Why the Washington Post’s new ‘Democracy Team’ is cause for celebration

When the Washington Post unveiled its new slogan  – “Democracy Dies in Darkness” –  I was furious.

It wasn’t just that the slogan itself was weirdly ominous and self-important.

It wasn’t just that the Post’s PR shop went to great lengths to assure everyone this was not a shot across the bow at Donald Trump – which it most certainly should have been.

It was that nothing else changed.

This was back in early 2017. Our first authoritarian president had already exposed a slew of weaknesses in what we once thought of us our unshakeable American democracy. But the Post mostly covered him like a normal president.

There were some wonderful exceptions – an analysis here, an investigative report there – but day in and day out, the Post (like its competitors) downplayed the profoundly aberrational, deviant nature of the Trump presidency. It allowed Trump to get off too easy for lying all the time. It let Trump set the agenda – even during a disastrous public health emergency. It engaged in mind-boggling false equivalence regarding the two political parties, one of which had become entirely unhinged, in order not to appear to be “taking sides.”

The Post’s real, operative slogan — to this day —  was coined later that year by then-editor Marty Baron, when he famously said “We’re not at war, we’re at work.”

But Trumpism was an assault not just on the press but on truth and democracy. They damned well should have gone to war.

So here we are five years later, I’m terrified for our democracy, and yes, to some extent I blame the media.

As Post opinion columnist Perry Bacon wrote last May, “Perhaps democracy dies faster in darkness. But it could also die slowly in the light, as all of us watched but didn’t do enough to save it.” In December, another Post columnist, Dana Milbank, went so far as to accuse his colleagues of being “accessories to the murder of democracy.”

Good News!

Now comes the news that the Post is setting up a “Democracy Team” within the national staff – a major commitment that includes two new editors and three new reporting positions – specifically to inform readers about the ever-metastasizing threats to democracy from Trump and the Republican Party.

The goal is “to centralize and expand our reporting on the battles over voting rules and access to the polls, the pressures on election systems across the country and efforts to sow doubt about the outcome of the vote,” the Post said in its announcement today.

The reporters will be based in Georgia, Arizona and the Upper Midwest in order to “cover how local and state officials navigate the politicization of the election process, while also tracking legislative and legal battles over voting rules and access to the polls.”

The announcement, which even includes the five new job postings, describes the expected output as including “high-impact stories,” “complex investigations” and “revelatory narratives about the forces that are reshaping the democratic process.”

I’m Psyched.

I’m psyched because the way a news organization sets the agenda is not through editorials and opinion pieces. It’s by deciding what to cover.

And the best way to make sure something is covered is to create a “beat” with its own beat reporter – or even better, a bunch of them, with their own editors to boot.

When you put reporters on a beat, they will find things worth writing about. They will get to the bottom of what’s going on. Beat reporters – with a few notable exceptions — aren’t just stenographers, they are translators, educators, referees and analysts.

With a properly functioning Democracy Team (not to be confused with Team America), there will almost certainly be strong, fact-filled, hugely disturbing stories about the threat to democracy on the front pages of the Washington Post pretty much every day – as there should be.

It’s almost exactly what newspaper legend Hedrick Smith prescribed in an interview with Press Watch the other day about how news organizations could pursue a more pro-democracy agenda.

Smith told me that doesn’t mean advocating for particular policies or making predictions. It means a dedicated staff covering the hell out of a huge story.

“You change your focus and change the focal length of your reporting. Get in close, get in tight,” he said. You don’t just do a story once – you come back to it, digging deeper and finding out more every time. You connect the dots. “If you just get it as a bunch of dots, you’re saying to the audience: ‘You make sense of it.’ There’s a need for more connecting of what happened.”

FAQs, Timelines, Key Players, and More

And hopefully, the Democracy Team will embrace alternate ways of telling their stories. Some of the best are old-fashioned: Once the staff gets up to speed, they should start keeping an updated FAQ, a timeline of key events, and profiles of key players.

Resources like those should be a click away from anyone reading their latest incremental report. It will make what they write more intelligible to readers who might otherwise tune out.

The team members should also have brainstorming sessions to come up with ways to tell their stories visually, using data, and with help from readers.

Starting a new team like this also offer the opportunity to have the audience come along for the adventure – which would require radical transparency. Maybe a blog in which story ideas are tossed around. Maybe a TikTok.

Tops of my wish list is for each reporter to publish and regularly update their “beatnotes” – the memos reporters traditionally use to let their editors and coworkers know what they’re working on, what stories they’re thinking about, what questions they’re trying to get answered — in short, what mysteries they’re trying to solve.

(Do I sound a bit passionate about this? Well, I’ve been writing about the value of beat reporters – and the need to better deliver their value in the internet age — for two decades.)

Then Again

I may, of course, be overreacting.

