The press coverage of Tuesday night’s debate for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania demonstrates one of the fundamental asymmetries that shape American electoral politics: Right-wing outlets that Republicans trust (for better or worse) are largely staffed by disciplined partisans dedicated to using their propaganda to help their party win elections, while the mainstream outlets Democrats trust (for better or worse) are not.
The result of that phenomenon may be that Democrats’ views more accurately reflect reality. But it also helps explain why Republicans are so successful in setting the terms of the political discussion, in Pennsylvania and across the country.
The New York Times published a story in its Tuesday edition which framed the Senate debate around the question of Democratic nominee John Fetterman’s health, under the headline, “Fetterman’s Debate Challenges: Selling Policies and Proving He’s Fit to Serve.” Fetterman suffered a stroke five months ago and faces lingering difficulties processing spoken words that require accommodations.
The paper made an editorial decision to hone in on one of the main attacks that Republican nominee Mehmet Oz and his allies levy against Fetterman. There was no parallel Times article detailing the challenges Oz faced. The paper could have foregrounded the question of whether Oz needed to demonstrate, as a wealthy first-time candidate from New Jersey, some fluency with the issues facing Pennsylvanians; or whether he would need to bat down recent stories about his unethical behavior as a celebrity doctor. It did not.
This is a trend for the Times’ coverage of the Pennsylvania election. The paper’s recent stories on the race all focus on Oz’s criticisms of Fetterman and whether or not they are landing. And following the debate, in which Fetterman performed like someone who suffered a stroke five months ago and faces lingering difficulties processing spoken words that require accommodations, the Times again framed its article around Fetterman’s health and Oz’s attacks.
Mainstream political journalists at other outlets similarly decided that Fetterman’s communications difficulties were the story of the night, and devoted reams of commentary to how swing voters might respond. I think it’s an open question whether they sincerely believe this is the most important takeaway from the debate or whether they are responding to an incentive structure in which journalists bend over backwards to avoid right-wing criticism, but either way, that’s what they are signaling to their audiences.
It’s impossible to imagine the leading lights of the right-wing media — the stars of Fox News and other properties owned by Rupert Murdoch, major talk radio and podcast hosts, and digital publications like Breitbart and The Federalist — behaving in the same way. As Republican partisans first with little interest in journalistic scruples, they rallied around Georgia Senate nominee Herschel Walker following reports that he urged his partner to have an abortion and reimbursed her after she did, just as they largely stood by Alabama Senate nominee Roy Moore after reports emerged in 2017 that he had sought out sexual relationships with teenagers as young as 14, and as they’ve continued to support Donald Trump amid years of chaos and bigotry. Indeed, the right-wing media audience and its ownership punishes outlets that divert from the party line, either purging heretics or forcing them back into the fold.
While mainstream outlets like the Times provoke the anxieties of their Democratic audiences, the right’s outlets are functioning as propagandistic adjuncts of the GOP candidates. Here’s Fox’s response to the debate:
Fox has been effectively functioning as a pro-Oz super PAC since its prime-time host Sean Hannity helped him win the GOP nomination. Hannity and his peers give Oz a regular platform to spout his talking points and raise money from their viewers. They helped write — and constantly amplify — his dishonest attack lines about crime. On Fox, Fetterman is a “pro-murderer” fracking flip-flopper whose stroke turned him into some combination of a vegetable and a cyborg. Their narratives have made their way into the mainstream press discourse.
Right-wing media are able to set the terms of the political debate in this way because they are deliberately shaping their coverage with an eye toward Republican victories. Fox’s stars spend much more time than their mainstream cable competitors on crucial races, and their treatment is overtly propagandistic — Hannity, for instance, is currently touring swing states for “town halls” with GOP candidates. They focus on issues like crime that they describe as key to a “red wave,” while ignoring issues they know hurt GOP chances for success, like abortion.
Fox and the right-wing media may do a poor job of selecting credible GOP candidates — but they back those candidates up with unrelenting support to help them to victory. The mainstream press just doesn’t do that for Democrats. One can argue about whether or not it should, but that reality shapes our politics.