Rand Paul’s Wild Ride

Did the Kentucky press fail to challenge the GOP Senate nominee?

Over at his new blog, Josh Green has been posting lately on Rand Paul’s victory in Kentucky’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate, which he covered for The Atlantic. If you haven’t read the posts already, you should—they’re characteristically sharp, and raise some good questions about whether Paul’s win represents a coming wave of Tea Party success. (Green notes, as did CJR’s own look at the race, that Paul’s opponent, Trey Grayson, was not an especially strong candidate.)

But in one of the posts, Green makes an argument about the media environment that deserves a little scrutiny. In seeking to explain why “a guy who embraced the role of national face of the Tea Party movement with such enthusiasm is crashing and burning so spectacularly,” he writes:

The second point, which gets directly to why Rand Paul is suddenly flailing, is that the local Kentucky media—in particular the newspapers, and especially the flagship Louisville Courier-Journal—has been decimated by job cuts, as has happened across the country. This came up several times in discussions with Kentucky politicos and local journalists. The reason it matters is that because there is no longer a healthy, aggressive press corps—and no David Yepson-type dean of political journalists—candidates don’t run the same kind of gauntlet they once did. They’re not challenged by journalists. And since voters aren’t as well informed as they once were (many are “informed” in the sense of having strongly held views about all manner of things—they’re just not “well informed”), they can’t challenge the candidates either.

The basic narrative here, of a state press corps that’s smaller and weaker, is no doubt true; given the trends in the rest of the country, it’d be a story if it weren’t. The problem with using it to explain Paul’s fortunes is that, as Michael Calderone noted last week, the issue that’s recently caused Paul so much trouble—how he’d reconcile his libertarian thinking with landmark federal legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964—was first flagged by none other than the Courier-Journal. Under the headline, “In Republican Senate race, a dismal choice,” the paper’s editorial board wrote:

The trouble with Dr. Paul is that despite his independent thinking, much of what he stands for is repulsive to people in the mainstream. For instance, he holds an unacceptable view of civil rights, saying that while the federal government can enforce integration of government jobs and facilities, private business people should be able to decide whether they want to serve black people, or gays, or any other minority group.

The editorial goes on to say some not-unkind things about Paul. (He “is neither an angry nor resentful person. He’s thoughtful and witty in an elfin sort of way.”) But that reads like a challenge. Indeed, this passage—and footage of Paul’s meeting with the editorial board—were prominently featured in the introduction to his interview with Rachel Maddow the day after his win, which is the source of much of his recent trouble. It would be easy to look at this sequence of events and tell a very different story, about the national press piggybacking off of, and amplifying, work first done by the local media.

It’s true that this is just one editorial, and there’s more to the story than this. Green also writes:

Thus, when Rand Paul appeared on “Maddow” and the other shows, I expect he was prepared to offer the same sermon I heard on the trail. Problem is, he was encountering an aggressive, experienced press corps that appropriately had its own agenda and was eager to challenge Paul to elaborate on his views.

And indeed, in the wake of the Courier-Journal editorial Paul seems to have gone back to business without facing the sort of sustained scrutiny that he has come under over the past week. But that’s likely as much a product of habitual press shortcomings as any particular weakness of the Kentucky press corps. Candidates are covered through the lens of the campaign they’re in, and—however much we’d like the press to set the agenda—campaigns are usually covered through the lenses offered by the candidates. During the Republican primary, Paul presented a story—about an outsider coming to challenge the establishment—that was embraced by much of the press, including the national press, which was looking for a true test of the Tea Party storyline that’s been building for over a year. (This is not to say that the press wanted the outsider to succeed or fail—just that it was the frame used to talk about the race.)

Paul’s primary opponent, meanwhile, did try to call attention to his “strange ideas”—but in a Republican primary, that meant his thinking about foreign policy and detainees, which, however consequential they may be, are not perennial high-wattage issues. It wasn’t until the primaries were over that anyone in the press—national or local—picked up the thread from the Courier-Journal and started pressing Paul on the implications of his thinking for hot-button domestic policy debates (with Democratic nominee Jack Conway, his general election opponent, doing all he can to keep the issue alive). In other words, this looks like political journalism as it is regularly practiced, for better and for worse.

If that is what’s going on, it means that Paul is going to come in for some closer, and wider-ranging, scrutiny from the in-state press in the months ahead (as will, we hope, Conway, who just prevailed in a tightly contested but mostly overlooked Democratic primary). Green seems skeptical of that; in a post Monday he flagged the difference in tone between David Gregory’s remarks on Meet the Press and a local newscast. Head over to the Courier-Journal site, though, and you can find plenty of coverage of Paul’s recent troubles, including a headline that boasts, “Rand Paul embroiled in
Civil Rights controversy over remarks made on Courier-Journal video interview.” A Sunday column by the paper’s James Carroll, meanwhile, had this to say:

With his comments on civil rights, Paul has broadened the conversation that dominated the primary campaign about the role of government in spending (and related issues on taxes and debt).

Now, Paul’s views on the nature of the role of the federal government in American life are going to get closer examination. It is a natural consequence of his becoming the Republican nominee for the Senate.

People naturally will want to know the implications of Paul’s views on federal “overreach,” and whether his philosophy of limited government means he supports or opposes any number of programs or laws. The list of questions is potentially endless.

That sounds like a fair description of how media agendas actually get set, and a promise to keep asking those questions. Let’s hope that the press—in Kentucky and outside it—lives up to that pledge.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.