For those interested enough in the 2014 elections to read stories about them in the premier newspapers of our time, The Washington Post and The New York Times, you would know about the bios of Ernst and Cotton, two prize GOP recruits this election cycle. But you would be likely clueless about the wacky or extreme things they have said. Why?
The most common press narrative for elections this year is to contrast them with the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. Back then, the GOP “establishment” lost control of its nominating process, ended up with a group of extreme Senate candidates who said wacky things—Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle—and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in races that should have been slam dunks. Now the opposite has happened: The establishment has fought back and won, vanquishing the Tea Party and picking top-flight candidates who are disciplined and mainstream, dramatically unlike Akin and Angle.
It is a great narrative, a wonderful organizing theme. But any evidence that contradicts or clouds the narrative devalues it, which is perhaps why evidence to the contrary tends to be downplayed or ignored. Meantime, stories that show personal gaffes or bonehead moves by the opponents of these new, attractive mainstream candidates, fit that narrative and are highlighted.
The other day, The Washington Post carried a front-page profile of Joni Ernst by feature reporter Monica Hesse. The piece was particularly striking—a long, warm, almost reverential portrait of a woman candidate charming Iowans by doing it “the Iowa way”—no doubt, an accurate portrayal by a veteran journalist. Hesse did suggest, in passing, that Ernst has taken some controversial positions in the past, such as supporting “personhood,” but emphasized that she has walked them back. Not mentioned in the piece was Ernst’s flirtation with one of the craziest conspiracy theories, or her comments on dependency—or her suggestion that she would use the gun she packs if the government ever infringed on her rights.
Those who follow election coverage in the Post would know something more about Ernst’s opponent, Democratic Representative Bruce Braley. They might know two things, actually, neither of them related to his record in Congress or his positions on vital issues: that Braley and his wife have had run-ins with a neighbor over the neighbor’s chickens coming onto their property, and that Michelle Obama, on a campaign visit for Braley, referred to him as “Bruce Bailey.”
A Nexis search shows that the Post has had four references to Ernst and Agenda 21—all by Greg Sargent on his blog from the left, The Plum Line, and none on the news pages of the paper. But there have been dozens of references to Braley’s spat over the neighbor’s chickens, including a front-page story. The New York Times had zero references to Ernst and Agenda 21, but seven, including in a Gail Collins column, to Braley and chickens. The Post did have a fact-check column by Glenn Kessler devoted to the Cotton claims on Mexican drug lords and ISIS terrorists—Cotton did not fare well—but no news stories. The Times did not mention it at all.