With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the right-wing media playbook doesn't work
Right-wing media are obsessed with insulting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and she's playing them like a fiddle
Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated House Democratic Caucus Chair and 10-term Rep. Joseph Crowley in a June 2018 primary, The Associated Press didn’t even bother to include her name in its tweet calling the race in her favor, referring to her as just “young challenger.”
The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan pointed to the lack of Ocasio-Cortez coverage during the primary race as proof that “Big Media” hasn’t kept pace with American politics. Her win shocked political journalists and left publications such as The New York Times scrambling to cobble together explainer articles asking, “Who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?”
It would be a massive understatement to say that newly sworn-in Rep. Ocasio-Cortez no longer suffers from a dearth of media attention -- and, in a sense, she has conservative media to thank for that.
Within days of her primary win, right-wing news organizations and commentators latched on to Ocasio-Cortez as a target. As an unabashed democratic socialist who ran on the type of ambitious platform representative of virtually everything that conservatives oppose -- such as Medicare for All, housing as a human right, gun safety, a federal jobs guarantee, the abolition of private prisons, free public college education, and climate change action -- Ocasio-Cortez was fodder for Fox News segments declaring her the future of the Democratic Party.
On July 3, Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt warned viewers that “socialism is surging in America,” and insisted that this was “the new battle cry of the left.” Her evidence: Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory. That same day on Fox Business Network’s Varney & Co., guest Peter Morici called Ocasio-Cortez “the modern-day Saul Alinsky,” a favorite bogeyman for conservatives.
Later that month, The Daily Caller published associate editor Virginia Kruta’s account of seeing Ocasio-Cortez speak at a campaign rally. In the piece, Kruta describes the experience as “truly terrifying. I saw just how easy it would be, were I less involved and less certain of our nation’s founding and its history, to fall for the populist lines they were shouting from that stage.” What kind of populist lines? Kruta continues: “I saw how easy it would be, as a parent, to accept the idea that my children deserve healthcare and education. I saw how easy it would be, as someone who has struggled to make ends meet, to accept the idea that a ‘living wage’ was a human right.” Everybody being paid enough to live, to not starve, to be able to go to the doctor without worrying that it will bankrupt your family? Oh, the absolute horror! Naturally, Fox interviewed the author soon after.
Fox News was taking a chance in elevating Ocasio-Cortez’s visibility, banking on its viewers to grimace at the merest mention of socialism like a child being forced to eat broccoli. However, the outsized coverage relative to her actual level of influence within the Democratic Party -- remember, at this point she hadn’t even been elected to Congress -- had the effect of actually increasing her power and popularity.
On June 25, Ocasio-Cortez had roughly 48,800 Twitter followers. By the end of July, after a month of laser-focused conservative media attention, she had more than 770,000. Today, that number sits at more than 2 million.
Right-wing criticisms of Ocasio-Cortez can be divided into a few categories with some overlap between them. Let’s explore those for a moment.
A huge chunk of the conservative criticisms being made against Ocasio-Cortez can be summed up in two words: “She’s stupid.” From claiming that she “represents the need for an intelligence test before somebody is ever allowed to run and hold public office” to simply calling her “Dumb-dumb,” taking jabs at her intelligence has become something of a favorite pastime for a number of conservative journalists and commentators. Here are a few examples:
Washington Times Opinion Editor Charles Hurt: “[Ocasio-Cortez] went to school, apparently, went to college, but didn’t learn anything, didn’t learn five seconds of history about anything. They have no concept of the dangers of socialism.” [Varney & Co., 7/18/18]
CRTV’s Curt Schilling: “You are being scrutinized and treated with suspicion because every time you speak you say something more stupid than the last time you spoke. You are a college graduate and likely the most unintelligent person, man or woman, in our government.” [Twitter, 12/11/18]
Fox Business host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery: “Her brain is as empty as the promises of unfettered statism.” [Kennedy, 12/6/18]
The Daily Wire’s Andrew Klavan: “This woman is a dangerous ignoramus.” [The Andrew Klavan Show, 1/3/19]
Fox Business senior correspondent Charles Gasparino: “This is a freshman rep that barely knows where the Capitol building is. … She has no idea about economics. Just go back and listen to her musings, which are idiotic.” [Cavuto Coast to Coast, 1/4/19]
- Former Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes: “[Ocasio-Cortez] is not exactly the brightest star in the sky. That’s for sure.” [Varney & Co., 7/20/18]
There are also the conspiracy theories that she’s secretly rich or that she somehow “lied” about being from the Bronx. Additionally, the fact that she used to go by the nickname “Sandy” (a common nickname for people named Alexandria) is a scandal of epic proportions for some reason. Oh, and she once borrowed expensive clothes for a photoshoot -- emphasis on borrowed.
