Holding the powerful accountable is the noblest and most essential goal of the journalistic profession. But 2021 may go down in history as the year that our major newsrooms — shamefully — gave up on it.
Before Trump, if you had asked Americans what was the one thing that could disqualify a party from future participation in democratic politics, they might well have said: Trying to steal a presidential election.
Yet the people who attempted to corruptly — and, on Jan. 6, violently — overthrow the 2020 presidential election are still controlling the Republican Party.
And rather than work daily to hold the GOP accountable, our top political journalists are glibly projecting that it will take Congress in 2022 and possibly the White House in 2024.
This failure to hold Trump to account has been consistent ever since he declared his candidacy. When he actually won in 2016, the heads of our major newsrooms made a terrible mistake: They clung to their devotion to treating both political parties with equal deference – even though that meant abandoning their even more fundamental commitment to truth-telling and accountability. “Balanced” treatment of a profoundly unbalanced situation normalized Trump’s and his party’s behavior, no matter how dishonest, extreme and anti-democratic it was.
Well before Jan. 6, Trump had thoroughly proven himself to be dangerous, inept at governing, corrupt and demagogic. In one of my first columns for Press Watch, in October 2019, I wrote that the main storyline of the 2020 election should be that we made a terrible mistake in 2016 and we need to fix it.
Then, a year ago, the full extent of Trump’s degradation burst into public view. For a day or two, even the most unflappable journalists had no alternative but to acknowledge he had crossed a line. It had happened – undeniably — right in front of everyone’s eyes. ‘
“Trump Incites Mob” proclaimed the New York Times banner headline the next morning. The storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters “amounted to an attempted coup that they hoped would overturn the election he lost,” wrote the Washington Post. It was “a breathtaking demonstration of what Trump has wrought — a mob as heedless of law and norms as he has been, willing to literally trash the fundamental institutions of American democracy,” wrote the Los Angeles Times.
But within a few days, this sense of journalistic outrage had somehow been quenched.
That’s not to say that the coverage of the Republican Party since then has been what you would call positive. These days, reporters will state without hesitation that the GOP accepts as an article of faith something that didn’t happen and that Trump tried to steal the election. They’ll note that Republicans are literally killing themselves rather than trust scientists.
Sometimes – rarely — they’ll even write that “threats of violence are becoming commonplace among a significant segment of the Republican Party”; or that the GOP has allied with right-wing militias; or that the party spreads hate speech. In a particularly terrifying Dec. 30 article, the Associated Press’s Nicholas Riccardi wrote plainly that “Trump-aligned Republicans” are working to “clear the path” for next insurrection.
But our elite media can’t bring itself to say what kind of party that is,
They won’t describe it as, say, dangerously delusional, or anti-democratic, or nativist, or know-nothing, or fascist.
They won’t say that the party has crossed the line — and hold it accountable for doing so.
With the notable exception of that AP story mentioned above, mainstream news coverage of the various Republican election moves — to restrict voting, put loyalists in charge of vote-counting, and make it easier for partisans to overturn legitimate voting results — has fallen dramatically short of stating the obvious conclusion: that the party is preparing to steal future elections.
Consider, for instance, this shockingly understated New York Times explainer about “Voting Rights and the Battle Over Elections: What to Know.” While full of solid information, it nonetheless casts the “battle over voting rights” as taking place on a “partisan battlefield.”
But it’s not Democrats vs. Republicans here.
It’s us-who-support-democracy vs. them-who-don’t.
Most accountability failures these days are in plain sight, and stem from a failure of journalists to pursue consequences for lying.
As I wrote last year, in my column on What the next generation of editors need to tell their political reporters, reporters should demand retractions from liars, publicly and repeatedly. They should deny serial liars the opportunity to use the media to spread their lies. When forced to quote liars, they should warn readers.
They should overtly distinguish between people who, whatever their political views, have established a record of acting in bad faith, or in good.
This should be a top priority for reporters and editors and publishers. In a world with no consequences for lying, fact-based journalism has little value.
The journalism profession failed to confront the Bush-Cheney regime for its lies – lies about going war and lies to cover up the lies about the war, lies about torture and surveillance, lies about Valerie Plame, Dick Cheney’s lies (criminally prosecutable but for his chief of staff Scooter Libby’s lies).
Is it so surprising that the next Republican president would take lying to a new extreme – not necessarily in terms of severity, but certainly in terms of volume?
