He used to edit political stories at the Chicago Tribune. Now he says the press is failing our democracy.

"You don’t get a lot of complaints if you just write down what everyone says and leave it at that."

19 Jun 2022 9:42 pm 18 Comments

In the autumn of 2021, I began noticing threads like this from Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times. It’s not uncommon for journalists to become more critical of their occupation once they retire, but Jacob’s observations cut deeper than most. (“Yes, media should be fair – to the readers, to the facts. But not to the 2-party system. To our democracy.”) So I asked if he would do an interview with me about his own “pressthink,” and how it developed an edge. He graciously agreed. Here is our exchange.

Jay Rosen: On September 27, 2021 you published on Twitter a kind of confession:

“I used to edit Page 1 stories for the Chicago Tribune, including many from Washington. In this thread, I explain why the media (including me) have been unintentionally complicit in the rise of fascism that threatens our democracy.”

I want to unpack that observation — unintentionally complicit, the rise of fascism, the threat to democracy— but first: You are a retired journalist now. When you were working in the newsroom, where did you intersect with political journalism? What experience do you have with its rules, rituals, frenzies and forms? I gather that in Chicago you edited stories about politics coming in from the Washington bureau. What else did you do that brought you into contact with the tribe of political reporters and their crafts?

Mark Jacob: I started out as a copy editor at the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette. But in that job, as you know, you’re somewhat removed from the newsgathering process. I worked more directly with reporters and their editors (including those based in Washington) when I was at the Chicago Sun-Times 1984-1999. I started out there as a news copy editor and became Page 1 editor and then Sunday editor.

In 1999 I jumped to the Chicago Tribune as a news editor with occasional Page 1 duty. In 2002, I was promoted to nation/world news editor, which meant I was running the show at night for both the nation and world desks. I edited Washington stories almost every night, and often more than one. I dealt directly with Washington reporters and editors. This 2002-2008 period forms a large part of my experience as related in the Twitter thread from last September.

In 2008, as the Tribune’s nation and world reporting got downsized and combined with that of the Los Angeles Times, I went over to the Trib’s metro desk with a promotion to deputy metro editor. In 2015, I was named metro editor. In both jobs I worked with the Washington bureau on a variety of news stories while also separately supervising and editing the Tribune’s DC-based reporter who was tasked with covering Illinois angles on Washington stories. While I was on the metro desk (2008-2018) I also had a hand in virtually all local political stories, including the Blagojevich scandal, the Hastert molestation case, etc. Since a Chicagoan was in the White House most of that time, national and local politics often melded. For example, I was the main editor on our attempt to fact-check the birther allegations against Obama.

The Chicago Tribune has a carefully crafted reputation as a fairly conservative but mainstream newspaper that scrupulously tries to maintain balance in its coverage of Republicans and Democrats. A saying by Lincoln is engraved on a lobby wall at Tribune Tower: “Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.” The ethic was to state the facts and arguments on both sides and then let the readers draw their own conclusions. That was a fine policy if all sides played fair and told the truth. Not so much if they didn’t. And they didn’t.

Jay Rosen: Indeed, you have said that as an editor of political stories you would count the quotes from Republicans and Democrats, “thinking an equal number would make us fairer.”

“I didn’t think I was helping either party,” you wrote. “I thought I was helping the readers. I was wrong.”

What were you wrong about — I mean what exactly, where in the chain of reasoning was the error — and what led you to that conclusion?

Mark Jacob: There were a number of errors in my process. One was in thinking of a news story as a stage that allowed Republicans and Democrats to perform their talking points, rather than as a way to inform readers about the issues and the facts as much as possible. It was also a mistake to prioritize who was speaking rather than what they were saying. There are times when a party’s leadership has coalesced around a lie. The Republican disinformation about the Jan. 6 committee, for example. If you’re obligated to run a quote by Republican leaders on that, you’re going to run a lie. And if you don’t debunk it at the same time, you’re enabling the liars.

When did I come to grips with this problem? As the Republican Party became more corrupt and at the same time more adept at laundering its message through legitimate media. You see, my equal-time approach made more sense when the two major parties were equally corrupt and dishonest. They were both pretty bad in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and there are still bad actors in the Democratic Party today. But as the Republican Party en masse has become an increasingly dangerous, anti-democratic force, equal time for the parties has become equal time for truth and for lies.

Jay Rosen: When journalists who are “out of the game” come to these conclusions it could be because they finally feel free to say what they think. Or it could be that retirement provides the necessary distance to see what was hard to see before. Or it could be the shock of recognition when you begin reading the news as a citizen, a voter, a participant in democracy, rather than a professional observer. Which of these describe your experience?

Mark Jacob: I came to these conclusions before I left. That was only four years ago. I asked for a buyout and got it. The rise of Trump made it clear that the old-fashioned mainstream journalism approach of letting Republicans and Democrats “have their say” was failing our democracy. That passive approach, which undercut the power of journalism and fact-checking, was increasingly being exploited by propagandists.

The idea that we had to be fair to Republicans-vs.-Democrats instead of being fair to the public and the facts was a great gift to professional political liars. They were able to insert fake issues into the mainstream news agenda. And they saw their falsehoods repeated by “objective” journalists, conferring a sense of legitimacy. Old-fashioned journalism has been no match for right-wing propaganda. It’s been a slaughter.

But to answer your question more directly: Obviously, I couldn’t say any of this publicly when I worked in mainstream media. That’s why old-fashioned journalism stays old-fashioned.

Jay Rosen: When you came to the conclusion that the passive approach undercut the power of journalism and was being exploited by propagandists, did you argue that the practices of the Chicago Tribune should somehow change?

Mark Jacob: I’m sure I could have been louder, but my superiors and co-workers certainly heard my concerns about whether we were confronting disinformation effectively. Our determination to be nice to lying politicians in order to appear “objective” made that job harder. For example, a superior ordered me to never say in the newspaper that Trump was lying. He told me to report what Trump said and what the facts were and let the readers come to their own conclusions. Many other legacy news outlets took this same position, and the consequences are now obvious.

