Toward a New Political Journalism
As I have stated over the past few weeks, going forward it is my intention to focus this blog on efforts we as Americans can take to combat the ongoing attempt by Big Lie Republicans to seize control of the republic and establish a right wing autocracy.
Because make no mistake: that is what is going on, and there has hardly been an existential emergency of this magnitude for the United States since the Second World War. And this one is in some ways worse, as the call is coming from inside the house! It’s one thing to be conquered by a authoritarian foreign power, which, to be frank, the US did not come close to in the Forties, because we stormed Normandy Beach and stopped that threat on European shores, where the fascists had already wreaked plenty o’havoc. It is another to willingly tear down your own 240-year-old democracy and institute a homegrown autocracy. And to my knowledge, no such domestic Operation Overlord is in the works to arrest that trend.
In that regard, we have to go back to the Civil War to find a comparable danger….and as Barton Gellman wrote in a recent, widely-heralded piece for The Atlantic, even the sickness at the core of the threat was not so sweeping. “Even Confederates recognized Abraham Lincoln’s election; they tried to secede because they knew they had lost.” What we are seeing now is an even more basic rejection of the fundamentals of our democracy by tens of millions of Americans, even if it has not spiraled into the same kind of open warfare. Yet.
So where to begin? There are untold fronts, all of them critical, but let’s start with one of the simplest, which is all the news that’s fit to print.
REF, ARE YOU BLIND????
In the 2016 presidential campaign, we saw that the media had no idea how to deal with a demagogue like Donald Trump.
As a pathologically dishonest and obscenely entitled real estate con man, Trump had spent a lifetime lying and cheating with abandon and impunity. When he turned to politics—largely to promote his brand, and by all accounts without any real thought of winning anything—the mainstream media seemed completely unprepared for how treat him. They were like medieval lancers facing a modern army wielding tanks and machine guns, incapable even of comprehending how to counter this new weaponry.
The press treated Trump with the same rules and decorum to which it had subjected conventional politicians, laughably unaware that he intended to run roughshod over every protocol, norm, and nicety under the honor system that was American politics heretofore. He was a media terrorist who made a laughingstock of the informal guidelines intended to contain him, and indeed turned those norms into weapons that further devalued real journalism and served his wrecking machine. By the time the press realized that it could not control him, and that they were unwittingly complicit in this atrocity, it was too late.
Incredibly, many in the American media have yet to figure that out, as the same attitude continues to bedevil us in the current crisis.
The “mainstream media” that is so often accused of being left-leaning is in fact painfully neutral and objective to a fault….that fault being an addiction to false equivalences and an inability and/or unwillingness to call a spade a spade. Why? I dunno. Some benighted, misplaced obeisance to the great god Objectivity? An innate desire to create drama, which is good for ratings? A simple inability to respond to a wantonly deceitful political force that has no respect for good faith, and wants to exploit the vulnerabilities of those who practice it?
Maybe it’s all of the above. Whatever it is, it’s abetting the Republican cause and helping poison American democracy to death.
In June 2016, even before Trump nailed down the GOP nomination, Eric Alterman wrote a piece for The Nation titled “How False Equivalence Is Distorting the 2016 Election Coverage.” In it, he made the sage observation that “The media’s need to cover ‘both sides’ of every story makes no sense when one side has little regard for the truth.” In some ways, that phenomenon has only accelerated since then, but without any necessary adjustment by the already-benighted media.
Arguing that “false equivalence often appears to be the rule rather than the exception,” Alterman offered multiple examples, such as the specious and facile comparisons between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders by highbrow pundits (They’re both outsiders!)…..the WaPo’s coverage of Mitch McConnell’s unconscionable blockade of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and the Nadia Comaneci-level gymnastics in which it engaged to try to demonstrate some sort of Democratic equivalent…..and The New York Times’s implication that Trump’s use of words like “bimbo,” “dog,” and “fat pig” to refer to women was the moral equivalent of Hillary Clinton alienating the coal industry by her support for clean energy jobs.
Of special note in our current moment of incipient right wing insurgency, Alterman cited a Times story dated March 13, 2016 detailing Trump’s repeated incitements to violence among his supporters, with the qualifier that “Both sides are fueling this.”
Are they, though? When? And according to whom?
The Times didn’t bother to say.
These pathologies have long been with us. But they have reached a crisis point in recent years, as conservatives have grown ever more brazen in exploiting them, successfully shifting the boundaries of political discourse well beyond what the rest of us recognize as readily observable reality. This is but one of the dividends the right enjoys from its long-term investment in “working the refs”—that is, creating and supporting countless institutions whose purpose is to harass members of the media to produce more sympathetic coverage of their pet issues.
