Why did 3 local news outlets cover extremist rally without mentioning the extremism?

Extremist rhetoric

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Aug. 1 on the steps of the California’s state capitol, the state GOP-endorsed Congressional candidate Buzz Patterson was crazy busy.

While emceeing the often angry “Rescue America Rally” he had co-organized, Patterson stumped for his long-shot bid for Congress. He also launched a web-based rebranding of himself as the “Back2School Guy” – complete with cartoon likeness – to publicize his desire to reopen schools at the height of the pandemic. And he even appeared to declare his 2022 candidacy for governor.

The former Air Force pilot turned far-right author also shared his microphone with three other GOP-endorsed Congressional candidates and other speakers, many of whom tried topping each other’s invective. One blamed Democrats for the “planned-demic.” Another yelled that Democrats are Communists “possessed” by true evil. Another with white supremacist associations warned Democrats were leading Americans toward an Auschwitz-style furnace. One audience member even yelled about Democrats to “Kill them all!”

Patterson the event co-organizer must have beamed that his efforts attracted coverage from the Sacramento Bee and two TV stations, but oddly none mentioned him nor any of the rally’s extremist rhetoric.

Instead, the media outlets presented the rally in fairly anodyne fashion. NBC affiliate KCRA’s piece suggested a fairly standard partisan event that expressed support for President Trump and against police defunding. The CBS affiliate described it as a gathering of “conservative advocates.” The Bee encapsulated things this way:

“The Rescue America Rally, led by the #WalkAway Campaign, gathered about 400 men and women to the north lawn, where they listened to speakers and chanted in opposition to stay-at-home orders. They also demonstrated in support of law enforcement…”

IGNORING THE EXTREMISM IN THE ROOM

This begs the question why multiple media outlets would cover the same extremist political event but mention neither the event’s extremism nor any of the featured political candidates? Earlier this month, the Washington Post waded into a related issue with its piece “The QAnon problem facing local journalism this election season.” In it, reporter Elahe Izadi wrote about how different newspapers are puzzling over how to cover candidates with QAnon associations:

The quandary, then, for the Knoxville News Sentinel: How on earth to responsibly explain QAnon – a murky cultlike belief system that, according to law enforcement, has inspired violence among some of its proponents – to the newspaper’s readers? Ultimately, said executive editor Joel Christopher, the newsroom made a calculation that both candidates were extreme long shots. So they punted on the question entirely – and devoted no ink at all to the QAnon connections. In the end, the two candidates only received 3.3 percent of the total [primary] vote. “But if anyone thinks this is going to vanish, they’re delusional,” Christopher said. “We’re going to have to tackle it at some point.”

​Christopher’s warning has proven apt for Sacramento County. Nearly 96% of county voters fall within two generally safe Democratic Congressional districts, the CA-6 and CA-7.* In both districts, the GOP-endorsed candidate finished second in the March primary allowing both to appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot. Both Republicans also feature different degrees of extremist connections that have yet to be covered locally.

In the CA-6 primary, Chris Bish finished second with 14% of the vote to Rep. Doris Matsui’s 70%. Bish was among the four GOP-endorsed Congressional candidates to speak at Patterson’s Aug. 1 rally. One might wonder if she attended unaware what to expect from the other speakers; however, two weeks earlier Bish co-hosted with Patterson a special campaign staff training and supporter pep rally led by a former national strategist from ACT for America. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League both call ACT for America one of the largest hate groups in the U.S.

In the past, candidates endorsed by one of the two major political parties would have steered far away from associations like these if only for fear of negative media coverage. Similarly, state political parties would have pulled their endorsements from such candidates, but not in 2020. Today, candidates don’t fear coverage of these associations, and no Sacramento media outlets find it newsworthy enough to inform the voting public.

LOCAL MEDIA SILENCE

About Patterson, the Washington Post’s story noted this in their quick roundup of QAnon-associated Congressional candidates:

Republican Buzz Patterson, who captured [33.6] percent in the crowded March primary to challenge Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), replied “yep!” in April to a tweet about whether he supports “the Q movement.” Yet the QAnon question hasn’t come up in several local newspaper stories about him…

​In the last month, Patterson’s campaign has deleted this tweet, and he’s told national outlets he knows nothing about QAnon or how the tweet appeared on his timeline. But his veracity is hard to judge because most of his campaign finances are cloaked in darkness. According to the Federal Election Commission web site, Patterson hasn’t filed the required quarterly fundraising disclosure for the last three completed quarters covering Oct. 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020. So it’s impossible to review what donors are backing him, at what levels.

National outlets like the Post, Axios, Newsweek and Forbes have all noted Patterson’s QAnon association, but while Sacramento’s hometown newspaper has covered Patterson somewhat, it has remained oddly silent on this issue, as well as on Patterson’s lack of FEC disclosure and other many extremist connections. (No local TV stations have mentioned Patterson since the primary.)

