Captain Mark Kelly, the former astronaut, has a picture-perfect political résumé: the Space Shuttle commander and veteran of the U.S. Navy became a gun control advocate after his wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was shot and suffered a severe brain injury.
For a broad swath of Democrats, a Kelly campaign is precisely what the party needs. He’s a patriotic, mediagenic, center-friendly liberal who has a rare chance to turn the longtime Republican stronghold of Arizona into a state with two Democratic U.S. senators.
But on March 5, a missile came for Kelly—launched, improbably, from the left. Reporter Akela Lacy revealed that Kelly, who like many progressive hopefuls claimed he was running a campaign free of corporate PAC donations, had made at least 19 paid corporate speeches in front of audiences including Goldman Sachs. A follow-up story dinged Kelly for another swampy tradition: a planned appearance at a fundraiser hosted by lobbyists from Capitol Counsel, a major Washington firm.
The stories were published by the Intercept, the five-year-old left-leaning online news outlet, and they stung. The state’s largest paper, the Arizona Republic, waded in. CNN began asking questions. Initially dismissive, the Kelly campaign returned the $55,000 he was paid for a speech in the United Arab Emirates. In the interest of transparency, the Kelly camp also published the transcript of a typical paid speech. (A spokesperson for Kelly declined to comment for this article.)
For the Intercept, it was another notch on an increasingly crowded belt—mostly decorated with attacks on Democrats.
Founded in 2014 by muckraking national security journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, the Intercept is still best-known for its first incarnation as an obsessive anti-surveillance reporting enterprise, and an activist voice for privacy and civil liberties—more anti-government than partisan. It built its reputation by publishing stories based on top-secret National Security Agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden; it also exposed the controversial U.S. drone strike program and revealed how a British intelligence agency sought to digitally surveil every Internet user.
But in the past few years, and especially in the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, the Intercept has taken a sharp turn into party politics. With a hard-charging Washington bureau chief, Ryan Grim, driving its political coverage, the Intercept has taken a more classic “gotcha” approach to campaign reporting, and landed in a unique spot in the media ecosystem—as the loudest voice attacking Democrats from the left.
As the party grapples with fractures emerging in its coalition, the Intercept is a crowbar working those fractures apart, probing hard at fault lines like criminal justice reform, “Medicare for All,” the “Green New Deal,” racial justice and corporate funding of candidates like Kelly. The outlet has become a routine headache for the Democratic establishment and its leadership. It published a leaked recording of then-House Democratic Whip now-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pressuring a progressive Colorado primary candidate to drop out of a race. By far its favorite target has been the party organization that works to elect Democrats to the House, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which the Intercept has repeatedly pilloried for seeking to kneecap a new wave of insurgent lefties. In a March story, the Intercept hammered the DCCC for moving to blacklist consultants working with primary challengers to Democratic incumbents.
The Intercept has also offered a platform to the candidates it favors. During the 2016 presidential primary, the site was one of the few outlets to take Bernie Sanders seriously early on, and its coverage of the 2018 midterms helped to promote progressive outsiders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.
In today’s fast-moving media environment, seemingly every election elevates a new publication to the center of the conversation. In 2008, there was the Huffington Post and Politico; 2012 saw the rise of BuzzFeed; in 2016, Breitbart transformed the conservative media landscape. As 2020 approaches, some see the Intercept as the political site of the moment, a disruptive force focused on one of the most important political stories of our time, the Democratic identity crisis.