Why The Media Should Be Unapologetically Pro-Democracy
The rising threat of authoritarianism in America demands clarity and honesty from our media, not feigned neutrality.
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Journalism should act as American democracy’s immune system, rejecting the sickness of authoritarianism. Like the antibodies we develop after infection or immunization from a virus, journalists should recognize the historical patterns of authoritarianism, inform voters of its corrosive impacts, and trigger the public to mobilize against it.
In a Disinformation Age where right-wing extremism and authoritarianism have taken root in the Republican Party, and the media they consume is often outright lies, we need our mainstream media organizations to be unapologetically pro-democracy. We need clarity and honesty, not feigned neutrality.
While a great many journalists and organizations are doing this crucial work, unfortunately, we’re not seeing this from enough members of the mainstream media. Instead, we’re seeing a continued prevalence of both-sideism and false equivalency, repeating the same mistakes of the 2016 election.
The fundamental incentive structures and priorities of news executives often steer good-faith journalists in this direction. While some may believe this style of coverage gives them an appearance of objectivity, this is actually a form of bias that emboldens authoritarians who know exactly how to exploit this.
NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen has written and spoken extensively about this phenomenon. He calls this pursuit of false objectivity a “refuge-seeking” practice. This allows journalists to say they’re fair and not on either side of the political spectrum. They seek to buffer themselves from right-wing criticism and false “liberal media” accusations. It’s an old operating style not fit for the times.
“Asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the American press,” Rosen often says. When one party is no longer symmetrical with the other and becomes so extreme they’re openly threatening democracy, efforts to maintain “balanced” coverage become impossible.
We’re far from the post-war consensus era, where both parties were more similar than they are now. The civil rights movement began the modern divergence of the major political parties, and the post-Fairness Doctrine era furthered media and political polarization.
Media tactics haven’t seemed to fully adapt to this changing reality. The business incentives of journalism amid a shifting digital landscape, polarized electorate, and increasingly radicalized Republican Party explain a lot of the dynamics we see at play today.
Let’s dive deeper into recent examples of this, why it’s repeating 2016 history, how we got here, and what journalists can do to produce truly pro-democracy coverage.
Making The Same Mistakes As 2016
In 2016, there were countless media mistakes that normalized and empowered Donald Trump’s extremism. Unfortunately, we’re seeing some of those same patterns emerge ahead of the 2024 election.
A recent example of this was NBC’s interview with Donald Trump. Journalist Kristin Welker made her debut as the new host of “Meet The Press” and sat down to speak with the former president. It didn’t go well.
The interview was widely criticized. Welker’s attempts to garner newsworthy statements from Trump only yielded a firehose of lies that were impossible to contain. I recommend reading Aaron Rupar’s analysis of the interview in Public Notice and Judd Legum’s fact-check in Popular Information.
In spite of being given this hour-long platform to promote his agenda, Trump took to Truth Social days later to viciously attack NBC. Trump proclaimed that if he wins in 2024, he would investigate NBC and other news organizations for “threatening treason.” NBC may have gotten a short-term ratings bump for their interview, but their guest rewarded their hospitality with an overtly authoritarian threat. There is no appeasing extremists. Media networks should recognize that.
Another example from this year was the controversial Trump-CNN town hall in May. Then-CNN CEO Chris Licht sought to pivot the network closer to the “center.” Licht internalized the false right-wing criticism of his network. So, he sought out Donald Trump and placed him on a stage with CNN Journalist Kaitlan Collins. Like the interview with Welker, the result was disastrous.
Trump bulldozed Collins’s fact-checks with an avalanche of disinformation. The audience, which was filled with Trump voters who were likely to agree with him, applauded his smears on E. Jean Carroll, whom he had just been held civilly liable for defaming and sexually abusing. It was a disgraceful night.
Chris Licht defended the town hall, claiming that the “mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist just like you cannot ignore that President Trump exists.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the key media mistakes in 2016.
CNN’s biggest mistake was the endless free airtime they gave to Trump’s rallies with virtually no fact-checking in 2015 and 2016, spreading Trump’s message to millions. This, compounded with false equivalency and both-sideism, helped enable Trump’s extremist message to be spread to the mainstream.
Chris Licht flew too close to the media malpractice sun. He held on to familiar media misconceptions—a forced false objectivity that, in effect, leans right. Chris Licht’s attempt at feigned objectivity in pursuit of right-wing viewers backfired spectacularly, resulting in lower ratings and, ultimately, his firing.
This cynical miscalculation is proving to be still very prelevant among other news organizations. We see it in the recent sportslike “horse race” coverage of Biden and Trump, as Marget Sullivan wrote about in The Guardian. The insatiable attempt to balance criticism of one side with criticism of the other is once again elevating and normalizing Trump’s authoritarian depravity. This coverage showcases a deep misunderstanding of the political moment and what the people are expecting from their media outlets.
Journalists have to ask themselves, is all this really serving the reader, or is it serving the bottom line of the organization’s parent company?
I outline all this to showcase that this is clearly a wider problem and not a problem created by individual journalists. For example, Welker and Collins were both set up to fail with formats that did not serve the viewer or the journalists hosting the event.
While individual journalists take a lot of heat, it’s the executives who are making these decisions. One has to wonder whether these are truly “mistakes” or whether they are intentional tactics. Understanding why these decisions are being made is key to changing the media landscape long-term.
How We Got Here And Why This Is Happening
After World War II, three major TV networks, CBS, ABC, and NBC, ruled the news world. Americans, for the most part, got their news from a few credible, centralized networks and newspapers. There was a set of commonly agreed-upon facts, and the political parties at that time reflected that.