Not that the Bee’s limited coverage of Patterson has been flattering. In early June, a Bee editorial called Patterson “unfit for any leadership role” due to his part amplifying false online racial-profiling rumors that led El Dorado Hills police to investigate an African American field trip as potential violent protesters.

Later that month, the Bee’s wire service ran a piece about a Twitter war that involved Patterson defending the term “Kung Flu.” This included his suggesting the term to be no more racist than Bruce Lee starring in Kung Fu movies. This earned a public scold from the daughter of Bruce Lee. “My father fought against racism in his movies. Like, literally,” she said.

SOME THEORIES

But by not covering the candidate’s most extremist associations – and completely ignoring the extremist elements of Patterson’s Aug. 1 event – the Bee has left its readers and potential voters grossly misinformed. Combine this with the imprimatur of the California Republican Party’s (CAGOP) endorsement for both Bish and Patterson, and many independents and mainstream Republican voters may unwittingly vote for candidates whose extremist associations they might otherwise find disqualifying.

So what accounts for the Bee not covering the most alarming parts of Patterson and Bish’s candidacies? The Bee’s managing editor was contacted multiple times for comment for this article, but did not respond. So we are left to our own theories. One possible explanation is in markets largely dominated by a single political party like Sacramento, media outlets sometimes seek to provide harmless obligatory coverage of the other party, if only to deflect charges of wholesale bias.

But the extreme far-rightward turn of the Republican Party in the Age of Trump has certainly complicated providing such throwaway coverage. More media outlets must now avoid going too deep into previously simple events for fear of lifting a log and seeing what truly lies beneath. This would then require a more honest, critical piece and destroy the original P.R. intent of the coverage.

Another theory is a fear that giving any coverage to candidates with fringe associations only benefits those candidates. But this is a hard rationale to apply here given the Bee didn’t follow this standard in covering Patterson at other points.

A last theory involves the poor state of newspaper finances, and how shrunken newsrooms have severely limited reporters’ ability to do much research of any depth on daily assignments. The Bee certainly qualifies here with its parent corporation McClatchy in bankruptcy since filing in February. Even before this, the Bee’s staff has been cut back significantly. This may explain why a summer intern was assigned the rally story, one of three stories she filed in the same 24-hour period.

But criticism of the Bee’s manner of coverage of the Aug. 1 rally doesn’t mean a news outlet’s sole option is to do a major exposé of every questionable candidate. The goal of informing the public and holding candidates and political parties accountable can be achieved in other ways. This includes doing a larger trend piece like The Washington Post’s coverage of QAnon. This takes the emphasis off the candidates and puts it squarely on a larger trend of greater concern to readers and the community.

CAGOP: NO LONGER PARTY-SIZED?

Patterson’s Aug. 1 rally actually offered an ideal news hook for doing a solid trend story. Including Patterson, the event featured four GOP-endorsed Congressional candidates. So why not ask the CAGOP for comment about how comfortable they are with so many of their endorsed Congressional candidates speaking at the same extremist rally?

A big-picture story would also explore how far the CAGOP has shrunken over the last decade. Republicans currently hold not a single statewide office and just seven of the state’s 53 U.S. House seats. Ahead of the March 2020 primary, the number of registered Republicans in California shrank to just under 24% of all voters. This was nearly half the Democrats’ 45% share and a distant third behind the 31% registered as Independents and No Party Preference.


But what may concern Sacramento County residents most is that Patterson is not even a local candidate. On a conservative webcast in June, Patterson said the Republican National Committee recruited the then Southern California resident to run in the CA-7. If true, this means the Republican Party finding itself unable to recruit a willing local candidate decided to subject the Sacramento area to this steady stream of imported extremism. Underscoring the outsider nature of Patterson’s campaign, Patterson’s Aug. 1 rally featured just one speaker, Bish, who was a local resident prior to this campaign.


(Earlier this year, Patterson did say he had moved into the area. This is not legally required to run for the U.S. House in California, just being a California resident. But not known is whether this is a permanent move. On the conservative web cast, Patterson made no mention of the move and still referred to Ventura County as his home.)

Which returns us to the basic question of why local media outlets see little news value in informing local residents of the more extremist aspects of Patterson’s rally and campaign? Maybe this head-in-the-sand approach will change in the last two months of the general election. Maybe the Bee and other local outlets ultimately expose this disturbing and ever bolder extremism in our elections for what it is.

Or maybe they don’t, and the words of that Knoxville News Sentinels executive will prove an even more prophetic warning:

“If anyone thinks this is going to vanish, they’re delusional,” Christopher said. “We’re going to have to tackle it at some point.”

For a follow-up to this story, click here to read “The Sac Bee finally covers political extremism – sort of.”


* SactoPolitico.com founder and editor Jeff Burdick ran in the March 3rd Congressional primary as a first-time candidate against Bera, Patterson and two other candidates. Burdick is a trained journalist, and six months after the primary election, he returned to this vocation by starting The Sacto Politico.