In my later years at the Tribune, I was dealing with local news more than national news. And that showed me that disinformation isn’t something that only Republicans do. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, was an outrageous manipulator of news, rewarding his friends in the press with exclusives and punishing his perceived enemies, such as my staff, which was doing an honest, aggressive job of oversight. If you look at the Emanuel administration’s actions after the police murder of Laquan McDonald, you’ll see a textbook case of official lying. The Tribune did a strong job on that story over-all, but the video of the McDonald shooting was released because of a lawsuit by a freelance journalist, not a legacy news outlet. We were being too nice to lying local politicians in the same way that the Washington media is too nice to lying national politicians.

But don’t get me wrong: The Tribune was better than a lot of news outlets on this score. We sued the Emanuel administration for records. And we were much less likely than the Washington press to use anonymous sources. Even so, we could have been better at calling out the liars.

Jay Rosen: I want to ask you about motivations. This question arises from my experience in trying to explain press behavior to people who aren’t journalists or media critics. Thanks to the reply function on Twitter, I am now an expert in how non-journalists explain some of the things you have been describing. Here are the most common tropes they use to make sense of that “flawed approach” you have outlined, in which disinformation is rarely confronted:

Commercial pressures: News is about ratings and selling subscriptions. It’s a business, and journalists have to deliver the profits. They don’t confront disinformation because there’s no money in that, and making money for the firm is what motivates them. “It May Not Be Good for America, but It’s Damn Good for CBS.”

Hits and clicks: What journalists really care about is drawing attention to themselves. Truthtelling and confronting disinformation is less important than grabbing headlines, impressing people on Twitter, and building a personal brand. They do what’s required by the attention economy.

Ideology: Hey, they’re Republicans. Down deep they’re conservatives. Or “centrists.” Liberals. Radicals. Globalists. That’s why they do what they do. Their motivation is to advance the interests of their political sect or tribe. So they generate a narrative that accomplishes that.

Prestige: What journalists really care about is their status and visibility. Winning prizes. Working at the White House. Mixing with powerful people. Making it to the Washington Post or the New York Times one day. And above all, a TV contract.

These are not the only explanations I hear, but maybe 80 percent fall into one or more of these buckets. Why do journalists do what they do? Because of their motivations. What are their motivations? Profits, attention, political identity, prestige within the profession, fame outside it.

From your experience, what motivated your professional peers to stick with the “old-fashioned journalism” that, as you say, has been no match for right-wing propaganda? And how would you explain that behavior?

Mark Jacob: Some of these theories have validity, but the vast majority of journalists do not belong to an evil cabal. Journalism is a business, and the owners would like to keep customers of various political stripes paying them money. It’s safer and thus more profitable to avoid coming to conclusions – to produce stories that are in essence “he says this, she says this, you figure it out yourself.”

That attitude filters down to the staff. You don’t get a lot of complaints if you just write down what everyone says and leave it at that. And I was always surprised and disappointed by how sensitive some top editors were about complaints from the public and from newsmakers. They really want to avoid that, which I find ridiculous. I’ve always said that if you don’t make anyone mad in the news business, you’re doing it wrong. But not everyone seems to agree.

There’s also the access issue. I felt that my department was under pressure from above to get more scoops, but Rahm Emanuel was giving out scoops only if you played along, and my staff and I refused to. There is a career cost to holding fast to that position. Also, the vast majority of the reporters I’ve worked with just want to get the story right, but they also don’t want to get accused of bias, especially by their bosses. They want to keep their jobs. Many journalists also hold the intellectually honest view that they don’t know the truth, so they put lots of different facts and opinions in the story to get as close to the truth as possible. And that’s a legitimate position.

When I was on the Tribune foreign desk in 2003, many of us suspected that the Bush administration was lying about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but we couldn’t prove it either way. So we published what, in retrospect, were a bunch of government lies. The difference today is that a lot of journalists are quoting politicians they know are lying, and quoting them without debunking them.

Jay Rosen: On Twitter you have referred to “the forces of fascism” in the U.S., and “the rise of fascism that threatens our democracy,” as well as “Christo-fascism” and “Republican fascism.”

Without suggesting that the term cannot be used because it is always and everywhere over-the-top — which is a view I do not share, especially after reading Jason Stanley’s 2018 book, How Fascism Works — I want to conclude this interview by asking you: How did you come to the conclusion that fascism is the proper term for what is happening on the right wing of American politics, and what are the events that led you to that conclusion?

Mark Jacob: Let’s look at the characteristics of fascism and whether they define MAGA Republicanism. There’s a cult of personality. Check. There’s demonization of “outsiders” as a threat to the culture’s survival. Check. There’s the mindset that political opponents pose such a danger that stopping them justifies all means necessary, including lying and cheating. Check. There’s propaganda overwhelming or extinguishing journalism. Check. There’s coercion of businesses to force submission to the autocrat’s wishes. See Disney and Ron DeSantis. There’s social regimentation. See the efforts to roll back rights for women and LGBTQ people and impose Christian values in a country that’s supposed to have separation of church and state. Fascism also means there’s a drumbeat of violent rhetoric and corresponding violent actions. See January 6, 2021.

I grew up in a country where you’d occasionally hear the word “fascist” used as a joke. Now it’s an accurate term for what’s happening in our country. I invite people to read William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and see how much the description of the Nazi erosion of a civilized society reminds them of what they see on America’s news every day. I’m sure a lot of people in early 1930s Germany thought the warnings about the Nazi threat were overblown. You know, the very first reference to Adolf Hitler in the New York Times assured readers that “Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so violent or genuine as it sounded.”

Fascism is real, Jay. The only question is whether enough Americans will realize it before it’s too late.


Answers to Craig’s Questions

Craig Newmark asked me: What did the press learn from 2016? Here are my replies.

24 Mar 2022 1:21 pm 8 Comments

I have known Craig Newmark for a long time. He’s the Craig from craigslist.org. Now he’s best defined as a philanthropist.

Craig supports a lot of journalism projects, including one named for him: The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY) to which he gave $20 million in 2018.

Occasionally he sends me questions about the state of journalism. I try to answer them— in a concise way, rather than going into all the details as I might with my academic colleagues.

Craig and I agreed to publish this latest exchange. It’s 800 words. His questions are in bold. 

What did the trustworthy press learn from the 2016 election?  

That its laws of gravity — predicting that Trump would crash — were not laws at all but social conventions.

Flimsier than was thought. Not great if your brand is understanding what is likely in politics.

