The Danger of Local News Anchors Jumping Into Politics

From a story on CJR’s The Media Today with Jon Allsop headlined “Kari Lake, and the danger of local news anchors jumping into politics”:

LAST YEAR, Kari Lake, a news anchor at Fox 10, a local TV station in Phoenix, announced in a video posted to social media that, following a period of leave, she had made the difficult decision to quit journalism. “Sadly, journalism has changed a lot since I first stepped into a newsroom, and I’ll be honest—I don’t like the direction it’s going,” Lake said. “I found myself reading news copy that I didn’t believe was fully truthful, or only told part of the story, and I began to fear that I was contributing to the fear and division in this country by continuing on in this profession.” Lake thanked her bosses for giving her the opportunity to cover big stories, then thanked her viewers and those she’d met in the community for their “trust and friendship” over the years.

Lake worked at Fox 10 for twenty-two years, and at an NBC affiliate in Phoenix before that; in between times, she worked briefly as an anchor at WNYT in Albany, New York, stepping into the shoes of Chris Jansing, now of MSNBC. As Bill Goodykoontz, a media critic at the Arizona Republic, wrote on Lake’s retirement from Fox 10, she did “her share of responsible journalism” over the years. But the latter part of her media career was perhaps more notable for controversies. In 2018, Lake apologized after tweeting that a movement around teacher pay was actually a smoke screen for “a big push to legalize pot”; the following year, she found herself in reefer-related hot water again after she was caught on a hot mic referring to the Phoenix New Times, an alt-weekly, as “a rag for selling marijuana” staffed by “twenty-year-old dopes.” The latter remarks came amid a broader controversy around Lake’s setting up an account on Parler, a social media site popular on the far right; last year, while she was on leave, she joined Gab, an even fringier platform. She claimed that her leave from Fox 10 was personal, not disciplinary. On her way out, she warned viewers to disregard any “hit pieces” about her that might be about to come out. “Not everyone is dedicated to telling the truth, but thankfully many of you have figured that out,” she said. “I promise you: if you hear it from my lips, it will be truthful.”

A few months later, Lake announced that she was running for governor of Arizona as a Republican. The primary is today and, although the race has tightened of late, Lake stands a strong chance of winning. Since announcing her candidacy, Lake has drawn national-media scrutiny for advancing a range of extreme positions, most notably the lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent and that Donald Trump actually won. She has already suggested that her own upcoming election is being stolen, and the Daily Beast has described her as “Exhibit A in the Trump team’s plan to install friendly governors in states to potentially overturn votes in his favor in 2024.” Lake has won the backing of a rogues’ gallery of election deniers, not least Trump himself. “She is a fantastic person who spent many years working as a highly respected television anchor and journalist,” Trump said as he endorsed Lake soon after she declared her candidacy last summer. “Because of this, few can take on the Fake News Media like Kari.”

Lake’s background as a local-news anchor has also drawn attention, with various national outlets charting her strange path from respected media figure to Trumpian media-basher. In the latter sense, Lake is notably extreme; more broadly, it’s uncommon for journalists to jump into politics in the US. But, as I wrote last year, it’s hardly unprecedented—and local-news anchors, in particular, have traced the path before, going back decades. In the sixties, Tom McCall, a former radio and TV newscaster, was elected governor of Oregon as a Republican, on an environmental platform. In the nineties, Diane Allen, a longtime TV news anchor in Philadelphia, jumped into New Jersey politics, returning to the scene last year as the running mate to the state’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, who ultimately lost. Rebecca Kleefisch was a TV news anchor in Milwaukee prior to serving as Wisconsin’s Republican lieutenant governor from 2011-19; she’s now running for governor, and faces a primary next week. In 2020, María Elvira Salazar—who worked at a station in Miami, then at Telemundo—won a US House seat in Florida, also as a Republican. Last year, Tiffany O’Donnell, a former anchor at KGAN in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, became that city’s mayor.

If there are lots of (R)s after the names in the preceding paragraphs, several former anchors have sought, or are currently seeking, office as Democrats or third-party candidates. My search for anchors-turned-office-seekers was neither exhaustive nor especially scientific, so I’ve surely missed some. (If you know of an interesting example, past or present, that I’ve not cited here, please get in touch at [email protected]; I’d love to hear about it.)

