Blake Hounshell, the Politico-trained reporter the New York Times has put in charge of its marquee political newsletter, emailed me last week. He had read my Nov. 2 column, “Why aren’t mainstream journalists sounding the alarm about the threat to democracy?”
He sounded perplexed. He asked: Do you really think we haven’t done enough coverage of the threats to democracy?
I responded emphatically that yes, I certainly did think that. And apparently I won the argument, because he refused to even engage with my answers.
His column that night was mostly bemoaning the rise of misinformation, which he blamed in part on “declining levels of trust in the pillars of American civic life,” and especially news organizations. “Increasingly,” he lamented, “millions of Americans aren’t getting their information from people like me.”
He did not, however, address the issue of whether people like him were actually part of the problem.
He did very kindly link to my column, describing me as “a reliably acerbic liberal critic of political coverage.” But he breezily dismissed the assertion I made there, that reporters were covering the threat to democracy like just another partisan fight. “Political reporters do cover partisan fights; there’s an election going on, and readers care about who is winning, who is losing and why,” he wrote. (That didn’t age well. Neither did “Democrats’ Feared Red October Has Arrived“.)
So, did I win the argument? You be the judge.
“I guess I would just ask you to react to these points,” he wrote in his email, which started with some useful background:
Mainstream news outlets invested heavily this year in coverage of the Jan. 6 hearings, election denialism, political violence, dangers to election workers, plots to disrupt the midterms, misinformation and threats to democracy more generally.
At The Times, we grouped our coverage of these topics under the rubric “Democracy Challenged,” and you can peruse it all here. The Washington Post organized its coverage around a “Democracy Team” that has done a lot of great work; so have other outlets like ProPublica, along with a lot of local journalists in states like Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Then came his two questions, which I post here with my answers:
Hounshell: Are you saying we didn’t do enough of this? Our polling has found that voters evidently have other priorities, even when they’re aware of the issues at stake.
Froomkin: Yes of course I’m saying you didn’t do enough. And the proof is right there in the poll results you use to defend yourself . If people are not alarmed about this, then you have failed to do your job of educating the public, and you should reconsider how you do it.
There have been a handful of terrific – really excellent — articles in both the Times and the Post, but by and large the “democracy” coverage has been insufficient, underplayed, and anemically written. It has also been drowned out by the daily dirge of contextless horserace coverage that, by treating both sides as equally plausible options for rational people, normalizes the dangerously delusional, deceptive, racist, misogynistic and authoritarian Republican Party, and its intent to become a permanent ruling minority.
Readers are increasingly fed up with both-sidesing. You must know that. Do you really think that’s some position of moral superiority? I can’t even imagine what your colleagues are thinking when they write something like : “Of course, just what is threatening democracy depends on who you talk to.”
Consider this article just today about suburban women voters, and this line in the nut graph: “Many felt freedom itself was under threat, whether the freedom they sought was the right to abortion or the right to shield their children from what they considered objectionable ideas on gender and race.”
Does anyone in your building really equate those two “freedoms”? Or actually think what is threatening democracy depends on who you talk to ? Hell no. Then why write like that? It’s a tremendous disservice to readers, to democracy, to the nation, and ultimately to yourselves.
My Twitter feed is a constant litany of political journalism that fails to speak the truth at a moment of potential catastrophe. As you know, you personally have been a frequent target – for whitewashing Ron DeSantis’s overt fascism, downplaying the 1/6 committee’s findings, even giving advice to would-be authoritarians back in June. You are hardly an uninterested party.
Hounshell: Meanwhile, it seems to me that the larger problem is that people who embrace conspiracy theories about elections aren’t even reading mainstream political coverage at all. They’re getting their news from a random Twitter account like catturd or Steve Bannon’s podcast of some email forward. That, to me, seems like a greater threat to democracy than whether horserace coverage frames each side’s arguments in the manner you would prefer.
Froomkin: Of course it’s a disaster for democracy that people have succumbed to manufacturers of disinformation. In fact, it’s possibly the biggest news story of the moment. It’s the fuel of the far-right that threatens democracy. But the Times barely addresses it, not to mention condemn it.
You yourself still refer to Fox News, its lead purveyor, as “the nation’s most powerful cable news” — instead of calling it what it is: a propaganda network that spreads disinformation and racist filth. Aren’t you offended by what Fox has done to “news”? That disinformation is so rampant is partly the Times’s fault, too. Your colleagues don’t champion the truth with anywhere near the ferocity that the others champion lies.
Indeed, the horserace genre that you and your Politico-trained colleagues value so much actively obscures meaning. Your article “Republicans Sharpen Their Message on Ukraine,” for instance, was a stunning example of how Times political reporters don’t seem to care whether what Republicans say is true, or fair. All they care about is whether it works.
You and your colleagues think your mostly liberal audience doesn’t need to be hit over the head with this stuff, but the Times (and the Post) set the tone for the mainstream media as a whole. You assume that everyone who votes Republican ignores mainstream political coverage, but that’s not true. A lot of unaffiliated voters watch the network news, read their local newspapers, or even the New York Times. When the Times’s political coverage is anemic, so is CBS News’s and so is the local paper’s. You can’t play split-the-difference on the truth, then say it’s not your fault they believe the lies.
There is something profoundly wrong with the corporate culture of our major newsrooms, and nowhere is that more destructive to democracy than in yours. As I wrote for The Nation in May, the Times has lost its bearings . Do you really contend that the old political-journalism algorithms are still working? Why do Times editors and reporters belittle the critics who want them to champion journalistic values?
What should you do? You should have front-page banner headlines every day over articles that make absolutely clear what an inflection point we are at. You should have banner headlines over articles about the fact that Republicans have put forth no plausible solutions to inflation, and in fact quite the opposite — not that Republicans are winning on this issue, or “are divided over how exactly they will seek to combat inflation” (OK that was actually in Friday’s Washington Post .)
You should debunk the perception of rising crime. You should, quite honestly, make it clear that voting for people who reserve the right to ignore the results is illogical, and that core Republican talking points (the latest one is that the FBI is “woke”) are pure lunacy.
When Joe Biden addresses the threat to democracy, you should respond not with stenography and both-siding, but by telling your readers, based on the evidence and your informed, nonpartisan judgement: Is he right or is he wrong?
None of us are asking you to be partisan, or to be blind to the many faults of the Democratic Party. But by normalizing what the Republican Party has become, you are not telling your readers the true story.
Hounshell’s only response was to the part where I discussed my past criticisms of his work (for whitewashing Ron DeSantis’s overt fascism, downplaying the 1/6 committee’s findings, even giving advice to would-be authoritarians.)
Hounshell: Hi, Dan, thanks for this. I just want to respond to this part, which I think is a misunderstanding of what I wrote. And I think you are imputing bad intentions here where there are none. I would appreciate if you didn’t make ad hominem attacks on me or what I do and don’t care about.
1. I’m trying to explain to readers why DeSantis appeals to Republicans, and why they might make him their presidential nominee. I’m not an opinion writer who is in the business of employing terms like “over fascism.”
2. That was a factual conversation with a colleague about whether the Jan. 6 committee had found a smoking gun tying Trump to the violence, not an attempt to downplay the findings of the committee.
3. I think you are misunderstanding an alternate story format trying to unpack why some Republicans who crossed Trump survived and why some didn’t.
I responded, perhaps too charitably:
Froomkin: I don’t think I’ve ever questioned your intentions. And, as you demonstrate, in each of those three examples, they were good, or certainly defensible. The question arises, however, about what you end up doing and what message you are sending to your audience.
So there you have it. I think I won. But even if I did, I get no prize for that.
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