Dan Balz, Washington Post, July 2015: “The question now is whether Candidate Trump is immune from the laws of political gravity or soon will be isolated and regarded as an object of scorn or curiosity rather than of presidential seriousness.”

A second lesson from 2016: Journalists conceded they were out of touch with large portions of the country — by which they typically meant Trump country. They said they were caught by surprise.

Dean Baquet, New York Times, looking back on the 2016 election in February of 2020: “More Americans than we understood at the time were rattled, and were looking for something dramatic… the country was a little more radically inclined than we thought.”

A third lesson. The press learned that it was vulnerable to a raging demagogue who drove audience metrics and triggered broad interest in politics.

Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, in Feb. 2016: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Jeff Zucker in Oct. 2016: “If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run.”

But Zucker also defended that choice. “You never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on air.”

Craig Newmark: What’s in practice today?

When social scientists study newsrooms they look not at personalities but routines. Poduction routines, especially.

These include routines of the mind: the way journalists imagine, explain, defend and legitimate their work, another term for which is press think.

On the whole the picture today is not vastly different from where political journalism stood in, say, spring of 2015. Still, there have been some shifts.

By shifts I do not mean shifts completed, or well handled, or consistently applied. I mean only that the category of the acceptable has been revised somewhat.

Seen this way, changes in practice since Trump began winning the presidency include:

* Describing politicized lying as lying, and false claims as straight-up false, not only in dedicated fact-check sections later on, but while you are telling the story. That’s a shift in routine.

* Recognizing in the right wing’s media ecosystem not only a source of alternative views, but a competitor in the attention economy. Producer of an alternative reality that charges up the Republican party, and competes with the picture of reality produced by mainstream journalism, replacing it for a portion of the audience.

How large a portion? A fifth, a quarter, a third? Maybe more. This is the audience for Trump’s use of the press as a hate object.

* Internet movements, conspiracy theories, and media figures that once could have been dismissed as “extreme” now have to be reported on because they could turn into powerful actors or factors.

* About Trump specifically a general recognition that he is willing to wreck the place, a premise that did not obtain in 2015-16. As ABC’s Jonathan Karl said about the prospect that Trump could run in 2024: “You’re covering somebody running in a system that is trying to undermine that very system.”

There are other realizations from the Trump era that do not arrive with good solutions or changes in practice attached.

One example: Trump’s ability to do corrupt, scandalous and democracy-damaging things right out in the open, rather than hiding them, thus undoing the power to expose shocking truths, which does not apply to the already exposed. No one quite knows what to do about that. (See my thread.)

Craig Newmark: Is it trustworthy to amplify disinformation?

Far more care has to be taken by news organizations to avoid amplifying disinformation. We are just at the beginning of extending this practice throughout what Margaret Sullivan calls the “reality based press.”

However, it’s not as simple as “don’t amplify…” because there are occasions when the public needs to know that a political figure is fasifying reality, or that a consequential lie is gaining traction, as with Stop the Steal.

So we have to go forward with both: Avoid amplifying disinformation when you can, knowing there are times when you cannot.

One need is for sound practices — like the truth sandwich — when “ignore” is not a realistic option.

Craig Newmark: What might be next?

Well, the Washington Post has a new democracy desk, which recognizes some of these threats. So did CNN’s on-again, off-again 9 pm show, “Democracy in Peril.”

These are glimmers of what might yet become a stronger defense of American democracy by mainstream journalists, but that is all they are so far: flickers of light on a dark and cresting sea.

The savvy turn in political journalism

And why I continue to criticize it.

17 Jan 2022 6:32 pm 14 Comments

For 15 years I have been writing about what I call the savvy style in the American press. This post is about the moment when a journalist goes there. Or refuses to.

But first: what is the savvy style? This is from 2011:

In the United States, most of the people who report on politics aren’t trying to advance an ideology. But I think they have an ideology, a belief system that holds their world together and tells them what to report about. It’s not left, or right, or center, really. It’s trickier than that. The name I’ve given to the ideology of our political press is savviness.

In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.

In 1992, the Charlotte Observer, influenced by a similar project at the Wichita Eagle, decided to change the way they approached election coverage. Instead of savvy takes on the state of the race, they would try to connect the campaign, and the candidates, to what voters said they cared most about. They called this approach “the citizens agenda.” Its centerpiece was a simple question: What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?

By putting that question to as many people as possible — and by listening carefully to the answers — the Observer’s political team could synthesize a kind of agenda, or priority list for campaign coverage that originates with the voters, rather than operatives, candidates, donors, or editors.

The citizens agenda model called for journalists to pressure the candidates into engaging with the problems that voters said they wanted to hear more about. This sounds simple and obvious until you realize that it also means de-emphasizing controversy of the day coverage, and the latest turn in the horse race.

All that is background for a little story I want to tell you from thirty years ago.

The characters in it are Richard Oppel, then the editor of the Charlotte Observer, and Terry Sanford, then the incumbent Senator from North Carolina. (A Democrat, he ended up losing in November.) In their replies to “what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?” voters had brought up environmental issues a lot. The Observer wanted Sanford to respond to the voters’ concerns. Here’s how Rich Oppel recalled it:

Voters were intensely interested in the environment…. So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, “here are the voters’ questions.” Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, “Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I’m not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until the general election.” This was the primary. I said, “Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry.” He said, “Well, that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” I said, “Fine, I will run the questions and leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say ‘would not respond’ or we will leave it blank.” We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.

For me the key moment in the story is when the sitting Senator says, “that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” This was a signal for the savvy mindset to “click” into place. What’s the strategy there? There must be a reason Sanford doesn’t want to talk about the enviornment now. It’s the kind of thing a journalist wired into the campaign apparatus wants to know. And if you can’t know, you can speculate.

Maybe Sanford was wary of criticism from environmentalists during primary season, but confident that his record would contrast favorably with a Republican opponent. Uncovering the logic of these maneuvers is what savvy journalists do. Which is why I’ve characterized their style as, “you may not like it, but it’s smart politics.”

Rich Oppel did not go there. He rejected all that. His focus was not on the candidate’s maneuvers, but on getting answers to voters’ questions. Rather than use the Charlotte Observer’s pull to find out more about Sanford’s campaign tactics, he deployed the threat of a blank space to extract answers that would help readers cast a more informed vote. After all, what can your average voter do with “that’s not the way I have my campaign structured?”

