Hero or villain, Ocasio-Cortez remains a media fixation

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, speaks during South by Southwest on Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Austin, Texas. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

NEW YORK — Believe it or not, there are other members of Congress besides Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

You wouldn’t know that by how the freshman Democrat from New York has become a media fixation like no other politician since President Donald Trump. She’s been a cover subject in both New York tabloids, a punchline on “Saturday Night Live,” the target of a Washington Post investigation and depicted as a hamburglar at a conservative conference — and that’s only this month so far.

This past weekend she was featured at the trendy South by Southwest conference, where science guy Bill Nye offered a surprise endorsement of her environmental plans.

Boldness, youth and an embrace of social media have made AOC — the shorthand is already widely known — a hero to the left, a villain to the right and irresistible to journalists.

“She is the political mirror image of Donald Trump,” said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN Washington bureau chief. “He’s old, she’s young. He’s far right, she’s far left. What they share is a take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred approach to politics, and their rhetoric is the brash, sometimes profane rhetoric of our social-media-driven times.”

Moving into a presidential primary campaign where a defining issue will be how far left the Democrats want to move, AOC has become a symbol for the party’s progressive wing even though, at 29, she’s too young to run herself.

Her status is evident on social media. During the second half of February, her Twitter handle, @AOC, was mentioned 3.64 million times on the social network. That was more than handles for the two congressional leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (1.22 million) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (696,000) combined.

Since she took office, stories about AOC have averaged about 2,200 likes, shares, or comments on Facebook, according to the social media analytics company NewsWhip. That’s more than double the typical interactions on Pelosi articles. No other Democrats came closer.

With such metrics, news stories are certain to follow. There have been many, ranging from the Washington Post’s look at whether questionable financial practices of Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional chief of staff clash with his boss’ view on money in politics, to a Daily Mail reporter tracking down her mother and discovering — surprise! — she’d like to see her daughter get married.

AOC frequently uses social media to counter stories. When a dance video she made with friends in college circulated, she combined video of a brief twirl outside her office with the message: “If Republicans thought women dancing in college is scandalous, wait ’til they find out women dance in Congress, too.”

After the New York Post suggested AOC, chief proponent of “Green New Deal” legislation, might be hypocritical for riding in gas-guzzling cars, she noted that she also uses airplanes and air conditioners. “Living in the world as it is isn’t an argument against working toward a better future,” she tweeted.

“She understood how to use social media in a way that is incredibly effective, both to speak to constituents and other people in power with a truly authentic voice,” said veteran news executive Kate O’Brian.

AOC’s defeat of powerful Rep. Joseph Crowley in a primary led many young Democrats to embrace her as an underdog. That’s also perfect for Republicans who like to portray more extreme elements as typical of the Democratic party, Sesno said. The GOP is increasingly dominated by older, white men, and here’s an outspoken, young Latina woman from the heathen environs of New York City.

“This idea of making her the face of the Democratic party hits a lot of boxes for them,” said Nicole Hemmer, author of “Messengers of the Right” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), about the conservative media’s impact on politics. “She is young, a symbol of the party moving to the left, and she isn’t afraid of the word ‘socialism.'”

In January, Fox News Channel’s prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham did 27 segments focusing on the freshman Democrat. There were none on McConnell, according to the liberal watchdog Media Matters.

“It’s not a mystery,” said Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center. “AOC is a machine of silly things she says, gaffes and extreme statements, and the impression she gives is amateurism. The same thing that is her appeal is also her downside. She was a bartender.”

Her opponents have also been guilty of overreach, such as when a quickly disproven photo was spread online purporting to be a nudie selfie. Conservative activist Sebastian Gorka claimed of AOC’s environmental legislation, “they want to take away your hamburgers.”