These days, the Big Lie is at the heart of the anti-democratic movement. But the Big Lie isn’t just a lie, it’s also a promise. And without consequences, it becomes a reality.
Some Specific Accountability Fails
There are, unfortunately, countless ways that mainstream news reporters fail to hold the Republican Party accountable. Among them:
- They write with justified horror about the anti-vaccine movement – but fail to call out how Republican officials and Fox News are intentionally and unforgivably using the issue to incite their base.
- They describe the GOP’s appeals to racism and its manufacturing of white panic as clever politics.
- They let Republican leaders take credit for solving crises they themselves created.
- They don’t press Republicans to describe what they would actually do if they were in charge.
- They decry polarization without stating who’s at fault.
- They fail to confront, condemn and punish Fox’s propaganda and disinformation channel for spreading lies and inciting conspiracy theorists.
- They normalize and almost totally overlook the constant Republican obstruction of any progress toward better health care, preventing climate change, reducing inequality, and so on — only rarely noting the enormous human costs. Instead, they focus obsessively on Democratic squabbling.
Some accountability failures have continued into the Biden presidency.
For instance, it’s been clear since the dawn of Covid that omnipresent testing was a necessity. Reporters should have been clamoring for that during the Trump presidency — and during the last year as well.
And while it’s really great that a congressional committee is collecting evidence about the Jan. 6 sacking of the Capitol, its pace is way too slow and the coverage too demure. Why is any of this secret? This is not the kind of investigation that needs confidentiality; quite the contrary. Reporters should be constantly demanding that congressional investigators tell them more of what they’re digging up, and they should follow up themselves, including by relentlessly hounding the people who are refusing to talk.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the committee is “rushing to make as much progress as possible before January 2023” because “Republicans are favored to regain control of the House this fall, and if they do, that is when they would take power and almost certainly dissolve the inquiry.”
That’s not rushing. And it’s obviously not fast enough.
Televised hearings – hopefully starting soon – will be a good start. But the most important stuff may not be televised, and an “interim report” set for summer is not nearly fast enough.
Where’s the Reform?
It’s long been clear that, after Trump, there would be a huge need for reform — that Congress, civil society, and the executive branch itself would have to take steps to address the huge flaws in the American political system Trump exposed and exploited.
A huge number of Trump actions need to be condemned, rescinded, and even more explicitly outlawed.
Why isn’t that happening? Who is pushing for reforms, and who is blocking them? These are crucial questions reporters should be demanding answers to every day.
Here, for instance, is one blueprint, from the ethics watchdog group CREW, on one essential element of what should be a massive reform movement: Holding Presidents Accountable. It calls for “more robust methods” to force presidents to release their tax returns and divest from their business, to enforce the Emoluments Clauses, to prevent abuse of the pardon power, and more.
Or consider the need to revisit just one of Trump’s many reckless acts: the inflammatory, unprecedented and flatly illegal drone-strike assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani in Iraq in January 2020. Press coverage at the time was credulous and naïve. But as Brian Finucane, a former State Department legal advisor, recently wrote for Just Security, a “set of extreme legal opinions drafted during the Trump administration to justify the president’s actions… now lie ready to be used by future presidents,” and must be disavowed and rescinded.
For the Record
Repeatedly calling out the Republican Party as unfit and undeserving to compete in a democratic election sounds awfully partisan. But wanting to hold the powerful accountable is hardly an endorsement of the Democratic Party.
In fact, outside of the media, one of the biggest reasons for the low expectations of accountability for government officials is the precedent set by Barack Obama, when he refused to hold anyone accountable for the Bush-Cheney administration’s torture of detainees. Not demanding some form of justice or recrimination from a president, vice president, on down – the people who proposed, approved, or performed brutal and unforgivable acts on human beings – was one of the most disappointing things ever for those of us who consider ourselves accountability journalists.
Where to start?
It’s not too late for genuine accountability journalism to make a difference, although it may be, soon.
The most urgent issue of the moment is protecting the country from ongoing assaults on the election process by the Republican Party that truly threaten to establish permanent minority rule.
As Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein wrote in December, “It’s the story that journalists should be shouting from the rooftops and reporting out from every angle, every day.”
As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote this week, “For the most part, news organizations are not making democracy-under-siege a central focus of the work they present to the public… it doesn’t appear to be part of an overall editorial plan that fully recognizes just how much trouble we’re in. That must change.”
Yes, shout it from the rooftops. Our country’s future depends on it.