As a liberal in a red state, Max Brantley is used to being unwelcome in certain political circles. So the editor of the left-leaning Arkansas Times wasn’t too surprised when he was denied access last week to a press call with members of Tom Cotton’s victorious U.S. Senate campaign.
If anything, Brantley said he was surprised that he was on the campaign’s press list in the first place. After receiving the unexpected invitation to the Friday call, he decided to RSVP. When he didn’t get a response, he reached out personally to Cotton spokesman David Ray.
“I suspect he only answered because I have a new phone and it didn’t show up on his caller ID,” Brantley told TPM in an interview on Monday morning.
Brantley said that Cotton’s handlers kept the candidate “in a bubble” and that the RSVP requirement was another example of the campaign’s efforts to “control access.” His interaction with Ray confirmed those suspicions.
“I asked him if I could get an access code and he said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ He said we just haven’t acted in good faith,” Brantley recalled.
Ray did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment on Monday.
Brantley makes no bones about his liberal leanings, and he readily acknowledges that he’s been “pretty hard on Cotton,” who crushed incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) last week. But he pointed out to Ray that the Times, the alternative weekly in Little Rock where he’s worked since 1992, also employs reporters who “write pretty straight stuff.” It didn’t matter. The freeze-out, Brantley was told, applied to his colleagues, too.
Brantley said Ray didn’t offer any specifics.
“You know, I always prefer to get equal treatment,” Brantley told TPM. “They’ve kind of a run an ‘us against them’ campaign from the start. I wasn’t particularly surprised. I was not at all surprised that David Ray did that.”
Brantley said he wasn’t too bent out of shape about it, either, although he was bothered by the reaction online to the incident.
“A member of our staff put a little item about it on our Facebook page. It just went nuts. I mean, it’s had thousands of views and hundreds of comments. The comment line has been dominated by Republicans who say, ‘Well, what the hell do you expect? You criticize somebody. Fuck ya!'” Brantley said. “Yeah, I get that, to a certain degree. But I don’t think Barack Obama says, ‘Nope, National Review can’t come in the press room. Those guys are just too mean to me.’ This ‘politics ain’t bean bags’ thing kind of cuts both ways. It seems to me that a guy who had an 18-point victory could stand to have some throw-away tabloid listen in on his phone call.”
A colorful raconteur who’s covered Arkansas politics for about 40 years, Brantley speaks like the type of guy who’s seen it all. The shunning from the Cotton campaign certainly wasn’t uncharted territory.
After warring with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), Brantley received a series of angry letters from the 2008 presidential candidate and current Fox News pundit. By the end of his gubernatorial tenure, Huckabee blacklisted the Arkansas Times completely.
“He just finally said, ‘You know, enough is enough.’ They just cut us off. They wouldn’t take our phone calls. They wouldn’t send us news releases,” Brantley said.
But the embargo had an upside, one that Brantley hopes will repeat itself now that Cotton’s camp has made him persona non grata.
“The beauty of it was that I had became so identified as Huckabee’s villain, anybody who had some tips on Huckabee would call me,” Brantley said. “So I’m somewhat hopeful in the new Republican era. And if people are looking for an outlet, they know where to find me.”