Pennsylvania Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the GOP nominee for governor, has chosen to engage only with media outlets that share his right-wing views.
On June 27, Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of the state, ran from journalists as they asked him about his involvement in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and about his views on abortion rights.
After attending a rally he'd promoted at the state Capitol in Harrisburg in support of a bill aimed at punishing drug dealers who supply opioids that result in overdoses, Mastriano reacted to questions from reporters by immediately rushing from the scene. Several reporters posted video and images on social media of Mastriano running from them.
This was the latest instance of the candidate's disdain for the press, which he has by turns avoided and attacked.
During his primary campaign, Mastriano barred media from many of his events, including reporters from national outlets such as the Washington Post and CBS News, and reportedly rarely responds to requests for comment from news outlets.
An example of Mastriano's actions with regard to reporters was posted to a local news website on May 23. After Mastriano won the Republican nomination in May, Lauren Mayk, a reporter for Philadelphia NBC affiliate WCAU, traveled to Harrisburg and attempted to talk to him after receiving no response to previous requests for an interview. In video posted to the station's website, Mastriano reacts with a smile to Mayk's initial congratulations on his primary victory, but offers little but campaign slogans in response to her questions and eventually walks into his office as she continues to ask about how he will convince those who didn't vote for him to do so in the general election and about his endorsement by former President Donald Trump. Someone then closes the office door in Mayk's face.
Both Trump and Mastriano continue to insist, against all evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was marked by fraud and stolen from Trump. Mastriano was on the schedule of speakers at the Stop the Steal rally that preceded the riot by Trump supporters at the Capitol and was caught in video footage at the Capitol as the riot occurred. He has also been deeply involved in efforts to overturn the election results in Pennsylvania.
Mastriano holds far-right positions regarding issues such as abortion and election law. During a primary debate in April he said the state must "work our way towards" a total ban on abortion from conception, including in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the patient's life, and proposed making every Pennsylvanian re-register to vote, a move legal scholars say would violate federal law.
The only newspaper to publish a full-length interview with Mastriano, the Epoch Times, is a hyperpartisan outlet affiliated with Falun Gong, a Chinese anti-Communist religious movement, which has spread conspiracy theories and promoted right-wing populist politicians in Europe and the U.S. In the profile, Mastriano refers to Jan. 6 as the "so-called insurrection," describes the Democratic Party and the mainstream media as a "cabal," and promotes unchallenged lies about the 2020 election.
Mastriano relies on his social media presence and email operations to get his message out. He regularly shares his opinions on platforms where he will not be challenged by reporters, such as Facebook Live.
Mastriano's Facebook Live videos are sometimes deleted after they're posted. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on July 19 that, since winning the Republican gubernatorial primary, Mastriano has removed more than a dozen Facebook Live videos in which he freely discusses issues such as abortion and climate change. In one deleted video reviewed by the Inquirer, Mastriano rejects the idea that humans contribute to global warming, saying, "Heck, the weatherman can't get the weather right 24 hours out."
Mastriano's campaign issued a statement on Twitter describing the Inquirer's reporting as "fake news" because the videos were "automatically deleted by Facebook after 30 days because of a default Facebook setting. The legacy media is waging war on truth because they don't want to talk about the failed policies of their beloved Democrat candidate for governor."
Erin Gallagher, a researcher at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School who has been tracking Mastriano's Facebook presence since it first took shape during anti-COVID lockdown protests, told the American Independent Foundation that his candidacy was "the logical conclusion of the public and the media underestimating far-right influence for way too long."
"Mastriano's stonewalling critical media allows him to broadcast only to specific audiences. So his messaging is intentionally bypassing certain segments of the general public and, as a result, some of the electorate may not be well-informed about his fundamentalist agenda," Gallagher said.
Mastriano's campaign also circulates via email a weekly PDF newsletter called the Grassroots Gazette, which is styled like a small-town print newspaper. Issues feature pictures from the campaign trail and of supporters, calls for prayer, information about campaign events and personnel, interviews with volunteers, and pages of memes, including Trumpesque insults about the height of his Democratic opponent in the general election, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, calling him "Lil' Josh."