As Weekly Standard senior writer Matt Labash told the website JournalismJobs.com back in 2003, “The conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective…. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too.”
And I remind you: that was obvious to plenty of smart observers like Eric in 2016!
After all, it was way back in 2000—or as we used to call it, the Year Two Thousand—that Paul Krugman famously quipped: “If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ‘Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.’”
SHIT ROLLS DOWNHILL
Presciently, Alterman was even writing about the Fourth Estate’s failures on the very specific issue of voting rights back in 2016, citing a study by Media Matters that found “baseless complaints about voter fraud were given the ‘he said/she said’ treatment in the (New York) Times in 60 percent of the relevant stories published in 2013 and 2015—a 10 percent increase over the previous two years.”
The paper’s own public editor at the time, Margaret Sullivan, herself raised the issue of what Alterman calls “the paper’s repeated failure to report the truth about this issue,” prompting the Times’s national editor Sam Sifton to argue that “It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper…. We need to state what each side says.” Even if what one side says is total horseshit, I guess. (Sifton “made this point regarding a story by Ethan Bronner, who admitted to Sullivan that he was aware of ‘no known evidence of in-person voter fraud.’”)
That the media’s mandarins are defending their ill-conceived mentality is not a coincidence. In that 2016 piece, Alterman also wrote: “The refusal of so many in the media to adjudicate between truth and falsehood is not a by-product of journalistic posturing. Rather, it is at the very foundation of how those at the top define the job.”
In a brand new piece for The American Prospect titled “The Sins of the Mainstream Media, Alterman writes of Fournierism, the ethos within the Fourth Estate that, in the words of media critic Jay Rosen, valorizes “contempt for purists, the praise for moderates, and the fuzzy pragmatism that is also called ‘bipartisanship.’” As Alterman writes: “Fournierism underlies not only both-sides-do-it journalism but also the political posturing of most of the prestigious pundits and so-called experts who populate the nation’s op-ed pages and Sunday roundtables.”
This toxic impulse is named for Ron Fournier, former Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, and Alterman offers a prime example from the master himself, again turning on the GOP’s unprecedented refusal even to meet with Merrick Garland in 2016:
Fournier was briefly tempted to blame Republicans for what they were doing, in thrall as they were to an “angry” base that was “opposed to any accommodation with Democrats.” But don’t be fooled: “The GOP isn’t the only party captive to its special interests,” Fournier insists. If “the roles were reversed and a Republican sat in the Oval Office,” the pundit felt certain that “Democrats would block the lame duck’s nominee.”
Here you have the essence of Fournierism: If reality doesn’t cooperate, you can always blame “both sides” in some alternate universe.
(During the 2016 election Fournier was also a chief proponent of the “both candidates are awful” fallacy. We see where that got us.)
GEORGE SANTAYANA, WHITE COURTESY PHONE
As I say, the media appears to have learned exactly bupkes in the last six years. If I have to listen to Chuck Todd, or NPR, or CNN, or any of the rest of the allegedly “left-leaning lamestream media” uncritically give right wing voices a forum, even in the interest of hearing all sides, I might go full Elvis on my TV. Yes, sunshine is the best disinfectant, but it’s not sunshine when you just give these Republican mouthpieces an audience of millions and let them spew their lies unchallenged. Don’t they have their own network for that?
An anecdotal example. Note how the MSM has reported the job numbers under Trump and under Biden, as originally called out by MSNBC’s Ari Melber. In February 2018, under Trump, the Associated Press reported: “US employers added a robust 200,000 jobs in January.” In December 2021, under Biden, that same Associated Press reported: “US employers added a sluggish 210,000 jobs in November.”
That’s what you call MAGA Math, folks, in the same way that Trump’s inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama’s.
Today the crime that is most blatantly benefitting from the “both sides” treatment is the Republican attempt to put a chokehold the electoral process. With a handful of notable exceptions, the US press continues to be utterly incapable of responding, and once again is getting played for suckers.
In a recent piece by Dan Froomkin for Press Watch, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein spoke openly of political reporters and editors struggling “to accurately and sufficiently convey facts about the Republican assault on voting rights and democracy. The fear of taking sides is very obviously holding them back.” The result? “The inadvertent normalization of existential threats to democracy and public health by one party and its right-wing media echo chamber.”
An example: Citing a poll it conducted in cooperation with the University of Maryland, the Washington Post reported that 69 percent of Trump voters believe Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president. It then added: “Republicans’ rejection of Biden’s victory is not novel. In a fall 2017 Post-UMD poll, 67 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Hillary Clinton voters said Trump was not legitimately elected president.”
