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Home » On the Tennessee expulsions, and a week of local stories that went national

On the Tennessee expulsions, and a week of local stories that went national

In March 2021, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in Tennessee passed a resolution welcoming the Daily Wire, a right-wing news site founded by Ben Shapiro, to the state following its relocation from Los Angeles. “Tennessee welcomes all truth seekers and puts a premium on the truth and facts,” the resolution read, before approvingly quoting Shapiro’s contentions that “facts don’t care about your feelings” and that “the moment the majority decides to destroy people for engaging in thought it dislikes, thought crime becomes a reality.” Two months later, the House passed a resolution welcoming Tomi Lahren, a right-wing commentator on Fox and elsewhere, to the state. In between times, it did likewise for Candace Owens, also a right-wing commentator, after inviting her onto the House floor. Both resolutions hailed Tennessee as a destination for “intelligent conservatives.” The governor signed off on both.

Almost exactly two years later, Natalie Allison, a former reporter for The Tennesseean who now works for Politico, mentioned the Owens resolution in an article detailing the recent rightward drift of Tennessee’s Republican Party, and thus the state House. Allison was writing because Republican lawmakers had just voted to expel Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, two Democratic representatives, from the House after they briefly interrupted a legislative session to protest political inaction on gun laws following a recent mass shooting at a Christian school that killed six people, three of them young children. The Republican majority accused Jones and Pearson of threatening behavior and breaching decorum. A vote to expel a third lawmaker, Gloria Johnson, narrowly failed; asked by reporters why she had been spared, Johnson replied, “I think it’s pretty clear: I’m a sixty-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men.” The expulsions shocked the political world, Allison wrote, but for “those who have closely watched the chamber in recent years, the events were of little surprise.”

The shocked political world included many members of the national political media, which (eventually) afforded prominent coverage to the story. A media scrum formed at the Tennessee Capitol; Jones and Pearson toured national TV programs, including yesterday’s edition of Meet the Press, while cable news shows chewed over the news. (On the right, talking heads likened Jones, Pearson, and Johnson’s conduct to the January 6 insurrection.) The level of coverage, Lorraine Ali, the TV critic at the LA Times, wrote, was rare for a state-level political story, and Jones and Pearson, in particular, made the most of the spotlight. “The ousting was so brazen it could have been pulled from another era, before social media or smartphone cameras, when decisions made in smoke-filled rooms shaped politics and the authoritarian impulses of local officials could be more easily hidden from the rest of the country,” Ali wrote. “By plowing ahead like no one was watching but a handful of colleagues and young protesters, the architects of the expulsion unwittingly engineered a national inflection point in the fight over gun control, systemic racism and the GOP’s troubling embrace of dictatorial governance.”

The expulsions were not the first national news story to emerge from Tennessee this year; indeed, the state is in the midst of a particularly brutal news cycle. In January, police in Memphis killed Tyre Nichols, a Black man, during a traffic stop (five officers were later charged with his murder); late last month, tornadoes and severe storms hit the state, nine soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash just over the border in Kentucky, and there was the school shooting. All this, of course, has been exhausting for a state press corps—on Friday, Melissa Brown, a reporter at The Tennesseean, noted the feeling that the state had lived through a “century” in the last ten days alone—that has also been on the frontlines of important recent stories that have made fewer national headlines. Last week, the state lost its Title X certification, and with it millions of dollars in family-planning funds for low-income residents, while the state Senate passed a bill protecting teachers who refuse to use their students’ preferred pronouns. Earlier this year, a Republican lawmaker proposed that the state allow “hanging by a tree” as a method of execution. (The lawmaker apologized “to anyone who may have been hurt or offended.”)

Nor were the expulsions the only story from a state to drive the national news cycle last week. At least three others also did so, as a national-media spotlight that had been trained—with unbearable, narrow intensity—on Donald Trump’s arraignment in the early part of the week started to split and pool across other parts of the country. Tuesday, the day of the arraignment, also brought a mayoral election in Chicago and a crucial vote in Wisconsin that tipped the balance of the state’s Supreme Court in a liberal direction. The latter was, in no small part, covered as a story about abortion rights, a subject that took center stage again late Friday after a Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas suspended the Food and Drug Administration’s decades-old authorization of mifepristone, an abortion pill. The judge delayed his ruling for a week to allow the Biden administration to appeal; less than an hour later, a judge in Washington State ordered the FDA to keep mifepristone available in eighteen states that brought a lawsuit before him. You’d be hard-pressed to think up a more consequential Friday-night news dump.

