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 it to prevail, journalism must fail. There is nothing in the playbook — or in Playbook — about that.
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.