The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Journalists also have an obligation to fix democracy

White House press secretary Jen Psaki at the White House on Nov. 12. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Looking back on the first 10 months of Joe Biden’s presidency, we see little evidence the media has examined its own role in Republicans’ assault on democracy. Indeed, one could argue mainstream media outlets have been complicit in the current crisis of democracy. The trivialization of coverage, default to false equivalency, amplification of GOP spin and habitual treatment of Republicans’ conduct as within the normal boundaries of politics have serious implications for a democracy that relies on an informed citizenry.

Journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen observes that “the incremental coverage, the focus on the inside game, the notion of tactics and strategy, and the joining up of the political class with the information junkies” does little to inform voters about major pieces of legislation. We get nonstop coverage of the “sausage making” but little about the content of bills that cost trillions. We hear incessant chatter about the filibuster but little examination of Senate Democrats’ compromise voting-rights plan, while Republicans are rarely grilled as to the basis for their objections to common-sense measures (e.g. enhancing penalties for threats to election officials, requiring a paper audit trail, limiting wait times to 30 minutes).

This style of political coverage reduces critical issues of the day to sporting events and celebrity gossip. “Is the president angry with senators?” The answer is irrelevant, and the question is designed to create a nonsensical sound bite (the White House denies he is angry) rather than analysis of the substance of disputes. In the current political environment, the media’s process obsession obscures the lunacy of an increasingly unhinged right and its lack of policy answers on much of anything.

The media avoid pressing Republicans on matters of substance, so the expectation that they take legislating seriously dwindles. Instead, coverage of Republicans focuses almost exclusively on their latest cultural meme. The media wind up spreading concocted issues designed to anger, distract and, frankly, mislead the public about the condition of the country. We get far more coverage of Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s inane attack on Big Bird and Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley’s riff on masculinity (as if either topic had to do with their jobs as U.S. senators) than we do on the benefits their constituents would derive from Biden’s agenda, which they oppose. Do these senators ever get queried about their own policy ideas for reducing inflation, reducing inequality or enhancing competition?

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In place of clear and accurate descriptions of GOP gambits (“voting suppression”) we get mealy-mouthed phrases (“voting changes” or “strict rules of voting”) that obscure what they are up to. Instead of emphatic debunkings we get praise for the cleverness of the GOP in forcing the Democrats to talk about a nonexistent problems (e.g. critical race theory in K-12). At times the media’s assistance in spreading GOP insults is downright cringeworthy, as when Peter Alexander quizzed the White House press secretary about a MAGA chant and asked if Biden had failed to lower the political temperature.

Republicans are rarely grilled on their tacit approval of violence — from the former president’s rationalization of the “Hang Mike Pence!” chants on Jan. 6 to warnings of “bloodshed” from Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) to violent imagery posted on social media by Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.). At best, we get easily sidestepped inquiries (“What is your response?”); virtually never are Republicans asked “How can you remain in a party that tolerates violence?” or “How can we entrust power to people who follow the MAGA leader and/or stir violence?”

The press treats leaders of the GOP, who fail to condemn such aberrant conduct, continue to deny their nominee lost in 2020 and still pledge fidelity to the former president who instigated a violent insurrection, as ordinary politicians. Hmm, why has the president “failed” to get Republican support for his initiatives?

Rather than call out GOP propaganda, mainstream journalists too often treat these accusations as legitimate (e.g. adopting the wrongheaded Republican accusation that unemployment benefits were keeping workers out of the job market). The White House briefing room becomes a place to launder unfounded accusations and attacks. (“What does the president say in response to Sen. X’s latest preposterous allegation?”) Asking the administration about bad-faith claims takes the place of tough questioning about policy, the pace of nominations, the functioning of the executive branch, the problems the administration has failed to address and myriad international issues (Taiwan, anyone? Belarus?)

In sum, when mainstream media outlets don’t weigh in on the side of objective reality (e.g. “Republicans are lying”), take disingenuous Republican claims as the basis for their coverage, fail to hold politicians accountable for fanning violence and decline to cover the substance of one party’s agenda (or the absence of the other party’s), they promote the sort of fact-free environment in which the true nature of today’s Republican Party is concealed from the public. It is almost inconceivable that the Republicans’ toleration of violence does not affect the media’s insistence on maintaining a false equivalence between the two parties.

If you think we need media coverage as serious as the threats to our democratic system, you are no doubt dismayed by the first 10 months of Biden coverage. If you think the media must come down on the side of democracy, distinguishing normal politics from anti-democratic, fascistic behavior, you should be aghast.