After weeks of shallow, Trump-saturated national political coverage, it was refreshing to see significant media attention devoted to stories of immediate, real-world policy significance. Not that all of the national-level coverage got to the heart of this significance: the elections inspired no little horserace analysis, while the Tennessee and abortion stories were sometimes bothsidesed; taken together, they inspired clichéd analysis that made liberal use of words I’d love to ban (“unprecedented,” “dueling decisions”), as well as rote, uninsightful handwringing about “division” and “polarization.” These stories have not always been easy for the national press to cover. They have, sometimes, rested on complicated local dynamics not always understood by journalists and pundits in New York and DC. And there have sometimes been access restrictions, or attempted ones: the Texas judge in the mifepristone case, for example, tried not to publicize a scheduled hearing until the last minute, relenting only after the Post rumbled him. He cited unspecified “threats,” but delayed notification would also have made it hard for reporters to get to the hearing, given the relatively remote location of the courthouse.

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All of this, of course, serves as a reminder—as if we needed one—of the importance of well-funded, hard-hitting local news in every part of the country, and what we lose in its absence. Reporters in Tennessee have contributed some excellent coverage and commentary, not only of the expulsions last week but of the broader context of a state legislature that has lurched to the right while wielding power in increasingly opaque and arbitrary ways, as a monthslong investigation by Phil Williams, a high-profile local TV reporter, found last year. Last weekend, journalists from Gannett-owned papers in Tennessee, including The Tennesseean, fanned out to forty faith communities in the state, to chart their reactions in the wake of the school shooting. The resulting story dropped yesterday, focusing the broader expulsions fallout.

Still, in recent years, newsrooms in Tennessee—including those owned by Gannett—have faced cuts. Some local outlets have used national wire copy to cover the expulsions; Allison, in her article for Politico, noted that the press corps covering the state’s Capitol is now “a fraction of the size it was decades earlier,” even as it has increasingly been tasked with covering “a non-stop stream of befuddling scandals and unforced errors.” Recently, the state legislature considered a bill that would end the legal requirement for foreclosure notices to be placed in local newspapers—a significant potential blow to the revenue of smaller outlets in the state. (Other states have pushed through similar bills.) And journalists in Tennessee would seem to have faced threats beyond the financial. Last weekend, hours after he covered a gun-reform protest that followed the school shooting, the family home of Justin Kanew, the founder of the progressive site the Tennessee Holler, was shot at. No one was hurt and the culprit, and their motive, remain unknown. Yesterday, Tennessee’s attorney general condemned the shooting. According to one local journalist, he was the first Republican in the state to do so.

State Republican lawmakers have had more to say about the influx of right-wing media celebrities into their state—and, of course, about the conduct of Jones and Pearson. Ali, of the LA Times, is perhaps correct that in expelling their Democratic colleagues, Republican lawmakers only unwittingly started a national debate. The alternative, of course, is that they knew exactly what they were doing. The right-wing media ecosphere, these days, feasts on outrage.

Other notable stories:

  • Late last week, a tranche of what appeared to be classified US national-security documents were posted on social media. The documents contain sensitive information not only about the war in Ukraine, but also US interests in the Middle East and China; according to the Times, US officials have acknowledged that the documents are real, though they appear to have been doctored in various ways, and the identity of the potential leaker remains unclear. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials and pro-war Russian bloggers have accused each other of using the documents to spread disinformation.
  • On Friday, Russia formally charged Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was recently arrested in the country, with espionage; Gershkovich denied the charges. As Michael M. Grynbaum reports, for the Times, Gershkovich’s arrest “sent an indisputable signal that foreign reporters were newly vulnerable” in Russia—scrambling an assumption, among some newsrooms, that official accreditation granted a degree of safety to their staff, and forcing editors to reevaluate how to cover the country.
  • Amid broader diplomatic tensions between the two countries, China last week froze the visas of two Indian journalists, blocking them from returning to Beijing. China characterized the visa freezes as “corresponding counter measures” to what it described as the unfair treatment of Chinese journalists by India, including the apparent recent expulsion of a staffer for the state news agency Xinhua. Reuters has more.
  • Voice of America’s Kate Bartlett reports on the press-freedom situation in Africa’s Sahel region, which, despite the recent release of the kidnapped French journalist Olivier Dubois, has deteriorated of late. “Home to numerous violent Islamist extremists, the region suffers from political instability and sometimes regular coups,” Bartlett writes. “Journalists are persecuted by armed Islamist factions and ruling military juntas alike.”
  • And Politico’s Michael Schaffer argues that the US media landscape needs a reboot of Crossfire—the CNN debate show that was hosted by Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, and famously killed by Jon Stewart—or something like it. Stewart was right that Crossfire had become unedifying, Schaffer writes, but what has replaced it—“programming featuring like-minded people ginning one another up to even more rage”—is worse.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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