By the end of any given business day, I’ll have received anywhere from three dozen to over a hundred press releases from institutes, businesses, polling firms, and politicians between three email accounts. Such is the life of a political journalist.
Having covered politics and elections, I know that, in order to be successful at my job, I need to pore through these releases no matter how tedious or inconvenient the admittedly arduous task may be. The reason for that is simple: any one could spur this week’s story (even one about, say, farm subsidy legislation.)
Because of my dependence on press releases for my coverage, it came as something of a shock to me when I came across a tweet from political reporter Susannah Luthi:
Email from AOC’s press person after I asked to get added to the press list.
“We don’t have a press list. We use twitter.”— Susannah Luthi (@SusannahLuthi) January 11, 2019
It was upon reading that that I came to a profound realization; by the time I–god willing–become a political reporter for a national outlet, the political media will be significantly transformed beyond what it is today. In fact, it may not exist at all.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, for those readers who have been living under a rock for the past six months, is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. A latina and self-described Democratic Socialist from the Bronx who unseated the fourth ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, Ocasio-Cortez (commonly referred to as AOC, which is also her twitter handle) is a phenomenon.
At 29 years old, Ocasio-Cortez is already a public sensation and a social media juggernaut. She has 2.8 million twitter followers–by far the most of any member of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who has just 1.9 million. She is best known for “clapping back” at or “dragging” her critics on Twitter: retweeting them with combative yet cheerful quips of which her massive audience simply cannot get enough. She also likes to reach her followers through informal Instagram and Snapchat videos in which she discusses policy while doing a mundane daily task such as cooking–a millennial’s fireside chat if you will.
But despite the prominence and hulking power of her PR operation, Ocasio-Cortez has nonetheless expressed supreme frustration with the coverage she receives from the political media, perhaps rightfully so.
The latest Politico headline on AOC, for instance, reads “Exasperated Democrats try to rein in Ocasio-Cortez.” She has also received substantial pushback from the press for her comments regarding the industry itself, such as when she critiqued the lack of racial diversity in CBS’s 2020 election panel or when she stated in an interview that “there’s a lot of people more concerned about being
But nowhere has Ocasio-Cortez been more maligned than in conservative media. There, she is the subject of a non-stop deluge of scrutiny and attacks. Right-leaning outlets like the New York Post, the Daily Caller and the Washington Free Beacon go far beyond merely fact-checking her.
Instead, they pounce on every small inaccuracy or math error. They stoke conspiracies about her background, such as the assertion that Ocasio-Cortez did not grow up in the hardscrabble Bronx as she so claims, but in the more affluent subject of Yorktown, where she went by the white-sounding nickname “Sandy.” They even criticize her for things that aren’t really scandals, such as dancing in a video in college or wearing a fancy dress (suggesting that she’s unserious and not as economically challenged as she lets on, respectively). The Daily Caller even publish an imagine which they falsely claimed was a naked photo of Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez has alleged that this onslaught of negative coverage is a combination of racism, sexism, ageism and fear of socialism. She is disproportionately targeted by both the conservative and mainstream media, she believes, because she is a young brown woman instead of an old white male. And there is, doubtless, some truth to that. But there’s more to it than that.
For conservative media, Ocasio-Cortez’s explanation may very well suffice. But the mainstream media is likely lashing out at her out her for a very different reason. Although racism and sexism are certainly not absent from those institutions, they are not as predominent as they are at conservative outlets. Instead, the primary driver of their coverage is fear–not of socialism, but of change.
Change has not, in recent years, been kind to the media. The 21st century has seen a rapid decline in readership of print journalism, leading to the closure of many local newspapers. Magazines have fared no better; in 2018, the Weekly Standard closed down, Vanity Fair went up for sale and Newsweek imploded amidst a staff exodus. Cable news, meanwhile, has been losing viewers in the long-run to digital platforms.
Ocasio-Cortez took on and beat the political establishment when she pulled off a stunning upset in the NY-14 primary. But that wasn’t the only revolution she has been intent on waging. Unlike many prominent House members, Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t been a fixture on cable TV or frequently quoted in articles. As one of the most well-known figures in Congress, it’s likely she gets more requests for comment and interviews than most of her peers, and yet she shows up less frequently.
At first glance, this doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t a freshman Congresswoman use these opportunities to seize an amplified platform for her policy agenda? Upon further inspection, the answer is simple: it’s not her modus operandi. The cable news and print media is for the old-guard, the establishment–an old boys club Ocasio-Cortez wants no part of. Rather, she wants to demolish it.
So she eschews traditional media like cable news and newspapers–whose viewer and reader bases are becoming increasingly old and white–and opts instead to forge her own platform on social media where her words cannot be edited or spun unfavorably. In doing so, she also speaks disproportionately to millennials and young folks. She is seizing upon the future of political communication.
One might reasonably push back on the assertion that this is a uniquely millennial tendency in many older politicians also utilize social media. However, the only one who does so to as close a degree as Ocasio-Cortez is, of course, Donald Trump. But while the septuagenarian President is a prolific tweeter, he is also a prolific leaker and interviewee.
It may come as a shock, but Trump loves the media. Or rather, he has an unhealthy obsession with it. Throughout his career, Trump has strived to be respected by what he views as the media elite–the communications arm of the high society world that, despite his riches, has always rejected him. He is known to have leaked information about himself in the 1980s under the pseudonyms John Barron and John Miller.
As President, he is still a constant leaker. Author Michael Wolff, in his book Fire and Fury, chronicled how Trump would call up reporters like the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman–who he reportedly idolizes–to rant and rave for hours. He does many interviews, often with favorable cable news outlet Fox News, but sometimes with more non-partisan stations as well.
So, while Trump communicates with voters in much the same way that Ocasio-Cortez does, he does not rely on it as heavily. His PR operation is far more diversified between media appearances, unstrategic leaking and twitter. For Ocasio-Cortez, Twitter is most of the ballgame. That’s what makes her a unique threat to the political media in a way that Donald Trump is not.
Now, while the death of the political media may not seem to be a particularly disastrous development on its face–no more spin! No more horse race!–it’s crucial to consider the positive services provided by the industry. Political journalists offer the public a closer look at the machinations of government and politics at the highest levels–something the public wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. Moreover, given free reign with no media exposure, politicians would have less incentive not to lie to voters. While it is certainly a flawed institution, the political media does serve an important role in society.
Only time will tell whether Ocasio-Cortez is the vanguard in a wave of revolutionary millennial politicians who will reshape the political media landscape. What is true, however, is that attacking her will not change the inevitable. If politicians begin to adopt Ocasio-Cortez’s methods, there isn’t much the media can do to stop it. In fact, giving negative spin in retaliation could hasten the industry’s demise. In that way, millennial politicians like Ocasio Cortez control the destiny of the media. They may very well end up destroying it.