The public and the press

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes speaks on Friday, Aug. 3, 2018. Photo by Dania Maxwell/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are few more sought-after politicians in the United States at the moment than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In June, at 28 years old, by making a play from the left, she pulled off a stunning primary victory over Joe Crowley, who had represented New York in Congress since 1999—first from the 7th district, then the 14th. Wherever she goes, Ocasio-Cortez brings a media deluge. A couple weeks ago, feeling mobbed by reporters, she decided to make two “listening tour” stops—one in the the Bronx and another in Queens, open to the public but not to the press.

The press ban, her campaign team told the Queens Chronicle, was meant “to help create a space where community members felt comfortable and open to express themselves without the distraction of cameras and press.” Corbin Trent, her campaign spokesman, said that this did not represent a new normal in meeting access. ‘’We’re still adjusting our logistics to fit Alexandria’s national profile,” he added.

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On the same day that the Chronicle came out with its story, news organizations across the country published editorials about the importance of press freedom in the era of a president who goads reporters and undermines the role of journalism at every opportunity. Yet the visible erosion of political press relations with the White House is only part of the picture, and the friction is historic. President Richard Nixon’s frequent attacks on the press were more sustained and paranoid than Donald Trump’s. President Barack Obama, who has been vocal in his support of the free press once out of office, kept a tight rein on access during his time in office, and his administration pursued leakers through the courts at an unprecedented rate. In May, Bill De Blasio, New York’s mayor, was forced by Freedom of Information requests, brought to court by the media, to release emails in which he corresponded with strategic consultants about how best to sidestep the press. Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is simply the latest offender.

To what extent she succeeded in undermining press access, however, is an open question. The meetings were livestreamed, so any reporter could watch at home. At Politico, Jack Shafer pointed out that banning journalists is, really, a futile act—all spaces are permeable by tenacious press or civilian leakers. These factors, of course, also throw into doubt exactly what kind of “sanctuary space” had been created that made citizens “safe” from exposure.

It would be wrong to suggest that Ocasio-Cortez—still not elected to public office, even if she is a shoe-in—has committed a violation equivalent to those of President Trump; shielding herself, and maybe voters, from an international media blitz is not the same as carrying out threats to exclude press from national briefings. But both left and right have now developed a narrative that suggests the press can hinder democratic discourse rather than comprise a vital part of it.

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When controversy over her campaign’s decision to limit press access hit social media, Ocasio-Cortez defended herself on Twitter. She also asked, in earnest, how such meetings ought to be conducted in the future: “Genuine Q?: how should we label a free campaign event, open to all, that’s a sanctuary space? Still private?” In another post, she pressed the idea that the presence of journalists makes for an “unsafe” environment. “Not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill,” she wrote. “But we are genuinely trying to create environments of where our constituents feel comfortable expressing honestly & engaging in discourse.”

 

EVEN IF PRESS-FREE events are an anomaly, it is worrying for journalism that a politician with the support and profile of Ocasio-Cortez frames the presence of press at her meetings as being a hindrance to productive dialogue. Research suggests that, in the kinds of communities she is addressing—urban, poor, non-white—citizens might feel the same way. In a survey conducted by the Tow Center early this year in Philadelphia, respondents said they felt that they often only saw coverage of themselves as being relentlessly negative, or largely absent. Researchers at Tow (which I founded) prescribed as an antidote a different role for the press—reporters not only as distant observers but as civic organizers.

What’s alarming, even if politicians across the ideological spectrum have always practiced press control, is that new platforms for expression allow for both enormous amplification of the political sphere as well a new level of opacity in communications between politicians and private individuals. Digital platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp (which Facebook owns) offer the ability to connect to specific interest groups in ways that are difficult for the press to access and report on. Seeking out citizens in ways that are more protected, or exclusionary, has become the basis of a new type of political campaigning: Campaigns can create virtual spaces that can segment political audiences and participants. Unlike public meetings, these groups can be hard to find and difficult to join—although they offer journalists an opportunity for a different type of engagement, too.

A recent report by Mark Frankel, a journalist at the BBC, outlines the “new beats” that reporters need to develop within online communities, if they are to access and understand certain groups in depth. Increased use of WhatsApp, Facebook, and other closed rooms can provide an opportunity for political campaigns to convene small interest groups through party activists rather than talk directly to constituents. In examining successful movements from the pro-Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom to the populist Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the report finds, the spread of private groups for what would once have had to be more public campaigns is changing the nature of political reporting, campaigning, and even public discourse. “In India, the BJP was running not just thousands of different groups on WhatsApp,” Frankel says. “But each one was discussing a different topic or message aimed at that particular community. So in rural India it might be about the price of milk for instance, and in more urban environments it was about the interconnectedness of certain communities.” Frankel says that the efforts of the BJP “make UK and US politicians look rather flat-footed by comparison,” but there is little doubt that these techniques are already deployed by campaigns and are likely to grow.

Frankel, who produced his report as part of a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, says that, in his experience accessing pro-Brexit groups in the UK, closed groups were often home to more sensible and thoughtful discussion than the open group free-for-alls. That statement aligns with Ocasio-Cortez’s argument for a private listening tour. Changes in technology transform the way people both consume news and view reporters. As the press becomes walled off from the rest of the public, it’s the responsibility of journalists to make a compelling case for themselves by modifying their behavior. Engaging with subjects as community members may not always seem to be a practical solution, but with access under strain during the coming election season, it is more urgent than ever.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.