At this point you may be wondering: why is Jay telling us this now?

One reason is that the citizens agenda model never died. A few days ago, this appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

We don’t change mayors very often in Milwaukee. But with Mayor Tom Barrett departing to be ambassador to Luxembourg, Milwaukee will have a new mayor after the April 5 election.

There is an opportunity for fresh thinking at City Hall — thinking that ought to be informed by city residents.

To learn what’s top of mind for voters, the Ideas Lab in collaboration with WUWM 89.7-FM, Milwaukee’s NPR, and Milwaukee PBS launched the Citizens Agenda Project.

We’re asking this question:

What do you want the candidates for mayor to be talking about as they compete for your vote?

Another reason I tell you this story from 30 years ago is that the savvy temptation still thrives in American journalism. It’s as strong as ever.

Greg Sargent, columnist for the Washington Post, points out how Republican opposition to protecting voting rights through Federal legislation has become a natural fact, part of the background of political life in Washington, rather than something journalists might probe and inquire about.

As Democrats once again debate whether to end the filibuster to pass protections for democracy, a deeply perverse dynamic has taken hold, one in which Republicans enjoy a hidden benefit from being entirely united against such protections.

Precisely because this GOP opposition is a foregone conclusion, Republicans are too rarely asked by reporters to justify it. This in turn causes that opposition to become accepted as a natural, unalterable, indelibly baked-in backstop condition of political life.

Realistically — which is a golden word in the savvy style — Senate Republicans will not consider any action that protects the right to vote or encourages more people to vote. So it’s up to the Democrats to pass such legislation, currently called the Freedom to Vote Act. That’s politics!

But realistically is not the same as justifiably. And as Sargent points out, “The bill would require states to allow no-excuse absentee voting. Despite claims otherwise, there is no evidence that mail voting advantages either party. It simply makes voting easier for everyone who chooses to take advantage of it.”

So the question for Republicans is: why not make voting easier for your voters and everyone else’s? What justifies the GOP’s opposition to no-excuse absentee voting? And do their explanations hold up under scrutiny? That’s politics too. It’s called reason-giving. Journalists ought to be pressing for those answers, but in the savvy style “realistically” is allowed to push “justifiably” out of the frame.

Which is why I continue to criticize it.

Eleven years ago I published at my site, PressThink, an FAQ about The View from Nowhere. There I tried to explain what I meant in adapting that phrase to press criticism. This post is a companion to that one. But it starts from an opposite end. Not the view from nowhere but the voice of someone— disclosing a point of view.

To explain what I mean by that, I will use the transparency section of tech journalist Casey Newton’s newsletter. Disclosure: I have been talking with Casey about viewpoint transparency for some time. He told me that some of what I said influenced him. (Read about Casey and his move to one-person journalism in this New York Times report.)

“Here are some things I’ve come to believe about social networks and democracy since I started covering the topic,” he writes at the About page for his newsletter, Platformer. That is not the view from nowhere; it’s the voice of someone. A journalist who says he is not viewless.

Here are some things I’ve come to believe about my beat. By leveling with readers in this way, a “here’s where I’m coming from” journalist makes a different bid for trust than a statement like “…and that’s the way it is,” which was Walter Cronkite’s famous sign off in the 1960s. (And a very effective one, too. Cronkite was a broadly trusted figure.)

Neutral professionalism says: you can trust our report because we keep ourselves out of it.

Casey Newton’s Platformer says: You can trust my report because I put myself into it… and here’s who I am.

These are different systems for generating confidence in the bearer of news reports.

Explaining how he sees the world — the world of the giant tech companies — Newton shares some conclusions he’s arrived at. The lessons of his experience. (Or as some would call it: his bias.) Here are three of the eleven he lists:

We ought to put at least as much pressure on the government to make change as we do on tech companies. But tech companies are more responsive, and so they face more pressure.

Television news has proven corrosive to democracy in ways that are likely as or more important than any created by social networks.

Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have grown large enough that the platforms are essentially beyond the control of their executives. The companies are under the control of their executives. But executives are often months or years late to understanding the unintended consequences of the platforms, and they don’t always respond effectively even after they do understand the consequences.

Here’s where I’m coming from, as your journalist keeping watch on the tech platforms. Casey’s purpose here is not to parade his opinions but to disclose a perspective. Read my work through this lens, says he.

Now let’s shift from an individual journalist to a newsroom with a team of reporters. The investigative non-profit ProPublica says it practices a particular kind of journalism, the point of which is “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions.”

If the powerful cannot be held accountable, democracy becomes a joke. Abuses of the public trust are a special category of wrongs to be righted. In journalism the point of investigating is not just to document wrongdoing but to get results. That — in my paraphrase — is where ProPublica is coming from: “Using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing,” as they put it.

This is disclosure of intent. We don’t just publish the story. We keep the pressure on until something happens, “for as long as it takes to hold power to account,” as ProPublica says.

That’s different from saying: we report the news and keep you informed.

ProPublica doesn’t try to locate itself on the political map. It’s not with the reds or the blues. It doesn’t take positions on the issues of the day. But it is clearly anchored in the long history of progressive reform in the U.S., especially the chapter called Muckraking, of which investigative journalists Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, and the publisher S.S. McClure were early exemplars. From there — from that tradition, I mean — ProPublica is also coming.

When Casey Newton says, “Here are some things I’ve come to believe about social networks and democracy,” or when ProPublica talks of “using the power of investigative journalism to spur reform,” they are implicitly declining what I have long called the view from nowhere.

Their bid for trust is different. The most concise description of the difference is still David Weinberger’s crack, “Transparency is the new objectivity.” (2009.)

Instead of trying to persuade people that you are detached and viewless — but fair and informed! — you disclose what you think. Not everything you think, but the part that readers, viewers, and listeners should know about when they decide whether to trust your account of things.

Instead of “we have no agenda other than bringing you the news as fairly and accurately as possible…” which is one way to bid for the confidence of the news audience, you disclose your intent: To spur reform using the moral force of investigative journalism, for example. This is a kind of agenda. But it’s compatible with the principles of good journalism, and it tells people what to expect.