This Democracy Team could turn out to be something much more ordinary.

Despite the obvious target – Republicans trying to establish permanent minority rule – there is always the danger that the team members will fall back on the hoary algorithms of both-sides political coverage, and will try to be “balanced” in their approach to an utterly asymmetrical situation. The very act of creation of such a team would tend to argue against that, but the words “Trump” or “Republican” are notably absent from the Post’s announcement, suggesting a possible hesitation to yell the truth from the rooftops.

Considering that the staff will be scattered around states where election results are most likely to be manipulated, contested or just plain ignored, it could simply become the swing state desk.

Another danger is that the Democracy Team could become as irrelevant as fact-checkers – relegated to second-day stories that nobody reads, that change no minds, and that politicians ignore. The Post’s announcement insists that “members of the Democracy Team will collaborate with other journalists across the National staff and the newsroom.” But other reporters could decide that since there’s a staff covering threats to democracy, they don’t have to anymore, even when it comes up on their beats.

The threat to democracy should be a top story, not a sidebar.

And while I hope the idea spreads, there’s also a high likelihood that it will be criticized by leaders of other news organizations who worry that acknowledging the threat to democracy is itself a political act.

Consider the interview of NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik by “All Things Considered” host Michel Martin on Saturday. Folkenflik enthusiastically broke the news that the Post was launching the new team. Asked if this was a new approach, Folkenflik replied:

It feels new to me, it feels like a shift, like – the best way or analogy I can think of is thinking about the way in which coverage has shifted on climate changing over the years. Climate change coverage no longer covers the debate about whether it’s happening or not happening, the extent it’s happening. It’s covering the consensus and defining what we know and what we don’t know, and how the fact of change will reconfigure life across journalistic beats and geographic borders and already is doing so. And I think it’s also a recognition when it comes to climate that it’s existential. And that is — and here’s the analogy — the stakes are enormous and something fundamental to all Americans, regardless of their beliefs.

He explained how different it is from traditional political reporting:

If you think about how people have over the decades covered politics, it’s covered in some ways as a sport, a horse race, someone wins, someone loses, someone has an upset. Coverage can be admiring of a perhaps a slightly rascally trick. Somebody can focus on how much money they raised. But theoretically, you’re agnostic because you’re covering as a journalist what happened. In this case, you’re covering whether or not candidates and whether or not laws will affirm the functioning democracy.

But Martin’s final question was a depressing example of the pushback the Post’s move is likely to get from elite journalists who are invested in both-sides coverage as a way of signifying their trustworthiness:

The same forces that caused a lot of people to mistrust public officials also suggest that they don’t trust the media, especially people who are inclined to believe the story that the former president put out. So how is the Post dealing with the idea … that some people are going to look at this and say, you’re just putting your finger on the scale, that you’re just favoring one side over another?

The answer, of course, is that it comes down to facts – and the recognition that, as Folkenflik put it, it’s “a political debate, but it’s also an existential debate to the functioning of democracy.”

What that makes crystal clear is that a top priority for the new team will be making the case that the threat to democracy is not simply about Democrats vs. Republicans — even though it largely breaks along party lines. As Hedrick Smith told me: “Somehow we in the media have got to persuade people that no, this isn’t a partisan argument. This is a different kind of story and a different kind of danger.”

Martin’s view, however, is pervasive in the new industry. One of its champions – as recently as 2020 – was the new Washington Post editor, Sally Buzbee. “We face an enormous burden of people who think that, if we’re from one side or the other, they’re just going to tune out and not pay attention to the world’s best journalism,” Buzbee said, back when she was Associated Press executive editor.

I  feel strongly that our industry isn’t going to somehow re-earn trust by doing the same thing it’s been doing all along. It’s time to try some brutal honesty. The Democracy Team sounds like a step in the right direction.

Hopefully Buzbee has come around. It’s certainly a good sign that she recently installed the two editors who championed the Democracy Team: national editor Matea Gold and deputy national editor Phil Rucker. Gold comes from the Post’s superb investigative team and the hugely important campaign finance beat. Rucker covered the White House, and based on when I’ve mentioned him on Press Watch, he was sometimes too credulous in his Trump coverage, but he also had the lead byline on some of the Post’s most exemplary, hardest-hitting Trump stories.

So let’s wish them the best – and watch them like hawks.

1 COMMENT

  1. “I may, of course, be overreacting.”
    You’re overreacting.
    While this project is good enough it’s nowhere enough to counter-balance the real problem the mainstream DC press corps that enables the Republicans including, but not limited to, subverting elections. And to clarify: reporting on bad acts without identifying the guilty, that’s a failure.
    Yet again: the mainstream have done and are doing actual harm. The Post’s initiative here can be of extremely limited benefit. Again, not none, just not much.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.