A June 27 New York Times profile explains her upbringing:
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s mother was born in Puerto Rico. Her late father, Sergio Ocasio, an architect, was born in the Bronx. The family lived in Parkchester, a planned community of mid-rise buildings, in the same apartment where Ms. Ocasio-Cortez now lives, until Alexandria was about 5, when they moved an hour north to a modest two-bedroom house on a quiet street in Yorktown Heights, a suburb in Westchester County, in search of better schools.
How modest was that two-bedroom house in Yorktown Heights? Newsmax host John Cardillo decided to post a picture of it, seemingly to write her off as a rich elitist or something of the sort.
Following her November election, Ocasio-Cortez gave an interview to The New York Times which discussed some of the steps she had to take to prepare for her transition to Congress:
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said the transition period will be “very unusual, because I can’t really take a salary. I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress. So, how do I get an apartment? Those little things are very real.” She said she saved money before leaving her job at the restaurant, and planned accordingly with her partner. “We’re kind of just dealing with the logistics of it day by day, but I’ve really been just kind of squirreling away and then hoping that gets me to January.”
This led to yet another right-wing media freakout and a lot of misleading headlines. “Ocasio-Cortez claims she can't afford DC apartment, but records show she has at least $15,000 in savings,” read the headline of a post at FoxNews.com, noting that “records show she has more than enough to plunk down on an apartment in the U.S. capital.” At no point did she say she couldn’t afford an apartment; she did suggest that it would be hard to pay for one with a three-month gap in salary. She noted that she and her partner had saved, but her comments highlighted the broader point that it can be a major challenge for anyone other than the affluent to run for office. In any case, CNBC did a follow-up and found that Ocasio-Cortez actually had less than half of that in her account.
True or not, a narrative had been created and now she was going to be slimed for it.
Sean Hannity: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually said she can't afford an apartment in D.C. There's one little itsy bitsy problem: She actually can. She apparently has $15,000 in the bank.” [The Sean Hannity Show, 11/13/18]
Ed Henry of Fox News: “It turns out when you read deeper, she had a lot more formative years in Westchester County, New York, which is a little ritzier than the Bronx. … Her resume doesn’t always match up, and some of those [photo] shoots during the campaign, she had these multithousand-dollar outfits that could pay a month’s rent in Washington, D.C.” [America’s Newsroom, 11/9/18]
Michael Knowles of The Daily Caller: “She is a liar; she lied about her upbringing. She pretended to be from a poor part of the Bronx and grow up there. In reality, she grew up in a ritzy part of one of the ritziest counties in the country.” [Fox & Friends, 7/17/18]
Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pretends to be a champion of the people & believes the unemployment went down because [people] were taking two jobs, just posed in a photoshoot with a $3,500 outfit, $625 shoes all while saying the rich have too much power and that socialism hasn’t been tried.” [Twitter, 9/13/18]
- Jim Hoft of The Gateway Pundit: “Yorktown Elitist and Bronx Hoaxer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Went by ‘Sandy’ Well into College at Boston U” [Twitter, 1/6/19]
And did you know that Ocasio-Cortez wants to turn America into Venezuela?! She doesn’t, actually, but that hasn’t stopped conservative media from invoking the troubled South American country to slam socialism in the same way they name-drop Chicago to dismiss gun safety measures. Pointing to Venezuela to explain why socialism doesn’t work is much like pointing to the 2008 global financial collapse to explain why capitalism is ineffective; while both examples can certainly be used as part of an argument, invoking them as the entire argument is a faulty generalization.
