(Sorry about the long hiatus, I was dealing with issues. But I’m back and angrier than ever.)
“The facts speak for themselves.”
That is what the political reporters and editors in our top newsrooms keep telling themselves — long after it has become clear that they don’t.
The lies are louder.
The facts are not getting across.
If the building is on fire, you need to raise your voice. You need to convey the urgency and the threat. You need to be heard. You need to be heeded. So you shout. You don’t stop until everyone understands the danger. And you don’t take the bullhorn from the firefighters and give equal time to the arsonists.
In just over a month, voters will decide the future of the United States, quite possibly sending it into a downward spiral of know-nothing autocracy, oppression, and white Christian nationalism. And if not this November, then quite possibly in 2024.
But far from shouting the news from the rooftops, our elite political reporters are mewling about dueling parties, polarization, and codependency.
They are failing to call out the hucksters, zealots, charlatans, loons, dupes, and agents of chaos who would lead our country to disaster. They don’t merely treat them with equanimity, they express admiration for their strategy and achievements.
They write profiles that give extremists and liars gravitas and credibility. Yes, the damning facts are in a lot of those articles, somewhere. But when they are conveyed in such a voiceless, anodyne and contextless way, they lose their meaning. Euphemism defangs the truth. Relating outrageous facts in affectless prose is journalistic villainy-laundering. They muffle the truth in the name of theoretical objectivity.
On television, you can most clearly see it when hosts have on guests who rant, lie, say crazy things, and refuse to answer simple questions – then thank them for coming. How is that journalism?
The people calling the shots in our major newsrooms smugly think that they are superior to us raving liberal hippies. They see no reason to change course, despite their obvious failure. There is no accountability inside the building.
And maybe worst of all, they’re missing the biggest story: Democracy and the hard-won rights of the last several decades are at risk.
Understanding the Stakes
The stakes in these next two elections have never been higher. That’s a helluva story. But our elite political reporters are not rising to the challenge.
A recent Washington Post article on how “The Biden-Trump rematch, in many ways, has already begun” was not the serious wake-up call we needed about the epic battle for the nation’s soul, but a glib, inaccurate, unfounded, view-from-nowhere 1,800-word smirk. Matt Viser wrote:
The country seems to be barreling toward a rematch that few voters actually want, but that two presidents — one current, one former — cannot stop talking about. Biden and Trump both say they are planning to make their decisions in the coming months, but with a lingering codependency between them, they each appear to be nudging the other into what would be a rare faceoff between the same two candidates four years apart.
“Cannot stop talking about”? That’s entirely made up.
When our elite political reporters do write about the stakes — as Washington Post White House reporter Yasmeen Abutaleb did in an article headlined “Apocalypse now: Democrats embrace a dark midterm message” – they make it sound like warnings of the Republican threat to democracy are just the latest Democratic campaign tactic — and a “gamble” at that.
Abutaleb actually equated Democratic concerns that Republicans will “cripple democracy and eviscerates abortion rights and other freedoms” with Republican admonitions that Democrats are “taking the country down a path of soaring crime, raging inflation and uncontrolled immigration.”
So, she concluded, the “midterm arena” is “marked by dueling dystopias, as the parties vie to outdo each other in describing the hell scape that lies ahead if the other side wins.”
Who cares if one side is lying and the other side is telling the truth? Not Abutaleb. Not her editors. Not the Washington Post.
Star Struck By Fascists
The elite media covers bigots and fascists as trendsetters. And nowhere is that more obvious than in the coverage on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
As I wrote in August, DeSantis is a uniquely dangerous political figure, with an established track record of authoritarian governance. He is already using his position of power to punish his enemies and reward his allies. He has turned the state into a battlefield of his culture wars – with victims aplenty. He doesn’t just insult people who disagree with him, he accuses them of wanting to sexualize kindergartners.
But our top political reporters are star struck, just like they were with Trump.
Exhibit A is the September 18 New York Times Magazine cover story by Matt Flegenheimer headlined Is Ron DeSantis the Future of the Republican Party?
Flegenheimer described DeSantis in his own, heroic terms:
DeSantis, who turns 44 this month, believes his raw instincts are unrivaled and that he may well be correct. He has for years merrily shunned the perspectives of moderating influences and gentle dissenters and found himself validated at every turn, his recent history a whir of nominally risky choices — expert-snubbing Covid policies, an uppercut at one of his state’s largest private employers, a long-shot bid for the office he holds — transmogrified to pure political upside as he seeks to position himself as his party’s rightful heir.
When Flegenheimer cast DeSantis as “an iron-fisted imitation” of Trump, he meant that as a compliment. “Here is Trump, but more strategic about his targets; Trump, but restrained enough to keep his Twitter accounts from suspension; Trump, but not under federal investigation.”
