The role of local news in covering Trump's end game
By Lauren Harris
On Saturday, Senator Ted Cruz led eleven Republican senators and senators-elect declaring their intention to vote against certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. On the same day, President Trump pressed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to help overturn election results in his favor; on Sunday afternoon, The Washington Post broke the story, along with audio from the phone call.
The Post’s news-breaking was laudatory, and the story’s content was appalling, if not surprising (a theme of the Trump presidency to the bitter end). Trump’s willingness to undermine the electoral process is dangerous and consequential, though whether or not he himself will face consequences this close to the end of his term is very much in question.
The country has cast its votes. For all of his lies and machinations, Trump lost and, in a few weeks, he will leave office. But Republican senators willing to vote against a legitimate election result will remain. In a splintered and hobbling media system in which valuable reporting is devastatingly unlikely to change many minds about the president, how will the press cover those leaders who will hold office beyond Trump’s tenure? And how will Republican officials—who will hold office beyond Trump’s tenure—respond to the Post’s damning scoop?
The answer could come down, in part, to the nation’s increasingly ailing local-news ecosystem. There are many reasons local news matters, one being the democratic function of local political reporting, with its hyper-specific attention to the ways in which elected officials represent their constituents. While national outlets cover political figures for a national audience, local outlets cover political figures for the specific audience with the most investment in—and potential influence over—their behavior. Millions of Americans might applaud Ted Cruz’s actions; millions more might decry them. But only Texans can vote for him.
Of the largest newspapers representing states represented by senators who will vote against certifying Biden’s win, some succeeded in providing crucial context; others failed. On the plus side, the Baton Rouge Advocate wrote on a Saturday that “Louisiana Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy said Saturday he would join an effort to refuse certifying electors from six states, in hopes of denying the presidency to the election's winner, Joe Biden.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel led with a similar note about Senator Ron Johnson’s participation in the effort “despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud.” But as of Sunday night, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the largest paper in Tennessee, had published nothing about Marsha Blackburn’s or Bill Hagerty’s decision to vote against certification of Biden’s win. The Indianapolis Star, writing about Senator Mike Braun, called claims of voter fraud “false or unverified,” but not until the fifth paragraph of the story. The Oklahoman (home to Sen. James Lankford) dipped its toe into both-sides-ism, including Lankford's own statements before quoting an opponent who called them "gibberish." The editorial boards of the Billings Gazette (Steve Daines) and the Kansas City Star (Josh Hawley) convened to condemn the motions of their state senators as "extreme, unjustified,” and “desperate—and dangerous,” respectively.
As we spend the coming days watching how Republicans will respond to the Post’s damning reporting, best to keep one eye on local outlets and consider their role in maintaining ever-tenuous democracy.