The examples I did turn up, however, were disproportionately Republican—including no fewer than eight former anchors who have run in this current election cycle. Some of these candidates have run or are running in very local races; others—like Gail Huff Brown, a former anchor in New England who is running for a US House seat in New Hampshire and is married to the former US senator and ambassador Scott Brown—have more expansive credentials thantheir media work. Still, at least three recent Republican candidates for powerful offices, including Lake, have played directly on their local-TV credentials. Gerard Ramalho, a former anchor at KSNV in Las Vegas, launched a bid for Nevada secretary of state by standing on a TV-studio-style set and bemoaning how the media has changed, and has “an agenda” these days. (He lost.) Mark Alford, a former morning anchor on Fox 4 in Kansas City, is still in the running for a US House seat in Missouri, which also has primaries today. Alford’s campaign site boasts that he “informed, influenced, and inspired millions of people” during his time as an anchor. He also complained, in a pre-launch video, that he did not find it easy “being in the media while also being a conservative Christian who respects law enforcement and wants to promote local entrepreneurs.”

One particularly interesting case is that of Mark ​​Ronchetti, a TV meteorologist at KRQE in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2020, Ronchetti ran for a US Senate seat in the state and came pretty close to taking it, winning the Republican nomination before losing narrowly in November. Ronchetti then returned to his old job at KRQE, a move that alarmed a local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which warned about the potential for “political influence” and raised concerns about Ronchetti’s support of Trump, given the latter’s media-bashing. Ronchetti responded that “politics is not involved in the weather and never was,” adding that on returning to his old job he had “set politics aside now, because you can’t do both, and I fully do realize that.” Ten months later, Ronchetti quit KRQE again to run for governor. He is now the Republican nominee. He didn’t bash the media in his launch videohe claims to have defended the industry to skeptics—but he did channel a polished, TV-newsman aesthetic.

Beyond concerns about the representativeness of my sample, I’m hesitant to paint these office-seeking anchors with any sort of broad brush. As I wrote last year, I see nothing inherent to the craft of journalism, broadly defined, that would preclude its practitioners from jumping into public service for the right reasons; indeed, in researching this article, I saw anchors cite various journalistic skills as positively transferable to political life, from research chops to fair mindedness. What matters most, usually, is what an individual candidate stands for, regardless of their background. If Kari Lake is dangerous, it’s as an election denier, not as a former TV anchor.

Still, it’s concerning that Lake is trying to flip a media career into one built on media-bashing—and that she isn’t the only former local-news personality running in this election cycle to have publicly disowned or otherwise denigrated their past profession. Much ink has been spilled, in the Trump era, on the dangers of demagogues leveraging mainstream-media platforms into political careers, though this has often focused on the national level, and on the world of entertainment. Local TV news often passes below the radar of nationally-minded media critics (myself included), but it is a medium that can confer a significant platform on its stars within their community, as well as high levels of trust. The potential for that trust to be abused poses a danger that is particular to the form.

Stories about Lake commonly note that she was highly visible as an anchor; one recent poll found that almost all likely Republican voters in Arizona know who she is. Melanie Mason, of the LA Times, noted yesterday that Lake’s “career in journalism and subsequent repudiation are at the core of her candidacy”—she built “a statewide profile that many veteran politicians would envy,” then “transformed her media background from potential liability with Republican voters to an asset” by disowning it. Early in her campaign, Lake cut a campaign ad that showed her physically smashing up TV sets (that were tuned to CNN) with a sledgehammer; since then, she has goaded journalists in person and bashed them at her campaign events, including a recent, high-profile rally that Trump attended. At one point, Lake said that she had learned from Trump. “That’s why I go after the fake news,” she said. “Because he showed us how to do it.”

More on journalism and politics:

  • Lake life: Mason, of the LA Times, spoke with former TV-news colleagues of Lake’s who have found her hard-right turn to be “baffling but sincere.” Lake’s current hostility to the press “stands in stark contrast with the recollections of her former co-workers,” who knew her “as hardworking and social, someone who formed friendships that extended beyond the office,” Mason reports. Many ex-colleagues saw the pandemic as a tipping point for Lake, who was assigned to broadcast from home while others stayed in the studio. “I think had she been the one chosen to stay [in the newsroom], she wouldn’t be running for governor,” one former co-worker said. “She’d still be working here.”

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