If DeSantis becomes president, history will mark this as a seminal moment when the press failed to warn the public.
Flegenheimer did mention DeSantis’s affinity for “projecting the political fearlessness to crush adversaries with administrative precision.” He wrote that “Perhaps no current officeholder has been more single-minded about turning the gears of state against specific targets.”
But the fact that Democrats see him as a dangerous authoritarian was portrayed as yet another win. “He has become Democrats’ favorite governor to despise — nothing less than an aspiring authoritarian, many say, their criticisms only further galvanizing his fans.”
Yes, the facts – some of them, at least – are there. Do they speak for themselves? Or are they drowned-out by the Times’s anointing him as the future of the party?
Covering Up for the Unfit
A Washington Post dispatch from the J.D. Vance campaign in Ohio glanced over his extreme derangement. Annie Linskey instead wrote about how Vance’s biggest problem is that he’s having a hard time raising money. (And yet he is still expected to win.)
Washington Post reporter Cleve R. Wootson Jr.’s recent article “Herschel Walker’s struggles show GOP’s deeper challenge in Georgia” was a cover-up in the form of an exposé. It wildly understated and euphemized just how insane it is that this man might become a U.S. senator, and blamed some of Walker’s problems on “an increasingly diverse, urban Georgia,” e.g. Black voters.
New York Times reporter Jazmine Ulloa gently warned from Arizona that “skepticism from voters in the political center” is neofascist Blake Masters’s great challenge.
They Don’t Know What They’re Talking About
Political reporters seemingly operate out of a fact-free zone, where it’s all about optics and strategy and who’s under pressure from who. That’s at least partly because they’re unqualified to write about anything else.
Adam Davidson, a former business reporter for the New Yorker and NPR, was among those mystified by a recent New York Times article by Maggie Haberman, Ben Protess, Matthew Goldstein and Eric Lipton about the financial pressure Trump is under.
“It suggests a world in which Trump has a functioning legitimate business that just happens to be under legal review and otherwise would be thriving,” Davidson tweeted. “Political reporters have a set of tools–access, anonymous sources–that are totally wrong for covering Trump,” he wrote. “Good business reporters look at numbers, comps, public data, private data.”
Similarly, a Washington Post article by Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey, Devlin Barrett and Perry Stein about Trump facing “at least eight ongoing criminal and civil proceedings” dwelled on the political reaction, rather than the underlying facts.
We’d be better off with business reporters and legal reporters instead of this crew.
Absence of Motive
Even when they engage in serious investigations of Republican skullduggery, the staffs of our elite newsrooms undermine their work by whiffing on the matter of motive.
Post reporters Beth Reinhard and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez wrote a long, informative piece recently headlined “As more states create election integrity units, Arizona is a cautionary tale.”
But “cautionary tale” is one hell of a euphemism. And the article left readers scratching their heads because it never explained the “why” – which of course is to suppress and reject Democratic votes, especially from Blacks and Hispanics.
Republicans across the country have embraced an aggressive tactic this year as they seek to tout baseless claims that voter fraud is a serious threat: arming state agencies with more power and resources to investigate election crimes.
Great lead. But why?
Why the “hyper-focus on the state’s most populous county”?
Why — if Arizona’s effort “turned up few cases” — and “just fueled more bogus theories and distrust” — do Republicans still consider it a model?
None of these “facts” make sense if you essentially hide the rationale.
Similarly, a major New York Times article by Steve Eder, David D. Kirkpatrick and Mike McIntire about the 139 Republicans in the House who voted to dispute the Electoral College count ostensibly explained “how they got there.”
But the story was so plagued by cowardly euphemisms — like “calculated double-talk” and “demographic change” instead of “outrageous lies” and “fueled by white grievance”—that it was almost unintelligible.
And beyond an anecdote or two, they breeze over the extraordinary cravenness and hypocrisy these House members exhibited – first succumbing to Trump, then expressing horror, then snapping back to unconditional loyalty.
It’s the Framing, Stupid
These reporters and editors maintain that they are above the fray, and that there is nobility in refusing to take sides.
But to generate the kind of both-sides coverage they do, they adopt Republican talking points and accept countless Republican lies as truth. They consider it a given that Republicans are “stronger” on inflation, crime, and immigration than Democrats, despite the party’s abject failure to make actual policy proposals.
They unquestioningly adopt the view that undocumented immigrants are a bad thing, that teaching students empathy and citizenship is suspect, and that anti-racism is racism against white people. None of that is true.
At one time or another, most of our major news organizations have accurately explained what is really happening: That the GOP has become violent, deceitful, fueled by white grievance, and that should it gain power it may never give it back.
At the very least, there should be a boilerplate paragraph to that effect in every story that is even remotely about the upcoming elections.
But if they were doing their job, every election story would be wholly about that, from now until Election Day.