How the media missed a New Jersey senate candidate’s racist social media posts – until he’d already won

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Edward Durr was such a long-shot candidate in his New Jersey state senate race that no one seemed to notice something rather striking about him: He had a history of posting bigoted, misogynistic and derogatory comments on social media.

“Mohammed was a pedophile!” he wrote in 2019 in a tweet that also described Islam as “a false religion” and “a cult of hate.” In other online posts since last year, he has called the coronavirus “the China virus,” blamed an “influx of #illegalAliens” for spreading disease, used the motto of the far-right QAnon conspiracy movement and compared vaccination mandates to the Holocaust. He also denigrated Vice President Kamala Harris on Facebook, writing that she had earned her position only as a result of her race and gender.

Yet none of it rated news coverage, even after Durr, a commercial truck driver who had never held office, became the Republican nominee for New Jersey’s third legislative district in April. According to a search of the Nexis database, which catalogues thousands of news sources, there were no published or broadcast reports about Durr’s posts in the six months leading up to Election Day.

Durr’s comments made plenty of news after last week’s election, when reporters finally caught up to his social media history. But by then he had already scored a stunning upset over Democrat Steve Sweeney, one of the state’s most powerful officials. Durr, 58, won the senate seat by roughly 2,200 votes out of 65,000 cast.

One of the media’s basic functions is to serve as a watchdog, particularly in scrutinizing candidates for public office. But in Durr’s case, the watchdogs failed to bark for years.

His incendiary posts date back to at least 2017, when he called U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a “pedophile” – one of two times he did so, according to NJ.com. According to Nexis, however, Durr’s online history got no media coverage when he ran unsuccessfully for a state assembly seat in 2017 nor when he ran and lost again two years later.

Political observers in New Jersey say the inattention this time around partially reflected low expectations for Durr’s candidacy against Sweeney, a six-time incumbent who is president of the state senate. “This race wasn’t just off the media’s radar, it was off everyone’s radar,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State. “No one even considered that (Durr) was a real threat, and that includes me.”

But the lack of media scrutiny may tell a larger tale about the state of local news reporting.

Years of cutbacks and consolidation among news organizations have left many communities without vigorous local coverage. Hundreds of newspapers have folded during the past two decades amid technological and economic turmoil – mostly small weeklies that focused on local issues. They have left behind “ghost” newspapers that try to report on broad territories with hollowed-out staffs or news deserts where there is no local reporting at all.

The southern New Jersey region once had four daily newspapers. But in 2012, Advance Publications merged three that it owned – the Gloucester County Times, Today’s Sunbeam in Salem County and the News of Cumberland County – into a single paper, the South Jersey Times. Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland counties form the heart of the district won by Durr.

The Times’s major competitors include the Courier Post in Cherry Hill and its sister paper, the Daily Journal in Vineland, both owned by Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper owner and a vigorous cost cutter. The Philadelphia Inquirer is the region’s leading metropolitan paper.

The reporting staffs of the surviving local newspapers “have been decimated” and “barely cover local news anymore,” said David Wildstein, who runs the New Jersey Globe, a digital news site focused on state issues and politics. “It’s a shame.”

Collectively, the South Jersey Times, Courier Post and Daily Journal list a total of 13 news reporters on their mastheads, covering a four-county region that has a population of just over 1 million. Editors of the papers didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment.

Harrison said the broader news ecosystem is similarly grim. She estimates that the number of reporters covering the New Jersey State House in Trenton has fallen by about 75 percent over the past two decades. TV stations in nearby Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. reach parts of the third district as well, but regional TV stations rarely cover local politics, especially those in a nearby state.

The nonreporting is a “sad illustration” of a larger crisis in the news media, said Tim Franklin, the former editor of the Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel who now heads a local-news initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

“The voters in South Jersey’s third legislative district should have known about Durr’s posts long before Election Day,” Franklin said. “Local news and information is the oxygen of a functioning, self-governed democracy. And our system is choking from expanding news deserts and ghost newspapers. … We have many fewer journalists covering the very state officials who have a profound effect on people’s everyday lives.”

Some of the nonreporting might arguably be laid at Sweeney’s feet, suggests Wildstein. Reporters often rely on leaks of damaging information about a candidate supplied by an opponent. But in this instance, it’s unclear whether Sweeney’s campaign possessed such “opposition research” or tried to disseminate it during the campaign. (Sweeney’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)

For his part, Durr tacitly admitted his social media posts could have proved an embarrassment during the campaign. After his comments were reported last week, he deleted his Twitter account and released a statement. “I’m a passionate guy and I sometimes say things in the heat of the moment,” he said. “If I said things in the past that hurt anybody’s feelings, I sincerely apologize.”

He added, “I support everybody’s right to worship in any manner they choose and to worship the God of their choice. I support all people and I support everybody’s rights. That’s what I am here to do, work for the people and support their rights.”

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