“Here’s where we’re coming from” statements will necessarily vary a lot. I don’t have a formula. The important thing is for journalists to make more of them, to get comfortable with the act, and to learn through experiment what forms of viewpoint disclosure will actually make a difference to users.

Here’s the Voice of San Diego, an investigative non-profit: “We pressure leaders to solve widely accepted problems and local challenges. To evaluate what those are, we offer this template of our values and concerns.” In other words: here’s where we’re coming from with our journalism. Voice of San Diego says it is for…

  • Government transparency, open meetings and accountability.
  • A well-informed, well-educated community ready to participate in civic affairs.
  • Government agencies that are just, efficient and excellent.
  • High quality education for all children.
  • Quality housing that is affordable to all residents.
  • World class infrastructure that supports free enterprise and job creation.
  • A robust and inclusive arts and culture scene.
  • A clean environment, healthy ecosystem
  • Preparations for the long-term challenges of drought, energy supply and climate change.

By itself, this kind of statement does not change anything in journalism. One could say it’s just rhetoric. Only when it’s part of a larger shift toward the transparency system does “here’s where we’re coming from” start to signify.

Key practices in the transparency system for generating confidence in the bearer of news reports.

* Commit to transparency about ownership, business model, and major sources of funding.

* Maintain high standards of verification throughout the enterprise of publishing news and comment.

* Speak clearly about your priorities in news coverage— and when they change speak clearly about that.

* Share your reasoning when you make policy decisions like what to cover, and whom to ignore.

* Quick action when you screw up and need to correct or ammend your reporting.

* Active listening to good faith criticism and genuine audience feedback.

* “Show your work.” Meaning: explain how you did that story and came to the conclusions you did.

* “Don’t believe us? See for yourself.” Here’s the data. Here’s the documents. Here’s the full interview.

* And of course… “here’s where we’re coming from.”

When you put them all together they give form, task and purpose to “transparency is the new objectivity.”

In the years ahead, bidding for trust by means of viewpoint and agenda disclosure will, I think, become more common, especially in newsletter, niche, investigative, climate, and point-of-view journalism. Taking a neutral stance and asking to be trusted because you’re uncommited to everything except getting the story right, accurately and fairly— that will continue to characterize the work of the big national newsrooms and public broadcasters. As I have said, these are different systems.

Here’s Casey in his transparency voice again:

How do you see the world?

Like many people, my views about technology were reshaped by the events of 2016. Revelations that foreign actors had manipulated Facebook, Twitter, and other sites caused me to reevaluate my old, blinkered assumption that social networks were only harmless fun. Before 2016, my primary concern about Facebook was that the News Feed would crush most digital media. After 2016, my concern shifted from a business concern to a more patriotic one: are social networks undermining democracy?

And here are the editors of The Dispatch: “We don’t apologize for our conservatism. Some of the best journalism is done when the author is honest with readers about where he or she is coming from, and some of the very worst journalism hides behind a pretense of objectivity and the stolen authority that pretense provides.”

Time to wrap this up. About our little experiment, Casey Newton told me:

“Writing a ‘where I’m coming from statement’ was enormously useful to me as I started my newsletter, It forced me to articulate an editorial mission, my values, and my editorial process. I send it out to everyone who subscribes when they sign up, and many readers have told me that they trust me more because of it. I strongly encourage more journalists to write one of their own. The benefits are real!

I’m with Casey in encouraging journalists to write their own “here’s where I’m coming from” statement. It’s not a bio, or a résumé, or a simple description of your beat. When you disclose where you’re coming from, you are giving readers, viewers, and listeners the tools they need to assess your work. They can apply any discount rate they want. And if any of them say to you, in that slightly threatening voice, “Oh, yeah? What’s your agenda?” now you have a ready answer. Just send them the link.

Notes and updates

1. My graduate students at NYU are collecting good examples of “coming from” statements, and exceptional transparency practices in journalism. Here’s their site. You can submit samples for them to consider here.

2. For an excellent book-length treatment of the problems discussed in this post see The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity by the journalist Lewis Raven Wallace.

3. Trusting News, led by Joy Mayer, is a research project that works on these issues with news organizations. Thanks to Joy for her help with this post. Another key contributor in this topic area is The Trust Project, led by Sally Lehrman. Its mission is to strengthen public confidence in the news through accountability and transparency.

4. Since 2004 I have explained to readers where I am coming from in this FAQ: Questions and Answers About PressThink. The part where I disclose my politics is here.

5. I like to test my ideas under real world conditions. And so over the next few months, I will be working as a consultant to Courier Newsroom, a company with transparency problems in its past that has re-organized and committed itself to doing better. My brief is to help them improve their transparency practices, starting with more and better “coming from” statements. See this page, for starters, and this one for an example of a “coming from” statement by a news site.

Earlier this year Tara McGowan, the founder and publisher of Courier, contacted me about what I have called in this post “the transparency system for generating confidence in the bearer of news reports.” I agreed to work with her company because I think she’s serious about putting that system to the test.

Some journalists remain highly skeptical about Courier Newsroom and its leadership. I understand why that is. I doubt they will be changing their minds anytime soon. What interests me is the strides the editors can make in transparency practices. As Sara Fischer of Axios noted, “Courier Newsroom is a local news group with a progressive perspective.” Two of its funders are billionaires George Soros and Reid Hoffman. Therefore it is especially important to level with readers about priorities, funding, and point of view.

6. The Marshall Project says this about itself: “We are not advocates—we follow the facts and we do not pander to any audience—but we have a declared mission: to create and sustain a sense of urgency about the criminal justice system.” To create and sustain a sense of public urgency about the criminal justice system in the United States is, let’s be clear, a political goal. But declaring that goal does not mean the Marshall Project has to politicize its journalism. It’s simply choosing to say: “We cover the criminal justice system and here’s where we’re coming from on that…” This approach has won them two Pulitzer Prizes, so they are in no way out of the mainstream. They have a point of view, they do best-in-class investigative reporting and data journalism, and they want to correct for people wrongly excluded.

We intend to expand our sources and readers to make sure we are talking to people who often feel excluded or caricatured by the news media — while maintaining our commitment to fact-based reporting. Investigative, data and engagement journalism will be central to our model. We will also explore alternative ways of telling stories so we make sure our journalism reaches those who might face literacy challenges or who haven’t traditionally received their information from written news outlets

7. “Getting personal about climate change made me a better reporter” by Sammy Roth. (Link.)

