Blaming mainstream media provides a misleading shortcut for Value Them Both

August 5, 2022 3:33 am
One of the many yard signs weighing in on the Aug. 2 constitutional amendment vote in Kansas states its case. (Eric Thomas/Kansas Reflector)

One of the many yard signs supporting the anti-abortion constitutional amendment makes its case before this week's vote. (Eric Thomas/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

On election night Tuesday, I read a tweet from Kansas City Star reporter Katie Bernard that interested me. (Full disclosure: Bernard was a student in one of my classes during her time at the University of Kansas and remains a professional acquaintance.)

Bernard noted that the organizers of Value Them Both had blocked the Kansas City Star and the Wichita Eagle from attending and reporting on their watch party that evening. The same was true of the Wichita Beacon and the Kansas Reflector.

To those outside of journalism, the act of excluding reporters from a watch party might seem like a personal slight rather than a meaningful political act. However, during my time covering elections, I spent hours photographing tense watch parties that illustrated the drama of democracy. Readers want to see the winning and the losing sides’ reaction when they review election results.

The email that the Kansas Reflector received in denying its media request laid bare the motive.

The email — especially when considered with other rhetoric from the Value Them Both organizers — suggests that adopting a Trump-like animosity toward the news media may have boomeranged back on Value Them Both. Throughout the campaign, avoiding interactions with reporters may have injured their election effort rather than shielding it from critical coverage.

Mackenzie Haddix, deputy communications director with Value Them Both, wrote to the Reflector on Monday: “Our watch party will be an invitation-only event. We are already receiving requests for entry from members of the media and will prioritize those who have written/reported in a neutral, factual manner. Obviously, the Kansas Reflector is not on the preferred list of attendees based on these criteria.”

I had so many questions about the email’s language. Who was doing the scoring of media outlets for “neutral, factual” reporting? What reporting could disqualify a group as diverse as the Star, the Reflector, the Eagle and the Beacon?

As Bernard and Jonathan Shorman pointed out Wednesday, the Value Them Both organizers might have forecast a landslide defeat. By prohibiting particular news media, they may have been guarding against dreary reporting or images of their defeated crowd at the event.

However, the stance taken by Value Them Both after they lost the election spotlights the group’s adversarial stance toward the media.

Their Tuesday night statement begins, “Over the last six months, Kansans endured an onslaught of misinformation from radical left organizations that spent millions of out-of-state dollars to spread lies about the Value Them Both Amendment. Sadly, the mainstream media propelled the left’s false narrative, contributing to the confusion that misled Kansans about the amendment.”

The most flagrant — and widely publicized — misinformation of the campaign came right before the vote when many voters received a text message so misleading that the account was suspended by the technology platform. Reading that Value Them Both saw themselves as the victims, rather than the benefactors, of disinformation was too much.

– Eric Thomas

Social media accounts on the left rolled their eyes in unison. The most flagrant — and widely publicized — misinformation of the campaign came right before the vote when many voters received a text message so misleading that the account was suspended by the technology platform. Reading that Value Them Both saw themselves as the victims, rather than the benefactors, of disinformation was too much.

There is a larger lesson here, though.

In the wake of a resounding defeat, Value Them Both is blasting the “mainstream media.” If not through the two most influential newspapers in the state, how could their effort to amend the Kansas constitution succeed? After all, this campaign required a majority of voters statewide. Simply swaying Republican voters through conservative media that appealed to them would not be enough.

Combine this political strategic bumbling with some hypocrisy as you consider this nugget. Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith said, “The Value Them Both supporters held a series of off-the-record conference calls with reporters in an attempt to influence news stories without being accountable for their misleading statements.”

Given this, Value Them Both seemed to see mainstream news media as worthy of manipulation, but not an invitation.

I reached out to Maddix of Value Them Both, Danielle Underwood of Kansans for Life and through the media request form on the website for Value Them Both. Maddix and Underwood pointed me to the Tuesday night statement blaming misinformation.

Was this confluence of tactical mistakes part of what caused an attack on Kansans for Life (the group that organized Value Them Both) on election night from Troy Newman, the president of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group?

“It was horrible messaging, horrible campaigning, despicable infighting,” Newman told the Star. “The decisions made by Kansans for Life were the most deplorable, disgusting, terrible, worst decisions possible.”

Regardless, anti-journalism rhetoric combined with attempts at backdoor misinformation from Value Them Both echoes Donald Trump’s posture toward the news media during his presidential campaigns. He blamed reporters at his in-person rallies, during interviews and through online attacks. Yet the White House spouted disinformation through leaks.

Conservatives who are tempted to parrot Trump’s strategy toward journalists should remember this: In both elections, he lost the popular vote. 

Value Them Both may have been mirroring the anti-media stance of Trump while not learning the lesson. Animosity toward the media might be more reckless self-immolation than shrewd self-promotion.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.