The scary truth about the media's reaction to right-wing authoritarianism
It’s conventional wisdom among newspaper reporters that we should let readers decide. Don’t come to moral conclusions. Just present the facts neutrally, objectively. Leave the rest to the opinion pages.
But that conventional wisdom is running into trouble, namely a period in political history in which normal isn’t normal anymore. Indeed, the more we cling to the conventional wisdom – to these normal reporting conventions – the more harm we do to the people we claim to serve.
That paradox is put into sharp relief by coverage of the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection. Its one-year anniversary is Thursday. The press corps had a year for soul-searching, but it’s still treating the event – still treating treason – as if there are two sides. The result is elevating lies to the level of truth, making everything seem as good or bad as everything else, and giving the impression that nothing matters.
I talked about this and more with Mark Jacob. He spent 41 years in the newspapers, mostly in Chicago. He’s the former Sunday editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune. Since retiring, he’s reinvented himself as the sharpest press critic on social media. If anyone knows how journalism should be done, it’s Mark. I began by asking if the press corps has learned anything.
Mark Jacob: They're learning slowly, too slowly. You see more instances of people saying flat-out that the Republican Party is an anti-democratic movement, which has been obvious for years. Of course, it's wrong to paint the Washington press corps with one brush, because some have been far better than others.
The Times editorial board likened the GOP to “authoritarian movements the world over.” Is that the progress you see?
Yes, that's a good example. But let's remember the Times was afraid to call Donald Trump a liar in 2015. There's really no question that the timidity and lack of truth-telling by major news outlets is partly responsible for the perilous state we're in today. I think many Washington journalists became very comfortable with the “stenographic school of journalism” and didn't want to give it up. If they quoted the Democrats and Republicans in equal numbers and acted like their comments were equally valid, they could stake out a comfortable position as "objective" and the small-talk at the cocktail parties would remain congenial.
Reporting both sides of cancer in other words.
Yep. "Melanoma might have a point there." Even when the DC news media was fact-checking Republican lies, it would do it in a tidy and ineffective manner. Often news stories would say what Trump said and then would say what the truth was. But they wouldn't start out with a direct statement saying what the truth was and that Trump was lying about it. In effect, they were laying out the facts but requiring the readers and viewers to do the math. This was a practice that worked to the benefit of lying propagandists.
You can call it “objective.” Or you could call it “irresponsible.” Can you explain to non-news people like us why it's the latter?
First, I think the news media have been misled in a quest for some mythical version of objectivity. Deciding to conduct an interview or write a story is making a value judgment. For way too long, political journalists have thought objectivity meant letting both sides have their say, even when they knew one side was lying more than the other side. They were being "objective," but they weren't being fair to their customers, who depended on them to sort out what was true.
A lot of current political reporting is a dereliction of duty. Editors and reporters should never let a lie get into their publications without it being aggressively called out as a lie. Sad to say, a lot of American political journalism has been defensive – designed to prevent the editors and reporters from getting angry phone calls from one side or the other. But of course, John, we both know that if you don't get any angry phone calls, that's a sign that you're not doing your job.
I don't think most consumers of national political reporting know how bad it is, morally and practically, compared to their hometown papers. There are just different standards in each.
Well, local political lying is often less sophisticated than national political lying. National Republicans are masters of the lie. I think a big mistake the news media have made is giving the American people too much credit. I don't mean that as an insult. I mean it as a sad fact.
When the news media carefully avoided calling Donald Trump a liar and just laid out the facts, they were assuming, or at least hoping, that the public could weigh the evidence and figure out that Trump was lying.
But large segments of the public didn't reach that conclusion. Perhaps the most important lesson of this era is propaganda works.
When the right wing repeats a lie enough times, many people believe it. Most of the news media and the Democratic Party think that if they say something once or twice, everybody gets it and they can move on. That's obviously wrong. It's why news media are ineffective and Democratic messaging gets mugged by Republican messaging. When you say the truth twice and someone else says a lie 1,000 times, it's just human nature to think the lie might be true.
One of the founding principles of the Editorial Board is that most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. It's our responsibility to tell them what they need to know. That requires, even demands, that we be judicious.
I'm so glad you said that. I don't think everyone needs to be a political nerd like I am to be a good American. There's an elitism in politics and media that tends to exclude people who are too busy registering their kids for soccer to find the time to read a Washington Post op-ed.
The real challenge for people who want to prevent a radical fascist minority from taking over this country is to get people who "don't care about politics" to realize they need to take actions now — register to vote, give money and time to good candidates — if they don't want to see their kids grow up in a dictatorship.
In one of your recent posts, you address a thorny question among news people. What counts as newsworthy? Usually, it's what’s not normal. That judgment privileges the status quo, which is a problem for another day, but it also creates a rationale for ignoring lies.
When the Republicans flood the zone with lies, making them normal, they’re not news anymore. What can we in the craft? My two cents: stop troubling yourself with phony rules. But that's just me.
We definitely need new definitions of newsworthiness. We're living in unprecedented times, with a threat to our democracy that hasn't been this serious in a century and a half. Yet you hear people on cable news citing midterm election trends from decades past as if they're discussing the laws of gravity. Nothing is normal now.
What we need to do as a profession is identify the most admirable American values – opportunity, fairness, openness to new cultures, for example – and identify actions that most deviate from those values. Dramatic deviations from Americanism are newsworthy.
In your question, you're referring to something I call "ethics norming," which is the tendency to readjust the definition of normality based on recent events, even if recent events have been horrific.
This benefits people doing horrible things. I, for one, think that even if cannibals have devoured a classroom of children for three straight days, it's still news when it happens for a fourth day.
The Republicans have a right-wing media apparatus. Do the Democrats need their own? Would that benefit democracy?
The problem with Fox News and other propaganda outfits isn't that they speak from a Judeo-Christian view or oppose single-payer health care or want low taxes. The problem is they are systematically lying.
Another problem is that they are putting viewers in a cult-like cocoon from which they distrust everything. Their viewers are brainwashed.
It would be good to see more news organizations producing factual news from a variety of viewpoints, including from the left. As I said, objectivity is a myth. Journalists can lead with their values and still remain faithful to facts. A few organizations are doing that, such as Courier Newsroom. I'm on its advisory board. But they're way outnumbered and out-funded by the industry of untruth on the right.
I might agree with “leading with their values” if the press corps were not populated by the children of the children of the children of elites whose principal value is social status. Most seem indifferent to democracy's fall on account of being insulated from democracy's fall.
That's the scary thing – that some people in journalism today might be just fine under a dictatorship. You'd like to think they would be so vocal in their defense of democratic values that they'd be arrested if a totalitarian regime took over, not invited to an annual dinner.
When you talk about elitism, it reminds me that a big task for both journalists and pro-democracy advocates is to make it clear to regular citizens that their lives would be far worse under a totalitarian system -- that dictatorships are a way that the elite steals from the public.
This might be the most important message to get across -- that dictatorship will make everything worse for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Cheating and corruption are built into dictatorship. Opportunity dies for the talented but unconnected.
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