I’ve been transparent with LA Times readers about where I’m coming from — that I find climate change very scary, and that I care about speeding up the clean energy transition. This hasn’t hurt my credibility, or my ability to tell these stories. On the contrary, it’s helped me do my job better… Anyone who reads my stories knows I’m biased toward climate solutions, and my reporting flows from that.

Sammy Roth is an energy correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, for whom he writes the weekly Boiling Point newsletter.

A current list of my top problems in pressthink, May 2021

The things I spend the most time puzzling about these days. Ranked by urgency. Updated from time to time.

6 May 2021 10:25 pm 16 Comments

1. We have a two-party system and one of the two is anti-democratic.

The Republican Party tried to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When that failed it did not purge the insurrectionists and begin to reform itself; rather, it continued the attack by other means, such as state laws making it harder to vote, or a continuation of the big lie that Trump actually won.

By “anti-democratic” I mean willing to destroy key institutions to prevail in the contest for power. This is true, not only of individual politicians, but of the party as a whole. As (Republican) and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson writes, “For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing.” A qualification for membership.

Journalists had adapted to the old system by developing a “both sides” model of news coverage. It locates the duties of a non-partisan press in the middle between roughly similar parties with competing philosophies. That mental model still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism. But it is falling apart. As I wrote five years ago, asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press.

We are well beyond that point now. Now we live in a two-party world where one of the two is anti-democratic. Circuits fried, the press has to figure out what to do. I spend a majority of my puzzling time on that.

2. The GOP is both counter-majoritarian and counter-factual.

This is different way to come upon the problem stated in 1.) above. By “counter-majoritarian” I mean the Republicans see themselves as an embattled — and overwhelmingly white — minority who will lose any hope of holding power, and suffer a catastrophic loss of status, unless extraordinary measures are taken to defeat a sprawling threat to their way of life. This threat comes from almost all major institutions, with the exception of church and military.

It includes — they believe — an activist government opening the borders to immigrants, Black Lives Matter militants destroying property and intimidating police, a secretive deep state that undermines conservative candidacies, “woke” corporations practicing political correctness, big tech companies tilting the platform against them, a hostile education system with its alien-to-us universities, an entertainment culture at odds with traditional values, and the master villain in the scheme, the mainsteam media, holding it all together with its vastly unequal treatment of liberals and conservatives.

These are dark forces that cannot be overcome by running good candidates, turning out voters, and winning the battle of ideas. Which, again, is what I mean by counter-majoritarian. Something stronger is required. Like the attack on the Capitol, January 6, 2021. Stronger measures include making stuff up about election fraud, about responsibilty for the attack on the Capitol, about the safety of vaccines— to name just three.

A counter-majoritarian GOP thus implies and requires a counter-factual party discourse, committed to pushing conspiracy theories and other strategic falsehoods that portray the minority as justified in taking extreme measures.

The conflict with journalism and its imperative of verification is structural, meaning: what holds the party together requires a permanent state of war with the press, because what holds the party together can never pass a simple fact check. This is a stage beyond working the refs and calling out liberal bias.

Basic to what the Republican Party stands for is freedom from fact. For that to prevail, journalism must fail.

There is nothing in the playbook — or in Playbook — about that.

(See: Why Being ‘Anti-Media’ Is Now Part Of The GOP Identity.)

3. Sunlight disinfects. Sunlight also makes things grow. (Link.)

Familiar with this conversation?

Don’t give them a platform!

I hear you! But sometimes I have to tell people what’s going on!

You’re spreading their propaganda for them.

It’s already spread and having real world effects.

Well, it wouldn’t spread if you denied them a platform.

Gatekeepers don’t have that kind of power any more.

They might if they worked together!

That just drives it underground and it gets even worse!

Like others who have studied this problem, I have come to realize that there is no right answer here, only better and worse decisions. You can show good judgment, but you cannot solve it.

One thing is clear, however. “Newsworthiness” is a big fat dodge, or as Charlie Warzel put it, “a choice masquerading as an inevitability.” If you decide to give air time to a U.S. Senator sporting a strategic falsehood like “election integrity,” you need a far better reason than it’s an issue in the news. Almost every act of disinformation Donald Trump ever committed was in one way or another “newsworthy” by previous standards. Were all these acts worth amplifying? They were not. So what standard replaces the “newsworthy” standard? We don’t know.

If there’s no right answer — other than to drop the newsworthy dodge — then we can still find better ways to make these calls. Here’s scholar Nicole Hemmer trying to do just that:

Part of the solution has to be cutting the cord with Fox News and its fringier cousins. That doesn’t mean ignoring it all together — I’ve recently argued that we have to pay attention to people like Tucker Carlson, who uses his show to spread hate — but scaling back the overall coverage of right-wing stories. When outlets do tackle something like Carlson’s use of “great replacement theory,” they should do so in deeply contextualized ways, so the story is less about what Carlson said last night, and more about the ways unfounded xenophobic and racist talking points get woven into his prime-time show.

“Ignore the shiniest, least reality-based objects” she writes, “and deeply contextualize the rest.” It’s a start, but not a solution.

4. Diversify your pressthink.

This is from my post, Battleship Newspaper, published last year.

Many decades ago, the leadership class in big league journalism accepted the argument that racial integration had to come to their newsrooms, or the journalism would suffer. Or at least, this is what they said to themselves. But what they also said (without quite realizing it) is: We can have all that, a more diverse and multi-colored newsroom, and maintain the view from nowhere. They never faced up to the contradiction: minority journalists who are supposed to simultaneously supply a missing perspective and suppress that perspective in order to establish their objectivity

There is more pressure than ever to integrate the American newsroom. That you can do that and keep your pressthink the same is still commonly believed. That’s a problem.

If you’re worried that journalists have learned nothing from the Trump years.

This post is for you. But instead of confirming your impressions, I bring news of a contrary kind.

21 Mar 2021 6:47 pm 18 Comments

Even after all that has happened from the escalator to the insurrection, you’re worried that the American press has learned nothing from the Trump years. You’re seeing it fall into old patterns. Your frustration is rising, your patience thinning.

