India Walton, and how we cover progressives

On June 22, India Walton, a registered nurse and community organizer in Buffalo, New York, won the Democratic primary for her city’s mayoral race, defeating four-term incumbent Byron Brown (who, as several reports put it, had all but ignored Walton’s primary challenge). Walton was widely portrayed in coverage as a longshot, not least because she campaigned as a democratic socialist. The day after the primary, Walton spoke with a reporter for a local NBC station who called her victory a “major upset,” and whose first question was, “Tell me the difference between a Democrat and a democratic socialist.” Local and national coverage noted the momentous upset, and foreshadowed a victory for Walton in the November mayoral race; the New York Times reported that Walton’s primary win made it “almost certain that she will become not only the first woman elected mayor in New York State’s second-largest city, but also the first socialist at the helm of a large American city in decades.”

Brown, the incumbent, didn’t suspend his mayoral bid. Instead, days after his primary loss, he launched an independent write-in campaign to challenge Walton again in the November 2 election. Brown’s challenge attracted support from area conservatives and Republicans, whose party did not run a candidate against Walton. (There were several other write-in candidates.) In August, WGRZ, a Buffalo-based NBC affiliate, reported that “nearly one-third of the signature pages” submitted by Brown to get his name on the ballot “were carried by members of right-leaning parties — most of them Republicans, most of them residing outside the city.” By October, Investigate Post, a Buffalo-based investigative nonprofit, reported that Brown had raised nearly half a million dollars since his primary loss, far outpacing Walton’s own fundraising. “Brown’s donors,” Investigate Post noted, “include developers and other companies who do business with the city and patronage employees who depend on the mayor for a paycheck. A number of noteworthy Republicans have also donated significant sums.”

Meanwhile, local outlets picked over Walton’s past. Following her primary victory, WKBW, a Buffalo-based ABC affiliate, reported that Walton had been “accused of welfare fraud, failed to pay her taxes and was caught driving with a suspended license” at various points in her life, according to public records. (The station noted that it acquired the documents “through its own search of court dockets,” not from “political adversaries or the Brown campaign.”) Another story, published in the Buffalo News, reported that Walton’s landlord had evicted her from her rental house in 2018, after a neighbor claimed that an acquaintance of Walton’s was selling drugs from the house. Walton and her friend both disputed the allegation, which was not substantiated in police reports. The News did not name Walton’s former landlord, who asked not to be identified “because he feared retribution.”

Such stories “captured why it is nearly impossible for an ordinary person, let alone a working-class Black woman, to run for public office,” wrote Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who profiled Walton’s campaign for The New Yorker ahead of the election. The Buffalo News article “never questioned whether a landlord might harass a woman who, at the time, was one of the most prominent opponents of the city’s rising rents,” Taylor wrote. “It also devoted seven paragraphs to the criminal record of Walton’s male friend, impugning her by association.” Taylor also rounded up details of investigations into Brown’s administration, and termed the allegations against Walton “petty” by comparison.

Brown’s write-in campaign proved successful, with the incumbent defeating Walton by a margin of eighteen percentage points. The day after the mayoral election, the News published an “analysis” piece by its Washington bureau chief, whose sources included “political pros” and “political insiders” frustrated by a speech Walton made after her primary-night victory, in which she addressed elected officials and told them they’d been “put on notice.” One, who described himself as a “centrist,” referred to Walton’s “fringe organization,” and suggested Walton’s speech “let the cat out of the bag: what her real intentions are.” The analysis suggested Walton’s speech might’ve been an act of “sabotage” for her own campaign; it paid little attention to Brown’s advantages in the race, from his long incumbency to his support from legacy local media. (The News endorsed Brown for mayor in October.) 

Following Brown’s re-election, pundits and national outlets have turned over Walton’s loss for insights into progressive candidates and the future prospects of the Democratic party. Frederik deBoer, in the New York Times, boiled things down to voter turnout, noting that it was “time for young socialists and progressive Democrats to recognize that our beliefs just might not be popular enough to win elections consistently. It does us no favors to pretend otherwise.” Taylor took up turnout, too, but did not bind it to the relative popularity of progressive policy proposals. “When working-class people have been neglected by powerful and well-connected Democratic administrations, like that of Byron Brown, it may be hard for them to believe that a political outsider will have the clout to change the status quo,” Taylor wrote. “For decades, Democrats have told these voters that help is on the way, and constant disappointment may eventually give way to a belief that things can’t change.” 

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For Jacobin, Branko Marcetic noted that Walton’s working-class status and encounters with the criminal-justice system make her a relative rarity among politicians, who “don’t have these particular blots on their records; they either come from backgrounds where money is never an issue, or sociopathically design their entire adult lives, down to its minutiae, so as to have a spotless record when they eventually make their run.” In the wake of Walton’s campaign, Marcetic locates a number of pressing questions about factors that might have influenced the race’s outcome—from Walton’s speech and the self-sabotage theory to the wider police-defunding debate to voter perceptions of her experience. Reviewing the coverage, one might add additional questions to the list—including what constitutes a “blot,” and how they are applied.


