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.

Conclusion:

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.

18 Comments

Kevin Watson says:

Thank you so much for this report. I know there is stills much to do but it gives me some hope.

And from the United States, we need extend this to the wider worlds.

These signs are encouraging. But your average small-town or medium-sized metro is going to have to be pushed, hard, to adopt this style of thinking. And who will do that pushing?

It would also help if the mainstream media stopped calling anti-democratic, far-right politicians, media outlets, think tanks and finders “conservative,”as WaPo’s Margaret Sullivan argued in Jan 4 column. The word as applied to these actors is not only misleadingly reassuring; it’s an abuse of the English language. And the MSM’s ritual use of it to apply to these actors has helped legitimize them over the years. There are some signs that the NYT has become more aware of this problem since Jan 6, especially in their descriptions of the Freedom Caucus, but no sign of change I can discern in WaPo or NPR.

Maureen O'Brien says:

I had hopefully noted two of the examples you present as progress. But the “crisis at the Border” coverage is muddy and an opening to disinformation. How do you see it being handled?

Marla C. says:

I believe in ripple effects, small steps leading to bigger and broader ones. These examples of standing up for democracy are modest yet significant. They will create offshoots. We just have to look for them, lift them up and keep spreading the story of journalists’ obligation to defend democracy. Thanks for getting things rolling, Jay!

Dean Wright says:

Thanks, Jay, for pulling these bright spots together. For four years I’ve been citing your work and that of Stephen J.A. Ward in my university media ethics course. It’s encouraging that my journalism students largely believe that it’s blindingly obvious that journalists must be defenders of democracy and grounded in reality. This gives me hope for the future of journalism. In the meantime, however, we could still “lose this thing.”

Jody Davis says:

Thank you, Jay. I’m retired after 31 years in broadcast journalism (from podunk towns to network). For me and colleagues my age who are out of the biz as well, it’s a happy retirement. No way would we want to be a part of the business today. This is the first account I’ve read in a very long time that gives me a glimmer of optimism that the dark days will lighten up…IF enough journalists are brave enough to follow suit.

Joe Silvia says:

Long as you’ll call bullshit on both sides I’m all for it!

Define “both.”

There are many different points of view. Libertarian. Social Democrat. Reagan Democrat. Fiscally conservative but not as fiscally conservative as Libertarians and not willing to go along with GOP wedge issues.

As said above — there’s nothing “conservative” about what we’ve seen in the last 4-5 years. We can’t just simplify things to “both sides.” And if one group decides to name itself a “side” and start presenting alternative facts, we shouldn’t go along with it.

And what if all the objective, verifiable data show that the claim made by people is just plain false??

That’s the whole point to this post!!

Call bullshit on people who speak bullshit. But bring *facts and data* to the table rather than reflexively falling back on some “both sides” need to call up a political opponent who says, “I don’t believe that,” and then brings nothing else to back up their assertions.

John Winters says:

At the moment the BS is coming from one side…in truckloads. That was the point.

Call me when the New York Times gets better headline writers, when Andrea Mitchell stops framing everything in terms of whether GOP obstinacy will make Biden a failed president (which she wants so badly), when Chuck Todd gets a brain, and when Major’s dog poop is given equal weight as Ivanka Trump’s grift as a “White House scandal.”

Dave Logan says:

Cable news channels in particular could take a cue from these outlets. But they won’t because bickering is what they produce under the guise of reporting. Whether it’s timidity in the face of political blowback, a stubbornness in sticking to their “long-standing traditions” or simply appeasement for the sales department, their lack of action taints their integrity, diminishes their stature, and betrays their role in the democratic process.

Preston F. Kirk, APR, Ret. Journalist says:

An incisive and accurate observation. Money fuels that type of cable media madness as if repeating political fantasies make them factual reporting.

Harry Eagar says:

What if Americans are not, on the whole, in favor of democracy?

Love it or leave it…?