In truth, the policies Ocasio-Cortez supports tend to either be things that the U.S. has successfully used in the past (such as a higher marginal tax rate), or they’re policies that other countries have widely implemented (single-payer health care is used around the world). But to hear some of her loudest critics, she aspires to be an American incarnation of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. On the plus side, this critique is actually related to her policy positions, so that’s a nice change of pace!
Republican National Committee (RNC): “Meet Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The Mini-Maduro Foreboding The Future Of Democrats.” [email, 8/16/18]
RNC Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon: “You have the lunatic left, the Ocasio-Cortez wing, that are going full Venezuela on politics.” [Lou Dobbs Tonight, 7/25/18]
Fox News guest Morgan Ortagus (now a Fox contributor): “Just to the south of us, we have a picture of what this woman running for Congress wants to see happen, in Venezuela, versus in Colombia. It’s the most stark picture we could draw for our audience, and it is quite scary what is happening in Venezuela.“ [America’s Newsroom, 7/24/18]
Ryan Saavedra of The Daily Wire: “If Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk are elected to office then the U.S. will turn into Venezuela, where people are literally hungry and are fighting for food.” [Twitter, 10/16/18]
- The Reagan Battalion: “Dear [Ocasio-Cortez], your dancing is absolutely superb and it is fantastic that you are bringing youthful energy to the halls of Congress. But let’s not forget the plight of the young women in Venezuela who would love to have the ability to dance, but are way too hungry & weak to do that.” [Twitter, 1/4/19]
Of course, to the great shock of absolutely no one, there’s also a fair amount of garden-variety sexism thrown into a lot of the criticism for good measure.
Fox Business’ Dagen McDowell: “I would argue that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets all of the support that she does because she's a woman.” [Mornings with Maria Bartiromo, 10/30/18]
Fox News guest Ed Rollins called Ocasio-Cortez “the little girl.” [Lou Dobbs Tonight, 1/4/19]
Rush Limbaugh called Ocasio-Cortez “some young uppity.” [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 1/8/19]
Bill Mitchell: “This Ocasio-Cortez woman has perhaps the most annoying, squeaky voice since Mini (sic) Mouse.” [Twitter, 11/18/18]
Candace Owens of Turning Point USA: “Similar to Christine Blasey Ford, [Ocasio-Cortez] constantly infantilizes her voice to sound like a toddler so that journalists don’t critique her dangerous ideas. This is creepy. She is a 30 yr old adult woman trying to pass as a naive, threatened little girl.” [Twitter, 1/6/19]
Jesse Kelly of The Federalist: “She’s kind of cute, though. … There is nothing wrong with a little bit of crazy, man. A little bit of crazy can be fun. I’m not talking about marrying her; I'm just talking about a date or two. She looks kind of cute.” [Stinchfield, 1/4/19]
After Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that House Democrats would soon have subpoena power in response to a meme attacking her that was shared by Donald Trump Jr., Michael Moates of The DC Chronicle tweeted: “There is a new standard in Congress. Bitches will subpoena you if you troll them.” [Twitter, 12/7/18]
Eddie Scarry of the Washington Examiner tweeted a candid photo of Ocasio-Cortez designed to both promote the idea that she’s secretly rich and function as a bit of a sexist jab. Its caption read: “Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now. I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” [Twitter, 11/15/18]
The Daily Caller published a previously debunked photo with the headline: “Here’s The Photo Some People Described As A Nude Selfie Of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” [Twitter, 1/9/19] (Newsworthiness of the story aside, the photo had had already been determined not to be her, and that information absolutely should have been noted in the tweet and headline.)
It’s hard to explain exactly why right-wing media are so obsessed with her, but there are a few plausible theories.
