The Pennsylvania primaries were a metaphor for coverage of democracy

Yesterday wasn’t the first primary day of 2022, but it was the busiest: five states were in play, as many as had voted in the whole year to this point. The networks rose to the occasion with special election-night coverage; CNN’s John King was back at his “magic wall,” and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki was back at his “big board.” (“It is your night!” anchor Stephanie Ruhle told Kornacki on air.) There were consequential races in Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oregon, but most media eyes were on Pennsylvania, in particular its competitive Republican primary for a US Senate seat, with the “Trump backed” TV star Mehmet Oz facing off against the “full maga” hedge funder David McCormick and the “ultra maga” long shot Kathy Barnette. As of this morning, the race was too close to call, with Oz and McCormick practically neck and neck and Barnette farther back. Mail votes are still being counted, so we might have to wait awhile for a result. King and Kornacki aren’t the only 2020 throwbacks.

This year’s elections, of course, are all unfolding in a political climate transformed by the last election and what happened in its wake, with Republicans falsely claiming massive fraud and attempting to overturn the results, culminating in the insurrection at the Capitol at January 6. Nowhere has that been more true than in Pennsylvania; as Politico’s Charlie Mahtesian put it on the eve of the primary, “there are few states as deeply infected” by Trump’s Big Lie. Late last week, the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer took sharp stock of that reality, describing a “palpable shift” in state Republican politics leading to primaries that may as well have taken place “on two different planets.” (Pennsylvania Democrats voted yesterday, too.) The board noted that while it leans Democratic, it has endorsed Republicans for office in the past; this year, it sent GOP Senate candidates a survey with a view to doing likewise, asking, among other things, who won the 2020 presidential election. Only one answered “Joe Biden,” with most decrying the questions as “biased and unfair.” In the end, the board felt that it could not endorse anyone in the race. “How do you find points of agreement,” it asked, “when you can’t reach common ground on facts so basic that they could be used in a field sobriety test?”

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For months, national media chatter around the GOP Senate race focused mostly on Oz and McCormick as they tried to out-Trump each other, with both nodding at his election denialism while trying to skirt its full extent. During this period, Barnette, whose stance on 2020 has been more explicit, flew beneath the radar. Between her campaign launch in April 2021 and the end of last month, the New York Times mentioned her name (as best I can tell) in just seven stories, each time in passing; according to a Stanford University tool, her name was mentioned just twice on the main cable channels in the same time frame. Unsurprisingly, local outlets covered Barnette more thoroughly, often in the context of candidate forums and polling. Still, looking back, I was able to find only one truly detailed article on her election denialism, with the Inquirer’s Andrew Seidman reporting last summer that Barnette not only boosted Trump’s 2020 lies but went hunting for fake voters in her own failed congressional race the same year. She attended the rally that preceded the insurrection on January 6, and took supporters with her.

This month, the national radar finally caught up; the Times mentioned Barnette in about three times as many stories as in the year prior, and her cable mentions shot up, too. The precipitating cause of the increased coverage was a surprising late poll surge for Barnette, with major outlets describing her as “roaring” or “vaulting” into serious contention in articles that afforded her election denialism varying degrees of prominence. (A Politico story waited until the fourteenth paragraph to mention it.) Numerous outlets ran stories headlined “Who Is Kathy Barnette?”—and, even though such reports described her as a “commentator,” implying a rich back catalogue of public thought and self-promotion, the answer remained murky. When the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito asked for basic biographical information for a profile, Barnette’s campaign declined to provide answers; she has claimed to be a veteran, but would not give the Examiner a copy of a form proving her service. In recent days, a slew of national media stories belatedly dug deeper, drawing attention to Barnette’s history of Islamophobic and homophobic remarks and to her presence on January 6. On Sunday, Chad Loder, an extremism researcher, posted photos of Barnette marching toward the Capitol in the vicinity of since-indicted members of the Proud Boys. News outlets quickly picked up the photos. (Barnette has said that she didn’t go onto Capitol grounds.)

Barnette, in the end, will not win in Pennsylvania. One of her close allies, Doug Mastriano, did, however, win the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary yesterday—and his views on 2020 are even more extreme; as Mahtesian notes, Mastriano has been “arguably the main promoter” of the Big Lie in Pennsylvania politics, using his perch as a state senator to push for a spurious so-called “audit” of the results, and he, too, marched on January 6. (The US House committee investigating the insurrection later subpoenaed him.) Mastriano was a front-runner for longer than Barnette, and so attracted more coverage in both local and national media, though again, the former’s was much more intense than the latter’s. As primary day neared, Mastriano, too, tried to evade scrutiny, banning press from his rallies, including a joint event with Barnette; according to the Inquirer, his campaign printed photos of individual journalists so that staffers might identify and stop them at the door; according to NBC, an aide who enforced the ban entered the Capitol grounds on January 6. When Mastriano’s campaign barred reporters from CNN from a rally, the reporters filmed the event from a balcony in an adjacent hotel. Security guards tried to stop this, too, but without success.

