profits, subscribers, and clicks with the chaotic, reality-show presidency. But local papers are cutting back coverage, curtailing production, and even shutting down entirely.

As Sinema’s event was wrapping up, one of the members of her advisory council said he’d like to make an off-the-record statement. “I don’t think there’s anything off the record anymore!” Sinema joked to widespread laughter. She got it backwards. If no one is around to document the actions and comments of public officials, it doesn’t matter what the journalistic ground rules are. Everything becomes off the record.

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