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Press Watch mission statement: Political journalism needs a reset

No one can possibly argue that modern political journalism has fulfilled its essential mission of creating an informed electorate.

So it’s long past time for a reset.

Let’s start with the overarching problem: Misinformation, disinformation and gaslighting have become rampant in our political discourse, turning citizens against each other, choking the legislative process, eroding confidence in elections, and, in the age of Covid, literally getting people killed. A striking number of voters are laboring under a series of delusions that make them incapable of rational decision-making. The country is still reeling from a violent attempted coup in the name of a Big Lie – a lie that has essentially become doctrine for one of our two major political parties.

Despite all this, our elite political media recognizes no need for a course change.

Indeed, even after four years of Trump — and his continued domination of the party — there has been essentially no self-reflection from the reporters and editors who set the tone for national news coverage. They just keep doing what they’ve done for decades: remain aloof and detached from the urgent and crucial political issues that underly the partisan divide, so intent on covering the play-by-play and “not taking sides” that they have refused to scream out the truth. As a result, they’re being drowned out by the lies.

The 2022 midterms, as Esquire political blogger Charles Pierce has noted, “are going to be a conflict between what is actually happening and what people believe is happening.”

We can’t sit this one out.

My goal here is to challenge business as usual and spur some self-reflection – ideally from the elite political reporters and editors themselves, but if not, then from the people who employ them and the people who keep them in business.

It’s also to call attention to excellent political journalism that can define best practices going forward.

And, I admit, it’s also to put into words the often inchoate fury that readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other elite, influential news organizations so often feel after reading or watching a work of political journalism that does not acknowledge the urgency of the moment, lacks historical context, offers a megaphone to liars and provocateurs, normalizes radical extremist white Christian nativism, and projects a white male right-of-center gaze under the guise of objectivity.

Job One

The uncontrolled spread of lies is anathema to everything American journalism stands for. Fighting it is the calling of our time.

But so far, all we’ve seen is baby steps. Yes, toward the end of the Trump presidency, political reporters finally started being a bit more assertive about describing some of what Trump and his enablers were saying as “lacking evidence,” as false, or even as lies. But as we have seen, for instance during the George W. Bush presidency, when a lie is repeated over and over again, calling it out once or twice doesn’t prevent it from gaining currency.

Editors and reporters should respond much more energetically when a public figure lies, or someone on Fox News introduces a new conspiracy theory, or a new strain of disinformation or misinformation enters the public discourse.

The thing to keep in mind is that the lying is the news, not the lie.

An initial story should rapidly confront and dispel the lie with facts, ideally without spreading the lie further (see, for instance, the “truth sandwich.”) Journalists should treat a lie like a virus, for which they are the vaccine, not the spreader. The goal is to quickly fill the news space with the truth so that conspiracy theories have less place to grow.

Reporters should do this enthusiastically and repeatedly, as long as the lie remains part of the discourse. This should not be relegated to a lone subsequent “fact check”. Fact checks are arguably worse than useless.

But that’s just the first step. The next step is to probe more deeply, to explore motive. The proper response to a lie about voter fraud, for instance, is not simply to say that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. It’s to explain why these people are lying about it. What purpose does it serve? Whose purpose does it serve? Who is funding it? Those are fertile areas for reporting — and for informed conjecture.

The most persuasive lies often have a narrative element; debunking and subverting the lie should include a truthful narrative explaining the why behind the lie.

Then there’s the matter of consequences. There should be some, or else what’s the point of fact-based journalism? That means denying serial liars the opportunity to use the media – particularly live media — to spread their lies. That means whenever it’s crucial to quote a liar, warning readers and viewers of their track record. That means interrupting liars when they are repeating a lie. That means demanding retractions, publicly, prominently, and repeatedly. That means openly distinguishing between people who — totally independent of their political views — can be counted on to be acting in good faith and those who can be counted on to be acting in bad faith. Established liars should not be quoted as credible sources. (And they should certainly never be granted anonymity.)

Another productive area for reporting relates to whether and why the lie is effective: Who is susceptible to it and how come? This most certainly does not mean simply quoting people who believe the lie. It means empathetically but vigorously interrogating them about their backgrounds, presuppositions, and news sources. It means talking to sociologists and psychologists. It means openly addressing the endemic racism and misogyny that reporters are normally too terrified to even bring up — because that ends up explaining a lot.

Another key step toward fighting disinformation is for everyone, and especially journalists, to publicly and emphatically distinguish between media outlets that don’t lie and the ones that do; between news outlets that observe normal standards of evidence, are devoted to accuracy, and correct their mistakes, on the one hand — and entertainment channels that use nativism, lies and conspiracy theories to build and captivate their audiences, on the other.

That starts with explicitly condemning Fox News as a disinformation operation, regularly exposing its lies, and urging people to stop watching them. Luring viewers away from Fox News – and back to reality — should be a goal of serious journalists everywhere. Fox News isn’t news, it’s a news story. 

Academia and civil society also need to make that distinction clearer, both in their research and their conclusions. One of my pet peeves is polls and white papers that lump Fox and its ilk together with reality-based news outlets, and then try to reach conclusions about why people don’t trust the media. There are obviously a lot of good reasons why reality-based people don’t trust Fox News. Why and how much people don’t trust the New York Times or ABC is a different issue entirely.

And finally, newsroom leaders need to make a serious commitment to pulling back on the kind of reporting that the liars have effectively gamed. People who will say anything thrive in a “scoop” culture. Trump was constantly flooding the news zone with one crazy tweet or comment after another – often distracting reporters from the actually important stories. Reporters also need to stop focusing so much on optics and strategy. Judging something to be good or bad optics is a lazy way to avoid weighing in on whether it’s fact or fiction, a good idea or a bad idea, in good faith or in bad faith. And serious journalists should never applaud lying as a winning political strategy.

