‘I think we need to rethink entirely how we do things,’ says Dana Milbank of the Washington Post

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.”

7 COMMENTS

  1. It’s good to see Dana Milbank coming around to your ideas about pressing the “reset” button on US journalism.

    It’s not just the changes you describe, and the profit motive of the news corporations, either. It’s the speed of information (and its opposite).

    When news was mainly in print, or broadcast by one of three more or less reputable television networks, “fair and balanced” coverage was essential to avoid spreading wrong information with a long delay until it could be corrected.

    Now that we are capable of fact-checking statements in pretty close to real-time, there is no reason not to have facts handy to state alongside the claims of the politicians and to bring up in interviews, rather than just faithfully reporting lies.

  2. So Milbank’s solution is for journalism to become even more degraded and less credible. “Presswatchers” agrees. Quite the circle jerk. Have fun talking to yourselves. Who knows, maybe Chris Cuomo can come work for you. And they say comedy is dead.

    • Less credible for telling the truth about the pathology and anti-democratic fervor of the American Fascist Party? I agree that we don’t need to talk to the MAGA crowd squeezed into diner booths their bellies will barely fit, because no degree of facts can penetrate their ossified crania. But the rest of us deserve a more realistic, less “both-sides-do-it” view of the current, horrific threat posed by what used to be the Republican party. Democracy is at the edge of a precipice. It would be nice if the MSM could throw it a rope.

    • I agree with you. Milbank’s idea of normal was what helped get us here. It should never have been considered normal for the political press to willingly spread Republican lies about Al Gore. For example they knew he had never claimed to have invented the internet but they spread that lie anyway. They mocked and disparaged him every chance they got. Maureen Dowd even wrote that Gore was “so feminized and ecologically correct he was practically lactating”. She wrote this about Bush “You don’t often get to see a Presidential candidate bloom right before your eyes.” David Broder, the august Dean of “serious” Washington journalists, complained that Gore spoke so much in his acceptance speech about what he would do if elected that Broder almost fell asleep. Brian Williams obsessed for a week over Gore’s wardrobe choices. Clearly they preferred the guy they thought would be “more fun to have a beer with”.
      https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/10/gore200710

      In contrast many of them like the Times’s Frank Bruni fawned over Bush, even loving the fact that Bush gave them idiotic nicknames, something that normal people never to do someone they respect as a professional. Bush was deliberately using a “charm offensive” on them so that they would give him favorable coverage and, being the good ol’ “normal” days Milbank yearns for, it worked. The kid gloves the media used with their “buddy” Bush is proof.
      https://www.americanprogress.org/?oldid=9654

      In 2016 the media coverage of Hillary was overwhelmingly negative and focused almost exclusively on Republican-created “scandals” and ignoring her policy proposals.
      https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2016/12/07/study-clinton-trump-coverage-was-a-feast-of-false-equivalency/

      That being said I was thrilled to see Milbank’s column and the solid data it was based on. It is long past time the mainstream “liberal” media the is all about criticizing everyone else turn that critical eye on themselves. Hopefully this will article be the start but I’m not betting on it.

  3. Comparing todays viewership to the Trump years is a bad idea. Everything was hyperbolic to 11. Most people need a break and time to decompress after all of that. It’s not healthy to be that jacked up and plugged in all the time.

  4. Some thoughts:

    1. I blame editors for failing to lead. That’s speculation since I’m not in their conversations, but most people take their bosses’ guidance seriously, unless of course the bosses are dopes.

    2. My impression is that reporters see only two options in how they frame stories: he said/she said, which is intellectually dishonest as well as disastrous; or all-out partisan, which is at best is entertainment and at worst propoganda. It’s a false choice. Another approach would be for American political reporters to cover American politics, public policy and culture as if they were foreign correspondents. Foreign coverage tends to be more honest, factual and forthcoming without being tendentious — i.e., cover Trump as if they were covering Putin or Rufus T. Firefly. Or they can write from the perspective of an investigative reporter: Investigative pieces, by their nature, get right to the truth and are written with a straightforward, this-is-what’s-REALLY-happening tone without sounding partisan.

    3. Perhaps reporters could also ponder the fact that they actually do have stakes in the outcome of the clash between democracy and authoritarianis, both professional and personal. On the professional level, no democracy, no freedom of speech or press and no legal process to protect those rights, so no career or job. On the personal level, no job, no paycheck, no food or shelter.

    4. Re: fear of being called partisan, they’re not winning anyone over now, so they wouldn’t lose anything by being straightforward.

    It’s really not that fucking complicated.

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