By Patrick O’Hannigan —
Media in the Raleigh area lends itself to metaphor, because it is dominated by “mom” (WRAL-TV) and “dad” (The News & Observer newspaper). Those labels find purchase in the culture of the two companies. The N&O is older. In the tradition of speech-making dads everywhere, it has an “About Us” web page that praises something −diversity− that it never actually defines. Opinion writers in that outfit ride high horses even on low roads. Meanwhile, WRAL cultivates a softer image, renting out the Azalea Gardens behind its TV studios, sending the “Tar Heel Traveler” on trips around the state, and hosting a blog called “Go Ask Mom.”
Despite their differences, both companies are politically progressive. This is nowhere more obvious than in how they cover stories involving Governor Roy Cooper. Cooper, a Democrat, gets a pass that WRAL and the N&O never gave his Republican predecessor.
The flattering treatment of Governor Cooper can’t be attributed solely to shared ideology, but shared ideology does help to airbrush his record. For example, while a December 6 search for “Roy Cooper” on the WRAL website yielded 2,708 hits, few of the citations are substantive. Readers who comb through them will find that the governor lit the state Christmas tree and praised the Durham Bulls. A story about “Famous people who died in 2017” also counts as a search result for Governor Cooper, although it carries a “relevance score” of only 1.78 percent.
If you’re looking for something meatier, Governor Cooper earns a passing mention in a November 21 editorial about gerrymandered voting districts, but only because that essay said that if Republicans can keep up what editors call an “illegal power play” for three more years, “they’ll have kept power through the administration of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.” In other words, the essay makes Cooper a marker on a timeline, which is something that former governor Pat McCrory seldom had a chance to be, because Ma and Pa Media turned him into a lightning rod for their disappointments. Remember the summer of 2013, when McCrory made the mistake of trying to placate pro-choice demonstrators outside the executive mansion with a plate of homemade cookies? For that, local media found proxies to call McCrory condescending and sexist rather than gracious or funny.
When the former head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality stepped down from that agency and accused officials in the Cooper administration of trying to “stifle” his opinions, WRAL mentioned that. Yet WRAL producers shaped the story as a disagreement between two men who ran the same department at different times, rather than a tale about an outspoken employee coming to the unfavorable notice of a new governor.
The News & Observer is likewise gentle in the way it treats Roy Cooper. Executives there have done what they can to ensure that all most people know about the man is that he used to be North Carolina’s Attorney General and is now their governor. N&O editors are not about to ask the governor whether it was arrogant of him to leave his predecessor to defend the so-called “bathroom bill” alone. Cooper was Attorney General then, and made no secret of his distaste for what the state legislature had done in response to provocation from the Charlotte City Council. Cooper could have resigned his position in honorable protest at the time. Instead he chose to stay on and undercut his boss.
Now that he’s governor, “mom” and “dad” are loathe to start asking hard questions. Mama don’t dance, and daddy don’t rock and roll. The mentions that Cooper gets in local media track closely with the executive orders and proclamations available on his own website. If you turn exclusively to the News & Observer or WRAL-TV for coverage of local events, you can be forgiven for thinking that Governor Cooper’s approach to his job is remarkably similar to Elmer J. Fudd’s approach to rabbit hunting, because both the politician and the cartoon character strive to be “very, very quiet.”
In cosmic payback for his star turn as the “righteous opposition” in the debacle that was House Bill 2, Governor Cooper now serves alongside a Republican lieutenant governor. He also contends with a Republican-dominated legislature. But Cooper defenders sensitive to those obstacles never seem to recall that McCrory faced mutterings about his friends in the energy industry, and “Moral Monday” protests orchestrated by Rev. William Barber, who conveniently decided to move on once a Democratic administration was safely back in power.
Would local media go after an ideologue with whom they are comfortable? Hardly. What they do instead is hand him wish lists, such as the one in this headline from a November 28 op-ed in the N&O: “Cooper should crack down on Duke Energy’s hazards.”
Patrick O’Hannigan is a father of two who works as a technical writer and editor in North Carolina.
The views of the author do not neccesarily represent the views of the Civitas Institute.