The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The media still haven’t learned how to cover the GOP threat to democracy

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) talks to reporters at the Capitol on April 6. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Not one of the five major Sunday talk shows mentioned the revelation that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) had supported efforts to overturn the 2020 election despite no evidence of fraud, as my colleague James Downie reported. It’s a small example of a larger problem.

Republicans who appear for TV interviews are rarely — if ever — asked basic questions about the ongoing threat to our democracy. For example, do they believe President Biden was legitimately elected? Do they regret supporting Donald Trump during his impeachment trials? Would they support the defeated former president if he ran again, even though he instigated a violent assault on the Capitol?

Nor are they asked about a spate of laws that Republicans are pursuing at the state level to make voting harder or politicize election administration. Or why they oppose reauthorization of the preclearance provisions in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Old news! Not relevant! Really? Multiple news outlets have dedicated themselves to covering democracy, yet coverage has not changed much. The GOP is not consistently identified as the party seeking to impair voting or thwart the House select committee’s investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection. Days can go by without national newspapers or cable TV programming mentioning the coup attempt or voting suppression.

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What would improved coverage look like? Media can start with these six changes.

First, they should provide regular updates on efforts to suppress voting, ballot and election chaos created by new laws and candidates running for key state-level offices (e.g., secretary of state, attorney general, governor) who still support the “big lie” that the election was stolen. The national media should cover efforts such as those in Wisconsin to “decertify” the 2020 election (yes, Trump supporters are still stuck on that!). And they should continue to cover the negotiations underway to reform the Electoral Count Act. The media should explain the possibility that a GOP House majority might not allow an elected Democratic president to take office in January 2025. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) should be asked about this at every news conference and in every interview.

Second, the media should ramp up coverage of civil and criminal prosecutions stemming from the attempted coup, including the investigation underway by the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga. The media should also track disbarment claims filed against lawyers who pursued bogus claims.

Third, when Republicans are mentioned in print or introduced on air, their position on challenging electoral votes, the “big lie”, the attempted coup, voting rights legislation and the Jan. 6 commission should be noted. This is relevant information to determining whether these people have credibility and are pro-democracy. So long as Republicans can easily evade questions about their ongoing support of the “big lie” and its primary proponent, the media effectively enable the GOP’s assault on democracy.

Fourth, Republicans need to be pressed about their plans if they take majorities in the House or Senate. Will they try to impeach Biden? Do they think they are entitled to block a Democratic president’s qualified nomination to the Supreme Court if a vacancy emerges? Why should voters trust them not to shut down the government and default on the debt? Would they seek to short-circuit the Jan. 6 investigation? How can people who tried to disenfranchise voters be trusted with power?

Fifth, when major news breaks about the attempt coup — such as revelations that a senator lied about the extent of his involvement in the effort to overturn the election and badger state legislatures into overriding the will of their voters — the media should demand comment, both from the person implicated and from GOP leadership. It should be more than a one-day story.

Finally, Republicans who refuse to show up for debates, such as Senate candidates Herschel Walker in Georgia and Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina, should be asked at every opportunity why they are hiding. Media outlets should cover the debates anyway, even if they feature only a single candidate and an empty podium.

There are plenty of other ways to keep the public informed about threats to our democracy. Unfortunately, democracy often remains an afterthought in political coverage. As a result, the media treats the GOP as if it were a normal party, covering its insane conspiracy theories and lies about the 2020 election as if they were horse-race stories. (Look, he got former president Donald Trump’s endorsement! Look how cleverly she sticks with the MAGA line!)

The media have committed to taking the side of democracy and truth. So far, the results are unimpressive.