As my colleague Margaret Sullivan points out regarding the GOP’s attempt to undermine the Jan. 6 inquiry, “[T]he media has played straight into Republicans’ hands, seemingly incapable of framing this as anything but base political drama.” The false balance syndrome ironically enables the one party whose survival depends on deflection and obfuscation to triumph over one trying desperately to debunk serial lying. The media poses as “fair,” but as Sullivan explains, it winds up “com[ing] across as both cynical (‘politics was ever thus') and unsophisticated (‘we’re just doing our job of reporting what was said’).”
What would accurate, morally defensible coverage look like?
First, instead of the “Republicans say” formulation, the most precise framing is more often than not “Republicans lied” or “Republicans offered a non sequitur.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) outbursts rarely evidence real “outrage,” they feign anger. Republicans do not offer “explanations” for their opposition to the Jan. 6 committee; they manufacture falsehoods to justify opposition.
Second, the media cannot allow Republicans to rewrite the past. When McCarthy offensively and falsely labels House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as responsible for Jan. 6, it is critical to repeat McCarthy’s own words. As he said shortly after the attack, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” Reporters should also explain that his own actions that day (desperately calling on the president to act) show his current accusations to be fraudulent.
Third, the media should stop accepting Republican definitions that distort reality. Even before the addition of Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), the select committee was bipartisan despite GOP statements to the contrary. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) still “counts” as a Republican. And those who seek to upend democratic elections and reject the rule of law are not “conservatives.” They are authoritarian or anti-democratic. Terminology matters.
Fourth, Republicans’ false assertions in other realms (e.g., that voter suppression laws are designed for “election security”) should not be taken at face value. Instead, the media should place such statements in the context of Republicans’ ongoing effort to subvert the will of voters. Instead of repeating obvious lies (e.g., Republicans are concerned about election fraud), reporters are obligated to point out that Republicans’ false assertions flow from their overarching lie that the election was stolen.
Fifth, just as the former president’s unhinged speeches and emails (which often contain disinformation about the pandemic and 2020 election) get far too much attention, the incessant repetition of right-wing media propaganda serves to spread their noxious views (e.g., replacement theory, anti-vaccination hysteria). The latest outrageous utterance from a right-wing cable TV host should not regularly appear on the front page of mainstream papers. Likewise, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is only one of many Republicans who should not be invited on air, given his vaccine skepticism and lies on the Jan. 6 insurrection. What is the point of providing him a platform to dissemble?
Sixth, it is incumbent on the media to describe the demeanor of Republicans more vividly. Anyone who does not watch congressional hearings would not know that Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) screams virtually nonstop and speaks at a frenetic pace. It is critical to provide an exacting description of Jordan. Put differently, reporters should stop making MAGA leaders more reasonable than they are.
Seventh, the White House press corps must stop echoing false Republican talking points. Many reporters seemed to accept at face value the Republican argument that unemployment benefits were keeping people from finding work, resulting in an incessant parade of questions that suggested the administration was refusing to accept blame. It turns out that the administration was right; the GOP talking point was bunk. CNBC reported last week: “State withdrawals from pandemic-era unemployment programs aren’t speeding up the job recovery, according to a new analysis.” In fact, “Census Bureau data suggests recipients didn’t rush to find jobs in the weeks following the first batch of state withdrawals.”
Eighth, outlets should stop squeezing every issue into a political frame. Why are reporters who cover political campaigns so often the same ones who cover the White House? When, for example, the commerce secretary is scheduled to appear in the briefing room, business and economics reporters should be asking the questions. All outlets also need dedicated reporters (not simply run-of-the-mill political reporters) to cover voting rights and race issues. (In the civil rights era, there was a specific “race beat” that developed insight and expertise.)
Finally, too much coverage assumes that Republicans have no choice but to continue their sycophancy toward former president Donald Trump given his powerful sway over the base. Aside from accepting the cynical calculation that getting reelected justifies lying and sedition, the assumption might be entirely wrong. Republican state lawmaker Jake Ellzey on Tuesday handily beat the Trump-endorsed Susan Wright in Texas’s special election for its 6th Congressional district. The pundits dubbed it an upset, but perhaps they need to revisit the assumption that Trump can make or break candidates. It is long past time to question whether media obsession with Trump reflects reality.