In his book “Why We Are Polarized,” Journalist Ezra Klein cited a 1950 American Political Science Association plea. It was published on the front page of The New York Times at the time. They called for a more polarized political system because the parties were too similar. That soon changed.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s brought huge legislative wins for marginalized groups, which the Democratic Party backed. This began a shift in which the Democrats became the more progressive party, and the Republicans began to move away from being the party of Lincoln to the party of Nixon’s racist Southern Strategy.
We can’t talk about this era without mentioning the Fairness doctrine, which began in 1949. It required networks to be neutral and air opposing viewpoints. It was ruled constitutional by SCOTUS in 1969. In 1987, then-President Ronald Reagan ended the Fairness Doctrine, sparking an era of polarized media.
Partisan talk radio, and Rush Limbaugh, rose to prominence. In 1996, Fox News was launched by Rupert Murdoch and led by Roger Ailes. That media combination, in conjunction with the rise of Newt Gingrich’s style of politics, radicalized the Republican Party.
In the early 2000s, we began to see more partisan media outlets emerge. The widespread adoption of the internet led to more decentralized media. The era of blogs boomed. In the 2010s, the social media era reigned, and with it, new incentives for media organizations to create more viral content.
A Broken Business Model
We’re now in a world where clickbait culture incentivizes sensationalism. Algorithms prioritize divisive content that boosts revenue. Corrupt people, organizations, and governments weaponize disinformation for political, financial, and ideological gains. There is a booming disinformation industrial complex that was exploited by Russia in 2016 and manipulated by the MAGA movement since then.
In response to this disinformation industrial complex, we need a media that evolves with these growing threats. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. The modern advertising model, which is now the dominant media monetization method, has taken the attention economy to new levels. This business model, by its very nature, doesn’t incentivize informing the public but instead, incentives maximizing attention.
“The news system we have is not designed to produce human understanding. It’s designed to produce new, fresh, engaging content every day,” Jay Rosen said in a recent podcast appearance with Washington Post Columnist Jennifer Rubin. He nailed the problem.
This is the result of a media and digital landscape that has experienced massive disruption. Many individual journalists are truly great at what they do, but they’re working within a perilous economic reality. Thousands of media layoffs this year further prove that point. This may explain some of the recent behavior of media organizations reverting back to their pre-Trump presidency ways.
During the Trump presidency, CNN, along with others who made similar mistakes in 2016, improved dramatically. Mainstream reporting largely held Trump accountable and pushed back on his lies. The profit incentives aligned with the pro-democracy stance. Ratings rewards followed critical Trump coverage.
At the end of 2020, especially amid Trump’s election denial and the January 6 insurrection, the mainstream media (aside from right-wing propaganda networks, of course) as a whole seemed to unite against the looming threat of authoritarianism. But now, after a revenue drop in the Biden era, many are returning to their old ways.
So, how can journalists get back to being at their best?
What Can Journalists Do To Improve
Given these complex dynamics, I understand it can be difficult to be overtly pro-truth for some journalists. Not everyone works at news organizations where this kind of coverage is both encouraged and incentivized by management. But we need top-down changes in coverage to meet the moment and some personal bravery, too.
We cannot treat Donald Trump or other extremist political leaders like normal politicians in normal times. Journalism is at its best when it uses context to inform its approach. Trump is a twice-impeached insurrectionist who is facing 91 criminal charges. He is a known liar who has been found liable for sexual abuse. He should treated accordingly, and so should the Trump clones in the GOP primaries.
I get that this can be a challenge for some. The current state of the Republican Party is so extreme that explicitly describing where it stands sounds biased under the previous set of journalistic norms I’ve described in this piece. But there’s a reason historians like Heather Cox Richardson and Ruth Ben Ghiat are so concerned. They are equipped with the historical context to understand where this extremism leads. This moment requires coverage that depicts reality through a pro-democracy lens and explains what’s at stake.
So what should journalists do? Present more context in coverage. Focus less on the horse race and more on the substance of what is being proposed. Don’t become desensitized to the authoritarian insanity, and repeatedly outline the stakes for your readers. And when covering politicians with a well-known track record of lying, make sure to frame the story in a way that doesn’t give credence to their false narratives.
It’s not enough to cover what is happening. Journalists must explain why it’s happening, how we got here, and where it could be headed.
More specifically, when covering Biden’s impeachment proceedings, make sure to spotlight the fact that Republicans opened this inquiry with zero evidence, as they themselves have admitted. When covering Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, make sure not to lose sight of his 91 felony charges from his four criminal cases, including charges related to the January 6 insurrection.
We don’t have to wonder what a Trump presidency would be like; we lived through it - and I documented every day of it. It was a terrible time in our country's history, and if he wins again, it will be even worse. Journalists should not pretend otherwise. We need to start seeing media improvement over the next 400 days ahead of the 2024 election.
Regarding the bigger picture changes, we need a diversity in revenue. Media organizations should explore other business models, including membership models that can empower readers to support journalism that they believe in. This model ensures media organizations are being driven by their readers, not their advertisers.
And what can you do? Make sure to seek out and support the organizations and journalists that you believe are doing pro-democracy work.
Authoritarianism isn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon; it’s a human construct. It’s not inevitable. But authoritarian movements will continue to resurface and be enabled if good people do nothing.
Human history has been an endless cycle of awesome progress followed by sporadic interruptions where the world’s future is held hostage by the giant, fragile egos of small, depraved men. We can break this cycle if we all do our part.
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