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Give Me a Reason to Write, "The News Media is Doing a Great Job About Informing Americans About the State of Their Country!" And I Will
A snarky tweet in response to a really good column has me rolling my eyes.
Every so often, I will start writing a piece only to shelve it after seeing another writer make the same basic point much better than I ever would have. That was the case yesterday when I read Will Bunch’s latest column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Journalism fails miserably at explaining what is really happening to America.” Bunch’s piece is a highly quotable, blistering 1,725-word indictment of the way mainstream news outlets cover American politics. So anyway, I chucked my piece into the virtual trash and wrote this instead.
If you don’t have time to read two things today, please close this and go read his. If you do have time to read two things, stick around.
Bunch gives credit where credit is due, noting that on “not-Fox cable TV news,” you will occasionally seeor Timothy Snyder talk about rising authoritarianism, and there are columnists like The Guardian’swho provide valuable insight into the world of media. Sadly, these are rare exceptions to the norm.
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The norm is what you see when you turn on Meet the Press on a Sunday morning and see Chuck Todd lobbing softballs to Vivek Ramaswamy and letting the candidate say absurd things about what Mike Pence should have done on January 6 with little pushback. The norm is what you see when you read a Peter Baker piece in the New York Times that frames the current problem with politics as “polarization,” and not the fact that one of our country’s two political parties has openly embraced authoritarianism. The norm is what you see when you read coverage about who “won” a debate while ignoring whether what the “winner” said on stage was true or made for coherent policy positions.
Decisions about coverage — who to cover, what to cover, which voices are necessary to hear, which voices don’t matter — are not naturally occurring phenomena. No, these are choices, and the people calling the shots at news organizations make some consistently poor ones. Here’s what Bunch argues (and I agree with):
These are the stakes: dueling visions for America — not Democratic or Republican, with parades and red, white, and blue balloons, but brutal fascism or flawed democracy. The news media needs to stop with the horse-race coverage of this modern-day March on Rome, stop digging incessantly for proof that both sides are guilty of the same sins, and stop thinking that a war for the imperiled survival of the American Experiment is some kind of inexplicable “tribalism.”
We need to hear from more experts on authoritarian movements, and fewer pollsters and political strategists. We need journalists who’ll talk a lot less about who’s up or down and a lot more about the stakes — including Trump’s plans to dismantle the democratic norms that he calls “the administrative state,” to weaponize the criminal justice system, and to surrender the war against climate change — if the 45th president becomes the 47th. We need the media to see 2024 not as a traditional election but as an effort to mobilize a mass movement that would undo democracy and splatter America with more blood like what was shed Saturday in Jacksonville. We need to understand that if the next 15 months remain the worst covered election in U.S. history, that it might also be the last.
In a similar vein, Jason Kottke echoed NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen’s wish for the press to focus on “not the odds, but the stakes.”
Rosen first articulated this principle more than a decade ago and ever since reading about it a few years ago, I've all but stopped reading and linking to political horse race coverage. Who scored more "points" in the latest debate? Which candidate seems the most Presidential? Will his mugshot bolster his campaign? Come on, this isn't the goddamned Oscars red carpet. Tell us what the candidates' plans are and how they will affect how Americans live their lives. What experience do they have in governance? Or if not governance, in leadership? What do they believe, what actions have they taken in the past and what consequences have those actions had on actual people? What motivates them...power, money, fame, service? Many many people will not give a shit about any of this, but if we want to retain a functioning democracy with a press that's not primarily about entertainment, voters need to know what they are getting into.
This really, truly shouldn’t be too much to ask. And yet… here’s how Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi responded to Bunch’s column:
“Just once, maybe a columnist could write, ‘The news media is doing a great job about informing Americans about the state of their country!’ But naw…,” he wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
My response was simple: Try “doing a great job about informing Americans about the state of the country,” and maybe someone will, Paul.
I don’t criticize the press because it brings with it fame and fortune (far from it!). And I imagine that Farhi has me beat both in terms of income and name recognition. I’m pretty sure I could make more money, get offered better jobs, and land more TV appearances if I said things like, “CNN is doing a great job!” “The New York Times really nailed it!” “The Washington Post is top-notch!” Maybe that’d land me a column at WaPo, where a conservative who wrote a smug piece in 2020 bemoaning that “Democrats may not be able to concede” in the event of a Trump win (and who, to this day, downplays Trump’s attempt to circumvent the will of the people and cling to power for a second term) was rewarded for such insightful takes with a spot on the paper’s editorial board.
But I can’t write that kind of stuff. Because I don’t believe it.
When I think news organizations screw up, whether on a story level (see: CNN’s “milk” story, WaPo’s misleading story about support for anti-trans laws, NYT’s decision to pretend not to understand Elon Musk’s politics) or an organizational issue (see: NYT hiring another anti-trans columnist, CNN’s hiring of John Miller), it’s worth calling out as bad for journalism and bad for society.
I would love nothing more than to write a piece saying, “The news media is doing a great job about informing Americans about the state of their country!” But first, the news media needs to do that.