The texts were released this week by the Jan. 6 committee without naming Sherman; on Tuesday, Sherman acknowledged they came from him in a tweet. Meadows never responded to the messages, Sherman said. The White House didn’t send help. After all, in a speech that very day, Donald Trump encouraged people to march to the Capitol, telling supporters to “fight like hell.”
This has created a surreal paradox. Reporters feared for their lives because of authoritarianism from Republicans. But to cover the legislative process, they now must interact with and quote the same people who helped unleash forces that put them — and the country’s democracy — in danger. That can lead to normalization of those figures and whitewashing of their dangerous actions, even if reporters also condemn the events of Jan. 6.
Sherman’s harrowing experience, and that of other journalists at the Capitol that day, offers crucial lessons — ones that few U.S. media outlets have learned or consistently implemented.
When authoritarians take over one party but not the other, pursuing “balance” is a gift to antidemocratic forces. And when democracy itself is under attack, horse race coverage — between those attacking democracy and those defending it — becomes indefensible.
U.S. media needs to start championing an unapologetic pro-democracy bias, before it’s too late. Some journalistic biases are corrosive. But it will never be a mistake for reporters to side with democracy and the truth, even if that means condemning authoritarians and liars from one party far more often than another. When reality is asymmetric, balanced reporting is deception.
For journalists who were conditioned to reflexively shy away from taking stances, this adaptation may not come easily. That’s why some outlets have ended up in the absurd situation in which they appear to balance out scandals between the parties. One day, they’re covering a Republican congressman who has associated with white nationalists, voted to overturn an election and tweeted out an anime video depicting himself murdering another member of Congress. Another day, it’s a Democratic “scandal”: Vice President Harris is “paranoid” because she doesn’t use Bluetooth headphones as a national security precaution.
There are many facts, but not all facts are equal. There was a tornado in Kentucky last week. There wasn’t a tornado in Minnesota. Only one is worth reporting. Reporters and editors make decisions about which facts to cover — and then it’s up to them to provide the reader with an appropriate sense of scale. The so-called scandal of Harris spending $500 on cookware, or a man who was reportedly homeless and unwell burning down a Christmas tree, are not commensurate with an ongoing attack on our democratic system by an authoritarian political movement. And yet, readers might not get that impression if they survey the headlines in print and on the airwaves these days.
There is, admittedly, a glaring concern with the media adopting a pro-democracy bias, at least in 2021: It effectively means being pro-Democratic, for now. As the Atlantic’s Barton Gellman put it: “I’m not trying to advance the interests of the Democratic Party in my reporting. But we have only one party right now that is small-D democratic. … And so I am calling out the mainstream of the Republican Party for its lies and for its election subversion.”
That creates a risk. Already, Trump’s toxic cries of “fake news” about accurate reporting have poisoned Republican voters against mainstream news outlets. An unapologetic pro-democracy bias could make that distrust even worse.
But as Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, told me: “If being pro-democracy — while maintaining high standards in matters like verification, proof, weight-of-evidence, fairness and intellectual honesty — draws a backlash from some, maybe that’s a fight we need to have.”
For reporters in Washington, witnessing the horror of Jan. 6 should have been a wake-up call to the dangers of authoritarianism. It certainly shouldn’t mean a return to horse race coverage and “both sides-ism.”
Writing in The Post in January, Karen Attiah rightly called out those who tried to write the news during the Trump and post-Trump era “under the aegis of ‘balance’ and ‘presenting both sides’ — as if racism and white supremacy were theoretical ideas to be debated, not life-threatening forces to be defeated.”
It’s time to extend that apt analysis to democracy. Authoritarianism and subverting elections aren’t theoretical ideas. They’ve become strategies for Republicans. And it’s time for the media to unequivocally and unapologetically condemn both.