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Last night, Mastriano bashed the press in general, and the Washington Post in particular, in his victory speech. This morning, the headlines in various major outlets were blunt—NBC’s called him a “far-right election denier”; the Inquirer’s referred to his “campaign fueled by election lies”—though others didn’t make as much of an effort to add context. (The Hill: “Mastriano wins Pennsylvania GOP governor primary despite party concerns.”) If elected governor, Mastriano would hold considerable sway over the next presidential election in Pennsylvania, including via his right to appoint the secretary of state. The lead paragraph of a story by Reid J. Epstein, a Times reporter, framed the upcoming race between Mastriano and the Democrat Josh Shapiro as “a referendum on democracy in the place where American representative government was born.”

Media critics have long urged news organizations to frame the choices currently facing American voters with this type of clarity, with several of the same voices redoubling such calls as the latest round of primaries approached. Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Post, argued that the press must “clearly and unflinchingly” convey that “if Mastriano wins the general election, there is almost certainly no chance that a Democratic presidential candidate’s victory in Pennsylvania in 2024 will be certified by the state’s governor,” even if that framing “seems so outlandish that it’s easy to dismiss as mere partisan posturing.” Margaret Sullivan, Sargent’s colleague, warned that despite some added urgency of late in covering the broader threat to the future of democracy, political media as a whole could still do a better job. Sullivan also warned that time is running out. Making voters understand the gravity of the stakes, she wrote, “will require a come-from-behind sprint like the one Rich Strike pulled off,” a reference to the winner of the recent Kentucky Derby.

If broad invocations of threats to US democracy can sometimes sound abstract, extremist candidates performing strongly in elections for high office can, or at least should, focus the mind. The same is true of the calls for journalists to cover these threats better. More than that, the contours of the Pennsylvania primaries, in particular, can be read as a metaphor of sorts for the trajectory of democracy coverage as a whole: talented journalists did due diligence on both Barnette and Mastriano from the start of their campaigns, but it took the upper echelons of the national press time to wake up, leading to a mad scramble of last-minute scrutiny.

Just as it isn’t too late to bring more urgency to coverage of the national threat to democracy, it isn’t too late—between now and November—to center the threat that Mastriano poses to the 2024 election in Pennsylvania, whether or not we can get access to his rallies. Doing so will require more stories about electoral mechanics and far fewer about the horse race and electability; indeed, the electability that matters most now is voters’ ability to elect their favored candidates. Without that, magic walls and big boards are pointless.

Below, more on the primaries:

  • Backsliding: Will Bunch, a columnist at the Inquirer, wrote over the weekend about Mastriano banning the press from his events, noting that reporters who tried to attend one rally were blocked from entering by “a guy all decked out in circa-1776, self-styled patriot garb, topped by a tri-corner hat”—a scene befitting “a picture next to the word ‘irony’ in the dictionary.” The hat guy “and his backup goons may look like a joke, but the threat they pose is very, very real,” Bunch continued, before quoting the historian Heather Cox Richardson’s warning that “silencing the press is authoritarianism 101.”
  • The Fox primary: The Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania exposed a divide between influential hosts at Fox News: Sean Hannity pulled hard for Oz and was reportedly key in landing him Trump’s endorsement, but Laura Ingraham ended up promoting Barnette, defending her against supposed “smears.” The rift, Blake Hounshell reported for the Times, extended to other corners of the right-wing media ecosystem: the radio hosts and former Trump officials Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon lobbed “softball questions” at Barnette, while Hugh Hewitt backed McCormick.
  • Notable results: Whoever prevails in Pennsylvania—Oz or McCormick—will face John Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor and Democratic Senate nominee, in the fall. Elsewhere, Brad Little, the incumbent Republican governor of Idaho, held off a primary challenge from Janice McGeachin, his far-right lieutenant governor. And Ted Budd won a Republican Senate primary in North Carolina and will face the Democrat Cheri Beasley. In the same state, scandal-plagued Republican congressman Madison Cawthorn lost his primary for reelection to Chuck Edwards. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy notes, Cawthorn is “destined for a role in right-wing media”; the only question is where.


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: WARMINSTER, PENNSYLVANIA - MAY 14: Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano embraces Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Kathy Barnette during a campaign rally at The Fuge on May 14, 2022 in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Mastriano, the front-runner in the Governor's May 17th primary race, held a campaign rally today after receiving a late endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Mastriano was joined by Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Barnette on what she is calling her final campaign rally. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)