This post is for you. But instead of confirming these impressions — for which, I admit, there is ample evidence — I bring news of a contrary kind: Four or five developments that are… encouraging, in that they suggest that some journalists understand what has to be different: after the Trump presidency, after the Stop the Steal movement, after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, after the Republican Party committed to making it harder to vote.

We can lose this thing

Thirteen days after the 2020 election I published, “Two paths forward for the American press.” One path, I said, was “a restoration of order as a more normal president takes office.” This was (and it remains) the most likely course. The other possible path was to extend what I called “a democratic breakthrough in journalism.”

The breakthrough happened during the tense days after November 3, when an autocratic leader, Donald Trump, tried to reverse the results of a free and fair election. His attempt was defeated, in part by journalists who made it clear that he had no case. His claims of election fraud were themselves fraudulent.

In my view this was a shattering experience for the American press— shattering in a good way. No refuge in false equivalence, no retreat into “both sides” reasoning, no fantasies of remaining neutral in the fight could withstand the experience of reporting on Trump’s furious battle to retain power after losing the 2020 election. Journalists came face to face with an attempt to subvert democracy, led by the president of the United States. Instantly every bromide they had ever uttered about the role of a free press in a healthy democracy turned frighteningly real.

What lasting effects there will be on journalism’s political imaginary we do not yet know. But I know what they should be: We can lose this thing if we don’t learn how to defend it. That’s the attitude the press ought to have toward American democracy. Since the election, I have tried to keep watch for any sign that journalists understand this. Here and there I find them. And that’s what this post is about. Signs of a shift in thinking that could spread to more people in journalism. Ready to hear about them?

WITF says it will not forget those votes to overturn a free and fair election.

WITF.org is the public broadcaster in the Harrisburg region of central Pennsylvania. On January 28 the company explained its policy toward those in public office who spread the election fraud lie and encouraged the January 6 insurrection. WITF’s policy is not to forget these facts:

Eight Pennsylvania congressmen supported Trump’s lies about election fraud and irregularities as he attempted to illegally retain power. Those lies led many to believe the election was stolen from Trump. After the insurrection at the Capitol to try to overthrow the U.S. electoral system, those eight lawmakers voted to nullify Pennsylvania’s election results.

The journalists at WITF further declared that they intended to contextualize future actions by these officals with reminders about their fateful moves in the period between the 2020 election and the inauguration of Joe Biden. They gave this example of what they had in mind:

“Sen. (name), who signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes despite no evidence that would call those results into question, today introduced a bill…”

They didn’t use the phrase, “never forget!” but that is what their decision amounts to. In explaining it, they made these points:

  • They expressed their shock that “elected leaders, who took an oath to uphold the laws of the United States, would actively work to overturn an election that county, state and federal judges and public officials of both political parties, and election experts, concluded was free and fair.”
  • “The constant drumbeat of falsehoods that the election was stolen came to a head on Jan. 6 with a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol… The attack’s purpose was to ignore the will of the people, throw out their votes and allow former President Trump to remain in power. If it had succeeded, democracy would have failed.”
  • “All the false claims about Pennsylvania’s results were attacks on the truth. On democracy. On the work of dozens of journalists at WITF and across the state, who were doing on-the-ground reporting and talking with the county-level leaders who ran elections.”
  • “We understand this may be an unusual decision for a news organization to make. But, these are not normal times. As disinformation and misinformation take more and more of a foothold in our social media feeds and dinner-table discussions, it is important for our journalists to adapt, as transparently as possible, to bring you the facts and not memory-hole the damage done to our democracy in the last three months.”

Events like Stop the Steal and the January 6 insurrection were different, they said. Not normal politics, but an “unprecedented assault.”

Our approach is based in fact and provides the proper context to the decisions made by Republican elected officials in the commonwealth.

This wasn’t a policy disagreement over taxes, abortion, or government spending.

This wasn’t lawmakers spinning an issue in their favor.

This was either knowingly spreading disinformation or outright lying by elected officials to overturn an election in an attempt to keep former President Trump in office.

This was an unprecedented assault on the fabric of American democracy.

Confronted with a novel situation — a attempt to “overthrow the U.S. electoral system” — they decided to do what they could within the existing code of conduct for public service journalism, which includes holding elected officials accountable, contextualizing current events, insisting on the primacy of verifiable facts, and serving as one of the guardrails of democracy.

“Within the existing code” is important, because it means that any other newsroom sharing these values could make a similar call without rewriting the playbook. Their message: rather than new commitments, we need to intensify the ones we already have. (For more detail on WITF’s efforts at countering the Big Lie, see this second post I published today.)

The Cleveland Plain Dealer refuses to amplify a candidate’s baseless claims

On March 13, the Plain Dealer (and cleveland.com) published a letter from the editor that was headlined by a question: “When candidates make reckless statements just to get attention, should they get attention?”

Good question!

The occasion for asking that was a statement from Josh Mandel, a candidate for the United States Senate in Ohio who lost to incumbent Sherrod Brown in 2012. He plans to run again for retiring Senator Rob Portman’s seat in 2022. Citing no scientific evidence, and ignoring the advice of public health authorities, Mandel essentially declared the COVID-19 pandemic over, and demanded that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine lift all restrictions.

Chris Quinn, the editor of the Plain Dealer, explained to readers that Mandel “has a history of not telling the truth when he campaigns,” and a pattern of making “irresponsible and potentially dangerous statements on social media.”

The Plain Dealer could have done a “he said, she said” story with dueling quotes from Mandel and DeWine, said Quinn. It could have published another “analysis” piece explaining that Mandel’s motivation for making this reckless statement was simply to win the endorsement of Donald Trump. Both would have been normal journalism. Instead…

We ultimately decided not to write about Mandel’s call for DeWine to lift his coronavirus restrictions. Mandel is pretty much a nobody right now, a nobody begging for people to notice his Tweets a year ahead of the Senate primary. Just because he makes outrageous, dangerous statements doesn’t mean it is news.

So desperate for media attention is Josh Mandel that he actually challenged a columnist for the Plain Dealer to a debate about COVID restrictions. The columnist was willing, but Quinn said no. “We do not knowingly publish ridiculous and idiotic claims. Mandel did not want to have a debate with our columnist as much as he wanted to use our platform to get attention with demonstrably false claims about the virus.”