Before even taking office, Ocasio-Cortez was being scrutinized and held to a standard more fit for a presidential candidate than a freshman member of Congress. Like all politicians, she will occasionally misspeak, misstate a fact or a figure from memory, or inartfully articulate her message. For instance, Ocasio-Cortez once accidentally referred to the presidency and the two chambers of Congress as the “three chambers of government” during a video chat. Conservative news organizations pounced on the error, treating it as somehow newsworthy and running headlines like “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Flubs Basic Government 101 Facts” (The Daily Caller), “Ocasio-Cortez Has No Idea What The 3 Branches Of Government Are” (The Daily Wire), and “Ocasio-Cortez Fails to Name Three Branches of Government” (Breitbart).
Rhetorical slip-ups are common and politicians certainly understand that anything they say or do can and will be used against them in the court of public opinion. What’s unusual is how focused the spotlight seems to be on Ocasio-Cortez so early in her career. When it comes to politicians who scare them -- that is to say, politicians who exude charisma and can cut through the news cycle’s noise to argue in favor of policies that may resonate with large swaths of the country -- right-wing media will obsess over these gaffes for years to come. A great example occurred in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama slipped up and said that he had visited “57 states” instead of 47. While we all know that he knew how many states there were, this was instantly treated as a giant story by right-wing media. A conservative blog mocked him by selling 57-star lapel pins, and it was widely covered at the time (and still gets mentioned every so often).
So are right-wing media scared of Ocasio-Cortez and what she represents? Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief at The Intercept and one of the small number of journalists who covered the Ocasio-Cortez campaign well before her primary win, thinks there’s a simpler explanation.
“I’ve noticed the alt-right has some admiration for her, which I think is sympathy for her anti-establishment bent,” Grim wrote in an email before offering an explanation for why journalists not explicitly part of the “alt-right” (such as The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro or The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft) are so focused on her. “I also think she’s great for traffic, which explains some of the right wing fixation.”
“They’re entertainers and nothing more,” he continued. “Understood through that lens, their approach makes financial sense for them. They’re exploiting her for clicks and contributions from right wing readers the same way some grifters on the left have done with Trump.”
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has her own thoughts about why we’re seeing so much Ocasio-Cortez press so early in her career.
“Some media and political figures apparently are deeply uncomfortable with her and what she represents: youth, diversity, grassroots authenticity, social-media savvy and a willingness to break with the pack,” Sullivan writes in an email. “So the outsize attention is partly a sort of panicked, semi-aware effort to grapple with all that, and maybe put her in what some see as her place. Some of the media attention, too, simply arises from her being of significant interest to readers and viewers because of the qualities I mention, not from antipathy.”
A handful of conservatives are starting to realize what’s happening after early attempts to target her have only given her views more sway over American politics.
If you hold a microphone up to a speaker, the unpleasant noise you hear is a result of feedback. The longer you leave the microphone in place, the more that noise will be amplified. In running those early segments following Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win, right-wing media placed the proverbial microphone in front of the speaker with the goal of creating a loud distraction ahead of 2018’s midterm elections -- but now they don’t know how to make it stop.
Conservative radio host Wayne Dupree asked his followers whether they thought Ocasio-Cortez would be the rising star she is without the relentless right-wing attacks, correctly noting that the Democratic establishment was actually not very pleased with her primary victory.
Right-wing writer Matt Walsh wrote that Ocasio-Cortez “is a star today in part because of the Right’s weird fixation on her.”
We have seen this scenario play out before in the way liberals elevate conservative figures they disagree with and mock. Tomi Lahren, for instance, was hosting a web show at TheBlaze just a couple short years ago. Sure, her videos had a wide reach, but she was hardly a household name until The Daily Show began making jokes about her show and eventually invited her on for the interview that set the rest of her career in motion. Soon after, she appeared on The View and made controversial comments about abortion that ended her career at TheBlaze, at which point she appeared on ABC’s World News Tonight to complain that she was being “silenced.” Lahren was quickly picked up by Fox News and is now one of the network’s stars.
There’s little doubt that the attacks against Ocasio-Cortez will continue, and there’s even less worry that she won’t be up for the task for fighting back. But she almost certainly wouldn’t be sitting down for a widely watched interview on 60 Minutes had she not been intentionally elevated early on by conservative media. Instead, a socialist star was born, leaving right-wing news outlets with a tough decision to make about how they cover her going forward -- one they may soon regret.