The Democrats can’t trust the press corps to explain to the people that democracy as they know it is under assault

The Democrats can’t trust the press corps to explain to the people that democracy as they know it is under assault
The scary truth about the media's reaction to right-wing authoritarianism
The scary truth about the media's reaction to right-wing authoritarianism

Lester Holt, the NBC News anchor, interviewed the president last week. In response to a question about inflation and “what your definition of ‘temporary’ is,” Joe Biden said he was being “a wise guy.”

While that got the most attention, there was something else worthy of our time. The interview illustrated a problem all democracies share in the link between the public, public opinion and the press.

To be free, the people need information to address their collective and complex problems. To understand it, the information must be simple. But simplifying it often distorts it, preventing the people from solving their problems and in the process, preventing them from being free.

This issue has legs. In 1969, the Columbia Journalism Review asked Fred Friendly, who, with Edward R. Murrow, created “See It Now,” to interview Walter Lippman, the father of professional punditry. Friendly asked how many problems the American people can “digest at one time without breaking at the seams.” He was referring to Vietnam, crime and “the race problem,” but his question could just as easily apply to our current complicated moment. Lippman answered:

“Undoubtedly the mass media oversimplify. The American people are very simplistic, they want to be told that things are absolute, that they’re black or white. They don’t want to be bothered very long.”

What should the mass media do? Friendly asks. Lippmann says he doesn’t know, but he does know one thing: “... broadcast journalism has not only a terribly simplifying effect, but a distorting effect, I think, because it makes everything more dramatic than it should be, more interesting, more amusing. And the world of life isn’t that.”

Fast forward to last week. Holt’s segment on inflation was so wildly simplified normal people walked away wildly misinformed.

Yes, prices are rising. So are wages for some. Debts are shrinking for others. Meanwhile, consumer demand has never been higher.

Inflation is very complex. But Holt and NBC News made it look simple. In the process, they made Biden look unable to face the problem.

If the Democrats are going to have a hand in solving our collective and complex problems, they have to face the Lippmann issue. They have to find ways to speak to voters about their collective and complex problems – especially the fact that democracy as they know it is on the brink – without being mediated into oblivion by the press corps.

The way to do that, according to Oliver Willis, is to never let the truth speak for itself. The Democrats must create their own media ecosystem. Willis is former research fellow at Media Matters for America. He’s currently a senior writer for the American Independent.

You probably know more than anyone about the effect on democracy of Fox and rightwing media. What is it about them that "normal people" don't understand? What do Democrats not understand?

One thing I think people don't understand about Fox is how pervasive rightwing propaganda is throughout every hour they broadcast.

It isn't just that Fox does a news segment before an "opinion" person comes on to give a hot take. Rightwing disinformation and propaganda oozes through every segment of the network, even if it’s doing something as seemingly innocuous as talking about movies or TV.

Even if it isn't explicitly about electing Republicans, Fox is about promoting “cultural wars” from a rightwing point of view, 24-7.

Democrats think they can, by appearing on Fox, slip in their messages, but instead, they end up feeding the machine. The machine is not something you can disrupt once you accept Fox as legitimate.

It's been said that the Democrats need to invest in media to counteract rightwing propaganda. Is that right? And why?


I spent years at Media Matters for America working on that issue. Other organizations do the same. It's good, necessary work but it's very clear that a well-intentioned fact check can only do so much.

Democrats, progressives and the wider left in America need to do more to present their arguments to the public. You can't have debates when all you're doing is debunking lies or taking on incoming fire. You should be pushing your views when you have the facts on your side.

The mainstream press has shown it isn’t open to left-of-center opinions. It will "balance" them with absolute nonsense from the right.

There needs to be an ecosystem on the left of all sorts of media, from podcasts to YouTubes to print to digital outlets that are untethered from the mainstream press and from rightwing media – to the point where participants even fight with each other. The resulting noise is what is needed to counteract and ultimately drown out the right.

Do Democrats have a funding apparatus for this kind of investment? Do the Democrats have their own version of Charles Koch?

Just look at all the money going into liberal super-PACs and Democratic campaigns. I think that’s without question.

The problem is the political will and the vision to do it.

Investing in media is a long-term prospect. I think many leftwing funders are locked into looking at the next election cycle rather than how well something will pay off 10 to 15 years down the line.

