On August 7, the Daily Collegian, the student paper at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, lit a fuse that would explode the sleepy primary race in Massachusetts’ 1st District between Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and incumbent Rep. Richie Neal. The outlines and accusations by now are well known — the College Democrats had disinvited Morse from any events that might be scheduled in the future, on account of what they described as inappropriate attention he was paying to students — and the local press made sure that western Massachusetts readers were kept fully abreast of the accusations.
Between August 7 and 13, the Springfield Republican, also known as Masslive, ran, for instance, 16 stories featuring the mayor, all but one focused on the allegations and resulting fallout, according to a review of local media coverage by The Intercept.
Other local outlets followed suit. On August 10, Albany, New York-based NPR affiliate WAMC News devoted 40 minutes to the allegations on the channel’s daily politics program “The Roundtable.” The panel show exhaustively covered the topic, with lobbyist Libby Post, a frequent guest, likening Morse to President Donald Trump and other politicians with sex scandals. “Men have a problem at times with controlling their — keeping it in their pants is the best I can put it — and it becomes a priority over doing their jobs,” said Post.
By August 12, however, The Intercept had discovered that the claims were part of a long-running plan by students to take down the mayor and on August 14 reported that Massachusetts Democrats Chair Gus Bickford and Executive Director Veronica Martinez facilitated the letter’s development, assigning the task to state party attorney Jim Roosevelt and offering the students tips in dealing with the press. While the allegations in the letter had received heavy play on local radio, television, and print media, those later revelations did not, even after the state party was pressured by its rank and file into announcing an internal investigation into its own conduct. On local television, the issue continued to play out as he said, he said, with the unsubstantiated allegations of the college students given a full airing, followed by a denial from Morse. Chyrons in clips reviewed by The Intercept from local stations WWLP, Western Mass News, and CBS 3 emphasized Morse’s “sexual misconduct” and the existence of an “official investigation” into the mayor from both the Holyoke City Council and UMass. The conspiracy angle — the fact that the accusations were part of a long-running scheme by students, with the aid of the state party, to take down the Morse campaign — was barely mentioned.
While the scheme imploded spectacularly, earning a thorough autopsy in the New York Times, it may still have worked. By airing out the allegations so prominently, particularly in the local media, advocates for Neal were able to materially damage Morse, with internal polls showing a spike in the number of voters who held a negative view of the Holyoke mayor — voters who may otherwise have been persuadable as Morse surged into the final month of the campaign.
Those voters, if they’ve relied on local media for their news, would have little way of knowing Morse had been vindicated. After The Intercept revealed the scheme, Masslive put the story on the back burner. Of the next 15 stories it published on the race through August 21, just six touched on the fallout from the MassDems revelations. Instead, the Republican covered the race from a number of more traditional angles, focusing on endorsements, issue positions, and polling.
When the Republican did cover the scandal, it largely continued to focus on Morse’s alleged wrongdoing. The paper’s story from August 16 was headlined, “As Alex Morse defends conduct, UMass policy ‘strongly discourages’ faculty-student relationships.” That article focused on the allegations from the letter and linked the accusations to the #MeToo movement — including name-dropping rapist Harvey Weinstein — but made no mention of the revelations that Mass Dems were involved in the scheme or that the party had exploded into an uproar, and rank and file were demanding resignations. It only mentioned in passing that Morse insisted that he had never dated a student he taught or supervised, a charge that had never been leveled.
Misleading reporting from @PaddyJ1325 @masslivenews. The story isn't about Morse's "conduct" but the conduct of the MA Dem Party which tried to destroy evidence of the smear campaign & hit job they coordinated against the candidate. Most people don't read past headlines but... pic.twitter.com/31enCsmsaP— Katie Halper (@kthalps) August 17, 2020
“The Roundtable,” an influential public affairs program in the region, regularly features WAMC president and executive director Alan Chartock, who has been in the position since 1981 and is also a professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York. Chartock, a near-daily guest on “The Roundtable,” has made little secret of his preference in the race, penning an endorsement of the incumbent — “a personal hero of mine,” Chartock wrote — for online outlet the Berkshire Edge on August 8, the day after his last of three interviews with Morse and two days before WAMC aired both the “Roundtable” discussion of the allegations and a series of interviews with Neal. “If there was ever a time to keep Richie Neal where he is,” wrote Chartock, “this is it.”
For the head of a major local media outlet — WAMC stretches nearly the entirety of upstate New York and from western Massachusetts to Pennsylvania and has substantial reach and influence in the 1st District — to take such a strong position in a strongly contested race even as he interviews both candidates and lends his voice to a daily morning political talk show on the radio station is unusual by mainstream media standards. “Roundtable” host Joe Donahue assured The Intercept in an email that Chartock’s endorsement of Neal was “separate and distinct” from the opinions he offered on Neal and Morse on air.
“What Alan writes in his columns is separate and distinct from what he says on the radio. He has made it clear again and again that WAMC does not endorse candidates,” wrote Donahue. Chartock, who had been blind copied on the note, replied-all: “Terrific!”
Donahue added that Chartock was but a “voice among many” on “The Roundtable,” which usually features a cast of four guests, of which Chartock is almost always one. The rotating panel includes MSNBC contributor Malcolm Nance, University of Albany adjunct professor Rosemary Armao, and others. Donahue told The Intercept that the “opinions of our participants have no role in news making decisions.” A follow-up question on how the timing of the column, coming in the midst of the scandal and before Chartock’s interviews with Neal aired, might affect coverage received no response.
