“Local media, unlike national outlets, are less likely to highlight an outrageous statement.”

From a Washington Post story by Elahe Izadi and Paul Farhi headlined “All campaign news is local: The real strategy behind the Trump and Biden visits to your town”:

When President Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Allentown, Pa., last week, he made national news for claiming that the United States was “rounding the turn” on the coronavirus pandemic — a bizarre assertion just two days after the nation broke its record for the highest one-day number of new cases. . . .

Closer to the scene, it was a different news story.

“President Trump spoke to the crowd about the importance of voting on Election Day, his plans for the next four years, and the ongoing pandemic,” reported Scranton’s WNEP-TV. The ABC affiliate said Trump claimed that former vice president Joe Biden “would do away with fracking.” In fact, Biden has said he does not oppose fracking — a big business in Pennsylvania — only new fracking on federal land, but the news segment did not provide that context.

There’s a reason the candidates have been spending so much time in places like Allentown — and it’s not just the face-time they get with the few thousand swing-state voters, at most, who might show up for their rallies.

Far more important is the chance to monopolize the attention of local media — who, unlike their national brethren, are less likely to highlight an outrageous statement or gaffe and more likely to focus on the straight campaign talking points candidates are desperate to hammer home. So campaigns plan candidates’ stops with the local press in mind and sometimes craft brief messages of strictly local import. . . .

Political junkies obsessing over every revelation and swerve in national news coverage may underestimate the importance of local reporting for voters. More Americans trust local news sources than national ones, and they’re more likely to view local reporters — familiar faces, many of whom they may have seen in person around town — as more accurate and trustworthy than their counterparts at bigger media organizations. . . .

Trump’s visits dominated area print media as well. The Morning Call of Allentown, the largest newspaper in the Lehigh Valley, kept readers up to date on the day’s traffic. Its front-page story the following day quoted enthusiastic rally attendees, highlighted Trump’s attack on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and explained conspiracy theories behind some of Trump’s pandemic shutdown claims.

The Trump events last week came after Biden visited the state recently, hosting a morning drive-in rally in Bucks County with his wife, Jill, a native of neighboring Montgomery County (as local news outlets pointed out). He did an interview with KYW, Philadelphia’s CBS-owned station, immediately afterward, which the station promoted as an “exclusive.” This, too, is a typical campaign strategy — offering interviews that require little of the candidate’s time, and granting exclusive access to the highest-rated station in a market.

Stations with exclusive access tend to promote the interviews more, which means a candidate’s face and voice will dominate the station’s newscasts that day, upstaging his opponent’s presence in the news cycle. . .

While in Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania, near Biden’s hometown of Scranton, the Biden campaign hosted a drive-in rally featuring rock star Jon Bon Jovi, whose mini-concert included acoustic versions of songs like “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Celebrity appearances are a surefire local media magnet, but they have been rare this campaign season because of the pandemic. Bon Jovi, who repeatedly touted Biden (as a man of “empathy, character and experience”), attracted news reports from the local Times-Leader newspaper and the ABC affiliate, among others. . . .

Trump has made it clear he values the attention of local media.

Yet this year, Trump has faced tougher questioning from local TV affiliates over his campaign strategy, which involves holding large in-person events with varied mask usage and no social distancing. Biden has opted for virtual or smaller in-person gatherings.

Charles Benson, an anchor for Milwaukee NBC affiliate WTMJ-TV, pushed Trump on the fact that his own coronavirus task force warned that not adhering to mask-wearing and social distancing recommendations will lead to “preventable deaths.” “Your own public health experts are saying holding rallies right now is not a good thing,” Benson said to Trump. “Aren’t you sending the wrong message by holding them?”

Elahe Izadi currently writes about media for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2014 as a general assignment reporter, and has covered pop culture, politics, race and local news.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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