Mike Mikus, a longtime Democratic political consultant, pointed out two main issues with Mastriano dodging the press and relying on social media: "One is he doesn't get to generate positive press. But two, when there are stories about him paying Gab, a notorious white supremacist online website, he has no means of responding, so it goes unanswered."
In early July, Mastriano came under heavy criticism from religious leaders, Democrats, and some Republicans for a payment his campaign made to Gab, a social media network founded by an open antisemite that serves as a hub for white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Gab is owned by Andrew Torba, a self-described "Christian nationalist" who vocally supports Mastriano's campaign. In 2018, a gunman who had posted numerous racist, xenophobic, and antisemitic messages on the platform killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
After more than two weeks of silence, Mastriano's Twitter account posted a statement on July 28 saying, "Andrew Torba doesn't speak for me or my campaign. I reject anti-Semitism in any form. Recent smears by the Democrats and the media are blatant attempts to distract Pennsylvanians from the suffering inflicted by Democrat policies."
The post continues, "While extremist speech is an unfortunate but inevitable cost of living in a free society, extremist policies are not — and the only candidate in this election who wants to impose extreme policies on Pennsylvania — inflation, crime, lockdowns, and mandates — is Josh Shapiro."
A few hours before issuing the statement, Mastriano took to Facebook Live to slam
the complete trash and lies with the latest attack from the media. And what's the point of addressing that? You know, it's kind of like, uh, you know, 'Why do you beat your wife?' kind of questions, you know, seriously? And then if you do respond, you breathe new life into their allegations, you know, and they're gonna spin it in some way in these outlets that are hard-bent on getting Josh Shapiro elected. So, you know, I've made a decision for most of these baseless claims and attacks against me not to respond because you give them something else to write the next day. If it's a serious issue, a policy, a question, I'm on it. We respond nine times out of 10.
Peter Hall, a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital Star, responded on Twitter: "I've sent a number of 'serious, issue, policy question[s]' to @dougmastriano's campaign and haven't received a single response. Not even an acknowledgment."
"You have a basic responsibility when you're running for office to explain why you're teaming up with a notorious antisemite," Mikus said.
Mastriano's strategy may have worked to win him the nomination because it allowed him to connect directly with Republican primary voters, who tend to be more ideological, Mikus said. "It's easier to communicate with them via alternative media — whether it's OAN or any of these right-wing publications, you can reach a significant chunk of your base. The problem that a candidate runs into in the general is that the public at large isn't going to these websites."
The most recent poll of Pennsylvania voters from Fox News has Mastriano down 40%-50% against Shapiro.
Political scientists and some Republican political consultants have questioned whether Mastriano can win while avoiding the media. David LaTorre, who worked for one of Mastriano's primary opponents, told the website Lancaster Online that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Trump derived their popularity in part from challenging journalists and that Mastriano ought to do the same.
Kari Lake, Trump's pick in the Arizona Republican gubernatorial primary and a former cable news anchor, has deployed that strategy extensively in her campaign by aggressively questioning reporters when she sits for interviews with mainstream media. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat, regularly goes viral for his cutting, well-produced Twitter content assailing Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican in the race, as an out-of-touch plutocrat.
The rise of candidates who eschew and attack the mainstream press comes as a record-high number of Americans say they do not trust the news media. According to Gallup polling conducted in late 2019 and early 2020, only 16% say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers and only 11% say the same about television news. The figures are even lower among Republicans.
Meanwhile, a report published by the Brookings Institution in September 2021 found that while social media, and Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in particular, are not root causes of political polarization, they do tend to exacerbate it.
"I don't believe there's some magical algorithm tweak that social media platforms can do to 'fix' online conversations," Gallagher, the Harvard researcher, said. "I'm not sure companies like Facebook should even be a part of building anything else that affects society at such a massive scale."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.