What the Post DIDN’T say is that Donald Trump eagerly fanned those flames delegitimizing his successor, while Hillary Clinton graciously—and admirably—did the opposite. That is a shameful sin of omission and a near-textbook case of “bothsidesism” and the dangers of faux “objectivity” in the mainstream media.
Writing in the Washington Post recently, Jennifer Rubin laid down an indictment of this phenomenon very well:
The mainstream media’s fixation with false equivalency between the two political parties and fear of criticism from the right has led to distorted coverage and misleading characterizations of the assault on democracy.
Only one party, the GOP, protects members who post violent, outrageous material. Only one overwhelmingly opposed a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection. Or tossed a party member out of her leadership position for refusing to lie about the Donald Trump-inspired effort to overturn the election. Or filibustered debate on any voting rights reform (with the exception of a single Republican senator from Alaska).
Part of the problem in identifying the source of the threat to democracy stems from the mainstream media’s refusal to recognize that we no longer live in a political world in which two political parties engage within acceptable bounds of democracy.
Better still, Rubin has specific, concrete proposals for what the media ought to be doing, and dire warnings about the cost of the failure to do so:
Why isn’t Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quizzed as to how his party can take direction from a former president who plotted to overthrow the election? Why isn’t every Trump-picked candidate quizzed as to whether they buy the “big lie” of a stolen election and asked to renounce violence? Will debate moderators confront Republican candidates with questions as to whether President Biden won the election and whether they would oppose state legislative efforts to overturn the will of their voters by submitting an alternative slate of presidential electors to the House in 2024?
Also in the WaPo, that same aforementioned Margaret Sullivan who was formerly the Times’ public editor, now a media columnist for the Post, recently published a piece titled, “If American Democracy Is Going to Survive, the Media Must Make This Crucial Shift.”
For the most part, news organizations are not making democracy-under-siege a central focus of the work they present to the public. “We are losing our democracy day by day, and journalists are individually aware of this, but media outlets are not centering this as the story it should be,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of autocracy and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.”
But, in general, this pro-democracy coverage is not being “centered” by the media writ large. It’s occasional, not regular; it doesn’t appear to be part of an overall editorial plan that fully recognizes just how much trouble we’re in.
That must change.
Sullivan acknowledges important articles like Gellman’s in The Atlantic, an AP story headlined “‘Slow-Motion Insurrection’: How GOP Seizes Election Power,” and a much-praised piece by Melissa Block on NPR on “the clear and present danger of Trump’s enduring ‘Big Lie.” However, she calls for not merely more of this work but different kinds as well, including “a new emphasis on those who are fighting to preserve voting rights and defend democratic norms,” and begs for “news leaders” to “show that you really mean it.”
Don’t be afraid to stand for something as basic to our mission as voting rights, governmental checks and balances, and democratic standards. In other words, shout it from the rooftops. Before it’s too late.
FOXES AND CHICKENS
It is an article of faith in the right wing—and even much of ordinary, apolitical America—that the MSM is left-leaning. When confronted with the obvious, shameless bias of Fox, reactionaries will first deny it—“Fair and balanced!”—then grudgingly say it is no more biased than MSNBC, as if the two are co-equal offenders. Yet another false equivalence.
MSNBC does not hide its ideological position. (Fox, risibly, tries to.) But at the same time, MSNBC operates in the reality-based world, while Fox happily swims in the sea of Kellyanne Conway-esque alternative facts, facts that are bespoke to its needs at any given moment and subject to change without notice as those needs evolve. Or what side of the bed Donald Trump hauled his fat ass out of that morning.
There is no need to dignify the “opinion” celebrities-cum-carnival barkers that anchor Fox’s prime time lineup by pretending that they are real journalists. They themselves alternately embrace the label when it suits them, and disavow it when it does not. The son of an heiress to the Swanson TV dinner fortune, Tucker Carlson comes from a family that for years fed America garbage in front of our televisions, and he is keeping up the tradition.
(Fox takes pains to distinguish these malevolent infotainment clowns from its traditional news division, but that news division is hardly much more objective….and indeed may be more dangerous in some ways for its very veneer of faux legitimacy. Fahrenbalanst indeed.)
The net result is that the GOP has an entire propaganda empire at its disposal—America’s most watched news network, as it is fond of bragging—the center of an even larger right wing mediasphere that includes the Sinclairbehemoth, ubiquitous talk radio, local outlets, and social media. The Dems have nothing analogous. In that sense, the whole term “mainstream media” is dead wrong. As the academic Nicco Mele points out, as empirically measured by sheer, indisputable numbers, the right’s dominance of the press is so vast that it truly is the MSM.