You can’t use our platform to get attention for your lurid falsehoods. Just because you said it doesn’t make it news. We don’t knowingly publish ridiculous claims. A history of floating misleading and outrageous charges should — and will — count against you.

Imagine if these principles became normal behavior in the press. That would be real progress. Which may be why Quinn’s letter to readers made news in the Washington Post. The headline, “A newspaper has a novel strategy for covering one politician’s falsehoods: Don’t.”

But why this should this be novel?

ProPublica carves out a democracy beat while VoteBeat tries to educate the press.

“Democracy Reporter” reads the headline on this job posting from ProPublica.org. To me that’s a sign of… We can lose this thing if we don’t learn how to defend it.

The stated mission of ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom supported by grants and donations, is “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.” Thus:

ProPublica is hiring a reporter to investigate efforts to undermine the power of the ballot and American democracy itself. Such threats can come in many forms, including gerrymandering, limits on voting, and violence. We’re looking for a reporter to help anchor our work producing revelatory journalism that equals the critical importance of the issue.

The “threats to democracy” beat will be busy terrain in 2021 and 2022, especially as the Republican Party tries to make it harder to vote— an agenda that is itself an undisguised threat to democracy.

Instead of waiting for the next mid-term elections to heat up, a new non-profit, Votebeat.org, is trying to build capacity within the American press to face this agenda head-on. It raises money for, and shares expertise with, other non-profit newsrooms so that they can add reporters dedicated exclusively to the voting beat.

I asked Jessica Huseman, Votebeat’s editorial director, to describe how this kind of beat-based, capacity-building project operates:

Votebeat strives to make all of elections coverage better— whether that’s through placing reporters in states to report on poorly covered issues, helping fund staff positions in existing newsrooms so they can expand their coverage, or sharing free tools and data with local papers, radio programs and TV news… Voting is a difficult thing to cover that requires lots of time and expertise, so if we can shoulder some of that burden we believe we can really make an impact. There are literally hundreds of voting bills being considered across the country, and redistricting is about to begin in haste. Other collaborative projects won’t start until 2022, when the midterms will get started, but they’ll miss this crucial year of planning and decision making. We don’t think we can wait.

What impresses me about Votebeat is how it takes a live threat to American democracy — laws and restrictions making it harder to vote — and tries to improve the journalism that exposes that threat, not in one place but for many sites simultaneously. That’s a sign that we’re getting smarter about capacity-building in journalism. With Votebeat, intellectual capital and financial subsidy merge into one. This too is progress.

Mehdi Hasan: “I plan to use my platforms on Peacock and MSNBC to highlight the attacks on democracy.”

“Journalists should have a bias. A bias towards democracy.” That’s what Mehdi Hasan said recently on his show that airs nightly on Peacock, NBC’s new streaming network.

That journalists should have a bias is not something you hear very often from people who have their own shows on American news networks. So I asked Mehdi Hasan to elaborate on that idea. Here is our exchange:

What does a “bias toward democracy” mean to you? What sorts of things are involved in that? Beyond “three cheers for democracy!” and “democracy is great!” what does it require of you?

A “bias towards democracy” for me means: 1.) acknowledging and documenting how American democracy is under attack and not pretending there is anything normal or unremarkable about our current predicament, and 2.) recognizing that journalists are not bystanders in all this. We are not neutral chroniclers of this descent into authoritarianism.

A “bias towards democracy” has to trump the old “view from nowhere” theory of journalism. We are very much *somewhere*— ensconced within a constitutional democracy, operating with the protection of the First Amendment. So we have skin in the game. For journalism to survive, democracy must survive – the two need each other.

You said, “As voter suppression laws proliferate, here’s my ‘mission statement’…” As you know, attempts to make it harder to vote are moving through state legislatures now. What will be the mission of your show on this subject? Are you simply saying, “we’re going to cover it and keep covering it,” or are you saying something a bit more than that?

I am saying we are going to cover it and keep covering it, for a start. And I would not be dismissive of such a starting point, given that lawyer Marc Elias has rightly referred to it as an “under reported story right now” that “the media is unequipped to cover this in clear moral terms.” I plan to use my platforms on Peacock and MSNBC to highlight the attacks on democracy and voting rights at a federal, state, and local level. But it is not enough to only “cover” the voter suppression story. I want us as a media to prioritize it, in terms of our resources, guesting, news agendas, and to also help our viewers, listeners, and readers to join the dots (racism! authoritarianism! minority rule!).

Journalists should have a bias toward democracy, you said. I agree with you on that. Toward what other things should journalists have a bias?

Above all else, a bias towards reality, without which democracy cannot endure. There are not two sides to climate change, or Covid, or election results. As one of our two major political parties continues to retreat from reality, it is the job of journalists to cling to reality, not some imaginary mid-point between the two parties.


WITF says it will not forget who backed the Big Lie, or those votes to overturn a free and fair election. The Cleveland Plain Dealer refuses to amplify a candidate’s baseless charges. (“We don’t knowingly publish ridiculous claims.”) ProPublica carves out a democracy beat. VoteBeat tries to make the press as a whole smarter about voter suppression. Meanwhile, Mehdi Hasan says on air: “Journalists should have a bias. A bias towards democracy.”

My point in highlighting these small signs is not to suggest that a wave of reform has suddenly struck American journalism. It has not. But make a note of this: No wave of protest forced the journalists at WITF to back down. (“The public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive,” they told me.) Chris Quinn of the Plain Dealer didn’t hear from his corporate bosses that he really ought to be fairer to the demagogue Josh Mandel. Mehdi Hasan is on TV every night, even after proclaiming his pro-democracy bias.

They have learned from the Trump years. Others could start to follow them. No, I’m not predicting it. But I’m not ready to say it could never happen, either.

For by committing to the Big Lie — and its derivative, making it harder to vote — the Republican Party has, in effect, withdrawn from the unspoken deal it had with mainstream journalism in the United States. The deal said: just don’t embarrass us and we’ll both sides everything. With Stop the Steal, the Big Lie about voter fraud, and, now, a national campaign to make voting harder, the GOP has broken faith with a form that gave it huge advantages: both sides journalism.

The consequences of that act are unpredictable.