Edward Durr was a long-standing candidate in his run for the New Jersey State Senate that no one seemed to notice something quite striking about him: he used to post fanatic, misogynistic and derogatory comments about social networks.
âMohammed 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 called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus”, blamed an “influx of illegal aliens” for the spread of the disease, used the motto of the conspiracy movement. far right QAnon and compared the vaccination warrants to the Holocaust. He also disparaged Vice President Kamala Harris on Facebook, writing that she only deserved her job because of her race and gender.
Yet none of this evaluated media coverage, even after Durr, a commercial truck driver who had never held a position, became the Republican nominee for New Jersey’s 3rd Legislative District in April. According to a search of the Nexis database, which lists thousands of news sources, there have been no published or disseminated reports of Durr’s messages in the six months leading up to election day.
Durr’s comments made the news after last week’s election, when reporters finally caught up with his story on social media. But by then he had already marked a staggering upheaval against Democrat Steve Sweeney, one of the state’s most powerful officials. Durr, 58, won the Senate seat by about 2,200 out of 65,000 votes.
One of the basic functions of the media is to act as a watchdog, especially in screening candidates for public office. But in Durr’s case, the guard dogs didn’t bark for years.
His inflammatory posts date back to at least 2017, when he called US Senator Robert Menendez, DN.J., a “pedophile” – one of two times he has, according to NJ.com. According to Nexis, however, Durr’s online story received no media coverage when he unsuccessfully ran for a state assembly seat in 2017, nor when he ran. and lost again two years later.
New Jersey political watchers say the inattention this time around partly reflected low expectations over Durr’s candidacy against Sweeney, six-time president of the state senate. âThis race wasn’t just off the media’s radar, it was off everyone’s radar,â said Brigid Harrison, political science and law professor at Montclair State. “No one even considered (Durr) to be a real threat, and that includes me.”
But the lack of media scrutiny can tell more about the state of local news.
Years of cutbacks and consolidation among news organizations have left many communities without vigorous local coverage. Hundreds of newspapers have closed their doors over the past two decades amid technological and economic turmoil – mostly small weeklies focused on local issues. They left behind âghostâ newspapers that try to cover large areas with hollowed out teams or news deserts where there is no local reporting.
The southern New Jersey area once had four dailies. But in 2012, Advance Publications merged three of them – the Gloucester County Times, Today’s Sunbeam in Salem County, and the News of Cumberland County – into one newspaper, the South Jersey Times. The counties of Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland form the heart of the district won by Durr.
The Times’ main competitors include the Courier Post in Cherry Hill and its sister newspaper, the Daily Journal in Vineland, both owned by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper owner and a vigorous cost cutter. The Philadelphia Inquirer is the region’s premier metropolitan newspaper.
The surviving local newspaper reporting teams “have been wiped out” and “hardly cover local news any longer,” said David Wildstein, who runs the New Jersey Globe, a digital news site focused on the issues and politics of the state. “That’s a shame.”
Collectively, the South Jersey Times, the Courier Post and the Daily Journal list a total of 13 reporters on their headlines, covering a four-county area of ââjust over one million people. Newspaper editors did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Harrison said the broader information ecosystem is just as bleak. She estimates that the number of reporters covering New Jersey State House in Trenton has declined by about 75% over the past two decades. Neighboring television stations in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware also reach parts of District 3, but regional television stations rarely cover local politics, especially those in a neighboring state.
The non-reporting is a “sad illustration” of a larger media crisis, said Tim Franklin, former editor of the Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel, who now heads a local news initiative at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
“Voters in South Jersey’s 3rd Legislative District should have known about Durr’s positions long before election day,” Franklin said. âNews and local information are the oxygen of an autonomous and functional democracy. And our system is choking with expanding information deserts and ghost newspapers. â¦ We have far fewer journalists covering the very state officials who have a profound effect on people’s daily lives.
Some of the non-reports could arguably be dropped at Sweeney’s feet, suggests Wildstein. Journalists often rely on leaks of damaging information about a candidate provided by an opponent. But in this case, it is not clear whether Sweeney’s campaign possessed such “opposition research” or tried to broadcast it during the campaign. (Reps for Sweeney did not respond to requests for comment.)
For his part, Durr tacitly admitted that his social media posts could have been embarrassing during the campaign. After his comments were reported last week, he deleted his Twitter account and issued a statement. âI’m a passionate guy and sometimes I say things in the heat of the moment,â he said. “If I have said things in the past that have hurt someone’s feelings, I sincerely apologize.”
He added, âI support the right of everyone to worship in their own way and to worship the God of their choice. I support everyone and I support everyone’s rights. This is what I am here to do, to work for people and to defend their rights.