Longtime Washington Post political journalist Dana Milbank on Friday accused his colleagues of being “accessories to the murder of democracy.”
Milbank wrote in his biweekly opinion column:
We need a skeptical, independent press. But how about being partisans for democracy? The country is in an existential struggle between self-governance and an authoritarian alternative. And we in the news media, collectively, have given equal, if not slightly more favorable, treatment to the authoritarians.
Powerful, important words — especially coming from someone who has spent so long in the belly of the beast. Milbank has been at the Post for over 20 years, the first eight on the news side, including a stint as White House correspondent during the George W. Bush administration.
Much of Milbank’s column on Friday was about new data he helped analyze, indicating that press coverage of Biden — a flawed but basically normal president — has been even more negative than it was of Trump, a pathological liar and white nativist whose ineptitude arguably killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. I’m a bit skeptical of the data, but that it’s even close is very telling.
To me, the even bigger takeaway was Milbank’s devastating conclusion about his own profession’s inability to accept and adjust to the new reality in which one party in our democratic system is anti-democratic.
So what I wanted to know was: What exactly does Milbank think his colleagues should start doing differently?
That’s what Press Watch is all about, but I often feel like an outsider looking in. What’s the view from inside? What is a reasonable ask of reporters who face enormous pressures from their editors and their sources?
“I wish I had a good answer,” Milbank told me, in a conversation via email and then phone.
He did, however, have several pretty-good answers.
The Normal Rules Just Don’t Apply Anymore
“I don’t think anything in our training or experience as journalists prepared us for a moment in which one of the two major political parties is no longer cooperating with the democratic process: promulgating the most outrageous lies, disenfranchising voters and giving state legislatures the ability to overturn unfavorable election results, openly embracing white nationalism,” Milbank said.
Not knowing any other way to write about politics, “they’re doing the normal thing,” he said.
But Milbank’s view is that “It can’t be said too many time that this is not normal… I think we need a rethink entirely how we do things.”
(Here are my thoughts on that very topic: “Press Watch mission statement: Political journalism needs a reset.”)
“The old methods of back and forth just don’t apply,” he said. “There was a time when both sides had claim to the truth — they were just on different sides on the issues. We really are in a new world where one side is, a large amount of the time, operating from fiction. It’s not just fairy tale fiction. It’s very corrosive and damaging fiction,” he said.
“I don’t think it is hyperbolic to say that we are in this existential struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, and between fact and fiction, and we should not be on the sidelines of those,” Milbank said.
News reporters don’t necessarily have to put it quite so directly — but what they should do is put incremental events in their proper context: Historical context, factual context, and international context.
So, when Republicans propose to give state legislatures the ability to overturn unfavorable election results, they should quickly explain how that would be a dramatic change from how it has been done historically.
So, if it’s a significant enough lie to write about, it ought to be fact-checked in real time. Maybe in the second paragraph.
And when writing about authoritarian actions, they should ask “Has this happened before? What countries has this happened in before? Those are questions you need to ask to give context.”
The Need for Clickbait Conflict Can Be Fulfilled in a Better Way
So what explains the negativity of the Biden media coverage when he is, at least in spirit, on the pro-democracy side?
“I think they perceive — correctly — that they won’t get as many eyeballs if they don’t play up the outrage,” Milbank said.
“I don’t think owners and investors are telling people to do this,” he said. “I do think that everybody in media organizations is noticing that readership and viewership is way off from the Trump years — and traditionally what people want is conflict. So it’s a natural instinct — it’s a journalistic instinct – to give it to them.”
But that’s a trap, because “we’re portraying this like an ordinary conflict,” Milbank said.
If they’re so desperate to play up conflict for clicks, I asked Milbank, why don’t they play up the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism? It seems to me that’s a great story.
Milbank agreed. “There is a conflict. It’s not between Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar and Biden,” he said. “It’s between people who believe in a pluralistic democracy and people who do not. That’s the conflict.”
Avoiding the Facts Won’t Win Over the Trumpers
“We shy from calling these things what they are because we fear being called partisan. But these aren’t partisan issues like taxes and abortion and defense spending,” Milbank said.
“Journalists should be partisans when it comes to democracy: defending the truth, defending free and fair elections, defending equal justice under law.”
And anyway, he said, “If we’re worried about being perceived as being biased, I mean come on! We’re not going to be able to convince any of the ‘enemy of the people’ types that we’re not.”
His advice to his colleagues on the news side: “You’re only writing for the people who live in the fact-based community, so give them the facts.”
And, from his column: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”