The day – democracy is under attack. Reporters need to stop covering politics as usual.
Our democracy is under attack. Washington journalists must stop reporting politics as usual.
In the dark days of 2012, think tank scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann wrote a book entitled “It’s Worse Than It Looks” on the rise of Republican extremism and its devastating effects on American democracy .
In a related article, these authors made a scathing testimony of coverage in the Washington press, which treats the two parties as roughly the same and deserves similar coverage for everything they do.
Ornstein and Mann set the problem with devastating clarity: “We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to cover both sides of a story. But treating an unbalanced phenomenon in a balanced way distorts reality. If Washington’s political dynamics are unlikely to “change anytime soon, we should at least change the way reality is presented to the public.”
Almost a decade later, that distortion of reality has only worsened, thanks in part to Donald Trump’s seizure of power and his iron grip on an increasingly cowardly Republican party.
The democratic leadership tried to put together a bipartisan body that would investigate this mob attack on our democracy and make sure it was never repeated. Republican leaders, meanwhile, sought to undermine the investigation by cynically demanding that two congressmen who supported efforts to invalidate the elections join the commission and then boycott it completely. And the media has played straight into the hands of Republicans, seemingly unable to call this anything other than lowly political drama.
“’What You’re Doing Is Unprecedented’: The McCarthy-Pelosi Feud is Boiling,” a CNN headline read this week. “After a week of whiplash of power games … tensions are at an all-time high.”
Is it really a “feud” when Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy performatively blames Democratic House spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi for refusing to appoint Republicans Jim Jordan and Jim Banks – two submissive allies of Trump, who called the January 6th mob to a meeting?
A writer at Politico called Pelosi’s decision a “gift to McCarthy”. And the Playbook exposed the decision as a “legitimate complaint” by the Republicans, which doomed the sacred notion of non-partisanship.
“Both parties have attacked the other for being insincere and disinterested in a fair investigation,” a Washington Post news item said. (“Can the Post really escape the fact that the Republican Party acted maliciously at every turn to undermine any attempt to investigate the events of January 6?” One reader complained to me.)
The bankruptcy of this type of coverage was exposed on Tuesday morning when the commission began on January 6th with somber, powerful, emphatically apolitical statements from four police officers who were attacked during the riot.
Mainstream journalists want their work to be seen as fair and impartial. You want to defend yourself against allegations of bias. So they compensate for the unequal. This practice seems so ingrained that it is insoluble.
There is a way out. Reshape the mission of Washington reporting. I offer these recommendations:
Throw away the insidious framework of “domestic politics” and replace it with a “pro-democratic” framework.
Stop calling the reporters who cover this stuff “political reporters”. Call them “Government Reporters”.
Stop asking who the last stand winners and losers were. Start asking who is serving democracy and who is undermining it.
Stop being “smart” and start being patriotic.
In an end-of-year article for Nieman Lab, Andrew Donohue, executive editor of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, urged news organizations to put reporters on a new “democratic blow” to focus on election suppression and redistribution. “These reporters will see their work not in terms of politics or parties, but through the lens of honesty, fairness and transparency,” he wrote.
I would do it more expansively. The Democracy Beat shouldn’t be a special innovation, but a widespread rethink in the mainstream media.
As a model, you may have to swallow your great media pride and watch places like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the public radio station WITF, which has admirably explained to its audiences why it is constantly reminding of the actions of officials trying to overturn the 2020 election result. Or the letter to the editor from Cleveland Plain Dealer Editor Chris Quinn about how the newspaper and its website Cleveland.com refuse to cover every ruthless, attention-grabbing lie made by Republican Josh Mandel, who will be released next year for the U.S. Senate is running.
These places prove that a different kind of reporting and transparency about it is possible.
Ornstein and Mann probably couldn’t imagine the chaos after the November election, the horrors of January 6, or the events of the past few weeks.
The change they requested has not occurred. For American democracy’s sake, it’s now or never.
Margaret Sullivan is the Washington Post media columnist.