At a recent campaign stop, a woman broke down in tears and was comforted by Dr. Oz, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. The Associated Press led many others in reporting that the woman was a "Black voter". Here's its lead paragraph:
As Sheila Armstrong grew emotional in recounting how her brother and nephew were killed in Philadelphia, Dr. Mehmet Oz — sitting next to her inside a Black church, their chairs arranged a bit like his former daytime TV show set — placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
Later, he gave her a hug, and said, "How do you cope?"
But it turns out that Armstrong, far from being the person described here, was in fact one of Oz's own paid campaign staffers. The interaction between them was scripted, a stunt put on for the news crew.
Brendan McPhillips, campaign manager for Oz's opponent John Fetterman, complained on Twitter about the deception. Parker Molloy reported it out for her newsletter, The Present Age, noting that the story's co-author, Marc Levy, also promoted it online with a similarly hinky quote found in Oz campaign media—but not the story itself:
I heard back from an AP media relations manager who told me the following: "As soon as AP learned of and confirmed Armstrong's affiliation with the Oz campaign, we updated the story to reflect that," adding, "We made this clear to customers in an editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the [sic] Armstrong has been an employee of the Oz campaign."
Molloy notes that at the time it was sent, the story had been updated without an editor's note, which was added only later.
The Intercept followed up later, receiving the same canned reply from the AP—and detailing some of the many outlets that ran the story without correction.
There is nothing new about a political campaign carefully stage-managing a public event to get good publicity or using the news media to broadcast a favorable message to the public. But by inviting reporters to cover a community discussion with Oz and not revealing that a featured speaker, Armstrong, was a paid staffer, the former TV host's aides seem to have successfully tricked reporters into presenting a staged, reality TV scene as if it were news.
The tenor of most coverage of this, such as it was, is that the AP was simply duped by Oz. But the evasive answers Molloy received from it deserve more attention, not least because other recent coverage of Oz has been similarly breathless and credulous.
It comes down to this: the press has perverse incentives to find and publish positive coverage of Oz.
Reporters and editors want suprises, delights, sensational moments. In context, they want to find a "zig" amid the endless "zagging" of Oz's dismal, MAGA-dependent campaign. And in this particular case, this impulse created a blind spot that Oz expertly manipulated. Afterward, the same impulse made it hard for the AP to accept what had happened.
Even now the story is still up, with its ridiculously-inserted "this was a paid staffer" fig leaf. The AP has to pretend that it would have run the story exactly as is, but for one line, had it known that its main subject and its political beneficiary were deceiving them. It has to pretend that everything which follows the lie at the top comes from a place of truth.
The same scale-tilting impulse—to cast the Fetterman-Oz race in a more competitive light—led a few days earlier to similarly bad results. NBC News correspondent Dasha Burns' insinuated that the teleprompting software Fetterman used to read her questions raised questions about his fitness for office.
NBC News' presentation of this as a scoop was bad enough, as Fetterman had been using a closed caption reader in interviews since his stroke earlier this summer. But Burns' negative reaction at the laptop software—widely used by people with hearing difficulties—disgusted many, especially disability advocates.
Worse still, Axios's Josh Krashauur claimed by way of a mangled quote that Fetterman didn't understand what Burns was saying—a paraphrase so egregious that a member of the NBC News crew present at the shoot made a point to publicly debunk it and denounce him as a Twitter attention-seeker:
There are obvious, screaming problems with the media trying to restore "balance" to political races. Targeting Fetterman for additional scrutiny (as NBC News did) while gullibly building stories around Oz's deceptions (as the AP did) doesn't just annoy Dems and delight Republicans. It's embarassing for everyone who sees value in telling truly interesting stories about the candidates. It's stupid and cynical and suggestive of a nihilistic desperation for a more exciting horse race and the audience that such might bring.
But the very likely outcome of all this is not just a more media-friendly battle at the hustings. It is that Oz simply ends up winning—all because these incentives and the lasting power of the press led these reporters to crash into the scales they thought they were delicately nudging.