Roger Ailes, who created Fox, came up with the idea for "GOP TV" in a memo he wrote in the 1970s while working for Richard Nixon. Fox didn't happen until 1996. It was a pretty much joke until the 9-11 era.

Among the problem Democrats face is the need for a strategic vision to build media, some idea for what it should look like, understanding (in my opinion) that it can't just talk about how great Democrats are, and particularly the stomach to let it sit around and ripen for a very long time, perhaps not paying off dividends for a decade.

That has to be replicated not with one outlet but multiple outlets.

In a 1969 interview in CJR, Walter Lippmann was asked: "Does it seem to you that political writers of the country are swinging to the right? If so, how far to the right do you think they will go?"

His answer: "Well, there’s no doubt that — whether that’s age or personal ambition or what — men do that. It’s a rule any journalist would know: it’s always safer to be conservative than not. You’re much less on the defensive. You have much less to explain yourself for."

Does this still apply to today's press corps?

I think a lot of people working in the mainstream media are extremely gun shy about directing any criticism toward the right.

As a practical matter, this is easy to understand. The right has geared up their audience to drown any dissent in a mountain of criticism.

A working journalist has to constantly weigh the idea of whether including an inconvenient fact in a story is worth the personal hassle. These considerations affect story choice, tone, framing, all of it.

While journalists may take what is described as progressive positions on some issues – racism is bad, gender equality is good, LGBTQ people deserve human rights – they do often have conservative positions.

Those who shape the news often buy into conservative economic ideas, such as managing public money like a family budget or orienting the economy around corporate interests rather than people's needs.

It doesn't take much to nudge reporters in these directions because they are already there. The same is true for war. There is nothing easier than getting the press to cheerlead someone being bombed.

So while I don't think the press in aggregate is a Republican Party caucus group, there are certainly a host of internal and external pressures that result in a press pack far more open to rightwing ideas than ideas from the center-left, let alone the leftwing.

The left is almost always on its heels. The right accuses, the left defends. You encouraged a different tack recently: "Embrace the absurdity and 'yes, and...' it to the next level." Can you explain your solution in greater detail and why you think it would be useful?

One of the left's problems is that we overthink everything.

There’s virtue in that when considering policies affecting millions (even then, it can be a detriment) but it's a mistake in political combat.

The tactic I admire most about the right is they try everything.

Granted, a problem is they make things up and lie constantly. But they're always trying. The left does not. We talk ourselves out of avenues of attack, assuming "it won't work" even when there's little to no evidence that a particular type of argument won't work.

I would encourage doing everything short of outright lying.

Throw everything against the wall. The easier to digest, the better.

There are instances in recent history where this has clearly worked. When Georgia passed its new restrictive voting laws, Democrats from President Biden on down referred to it as "Jim Crow 2.0."

That made it clear to people who don’t follow the news closely. It put Republicans on defense. For days, there were headlines along the lines of "Republicans deny new voting laws are reincarnation of Jim Crow."

That frames the issue – accurately – in terms friendly to Democrats. It has Republicans defending something adjacent to the indefensible. And it puts Democrats on the side of voting and participatory democracy.

Win, win, win.

The problem is this argument has not been sustained. While the right would have and run the ball for another year, Democrats moved on.

So they need to attack, keep it going, and try a range of lanes.

Most of them won't work but it is a far more useful tactic than looking for a silver bullet set of magical keywords prompted by speaking to a focus group, which is what Democrats try to do most of the time.

Do you have faith in "the people" to understand what they need to understand to at least preserve democracy (never mind advancing it)? Lippmann was extremely skeptical. How about you?

Right now, to be blunt, not really?

It's hard for the average person to see that democracy is under assault. They understandably don’t pay attention to every micro-development across the political universe like those of us addicted to this stuff.

Furthermore, the threat has been extremely poorly communicated.

Democrats described the last election as a "battle for the soul of America," but they took victory as largely as a mandate to turn the clock back to a pre-Trump mindset. That wasn't that great a place.

Democracy under assault is too abstract for most people. Even when their rights are curtailed – via book bans, restrictions on transgender rights, abortion laws, and the like – not enough work has been done to convince them that this is a systemic assault on democracy.

The press still reports on the Republican Party like it’s still the party that elected Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, not a dangerous and thuggish movement with literal armed militias threatening people.

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