Why journalism fails on both sides in the face of the growing threat to our democracy
A president lied about COVID-19 (that of the country and his own), hugged white racists, and tried to overturn the results of a losing election. Another president hit some bumps in the road while trying to convince Congress to pass his agenda. Can you guess who got more negative coverage?
If you’ve guessed President Joe Biden, come down. According to an analysis of 65 news websites, Biden’s treatment by the media from August to November of this year was as harsh or harsher than then-President Donald Trump’s over the same four-month period in 2020.
On one level it is inconceivable. On the other hand, however, it is all too predictable. Much of the media simply cannot or will not go beyond bilateral journalism and equate the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a republican party dedicated to authoritarianism and voter suppression.
“My media colleagues serve as accomplices in the murder of democracy,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who commissioned the study. He concluded: “Too many journalists are trapped in a thoughtless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between facts and fiction. It’s time to take a stand. “
As I have already written and as many others have said, we are in the midst of a democratic crisis. The Republican Party, already disproportionately empowered due to the small-state bias of the Constitution and the Senate filibusters (the latter could be abolished tomorrow, of course), is working to strengthen its advantage through partisan gerrymandering and the passing of voter suppression laws. The result could be white minority rule for years to come.
The situation has deteriorated so much that the European think tank International IDEA is now viewing the US as a “backsliding democracy”. To quote directly from the IDEA report, “The United States, the bastion of global democracy, has itself fallen victim to authoritarian tendencies and has been suppressed a considerable number of moves at the democratic level.”
And the media remain true to their ancient tropes, reporting on political campaigns like a horse race and treating the two major parties as equal actors with different views.
It’s a topic that was recently discussed extensively on Ezra Klein’s podcast in the New York Times by Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, and innkeeper Nicole Hemmer, a scholar who studies right-wing media. Their conversation eludes a simple summary (the full episode can be found here), but essentially, Rosen argued that the political press is reverting to its old habits because it is just too difficult to overcome.
“Horse racing picks up a lot of abuse from people like me,” he said. “But it can endure this abuse because it’s such a problem solver. It checks so many other boxes that it will stick even if people know it’s somehow bankrupt. ”As an alternative, Rosen suggests reporting based on a“ citizens’ agenda ”posted on his PressThink blog. But he admitted to Hemmer that we might lose our democracy before his ideas are adopted by more than a fraction of journalists.
What I find particularly frustrating is that the media has not ignored the Republican threat to our democracy. Far from it. As just a small example, the Times published a cover story by Nick Corasaniti on Sunday about a variety of measures being taken at the state level to suppress the vote and put Trump loyalists in charge of the electoral machinery.
“Democrats and constituencies say some of the Republican measures will suppress voting, especially those of color,” Corasaniti wrote. “They warn that other bills will increase the influence of politicians and other partisans in the so far relatively routine election administration. Some measures, they argue, create the prospect that elections will be thrown into chaos or even overturned. “
Then why am I frustrated? Because this type of valuable corporate reporting is isolated from daily political reporting. We are routinely served stories of Republican leaders of Congress, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell, who go about their business as if they were the latest versions of the late Bob Dole, sharply partisan but ultimately dedicated to the business of finding compromise and Govern. Indeed, cowardice or conviction, they are enabling us to slide into authoritarianism by undermining the January 6 insurrection investigation and not naming Trump and the excesses of its worst members.
Earlier this year, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan advocated the idea of a “democratic blow” that would scrutinize attempts to undermine voting rights. Sullivan would go beyond that, too. “The democracy beat shouldn’t be a special innovation,” she wrote, “but a widespread rethinking in the mainstream media” that permeates every aspect of political and state reporting.
If Trump runs again, he could very well be installed as president, even if he loses both the referendum and the electoral college. Who would stop him? After the 2020 elections, there were still enough Republican state and local officials with integrity who refused to obey Trump’s calls for the results to be overturned. That probably won’t be the case in 2024. As Barton Gellman wrote in a new Atlantic cover story, “The prospect of this democratic collapse is not far off. People with the motive to make it happen create the means. When the opportunity arises, they will act. You are already acting. “
Meanwhile, the media are reporting on President Biden and his endeavors as if our policies have not changed in the past 40 years. Of course, Biden must be held accountable. The ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan, the confusing White House messages about COVID and its inability to calm Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are all worth harsh reporting. (But not inflation, please don’t be stupid.) But it has to be done in such a way that we don’t lose sight of the big picture. And the big picture is that we are really in danger of losing our country.
As Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it on Twitter: “The problem is that the media doesn’t distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative reporting (an important form of democratic accountability!).”
The problem is that the media fails to distinguish threats to democracy from normal negative reporting (an important form of democratic accountability!).
In other words, the fundamental problem is not Biden coverage (albeit imperfectly); it’s the Trump reporting. https://t.co/Qw7Z1ntfZC
– Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) December 4, 2021
Five years ago, Harvard Kennedy School’s Thomas Patterson published a report that showed that coverage of Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 general election campaign was equally negative – a finding that worried him. Patterson wrote that “Indiscriminate criticism blurs important distinctions. Were the Clinton allegations on the same scale as Trump? Journalists did not seriously answer this question during the 2016 election campaign. They reported all the ugly things they could find and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it. “
Well, here we are again. However, next time, the future of democracy is likely to be at stake.
GBH News, Dan Kennedy, Media Nation’s blog is online at dankennedy.net.