None of this will be easy. There are old habits involved. There’s a lot of defensiveness from people invested in the old ways. And the pressure to get clicks makes it that much harder. The liars in our political discourse are great at getting attention and inciting powerful emotions – a perfect fit for a world in which the business model of the dominant platforms rewards “engagement” and clickbait.

But there’s no question in my mind that this is in the long-term interests of our industry. This is, at heart, what the public expects from us.

The journalism industry and its philanthropic community spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out how to increase the media’s credibility. A disturbing emerging school of thought is that reporters should tone down their writing so it doesn’t turn off the people who believe lies.

I believe the exact opposite. I believe mainstream journalism loses credibility by not fighting more passionately for the truth.

Issue One

If political journalists are in a war against disinformation, then the primary battlefield is the Republican Party’s increasingly authoritarian attacks on voting and election integrity.

Anyone who thought we were past the worst of it after Trump’s departure from office now knows better. His party denies that he lost, continues to make it harder for Black and brown people to vote, and is overtly laying the stage for invalidating election results they don’t like.

Our very democracy is in danger. You can’t really cover politics and ignore that. It underlies everything.

And on such a basic issue, political reporters shouldn’t avoid taking sides. The right of people to pick their government shouldn’t be controversial. Reporters and editors shouldn’t be bashful about being  pro-democracy — which means supporting maximum access to voting and making sure every vote is properly counted.

Because the two parties have such diametrically opposed views on this issue, some political reporters see it as inevitably partisan to take sides, so they refuse. Indeed, although false GOP accusations of voter fraud are nothing new, reporters who know better have historically been absurdly skittish about calling them out as intentionally deceptive. Many reporters still duck the moral implications today. But the truth is that, in this case, one party is playing them for fools.

Furthermore, the issue of democracy is so central to all of politics that officials who are effectively fighting against it need to be held to account in every political context. That means eviscerating them, ignoring them, or at the very least warning that they hold anti-democratic views.

Finally, beyond rebutting the liars, news organizations should seriously consider being proactive champions of democracy — actually crusading on behalf of members of their community for the right to vote and have their votes count. That means aggressively reporting on obstacles to voting, and overtly working to overcome them. What a great pitch to readers: “We’re going to make sure you get to vote and that it’s counted properly.

Adjusting to Asymmetry

It’s been nine years since political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein justifiably scolded the press for whiffing on the biggest story of the 2012 election: the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.

And that was nothing compared to today.

Post-Trump, any hint of a coherent governing philosophy has vanished. There is no Republican agenda, just culture warfare and obstruction. The party’s most defining principle right now is the Big Lie. Practically speaking, it reliably serves only the ultra-rich. It is inflamed with racism and nativism.

And yet the incremental, day-in-day-out political coverage still casts the GOP as a reasonable and viable alternative to Democrats. It goes beyond both-sides coverage: Political reporters consistently predict Republicans will retake at least one chamber in 2022, and quite possibly the White House in 2024.

What that does, however, is normalize the decision to vote for an extremist, nativist, anti-governance party. It presumes that there will be zero accountability for lying and extremism. When mainstream-media reporters say the next elections are going to be squeakers, it reassures non-delusional people that voting Republican would not be such a crazy and dangerous thing, which it would be.

And to the extent that it’s true — and that Republicans could in fact win again — it’s incumbent on reporters to further explore the tribalism that attaches people to the party apparently regardless of what it does.

Any political journalist who is not addled knows full well that this GOP winning a chamber of Congress would effectively shut down any attempts at governance, and that a second Trump term would cause profound, potentially irrecoverable damage to the country and its institutions.

For that reason, every news story about the two parties, especially about elections, should openly address the imbalance between the two parties when it comes to speaking the truth and wanting every vote to be counted.

Yet political reporters are more comfortable speculating about who’s winning.

I should be clear that I am in no way suggesting that political journalists endorse the Democratic Party. Political reporters shouldn’t be partisans. Partisanship distorts reality. Partisans are willing to twist facts to suit their goals, which is profoundly anti-journalistic. The Democratic Party is terribly flawed in its own way. And political news reporters should, in fact, not take sides on issues where there are reasonable, fact-based, but contradictory solutions.

What I am calling for is an endorsement of reality. A hearty one.

The Future

There are a lot of other ways in which I’d like to see political journalism change.

I’ve written about how political reporters should be rebranded as government reporters, charged with covering problems and who’s trying to solve them, rather than which party is winning today’s messaging wars. Maybe we could leave a skeleton crew to keep writing the game coverage.

I’ve written about how our top newsrooms need to learn from their mistakes – particularly when it comes to credulous, cheerleading war coverage. (They never do.)

Almost nothing is more important than adding diversity to the reporting and editing ranks. The industry needs to rethink political labels that are anachronistic and sometimes downright deceptive.

I also believe that political journalists at both the national and local level can reconnect with their audiences – and their souls – by taking on crusades on behalf of the public, starting with crusading for the truth, and fair elections.

Journalists at all levels, for instance, could advocate for transparency and against secrecy by calling attention to what people aren’t allowed to know. National political reporters could aggressively report on the need to limit executive power after years of unfettered expansion. They could expose the obstacles to universal, affordable access to broadband. Local news organizations could encourage their readers and viewers to buy local.

What all of this would require is newsroom leaders who aren’t afraid to stand up for core democratic (and journalistic) values. I’m waiting. And while I’m waiting, I’m writing.

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