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Many Republicans on the campaign trail are shunning mainstream press

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For decades, conservatives have perceived the mainstream press as biased against them. Donald Trump dubbed reporters the enemy of the people, and this year a lot of Republicans running for office are simply shunning mainstream press on the campaign trail. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has more.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: I went to Wisconsin in June to report on how abortion is affecting primaries there. The idea was to do one story on the Democrats and one on the Republicans. Long story short, after phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, I heard back from the Democrats but not the Republicans. The top GOP governor candidates posted no events, though their social media showed they were out talking to voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KURTZLEBEN: And so when I happened to catch the top two GOP governor candidates walking in Oconomowoc July 4 parade, I hurried to the end of the route. I found former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch greeting supporters. Her staff started brushing me back, so I called her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm sorry. No.

KURTZLEBEN: Lieutenant Governor Kleefisch.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, we're not doing any questions.

KURTZLEBEN: Excuse me. I'm with NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm so sorry. We're not doing any questions. I know you've been in contact with our communications director, Alec.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, and I've gotten no response.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That would be the best way. I'm sorry about that.

KURTZLEBEN: I've reached out every possible way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm sorry about that.

KURTZLEBEN: Is Alec here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He just took off - so sorry. I'm sorry.

KURTZLEBEN: Can you tell him to get back to me?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

KURTZLEBEN: He did not. And a day later, at a publicly advertised event for Republican Kevin Nicholson, a staffer told me I wouldn't be allowed to record the candidates. As standalone anecdotes, these might not be a huge deal. However, they are also part of a trend of Republican candidates ignoring or actively avoiding legacy media, particularly national outlets. Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano kept the press out of a rally this spring. Reporters pressed the venue owner on why they couldn't get in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They don't want any media into the facility.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Can you just tell us who they is?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Mastriano campaign...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: ...Told you that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Like, if I had a wedding and a whole bunch of youse (ph) came in for the wedding...

KURTZLEBEN: We wouldn't, though.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...I'd stop you here, too.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: But they're not running for office.

KURTZLEBEN: But they're not running to be the governor of the state.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's a difference.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: But still, it's a private event.

KURTZLEBEN: It's not.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It's a public campaign rally.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: For public office.

KURTZLEBEN: It's a public event.

Recently, the Florida GOP barred many mainstream outlets from the party's Sunshine Summit but allowed in conservative outlets. Dave Weigel is the author of The Washington Post's campaign newsletter The Trailer and was not allowed in.

DAVE WEIGEL: You have one person from the campaign tweeting a photo from inside the room and talking about how great the view is, that journalists can't see 'cause most people who will not answer my basic questions - like, is there a recording of this event? - are taking the time to make fun of reporters for going there and getting engagement on Twitter for that.

KURTZLEBEN: As the Republican base increasingly gets their news from right-leaning news sources, Republican candidates increasingly grant access primarily to those sources, meaning fewer news outlets can provide a broad view of American politics, not to mention scrutiny. It is entirely true that Democratic candidates also dodge questions and have private events. It's also true that GOP distrust of media is decades old. Vice President Spiro Agnew, for example, famously lambasted media coverage of Richard Nixon in 1969. But to Weigel, something is different this year.

WEIGEL: In this cycle, I've started to see more Republican candidates avoiding the press, blocking the press from events and taking advantage of the fact that there's conservative media that will ask different questions and has a different audience. And so I'm obviously not saying to the world, stop talking to the media. I'm saying just objectively, there is a media infrastructure built up so that you don't need, if you're a Republican candidate, to talk to us.

KURTZLEBEN: Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and CNN commentator, said there's a cost-benefit analysis in talking to the press. He asked, what is the benefit of doing a potentially adversarial interview with an outlet you find biased?

SCOTT JENNINGS: The possibility that you might end up saying something that winds up in $10 million worth of ads from the other side - you know, it's like the benefit of doing the interview does not outweigh the risk. And so you just don't do it.

KURTZLEBEN: And in this cycle, that can mean avoiding any number of tough questions about January 6 or abortion, for example. Polling data shows a wide media trust gap. Just 11% of Republicans trust the mass media, compared to nearly 7 in 10 Democrats, according to Gallup. The question of liberal bias isn't something we can settle in a few minutes. And coming from a legacy media outlets, a claim that we aim to be unbiased would inevitably come off to some as, well, biased. But regardless, claims of liberal bias are themselves a political tactic - case in point, Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DONALD TRUMP: We are in a rigged system. And a big part of the rigging are these dishonest people in the media.

And you can't find it in the Washington Post, The New York Times, because they're crooked. They're dishonest.

CNN - how dishonest is CNN?

Or The Washington Post, which I call a lobbying tool for Amazon, OK? That's a lobbying tool for Amazon.

KURTZLEBEN: And now that hostility to the media is central to many other Republicans' identities. Here's Jennings again.

JENNINGS: In the old days, you would go through this. And your assumption would be, well, if a national newspaper is putting a negative story out there, we have to engage with it. Now I think it's actually different in that you might engage, but you might also make the determination that, if you're a Republican, well, if the New York Times runs a hit piece on me, that's a badge of honor.

KURTZLEBEN: Mainstream news also doesn't have the broad reach it once did. If, say, the national evening news is losing eyes and ears to right-wing outlets, there's less reason for candidates to respond. There are nuances to this, though. It's not every candidate, and they're not avoiding every mainstream outlet. Many candidates are more likely to be friendly to local than national press, says Mark Harris, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist.

MARK HARRIS: The best thing you can still do is get up 6 o'clock local, you know, NBC, ABC, CBS TV news hit. Local TV is No. 1, and local print is No. 2.

KURTZLEBEN: NPR contacted several political reporters from around the country and found a range of experiences. One in Texas reported nothing out of the ordinary this year. A political reporter in Iowa said they're seeing some evidence of Republicans avoiding scrutiny, which from local press can often get at issues more immediate to voters' lives. Alex Burness, who recently left the Denver Post, said he sees a definite partisan difference. He described a recent event for Republican governor candidate Heidi Ganahl.

ALEX BURNESS: They said at the onset, we're not taking any questions. And we in the little media area had a conversation before she went on like, well, why are we here, right? Like, we're not here to give PR.

KURTZLEBEN: That kind of question is important for reporters to consider, says Khadijah Costley White, a professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.

KHADIJAH COSTLEY WHITE: Is it important to have voices, regardless of whether or not they're using that opportunity as a way to distribute disinformation or misinformation? Is that valuable to democracy?

KURTZLEBEN: All of this may come off as, boohoo; the GOP won't talk to reporters. But many, including Jennings, are concerned about what this all means for accountability.

JENNINGS: You know, I'm a Republican communications guy and engage with the traditional media. And I'm on CNN. So I say this with all sincerity. We have to have a trusted press, and it's necessary. Like, it's necessary to democracy.

KURTZLEBEN: However, candidates aren't incentivized to talk to the press because democracy. They talk because it serves their interests. The question is where this all leads. Here's Weigel again.

WEIGEL: Look. I'm not saying, how dare they do this? I'm interested in where this is going. If we're returning to the days when Democrats have one newspaper, Republicans have another newspaper, we might not like that, but there's precedent for it.

KURTZLEBEN: At any rate, I never did do that piece on Wisconsin Republicans. I simply didn't have enough people to talk to me. If that's true for enough outlets, it means uneven coverage of the two parties and an electorate that has to work ever harder to be fully informed. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "TIMID, INTIMIDATING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.