Below, more on progressive candidates and local news:

  • In a June opinion piece for the Washington Post, Radley Balko wrote about the “bogus backlash against progressive prosecutors,” focusing on San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who has been criticized for his support for prosecutorial reform policies. Boudin, who faces a recall election next June, has been “blamed unfairly for everything from Walgreens closures to long-rampant car break-ins,” San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight wrote. (Critics have occasionally identified similar dynamics in the Chronicle as well.) In coverage of a carjacking attempt, a local ABC affiliate reported that Boudin’s office “dropped all charges” against a juvenile suspect. However, Balko writes that the “charges against the assailant were never dropped,” and that the erroneous story gained traction among Boudin’s critics. SFGate noted that the station later updated its story, but did not label the update a correction. 
  • Recently, a jury found actor Jussie Smollett guilty of disorderly conduct for falsely reporting a hate crime in 2019. For Vulture, Zak Cheney-Rice recently wrote about how Smollett’s case has featured in coverage of Kim Foxx, a progressive state’s attorney in Illinois, whose critics have suggested Foxx’s prosecutorial leniency for nonviolent crime is an abuse of her power. “When the Chicago Tribune hosted an hour-long debate with Foxx and her challengers” in January 2020, Cheney-Rice wrote, “a full 30 minutes was dedicated to her handling of the Smollett case.”
  • For CJR’s summer 2020 issue, Jack Herrera wrote about how uninformed media coverage of efforts to defund and abolish the police flattened the proposal into an election talking point. “The way political coverage has engaged with the country’s anti-racist uprising has often felt inadequate, even hackish,” Herrera wrote, later adding that “demands to defund and abolish the police have existed for decades, but in the kinds of places journalists and presidential contenders rarely go and even more rarely come from: overpoliced neighborhoods, underserved Black communities, and Black feminist spaces.”


Other notable stories

  • Amir Aman Kiyaro, a freelance journalist for the AP, was detained in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, under the country’s new “war-related state of emergency powers,” on November 28 after returning to the capital from a reporting trip. State media reported Kiyaro was arrested for “‘serving the purposes’ of a terrorist group by interviewing it”; a federal police official said Kiyaro and other detained journalists could gave as many as 15 years behind bars. Yesterday, the AP publicly called for his immediate release. These detentions are the latest in what has become a prolific practice since war broke out last November between the Ethiopian government and the Northern Ethiopian political group Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote previously about how Ethiopia’s state of emergency laws have been used to jail journalists. 
  • Stephen Adler, chairman of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and former editor-in-chief of Reuters, and Bruce Brown, executive director of the Committee for Freedom of the Press, write about the judge’s order that has prevented the New York Times from reporting on legal memos related to a court case involving Project Veritas, the right-wing activist group that likes to film secret videos. The judge “held oral arguments more than three weeks ago but has yet to rule, and in the meantime, the Times is in limbo,” the co-authors argue. “We urge him to lift his injunction immediately… every moment he fails to act is an ongoing, egregious injury to the First Amendment and the American public.”
  • Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post‘s media columnist, writes about the moves that Alden Global, the hedge fund, is making to acquire Lee Enterprises newspapers, including her former hometown paper, the Buffalo News, where she was the editor for a number of years. “Local news organizations, including legacy newspapers like the Buffalo News, can survive in the new era if they behave strategically and wisely. They have to continue to move steadily into the digital present and future, while deepening the bonds with their communities and not alienating their loyal longtime readers. One absolute necessity is providing enterprising journalism that serves the public interest — something that is impossible without adequate staff and resources.”
  • Han Zhang writes for The Guardian about Hu Xijin, whom he calls “China’s most famous propagandist.” Until this week, when he resigned to become a columnist, Hu was the editor of the Global Times, a “chest-thumpingly nationalistic tabloid sometimes described as ‘China’s Fox News.’ In recent years, Zhang reports, he has become the most influential Chinese propagandist in the west—”a constant presence on Twitter and in the international media, always on hand to defend the Communist party line, no matter the topic.” Hu’s domestic critics have described him as “the only person with freedom of speech” in mainland China, Zhang says.
  • Reddit announced on Wednesday that it has submitted a draft registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission to go public.The online community did not disclose how many shares will be offered or a price range for the offering. MediaPost notes that the company has done a number of venture financing rounds over its lifespan, including a round in August that raised seven hundred million dollars and valued Reddit at more than ten billion dollars. The site was launched in 2005, acquired by Condé Nast in 2006, and spun off as an independent Condé subsidiary in 2011.
  • The New York Times reports on an online scam that tricked a number of experienced female journalists and media personalities from India into thinking that they had been offered jobs at Harvard; following the offers, some quit their existing jobs and made plans to move to the US. “The people — or person — behind the hoax were relentless. They created a constellation of interlocking personas across Twitter, Facebook, Gmail and WhatsApp to pursue the women for months at a time,” the Times reported. “Unlike typical online fraudsters, they did not appear to use the personal information they extracted to steal money or to extort the women, leaving their ultimate goal a mystery.”
  • This past Saturday, members of the One Herald Guild, the union that represents Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald journalists, announced a letter-writing campaign in order to draw attention to its contract negotiations with McClatchy, its parent company. “McClatchy and its hedge fund owners refuse to address basic issues, including our proposal of a $52,000 minimum salary to afford the high cost of living in Miami and salary minimums based on years of experience to address longstanding pay inequities between English- and Spanish-language journalists,” members wrote
  • In media-jobs news, the New York Times announced that Nikita Stewart will be its new Real Estate editor. Stewart has been at the Times since 2014, and served most recently as assistant editor on the Metro section. In the announcement of Stewart’s move, the Times said she “will help reinvent coverage” for the vertical: while real estate stories are about visionaries, design, agents and “incredible lamps,” the announcement noted, they’re also about “communities, generational wealth and income inequality.” 
  • The Financial Times reports that Lord Rothermere has won his bid to take control of the publisher of the Daily Mail, which his family used to own. “Even though most independent shareholders are yet to back the offer from the great-grandson of the newspaper’s founder, when combined with the founding family’s votes the bid met a required threshold for it to proceed,” the Times reported. “The delisting marks an end to an era for Daily Mail and General Trust, which has been quoted on the London Stock Exchange since 1932. It raises questions about the future of the disparate collection of assets in sectors outside consumer media that the group still owns.”

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Feven Merid is CJR's staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.

TOP IMAGE: AP Photo/Joshua Bessex