U.S. news organizations have failed miserably to communicate to the American people the extent to which the January 6 attack on the Capitol was only one element of the organized, intentional and ongoing attempt by the Republican Party to overturn the results of a free, fair and proper election – a criminal, seditious conspiracy.
They have failed miserably to communicate what’s at stake in the midterm elections, and how the choice voters face in November is not simply between two parties, or a referendum on President Biden, or the economy, but is about either succumbing to or resisting a slide into autocracy and patriarchal theocracy.
And now, with the January 6 select congressional committee embarking on an effort to do job the media so miserably failed to do, I fear that our top newsroom leaders and political reporters will respond defensively and contemptuously, using partisan framing, both-sidesism, bad sports analogies, and theater-criticism analysis to marginalize and mock a sincere and desperately needed exercise in truth-telling.
I fear that the arbiters of our elite, corporate media will embrace Republican talking points about the committee’s motives and conduct. I fear they will engage in so-whatism about new revelations, casting them as old news that changes nothing. I fear they will downplay this, the single most important American story in decades, and the biggest political crime in the country’s history, in favor of other ongoing crises that, while hugely significant, in the greater scheme of things matter so much less. I fear they will get distracted by bad-faith actors flooding the zone with disinformation and diversions.
You can already see hints of the framing in the pre-hearing coverage.
It’s a political stunt:
Annie Karni and Luke Broadwater, writing in the New York Times, wrote: “With their control of Congress hanging in the balance,” Democrats face an “uphill battle” to make a “broader case about why they deserve to stay in power.”
This paragraph just killed me:
Their task is to persuade voters that the Jan. 6 attack revealed bigger and more important issues at stake, including the Republican Party’s alignment with violent extremists and its decision to make adherence to the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen a test of membership.
Isn’t this exactly the media’s task?
It’s not going to change anyone’s mind:
In the Washington Post, Jacqueline Alemany, Josh Dawsey and Amy Gardner wrote that “the end result.. remains an open question,” because public opinion has ”long since hardened into competing blocs, making it difficult to break through, even with prime-time programming.”
No one will pay attention:
Here’s Bart Jansen writing for USA Today that “the challenge is whether the tick-tock sets off alarms or the viewing public simply hits the snooze button.”
What journalists should do instead
What journalists should do is embrace and amplify the committee’s attempt at truth-telling, contextualize them, and help make sure members of the public understand what happened and what they need to do about it.
Republicans have tried to turn Jan. 6 into a political issue – and, of course, the debate is undeniably along partisan lines. But the goal here — the goal journalists should share — is not partisan: It’s the truth.
That said, if anyone puts forth any evidence that contradicts the committee’s findings, then of course that should be taken seriously. But empty protestations that are unsupported by any facts whatsoever should be treated — and described — as such.
In fact, reporters who insist on covering “both sides” of the issue should be explicit. My proposed language:
Republican leaders are objecting to the hearings and trying to distract attention from them, but have yet to put forth a single piece of evidence that contradicts the committee’s emerging narrative or supports the Big Lie that, in fact, has become a central tenet of their party and a major theme of their campaigns to win back Congress in the 2022 midterm elections.
Journalists should seize this opportunity to sound the alarm, over and over again. Sure, they’ve missed so many earlier opportunities, but now is the time to overcome the corporate newsroom’s reverence for unflappability.
They should stop feeling obliged to attribute basic facts to “Democrats” or “some legal experts”. They need to understand that doing so actually cast doubt on facts that have been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.
That means, among other things, calling evidence of a criminal conspiracy what it is, not putting “criminal conspiracy” in quotes or at arms’ length.
Common sense tells you this was a conspiracy. Common sense tells you it was criminal. The evidence is overwhelming already. As a federal district court judge wrote in his ruling in a related civil case, “The illegality of the plan was obvious.” There’s simply no way that Trump’s phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, trying to bully him into changing the state’s vote count, wasn’t a criminal act.
John Daniszewski, the standards editor at the Associated Press, wasn’t ready to officially liberate his reporters to take “criminal conspiracy” out of quote marks when I spoke to him on Monday. “I would say, for your credibility, if it’s anything that’s disputable, you should have attribution,” he told me.
But the AP famously determined years ago that climate change is not legitimately disputable, and other news organizations followed. “It has to be so overwhelming that no one could reasonably dispute it,” Daniszewski explained.
I begged him to consider the existence of a criminal conspiracy to steal the election in that same category. “I guess we’ll see how this plays out,” he said.
One legitimate caveat about the committee is that whether Trump and the other conspirators are held accountable will ultimately be decided not by them, but by the Justice Department. A central goal of the hearings is to make a powerful and compelling case and increase pressure on DOJ to indict, prosecute and convict them. But it’s unclear how much effect if any the hearings will have on Merrick Garland, who will make (or already has made) the ultimate decision.
As the committee reveals its findings, reporters should absolutely consider whether the narrative, or new revelations, strengthen a potential criminal case.
And if and when the case becomes even more overwhelming, reporters should then be asking: What possible reason other than politics isn’t DOJ going ahead with indictments?
The court of public opinion matters, too. In certain cases, the appropriate verdict is public horror, not criminal guilt.
Another obvious success would be if the hearings lead to reforms. “In the end, what you had with Watergate was a real window for democracy reform: A moment to strengthen and improve democracy,” said Jon Steinman, communications director for Protect Democracy.
Lawmakers in the 1970s put into place a series of post-Watergate laws including the Privacy Act, new FOIA rules, dramatic new limits on political contributions, campaign finance reporting requirements, new congressional ethics rules and a new independent counsel provisions.
The Democratic House in early 2021 approved a sweeping package of voting rights, election, ethics and campaign finance measures, but it died in the Senate.
Steinman is realistic: “I worry about getting that reform window open at all,” he said.
The long view
I spoke to Fred Wertheimer, who is in his 52nd year of trying to make government more responsive to the people. He started at Common Cause in 1971. He’s now the president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan nonprofit he founded in 1997.
“The committee has a tough job ahead in breaking through with everything else that’s going on,” he said. “But, if they can break through, I think they can educate a significant number of Americans who don’t know this full story of exactly what happened. This wasn’t a single event on January 6, as we know. This was the front edge of a movement to replace democracy with autocracy.”
I told him what I was writing about.
“Your interest in how the media will respond to this is on point,” he told me.
I told him I was worried that news organizations would both-sides the story — that TV anchors, for instance, would tell their viewers something like “Democrats called it a criminal conspiracy, but Republicans said it was just an attempt to distract from Joe Biden’s terrible economy.”
“I can’t eliminate your worry,” he said.
“All the things you’re worrying about are going to happen. I can’t solve that for you. But I can tell you that what will move things for this country, at least potentially, is what happens to Trump as a result of this, and as a result of where the Justice Department comes down.”