Eric Alterman—damn, that guy is good!—wrote of the effect that Fox has had on the Overton window of American politics:
Thanks, in part, to the willingness of most mainstream journalists to treat Fox News as just another news source, right-wing ideologues have shifted the political “center” closer to the conservative fringe with every election. And so the Fournierists have moved rightward as well.
For that matter, the entire canard of the “left-leaning” media is risible….as if allegedly liberal major media corporations like the Washington Post, NBC, and CNN—owned by even bigger mega-corporations like Amazon, Comcast, and AT&T, respectively—are somehow bastions of Marxism who want to tear down the system. The proof of their crypto-conservatism (and often not so crypto) is in their coverage, which consistently reflects a center-right point of view. And that’s at best. Dallas-based AT&T, in fact, is one of the major donors to pro-Insurrectionist politicians, as well as the primary platform of the far right OANN.
But at the risk of sounding like a broken record (kids: look it up), the only reason that these conservative media outlets and right wing politicians can pander like this is because there is a base to pander to—simple supply and demand. There are tens of millions of our fellow countrymen out there consumed with what we used to call John Birchism (now: standard Republican orthodoxy) and the Big Lie Republican Party would have been unable to grow and fester like it has without them. Per Nicco Mele, they are not the majority, we are the majority, but they exist in large enough numbers, and are fanatical enough, to be incredibly useful to plutocrats and would-be authoritarians.
These people are almost beyond reasoning with because they have been conditioned to disregard any facts that inconveniently clash with their worldview there on Earth 2….and have willingly surrendered to that mentality. A few years ago, I got into an argument online (always a good use of one’s time) with a conservative woman who was peddling some conspiracy theory or another. When I sent her a Snopes link disproving her claims, she responded that she doesn’t read Snopes because “I like to make up my own mind.”
Yes, and I don’t read weather reports because I like to decide for myself what the temperature is.
It is this gullibility that Fox, Breitbart, and the rest of right wing media exploits, and that we have to do a far better job of countering.
Of course, the culpability of the MSM for the poisoning of our democracy is an old story compared to the Wild West of Facebook and other social media companies, which represent a totally different kind of threat, but that is a topic for another day.
Still, it’s kind of silly that we’re even talking about so-called “legacy media” given the extent to which its influence is waning as the Age of Cronkite gives way to the Age of Zuckerberg. (Barf.) But the Internet has not yet completely displaced the power of broadcast and print news, particularly of the tabloid right wing variety, which deftly uses the Internet as a force multiplier, or perhaps vice versa.
It’s ironic, though, to think of how similar Trump and Facebook are.
Once upon a time, in the Eighties, Donald Trump was just a vulgar real estate developer, walking punchline for Spy magazine, and celebrity wannabe best known for leching after teenaged Eastern European models….not an aspiring tyrant with an army of violent followers who posed an unprecedented threat to American democracy. You know, the same way that once upon a time Facebook was a trivial diversion like Tetris on your Palm Pilot, and not a malevolent multinational juggernaut that was taking over the world by mining your brain like the machines in The Matrix.
It’s bitter but fitting that the two worked hand in hand so well, a pair of jokes that turned into urgent, hair-on-fire dangers to humankind.
As apostate Republican and Never Trumper Ron Filipkowski says, “(T)he traditional media is constitutionally incapable of being a counter to the alternative ecosystem the right-wing has constructed. Our media is structured to report facts about the way the world functions in a liberal society, not act as a counterweight to an else-worlds propaganda machine.
(I assume he means liberal in the classical sense, though as a fearless Stephen Colbert joked/not-joked at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner—without ever breaking character from his O’Reillyesque “Colbert Report” alter ego—“reality has a well-known liberal bias.”)
To that end, Democrats have to take up that role, and get a lot better at marketing, advertising, and PR. (The folks at the Lincoln Project—not Democrats, but allies on the Democratic side, and also the democratic one—are damned good at it.) That shift will not come naturally, because as Jennifer Rubin noted, Democrats seem “temperamentally unsuited to calling out their opponents as anti-democratic or un-American. (How else would one describe the cheering for an unpeaceful transfer of power?)” We are also at the constant disadvantage of arguing for nuanced, humane policies, as opposed to simplistic and often ill-conceived reptile brain ones. That would present a big enough challenge even if reactionaries weren’t also willing and eager to lie their asses off on top of it.
So we have to let go of our Marquess of Queensbury thinking.
