Joni Ernst is an Iowan, born and bred, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, and the Republican nominee for the Senate in Iowa. She has also flirted seriously with wacky conspiracy theories, especially Agenda 21, which takes off from an innocuous, voluntary UN resolution and turns it into a sinister plot which, as the John Birch Society says, “seeks for the government to curtail your freedom to travel as you please, own a gas-powered car, live in suburbs or rural areas, and raise a family. Furthermore, it would eliminate your private property rights through eminent domain.” And she has made comments about Americans totally dependent on government that make Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” observations look almost populist by comparison.
Tom Cotton, who is the Republican nominee for the Senate in Arkansas, is a congressman, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and a decorated veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has also said, at a town-hall meeting, “Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism. They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.”
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.
Of course, this does not mean that the press has a Republican bias, any more than it had an inherent Democratic bias in 2012 when Akin, Angle, and Mourdock led the coverage. What it suggests is how deeply the eagerness to pick a narrative and stick with it, and to resist stories that contradict the narrative, is embedded in the culture of campaign journalism. The alternative theory, that the Republican establishment won by surrendering its ground to its more ideologically extreme faction, picking candidates who are folksy and have great resumes but whose issue stances are much the same as their radical Tea Party rivals, goes mostly ignored. Meanwhile, there was plenty of coverage of the admittedly bonehead refusal by Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes to say she had voted for Obama—dozens of press references to NBC’s Chuck Todd saying it was “disqualifying”—but no stories saying that references to Agenda 21 or talking about terrorists and drug lords out to kill Arkansans were disqualifying.
For horserace reporting, the broader narrative is a good one to frame and organize stories and coverage. But it’s not a very good way for readers to figure out how the people they vote for might actually behave in the Senate. And that’s not very good news for voters or the political process.
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