Just over a week ago, #metoo was back in the headlines as the Golden Globes went sartorially black to “draw awareness” to the issue of harassment and abuse of women in the entertainment industry.
Obviously, the event got a lot of coverage, including from political reporters, commentators and bloggers. It’s good that awareness was being raised among this crowd, because I can say, hand-on-heart, as a media relations specialist who has spent more than a decade dealing with these people, a lot of our political media have shown very little interest up until recently in covering stories of men in positions of power and authority treating women badly. That has done a disservice to women put in these positions, who deserve to have their voices heard, but also to voters, who frequently are being asked to elect people and deserve to know the facts.
While the Weinstein situation has drawn attention to vast swaths of the national media having parked a major investigative story, in politics, it seems like the problem rests more with local media—the guys voters most trust to cover congressional races, Senate races, and yes, presidential races, as they’re kicking off where they involve a candidate from that city or state.
There are exceptions. In 2008, Chicago-based media actually seemed a little more willing to scrutinize Senator (later President) Obama’s record than a lot of the rest of the extremely fawning media did.
But time after time in my time in politics, it’s become apparent that local reporters will gloss over or take a hard pass on exposing allegations of domestic abuse, sexual misconduct or other nasty details where it concerns this or that local bigwig.
A great recent example of this was this year’s Alabama Senate race. Rumors had swirled for years about Roy Moore’s apparent interest in teenage girls and much younger women. It is kind of astonishing in hindsight that it took the Washington Post to nail that story, and hints at concerns on the part of Moore’s accusers that local media wasn’t to be trusted and/or a lack of hard dedication on the part of Alabama media in exposing what Moore had allegedly been up to. The question was asked frequently by Moore defenders, “if this happened, why are we only hearing about it now?” Because Alabama media failed to nail the story. That’s why.
In 2007, Bill Foster was running for Dennis Hastert’s old house seat. Relatively early in that cycle, I happened to become aware of some very specific dirt related to claims of domestic abuse made by Foster’s ex-wife against him (Foster is now a congressman representing Illinois’ 11th district). I reached out to various members of the media, including some that were normally responsive to offers of political dirt, about the claims and documents I had uncovered to back them up. I got no takers. Apparently, allegations of domestic abuse on the part of a congressional candidate just weren’t that big a deal—though to be fair, Illinois’ local media did have home-state Sen. Barack Obama to cover.
A couple years ago, however, I encountered the same trend while doing some work in Arizona. There, there was a palpable sense on the part of some consultants that accusations of domestic abuse on the part of now State Sen. Sonny Borelli, also made by his ex-wife, were not getting real media attention. In talking to media in Arizona, I too got the impression that they just didn’t feel the allegations were a story or especially relevant, unless his opponent was prepared to make an issue of them directly, and on the record. Maybe they just found Borelli’s pushback credible, but the sense I had was that some of these guys were more interested in waving a figure they guessed was going to win, and who they’d need to retain access to, right on through, with little scrutiny of what was claimed in the first place. He’s advanced up the ranks there, so if they wanted to remain on good terms with someone on the fast track, I suppose they made the right call.
In Texas, there may now be a similar trend playing out, in which some media have shown zero interest in looking into domestic violence accusations apparently leveled years back against a relatively high-profile former Democratic candidate for a judicial position who appears to be pretty politically well-connected in the state, C.Y. Benavides. Granted, Benavides is not now running for anything himself; he’s seeking to build a deeply contentious toxic waste dump and trying to get Texas regulators to sign off on it. However, opponents of the project feel the old accusations are relevant, given new accusations from local communities and people who could be impacted by the planned dump that he exhibits less than full interest in the well-being of those around him and is not the selfless guy trying to solve a local garbage problem that he depicts himself as.
Of all of these, perhaps the Illinois media is most culpable. Set aside the Foster situation, let’s not forget that when news broke of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert having been involved in some weird payments scheme, no one seemed to really know anything about it. Maybe local media just had a ton of information they didn’t feel legally comfortable with taking to print. But it also smells like there just might have been insufficient digging into Hastert’s past, and perhaps, as was apparently the case in Alabama, insufficient confidence in local media to permit those who knew about what Hastert had done to come forward.
Media can’t be expected to nail every story, and it’s fair to say that a lot of local reporters are under tremendous pressure now, thanks to budget cutting, consolidation and 24/7 news cycles; things that may divert their attention from good but hard-to-chase-down leads. Some of them see their job as just filing a lot of content, rather than good or truth-exposing content. But that is also part of how we ended up in this #metoo situation in the first place
And all of that wasn’t a problem to the same degree in a lot of these places five, ten, fifteen or twenty years ago—when awareness about abuse and harassment coincidentally happened to be lower.
The point is that the media industry needs to take a look in the mirror, not just in terms of the conduct of its own members, whether they be Mark Halperin or Matt Lauer. They also need to think about what stories they’re prioritizing, because exposés of political figures’ alleged abuse of women are usually more important than stories about the candidate’s latest iteration of a stump speech delivered at the local VFW hall or county fair. And the latter thing is unfortunately what a lot of local media prefers to cover.
There are more women who aren’t being heard or being drowned out by flashy celebrity scandals. The media should focus more on being truthful and responsible. Otherwise you’re just gossiping for ratings instead of exposing wrongs and informing the public.