It’s unlikely that anyone even remotely following the presidential campaign learned anything new about Republican candidate Ted Cruz at a rally hosted by his Super Pac, Keep the Promise, in Phoenix, but that didn’t stop a group representative from trying to ban a media outlet he thought might write “a hit piece” about the candidate.
What exactly pac media coordinator Chris Herring was trying to prevent New Times from reporting is unclear, because during the two-hour event inside a crowded and overheated gymnasium on the Arizona Christian University campus Friday night, Cruz essentially delivered his standard stump speech. He promised to rescind Obamacare, build a functional wall between the U.S. and Mexico, stand up against “Washington insiders,” strengthen the military, and restore conservative values – all things he’s said repeatedly in the last few months.
And like any candidate on the campaign trail, he spoke about his policy platforms vaguely, preferring to stir up the crowd with lines like: “I will not compromise away your religious liberty, and I will not compromise away your right to bear arms,” and “It took Jimmy Carter to bring us Ronald Reagan, and I am convinced that the lasting legacy of Barack Obama will be a new generation of conservatives who [will fight for] the Judeo-Christian values that build this great nation.”
Cruz also spent plenty of time slamming Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — labeling them both “establishment” candidates while simultaneously portraying himself as the real outsider in the presidential race — and he repeated the line he’s become so fond of in the last few weeks: that he’s the only candidate who can, and who has, beaten Trump.
The first hour of the event was a live televised episode of The Sean Hannity Show in which Hannity could barely contain his love for Cruz’s law-and=order, conservative platform. Hannity worked the crowd like a pro, bringing up Clinton and Obama at every opportunity, provoking those in the room to unleash a fury of loud “boos” – the pro-Cruz crowd had similar reactions to any mention of U.S. senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
As Hannity helped paint Cruz as the country’s last hope and the conservative antidote to Obama’s “radical” reign at the White House, Cruz just smiled his Ted Cruz smile – lips turned down at the corner while somehow also grinning.
Later in the evening, former Texas Governor Rick Perry and former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina joined the two men on stage, and all five of them threw their heads back and basked in the glory of hundreds of people in the crowd chanting “Choose Cruz, Choose Cruz.”
After the Hannity show was over, Cruz finally got the chance to address the audience. He gesticulated wildly, his sing-song cadence and tone sounding more like a televangelist preacher than a politician:
“People are waking up, there is a spirit sweeping across this country, [and if elected president,] we’ll see morning in America again,” he told the room. “I’m fighting for truck drivers, plumbers, and people with calluses on their hands.”
Predictably, there was no shortage of references to God-given rights and freedoms or the desperate need to restore good Christian values to the country – Fiorina proudly noted at one point that Cruz wakes up every morning and follows two texts, the U.S. Constitution and the Bible.
In fact, aside from the lack of enough air-conditioning in a packed gymnasium, there wasn’t anything particularly notable about the event — well, except that Ted Cruz’s Super Pac tried to keep New Times out of it.
There’s an old adage that “all press is good press,” but in the instantaneous age of social media, that may only be true when all the press is treated equally.
Media outlets planning to cover the event were asked to register for media tickets and to get to the venue no later than 3 p.m. New Times, following the rules, obtained the requisite passes and arrived at the gymnasium around 2:30 p.m.
Behind a wall of TV trucks, Keep the Promise’s media coordinator, Chris Herring, stood with a clipboard checking in reporters as they arrived. There was a small crowd standing around since Herring insisted on signing people in and then leading them to the media platform in the main room of the gymnasium, one at a time, so New Times patiently waited in line, excited to cover the rally of an important candidate coming through town ahead of Tuesday’s Arizona primary.
When New Times finally got to the front of the line and presented the official media tickets and proper media credentials, Herring said nope, sorry, New Times isn’t getting inside.
When pressed, Herring cracked a sinister grin and admitted it was a politically motivated choice: “You guys do hit pieces on Republicans; why would I want to expose my candidate to that?” (New Times did recently publish an unflattering commentary about Cruz penned by a columnist at our sister paper, the Dallas Observer. Herring, however, never specifically mentioned the piece.)
As a long parade of reporters, both local and national and independent, got checked in, New Times stood to the side with four other reporters Herring was reluctant to admit because of limited space. Those four included a high school reporter from the student paper at Brophy College Preparatory.
“We oversold general admission, so I can’t even get you that,” he told them, repeating his request for them to hang tight.
New Times continued to press Herring about the decision, asking if it turned out there was space access would be granted to the reporters who arrived earliest.
“No, I’ll make the decision,” he replied, walking away.
When a volunteer showed New Times the three-page media check-in list, about a third of the names were highlighted yellow, and one was highlighted red: New Times.
When asked, Herring later admitted that “yellow means confirmed ahead of time and red means we weren’t ever going to issue a pass.”
Robert Graham, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, explicitly said during a pre-event press conference that the state party never would blacklist certain reporters:
“Never, no way,” he said. “We invite everyone…The voting process should be a transparent and clear process. This is again back to knowing the candidates; if you give everyone the opportunity to see and participate, that’s where momentum [for a candidate] shifts.”
Herring was having none of it.
“What are the chances looking like that you’ll have room for us all?” New Times asked shortly before 6 p.m.
“Not so great for you,” Herring responded. “I told you that three and half hours ago.”
As it turns out, New Times knew a high-ranking volunteer for the event from a previous story. The man expressed outrage at Herring’s decision, in part, he said, because blacklisting media is dirty politics and in part because it’s just a politically stupid idea.
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Any “hit piece” New Times might write about Cruz would probably have little impact, whereas a story saying that the Cruz Super Pac banned media it purportedly disagrees with is a much bigger story, the volunteer stated, adding, “I’m going to go talk to Chris [Herring].”
Shortly after 6 p.m., Herring let the last three reporters inside, explaining to New Times that he had had a change of heart about not letting potential Ted Cruz critics inside.
Sure, standing space was crowded on the media platform but no more so than at any other campaign event. What Herring was afraid of remains unclear, since the entire event is best summarized by one of Fiorina’s comments:
“I am proud of the enemies Ted Cruz has made, and you should be too.”