Donald Shaw, founder and editor at investigative news site Sludge, saw strong parallels between Chartock’s questions to Morse in the interviews in early August and Neal campaign talking points. The main line of attack has centered on Morse’s unimpressive attendance record at school board meetings — an attack line Neal has made central to his debate strategy. Neal’s outside Super PACs have organized their ad campaigns around the school board attendance question.
The debate on August 18 took place after revelations of MassDems involvement in the hit on Morse and opened with a newsy back and forth between the candidates, with Neal denying foreknowledge of the attack. The two went on to debate their considerable ideological differences on everything from pandemic relief to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Masslive headlined its coverage: “Alex Morse challenged on school committee attendance record during debate with Richard Neal.”
“A criticism of Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse that has dogged him for years has resurfaced again,” the debate review began. “His attendance record at school committee meetings.”
Jim Naureckas, an editor with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR, called the decline in local news coverage once the story moved to more uncertain ground revealing of media priorities. “It’s a real tell when a story becomes less newsworthy as it becomes more interesting,” said Naureckas. “The evidence of party skullduggery aimed at torpedoing a popular progressive challenger to a powerful establishment politician should have made the initial story more compelling, not less.”
Naureckas suggested that the shift in coverage may well have to do with what delving into the story could show readers and viewers about the political system. “It boils down to what kind of power corporate media is more excited about examining: the power of a college professor over his students, or the power of our political establishment over our elections?” he said. “The level of journalistic enthusiasm suggests the answer.”
Such coverage choices are an example of “laziness and prurience,” FAIR Program Director Janine Jackson told The Intercept. “Much easier — and cheaper — to tell a story that waves toward ‘sex, gay sex!’ and some notion of progressive hypocrisy,” said Jackson. “The more complex story of the fight to beat back progressive change in the party takes more thought, asks more of audiences, and doesn’t segue as well into a Cheetos commercial.”
“The evidence of party skullduggery aimed at torpedoing a popular progressive challenger to a powerful establishment politician should have made the initial story more compelling, not less.”
Meanwhile, some local outlets are simply ignoring the story now that it’s more complicated than a sex scandal. On Saturday, the Berkshire Eagle — where this reporter worked from 2016 to 2017 — endorsed Neal, making no mention of the MassDems and College Democrats plot and asking voters to vote for Neal despite what the paper described as a “crucial question as to how sizable contributions from sectors like Big Pharma and private equity affect Rep. Neal’s use of the considerable power he has amassed on Capitol Hill.”
No matter, the paper said, the time for asking those questions will come later — and anyway, being the largest Democratic recipient of corporate cash is a good thing when you really think about it:
The onus is on the congressman to better demonstrate to his constituents that he is beholden to their interests and not his donors.
Nevertheless, Rep. Neal’s ample fundraising ability is a testament to his place in the leadership in the Democratic Party writ large.
While he was unsurprised that the paper endorsed the incumbent, Morse said it seemed out of step with voters in Pittsfield, where the paper is based and where eight of 11 city councilors endorsed the mayor’s campaign.
Mohammed Missouri, executive director of community engagement organization Jetpac, said that the local and state coverage of the race is indicative of deeper issues in Massachusetts media, as well as how the press can hold politicians accountable. “Massachusetts is a small state and our news media’s deep ties to the state’s political establishment makes crucial investigative reporting nearly impossible,” said Missouri. “Many people in politics want our democracy to be more transparent but won’t even talk to local reporters anonymously because there is a genuine lack of trust in whether we have an independent press. The bias towards establishment political figures is too obvious to ignore.”
Local media for the most part is doing a disservice to the public, argued Morse. “There have been a couple of folks who have done their due diligence, but by and large I hear a lot of frustration from voters, supporters, and constituents about how local media was quick to cover the story when it was about the allegations and then hesitant to provide updates,” he said.
Among those folks is the Daily Hampshire Gazette. After the publication of this article, some of the paper’s readers contacted The Intercept to request the paper’s coverage be included in the review. The Intercept found four articles on the scandal, two of which addressed the allegations and two of which covered the revelations of MassDems involvement in the smear campaign. The Gazette on Thursday endorsed the mayor. “This Tuesday, we urge residents of the 1st Congressional District to vote not just for a man but for a movement,” the paper editorialized. “Western Mass is ready to send a message to the capital that we’re done with the status quo.”
The broader media’s focus on unsubstantiated and salacious details struck Tanya Neslusan, executive director of Massachusetts-based LGBTQ rights organization MassEquality, as disturbing for what they indicated about internal bias. “I find it extremely disconcerting that certain media outlets were willing to publish the vague accusations that had been released by the UMass college Democrats, without taking a moment to check the facts and verify the claims,” said Neslusan. “The fact that the first impulse was to publish unfounded allegations, that fed right into homophobic tropes, is exactly the reason why MassEquality and other LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations still need to exist.”
To Nancy Stenberg, female caucus representative to the Democratic State Committee for the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire District, local media’s emphasis on the allegations, and lack of interest in the more complex story of how the accusations were aired, hints at a number of deeper biases.
“The homophobic bias in mainstream reporting against Alex Morse is insidious and pathological,” Stenberg told The Intercept. “Whether this is a result of a desire to manipulate the outcome of an election or even worse — to destroy the future of a decent, honest, hard-working person — this is not what the calling of the media is supposed to be.”