Opinion The rise of a pro-democracy media

(Brian Stauffer/For The Washington Post)

America’s news media is increasingly covering the growing radicalism of the Republican Party and its democracy-eroding behavior. That’s a welcome shift. But it still isn’t going far enough.

The media has long had a problematic “both sides” approach to covering politics. After Donald Trump became president, the media couldn’t avoid covering him very negatively. So the press essentially adopted a modified version of both sides, implying that Trump was an outlier but the two parties were otherwise fairly similar. Then came the attempt to overturn the 2020 election results, culminating in the Jan. 6. attack on the Capitol, all of which proved decisively that it wasn’t just Trump — much of the Republican Party was willing to break with core democratic values to hold power.

As a result, over the past year, an emboldened media has not only extensively covered the new radicalism of the GOP — its questioning of election results, targeting of election officials and push to ban discussions of race relations in schools — but increasingly described long-standing Republican tactics such as aggressive gerrymandering and support for voting restrictions as the dangers to democracy that they are.

Two important shifts in the media’s approach are worth highlighting in particular.

First, many outlets are now defining “democracy” as a core coverage area and devoting more space and prominence to the issue. The Atlantic says it is “training its editorial focus on the crisis facing democracy in America and across the globe”; democracy has been the subject of the magazine’s past two cover stories. FiveThirtyEight, mostly known for analyzing polling and election results, has made election administration — voting access, redistricting, etc. — and democracy two of its major areas of focus. In cable news, MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan and CNN’s Brian Stelter are among the hosts on those networks who have made democracy a central part of their programs.

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Local newspapers and public radio stations, particularly those such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that are in swing states, have also done laudable coverage. Even the traditionally staid Associated Press is publishing articles such as “‘Slow-motion insurrection’: How GOP seizes election power” and “Far too little vote fraud to tip election to Trump.” “We see voting rights, democracy, misinformation as central to our political coverage, and that’s been the case for some time,” AP executive editor Julie Pace told me.

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Second, many more outlets now have reporters who heavily focus on voting, gerrymandering, state politics, political violence and other subjects.

In July, ProPublica hired Pulitzer-Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter Alexandra Berzon for its newly created role of “democracy reporter.” The New York Times’s Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein; The Post’s Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman; Linda So and Jason Szep of Reuters; and NBC News’s Jane C. Timm in particular are writing features and breaking news on democracy issues in prominent nonpartisan outlets, coverage that is then picked up by the rest of the media.

“When I first started doing the voting rights beat, people would ask me, ‘Is there enough to cover?’” said the Guardian’s Sam Levine, who has covered voting rights issues since 2017. “Now, they get it. They say, ‘You must be so busy.’”

But while this is a laudable shift by the media, there are still three shortcomings in its coverage of these issues.

First, the both-sides dynamic remains — big time. The United States doesn’t have some generic problem called “voting” or “democracy” — the problem is, specifically, that many key figures in the Republican Party are acting to erode democracy and voting rights. But much coverage still obscures or plays down the “Republican” part of the story. Often, the text of these articles is quite blunt about the radicalism of the GOP but the headlines — what will be most read — are muted, with gun-shy editors blunting reporters’ work. Other times the articles themselves imply that these are disputes with two morally equivalent sides, when in most cases the GOP’s behavior is far worse than the Democrats’.

“Journalists themselves want to be in the center, they want to locate themselves between the extremes. … I don’t know how far along they are in acknowledging they are in a different world,” said New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who has been a leading figure in pushing the press to take a more pro-democracy approach.

This worry about offending Republicans even influences how most news outlets describe the coverage of this story itself. Nearly all of this coverage would fit under the umbrella of “the radicalism of the Trump wing of the Republican Party,” but it is nearly always described as coverage of “democracy,” “voting” or other label that doesn’t implicate the GOP.

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The second problem is that while this coverage is now widespread, it’s still not as pervasive as it should be, as my colleague Margaret Sullivan argued earlier this week. Despite all of the technological and social changes in the United States, politics is still covered largely the same way it was four decades ago: National news organizations focus on the president and secondarily Capitol Hill, with a heavy emphasis on legislation in Washington and the electoral standing of the two parties.

But much of the story of GOP radicalization is happening at the state-level in solidly red areas. So while there was a lot of coverage of the radicalism of the GOP in 2021, it was rarely the central political story of a given moment, which was more often something like the fate of the Build Back Better bill, the Virginia gubernatorial race or rising inflation.

“Few choices are as important in our business as which stories we elevate to that ... 24/7 coverage, volume-cranked-to-11 status. Democracy — except for that brief period in the winter of 2020 — has not gotten that treatment,” Mother Jones chief executive Monika Bauerlein wrote in a recent essay calling for the media to make “the war on democracy” the center of its coverage of American politics. “What matters is that we crank up the volume, in both quantity and loudness, on this issue — and if that means cranking it down a bit on the Kyrsten Sinema tea-leaf-reading, maybe that’s okay.”

Third, the story of GOP radicalization and democracy erosion isn’t being covered extensively or aggressively by a big, important chunk of the media — the morning and nightly news shows of the big broadcast channels (NBC, CBS, ABC) and in local television news. (The national networks often do have very strong coverage on these issues on their websites that doesn’t make it on air.)

This is a huge void — about a third of Americans get their political news primarily via local or national broadcast television. The void exists in part because of one of the factors I listed above. Broadcast television news tends to draw a higher percentage of Republican consumers than outlets such as CNN, The Post or the Times and to be more trusted by conservatives. Honest coverage of the GOP’s radicalism might alienate viewers and ultimately hurt these outlets’ bottom lines, so it’s disappointing but not surprising that they have not changed course.

Given these dynamics, it’s likely that the Democratic, upper-income, college-educated cohort that gets its news from CNN, MSNBC, The Post and the Times will become increasingly worried and engaged about the radicalism of the GOP. But unless Trump runs for president again, most Americans — including many Democrats — may remain pretty disengaged from that story.

That’s not ideal. That said, the story, thankfully, is being told. While everyone in America gets to cast a ballot on Election Day, in reality rich people, corporations, foundations, politicians and other elite individuals and organizations have outsize power. The media that those people consume is telling them clearly that the current Republican Party is a threat to the nation’s future.

Let’s hope they listen — and do something about it.