Life for Journalists on the New Campaign Trail

From an Inside the Times column by Blake Hounshell headlined “On the New Campaign Trail”:

Campaign reporting used to be pretty straightforward: You hopped on the bus and followed candidates around as they spoke at rubber-chicken dinners, Rotary Clubs and union halls, or wormed your way into posh homes to eavesdrop on the pitches they made behind closed doors.

That was the old days.

Now, the most influential player in a Senate or House race might not be the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, but a MAGA influencer or a TikTok cooking star who dabbles in politics.

For better or worse, the smoke-filled rooms where party bosses once decided who won and lost no longer rule. A chat on a platform like Telegram or a sit-down on a seemingly obscure podcast can move more votes than an interview with a local Walter Cronkite on the 11 o’clock news.

So, with Election Day now less than a month away, I chatted with two reporters at The New York Times who are steeped in this brave new world of political power — tracking fringe movements and conspiracy theorists, meeting with election deniers and hearing from new breeds of political activists who don’t play by the old rules.

Alexandra Berzon focuses on efforts to undermine the security and integrity of the American election system; Ken Bensinger covers the right-wing media outlets and social-media stars that have become central to U.S. politics in the digital age.

Ali, you worked with former colleagues last year on groundbreaking reporting that showed how Steve Bannon and his calls for a “precinct strategy” are shaping the midterms. What are you seeing and hearing now?

Alexandra: The false idea that our election system is fundamentally broken — spurred by debunked conspiracy theories from Donald Trump and his allies about the 2020 election — has proved incredibly sticky. You see it in polling of the Republican base, of course, but also in the scores of groups that operate under the moniker of “election integrity,” which have proliferated since 2020 all over the country and have helped keep this notion alive and energized a base of activists who are not just active online but are holding frequent gatherings.

It’s really an extension or morphing of the Tea Party movement, but now focused on the actual administration of elections as a core issue — in fact the precinct strategy that you mentioned was an effort for these activists to take over local county Republican groups, which gives them some amount of involvement in the elections process. Nick Corasaniti and I wrote a brief summary yesterday of some of what has happened on this front since Jan. 6, 2021.

And Ken, your story on chatter about “civil war” was pretty eye-opening. What did you find the most disturbing as you delved into why the notion that the U.S. could be headed for political violence is gaining so much traction?

Ken: Academics and others who track extremism have written extensively over the past couple of years about how a growing slice of the public may be receptive to, or even welcome, political violence. What was once really a fringe sentiment among only the most radicalized of Americans has moved closer to the political mainstream.

Research done out of the University of Chicago now indicates that as many as 20 million Americans approve of violence for political ends. While nobody thinks there are millions of folks with assault rifles locked, loaded and ready for battle, it still is a very troubling finding. And it helps explain why politicians seem so much more comfortable with rhetoric about a civil war, or what some politicians call a “national divorce” in which red and blue states are somehow violently separated.

Just a few weeks ago, Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser for Trump, claimed in a speech that governors had the power to declare war and “probably will” in the near future. In fact, they cannot do that. The more salient point is this: Flynn was making this speech at a fund-raising event for Mark Finchem, a candidate for secretary of state in Arizona, and the audience — people who paid a minimum of $300 a plate to be there — was eating it up.

What are election officials worrying about most right now?

Alexandra: The concern I hear about most from election officials (aside from the day-to-day concerns of election administration such as finding venues for polling places and recruiting enough poll workers) is about the impact of misinformation and disinformation. There’s long been a sense that if you bring skeptical people into the process and have them working elections or monitoring them, a lot of their concerns and anxieties will be alleviated.

Elections officials and experts are hoping this will be the case now with people who are steeped in election conspiracy theories getting involved in being poll workers and poll watchers. And the officials are certainly expressing confidence that they can run safe and secure elections. But there is also serious anxiety now about these people serving as vigilantes and injecting more uncertainty into the process.

Ken, I remember you saying once that you keep your messages open on Twitter as a kind of listening post. What does your direct-message inbox look like on an average week, and are you seeing any trends lately?

Ken: I love my fans! As a rule, I like to keep my DMs open because I think it’s important to hear what people have to say, even if it’s not exactly polite. Plus, there are often great story tips buried there between the cryptocurrency spam and scams.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed a marked increase in conspiracy-minded messages. A number of people routinely reach out to show me more “proof” that President Biden is dead, or that he has been secretly replaced by a Chinese operative, or that — and I swear I’m not making this up — he’s actually a “lizard person” wearing a cutting-edge silicone mask designed by the C.I.A. You can tell, they say, by the little rubberized tabs visible around the president’s ears.

Among a steady stream of Jeffrey Epstein theories and memes plucked straight from 4Chan, I’ve also noticed lately a lot of stuff claiming the Democratic Party is this extremely hawkish institution that wants to trigger global thermonuclear war and is using the conflict in Ukraine as a pathway to do that. It’s an interesting reversal, since for decades it was the Republican Party that was accused of being full of warmongers. I suppose all political trends eventually go full circle.

What is happening in American politics that you think deserves more attention?

Ken: With each passing day, there seems to be more and more misinformation and disinformation being served up to a public that seems increasingly receptive to it.

I’m seeing lots of politicians amplifying this trend in two ways.

One is by repeating untruths spread on the internet without attempting to verify them, and becoming some of the primary spreaders of bad info by virtue of their huge followings and reach.

The other way is by relentlessly attacking and, lately, ignoring what they call the mainstream media and by telling their followers to do their own research. And while we’ve seen politicians displaying hostility to the press for some time, a new trend seems to be completely ignoring most journalists in favor of communicating directly with voters through social media or a select group of reporters judged to be sympathetic.

Candidates like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida rarely, if ever, talk to most reporters, while others, such as Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, appear to have no communications apparatus at all, leaving phone calls, emails and text messages perpetually unanswered.

Some candidates don’t campaign in traditional ways anymore, shunning public appearances for carefully controlled interviews on narrowly targeted podcasts and radio shows, and using messages sent via influential surrogates on Twitter, Facebook and, in particular, Telegram.

The result, it appears, is that an expanding portion of the public never hears anything remotely close to a diversity of information, while misinformation served up in bad faith morphs into accepted and undeniable fact for untold numbers of people. As a journalist, confronting that is difficult: It feels as if even the most thorough fact-checking efforts are never so much as seen by half the country.

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