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How should the media cover the political landscape when one party has gone full arsonist? It’s a question that looms large as America struggles against the rise of the antidemocratic movement at home. The midterm elections are a little more than 220 days away. Republicans have already promised revenge if they win back the House—including removing some Democrats from their committees as a punishment for Democrats stripping QAnon-pushing Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and white-nationalist-loving Representative Paul Gosar of their committee assignments—but it’s unlikely that would be the end of it. Senator Ted Cruz is already predicting President Joe Biden’s impeachment: “Yeah, I do think there’s a chance of that, whether it’s justified or not,” Cruz told the listeners of his podcast. Republicans are probably hoping that they can prevent Democrats from holding Donald Trump accountable for his failed coup through intimidation. American politics have been dysfunctional, but never has one party rejected democracy itself.
Reporters at mainstream news outlets puzzled over how to cover Trump. How do you report and contextualize the words of a politician who is not bound by the truth? How do you write about lies without seeming biased for calling them lies? And just when they started to figure it out—calling lies lies, for example—Trump was (temporarily) gone, and a sea of mini-Trumps also unbound by truth and Democratic norms flooded Washington, D.C., and statehouses across the country. If there were a useful litmus test for Republican candidates, it would be their ability to provide a factual answer to the question of who won the 2020 election.
Opinion writers like myself don’t need to worry about presenting a balanced view (or more to the point, maybe, the appearance of a balanced view). But what about reporters? They are supposed to invoke neither fear nor favor. How do they navigate the sticky wicket of a two-party system in which only one party seems to value the truth?
The Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, who has written extensively on this topic, has recommended the “truth sandwich”—the tactic by which a reporter properly quotes a lie by surrounding it with truth. Her advice for the media as the midterms approach? “The mainstream press (the reality-based press, to distinguish them from the right-wing press) should focus on what's good for citizens and not the horse race aspect of the midterms, and they should call out lies clearly.” She added that she’d also like to see “more focus on voting rights and gerrymandering.”
It’s worth remembering that this coming election will include many state-level positions, and that many of those candidates are running on the Big Lie. Trump’s pick for Michigan attorney general is a lawyer named Matthew DePerno, and according to Politico, he was “a major figure in Trump’s failed bid to overturn the election in Michigan.” Hard to treat a person as a normal candidate when one of his main positions is undermining democracy.
When I reached out to Jon Allsop, the author of Columbia Journalism Review’s newsletter, his response was focused on the press not two-siding midterms stories: “Mainstream media should cover the midterms like they should cover any political story at the moment—by avoiding treating the two parties as equal and opposite ‘sides’ when they aren’t, especially when it comes to the preservation of U.S. democracy. I think that many reporters and editors have woken up to the Republican assault on democracy in recent years—and others didn’t need waking up in the first place—but good, urgent coverage of the threat still tends to get siloed away from the horse-race punditry, which still often seems to start from the premise that the track is even. We need to see more joined-up thinking here and that will require focus, which will be a particular challenge amid a news cycle dominated by war and with so many other important stories to cover.”
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, told me that the media should “redraw the baseline for election-year conflict. Instead of just assuming it’s Democrats vs. Republicans in a familiar battle for control of government, start with a more urgent contest: those from both parties who still abide by the norms of American democracy vs. those who have demonstrated they do not—the Trump loyalists in the GOP, the Stop the Steal movement, the crazed conspiracy mongers, the Christian nationalists. Redirect the bulk of your reporting resources to this newer conflict, while keeping a careful eye on the ‘state of the race’ between the two parties.”
The idea that media should have a prodemocracy bias is a good one. It would help us focus on politicians straying from democratic norms, and highlight antidemocratic plays like disenfranchising voters.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent made an important point drawing from the 2021 coverage of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin. “In the midterms, when Republicans hit on a more subtle way to feed Trump’s lies about our elections, galvanizing the base, while also making a softer pitch to suburbanites, we have to avoid treating this as ‘clever positioning,’” he told me. “As we saw in the Virginia gubernatorial contest, that helps Republicans get away with continuing to undermine democracy, rather than calling out their strategy for the antidemocratic bad acting that it really is.”
Perhaps the most realistic assessment I got was from the Pod Save America co-host and former senior adviser to President Barack Obama Dan Pfeiffer, who told me, “My broader take is that the bulk of the traditional media has neither the ability nor the willingness to serve as a bulwark against right-wing authoritarianism. Some of them will be tweeting about Joe Biden not taking more questions at the exact moment democracy falls. Democrats should push the media to stop normalizing dangerously abnormal behavior and prioritizing balance over accuracy. But we also can’t wait around for The New York Times to save us.”
But it’s not just media coverage and the Big Lie that set these midterms apart from any others in recent memory. Trump and many other Republicans see them as an opportunity not merely to install Republicans in government, but to install pro-Trump, antidemocratic functionaries in government. The mainstream media must not cover these midterms as business as usual, because “business as usual” could end democracy.
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