Speaking on MSNBC a few weeks ago, the astute former US Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, whom I deeply respect, addressed a series of incriminating tweets by members of the Trump circle— including family members, Fox News personalities, and Republican congressmembers—that the January 6th committee had made public. Rosenberg said that he wished the committee would not release things like that piecemeal, but rather keep them under wraps until its final report is ready. I understand the prudence and professionalism of this civilized approach, but I respectfully disagree. That’s precisely what the Mueller probe did and it proved a grievous strategic mistake, ceding the media battlespace to Team Trump for almost two years…..and then even allowing Trump and Barr to spin the final report itself ahead of its publication.
This is a pre-2016 mindset that we have to get out of. Knowing that Hannity, Ingraham, and even that walking Oedipal complex Don Jr. all begged Trump to stop the Insurrection has already changed the national conversation.
I’m not a journalist per se. (Haters: That’s your cue. I’m not gonna lob you softballs like that everyday.) I come out of documentary, where we make no secret of having a point of view, even if the viewing public is often confused about that distinction. If the American media will not or cannot recognize the insidious Republican game and shift its approach accordingly, the Democratic Party and other opponents of GOP authoritarianism will have to take the initiative.
The only positive opportunity created by the longstanding right wing war on the media (and on Truth full stop) is that it has so destroyed public faith in journalism, and so inculcated a Putinist cynicism that “everything is a lie,” that it has opened up space for overtly partisan voices to take their case directly to the public, jaded though that public may be, since all “news” is perceived as having an agenda anyway.
So be it, then: let us make the case that our agenda is preferable to theirs.
Writing in The Bulwark, Filipkowski advocates this approach in a piece called “How Democrats Can Win the Information War,” and bemoans the fact that the left has not already taken it up:
Either Democrats fail to recognize what is happening, don’t understand it, or think that a handful of PACs and White House press conferences are sufficient to deal with it. Either way, they’re wrong. The DNC’s “War Room” looks like a Victorian tea party compared to what Republicans do on a daily basis. It is shocking to watch both sides operate each day, and see how much more effective the GOP is at messaging.
If the Democratic party had even five intelligent, relentless, full-time people working as a team to fight the right-wing disinformation war, it would be more effective than all the traditional media outlets combined. Again: It isn’t the media’s job to fight partisan battles and the media as it currently exists simply isn’t configured to fight bad-faith, malicious propaganda and disinformation. But also, there are things that can be done by a partisan political group that traditional media cannot, will not, and should not do.
Like Rubin and Sullivan, Ron even gets into the weeds of how this would work:
What would this team do exactly? Generally, it must identify what is being said and done on the right across multiple platforms, settings, and venues. Their game plans for today, this week, this month, and this year are all there, out in the open. Once you become aware of disinformation, it can be proven false and countered immediately. And then Democrats should take the fight directly to the right on their own platforms. I believe that many of the people who have been turned by lies can be won back with irrefutable truth—but the truth has to be put right in front of them, meeting them where they are.
I am less convinced than Mr. Filipkowski that MAGA Nation will listen to reason (they haven’t yet), and a lie famously goes round the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. But I do think his scheme will do some good with the squishy middle, to the extent it still exists, and help counter the relentless right wing narrative.
The price of failure will be enormous. Jennifer Rubin again:
As the Republican Party strays further from democratic norms and standards of civil conduct, the refusal to pin blame on them for erosion of democracy serves to provide cover for their illiberal conduct and anti-democratic sentiments. A democracy that can no longer recognize existential threats is in no position to defend itself against shameless foes.
CLOUDS’ ILLUSIONS I RECALL
In closing, let’s go back to 2016. Amid the untold damage done by the MSM’s “both candidates suck!” coverage, Eric Alterman was very clear-eyed about the two choices, and what was at stake:
Journalistic abdications of responsibility are always harmful to democracy, but reporters and pundits covering the 2016 campaign will be doing the public a particularly grave disservice if they continue to draw from the “both sides” playbook in the months leading up to the November election. Now that Donald Trump has emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, some simple facts about him and his campaign should be stated clearly and repeatedly, not obfuscated or explained away or leavened into click bait. Trump is a pathological liar and conspiracy theorist, a racist, misogynist, and demagogic bully with a phantasmagoric policy platform and dangerously authoritarian instincts. Hillary Clinton’s flaws and failures are many, and they should not be discounted, either. But they are of an entirely different order. Love her or hate her, at least we don’t have to wonder whether she believes in democracy. When it comes to sane and even semi-sensible policy proposals for America’s future in the 2016 presidential election, there is only one side.
We will be writing a similar epitaph about 2022 and 2024 unless shit changes.