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David McCormick
David McCormick, the likely GOP nominee in Pennsylvania’s highly competitive Senate race, posted questions from a reporter on X. Matt Rourke/AP

Campaigns Have a New Favorite Tactic for Dealing With Reporters: Public Shaming

Political reporters asking uncomfortable questions is the new red line for Republican campaigns.

Republican campaigns have a new trick for dealing with unwanted questions from reporters: Just tweet it all out.

This month has announced 2024 as the year of the media prebuttal, after two top-tier GOP Senate campaigns attempted to spin away uncomfortable stories by publicly claiming to have caught the reporters behind them in an act of partisan sabotage.

Reporters — doing the traditional thing of asking campaigns questions or giving them a chance to respond to reporting before publishing a story — are increasingly finding their emails to campaign staff, and their names and sometimes contact info, screenshotted and posted online like footage from a hidden-camera video. While not a complete innovation, especially in the years after former President Donald Trump normalized calling reporters “the enemy,” the notion that basic reporting is a smoking gun of some kind is moving out of the political fringes and into the mainstream Republican campaign strategy.

David McCormick, the likely GOP nominee in Pennsylvania’s highly competitive Senate race, posted screenshots on Thursday of a “no surprises” email from a New York Times reporter seeking comment ahead of a story examining the ways McCormick has described his upbringing on the campaign trail. The email was essentially standard industry practice of presenting the subject of a story with what gathered reporting has shown and offering them a chance to respond, give context, suggest other people to talk to or correct blatant inaccuracies. McCormick’s campaign named the reporter in the post on X and said the letter was proof she was “writing a story filled w/ frivolous lies.” The campaign then fundraised off the accusation, blasting out an email appeal with a similar theme on Friday morning.

“When a lefty news outlet refuses to report the truth and is intentionally misleading voters on behalf of the Democratic Party, action has to be taken to get out the real story,” Elizabeth Gregory, McCormick’s communications director, told NOTUS.

The New York Times published its story on Friday after the public complaint and fundraising appeal. As of Monday afternoon, the story had no listed updates or corrections.

A very similar episode played out earlier in the month with Republican Tim Sheehy, who has the National Republican Senate Committee endorsement in Montana’s Republican Senate primary. On April 10, Sheehy posted the name of a Washington Post reporter and an email he sent asking for details of Sheehy’s military service, including military and health records. The email followed previous detailed Post reporting that has led to the Sheehy campaign volunteering to clarify aspects of stories he has told publicly around injuries he says he received while deployed to the battlefront. The questions on April 10, however, were “attacking me for serving my country—even asking questions about my medical history and demanding my personal records,” according to the campaign’s X post.

The Post published a story about Sheehy and the differing ways he has described his injuries online on April 17. As of Monday afternoon, it also had no listed corrections or updates.

The journalists involved in these stories declined to comment to NOTUS. Strategists said there’s a reason why Republican campaigns are attacking reporters in the act of reporting.

“I mean, the sooner you do it, the longer you have to get your ensemble working for you — you know, your supporters and colleagues, grassroots and that sort of stuff — because it gives them more time to get together,” Christopher Nicholas, veteran Republican political consultant and former campaign manager to the late Sen. Arlen Specter, said of the McCormick prebuttal. “There’s so many more information sources out there nowadays that sometimes it can seem like you’re in a rainstorm trying to pick out this story and that story and stuff. So I think they were smart. They wanted to get out their version of things and that way people could see the yin as well as the yang.”

It’s a new spin on an old saw among the GOP base, said Rick Wilson, the former Republican strategist who now actively works to defeat MAGA conservatives running for office.

“It works because it’s a part of two generations of cultural programming of the right to distrust all media outside of the Fox/Breitbart/Newsmax et al. bubble,” he said. “Just the words ‘mainstream media’ set off alarm bells in their minds and prime them to respond by defending the target.”

The direct targeting of a specific reporter, in public, was not a common part of covering Senate races until recently, said Christina Bellantoni, director of the Annenberg Media Center at USC and former campaign reporter. There was plenty of acrimony between campaigns and reporters in, say, 2008 or 2010, Bellantoni said, but screenshotting and posting an email would have been seen as outside the realm of professional bounds for the most part.

“There are no rules anymore,” she said.

Some candidates take these tactics to even further extremes. Kari Lake, the likely Republican nominee for Senate in Arizona, records reporters’ questions on video, vowing to release the tape if the story produced doesn’t seem fair to her.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was an early innovator of the practice. The Associated Press, typically one of the more staid media outlets, publicly and privately called on DeSantis’ office to stop “bullying” one of their reporters in the summer of 2021. His presidential campaign was noted for its direct attacks on reporters, a strategy the candidate later said he regretted as he exited the race. Reporters in Florida say they’re very familiar with the approach now finding a home in top Senate races. Claire Goforth, who has covered Florida politics for more than a decade, said there’s a way to read the DeSantis press shop missives.

“You’ll ask some questions, even sometimes when you think the story might be damaging to them, and they won’t react like that,” Goforth said. “And then other times, you’ll ask questions, and all of a sudden, it’s a full-court press where they’re putting you on blast online and then tagging you. You can tell you’ve found the sensitive spot when that happens.”

The possibility of a campaign posting written questions or videos from reporters becomes a threat in itself the more times it actually happens. Maybe that threat makes a reporter second-guess even asking something uncomfortable or going down a difficult line of reporting if it’s going to mean dealing with public backlash on X and strangers spending days questioning their motives. It’s something reporters like Goforth consider an attempt at intimidation.

“It’s one thing to just send some questions to someone who behaves the way we have become accustomed to. They answer you, they don’t answer you, whatever,” she said. “It’s another thing to send some questions and know that you are loading a gun and putting it to your temple figuratively and pulling the trigger. You’re going to get dogpiled because you’re asking, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS. Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow. NOTUS reporter and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow Claire Heddles contributed reporting.