The Washington Post’s “democracy team” made its closing argument Sunday night.
The article by two members of the seven-person team, Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman, had a promising headline: “Midterms pose fresh test for American democracy after two years under fire“.
But its ambiguous nut graph made it clear that they utterly misunderstood their duty to their readers:
Two years after Donald Trump tried to overturn a presidential election, Tuesday’s midterms will test American democracy once more, with voters uncertain whether they can believe in the process, Republican election deniers poised to take positions of power, and the mechanics of voting itself under intense scrutiny.
Scrutiny of the “mechanics of voting”?
Those are not the tests for democracy we face.
“Republican election deniers poised to take positions of power” – that’s closer.
But the real test for democracy is the installation of election deniers in positions of power where they can steal future elections.
The real test for democracy is the ongoing Republican intimidation and disenfranchisement of voters.
The real test for democracy is whether Republicans respond to elections they lose with violence and demented conspiracy theories.
The real test for democracy is that one of our major parties is willing to traffic in lies and cruelty and racism to incite its base into paroxysms of white Christian nationalism.
The real test for democracy is the spread of disinformation that cons people into voting against their interests.
The real threat for democracy is the failure of the media to effectively assert reality.
Voters aren’t “uncertain” about the process this time around. But if things go the way they’re looking, every American will have cause to be uncertain next time around.
So my question for the democracy teams is: Did you ever understand? Or were you not allowed to?
Over at the Times
The New York Times has its “democracy team,” too. It’s more of the same.
Two of its members, Nick Corasaniti and Charles Homans, made their closing argument on Monday and they missed the point, too, in a story headlined “Fears and Suspicion Hang Over Voting on Cusp of Election Day.”
Consider their nut graphs:
Two years after a presidential election warped by lies and disrupted by violence, suspicion and fear have become embedded in the mechanics of American democracy. As another Election Day nears, intimidation has crept up to levels not seen for decades, while self-appointed watchdogs search for fraud and monitor the vote.
The passive construction gives the people who did this a pass. Let me rewrite that for you:
A shocking and ruthless campaign of election denial, voter suppression, and voter intimidation waged by the Republican Party comes to a head Tuesday, disrupting democracy as we know it. Demented right-wing conspiracy theories threaten to throw vote-counting into chaos. And if voters elect officials who reserve the right to overturn elections that Republicans don’t win, this could be the last fair Election Day in many Americans’ lifetimes.
The article wasn’t a complete disaster. Fifteen paragraphs in, the authors stuck in a little truth-telling:
The many lawsuits filed by Trump campaign lawyers, Republican officials and outside groups in 2020 failed in court, but they seeded a movement of supporters who believe elections are rigged and broken. That movement is responsible for much of the activism and paranoia surrounding this week’s election.
But that acknowledgement was too little, too late.
Once Upon a Time
I was genuinely psyched when the Post launched its democracy team in February.
But I should have known better. The clues were right there in the mealy-mouthed mission statement. These reporters weren’t charged with countering the extraordinarily, unparalleled threat the modern Republican Party poses to democracy. They were asked to document “battles over voting rules and access to the polls, efforts to sow doubt about elections and erosion of trust in the democratic process.”
How do you cover an assault on democracy if you only identify the victim?
The Washington Post is afraid to speak the truth. It’s as simple as that. And I suspect it comes from the very top. Well, not necessarily owner Jeff Bezos or his empty-suit publisher Fred Ryan. But from the person Bezos chose to run his newsroom: the wildly disappointing Sally Buzbee.
Asked over the summer whether threats to democracy are coming more from Republicans than Democrats – this is an easy one! – she balked. “I mean, if it’s Republicans who are doing it, if it’s Democrats who are doing it, it’s our job to call that out,” she said.
So there you have it. The democracy team was always a joke.
And it’s the same at the Times. The goal of its “Democracy Challenged” coverage is not to expose the risk of becoming a fascist state, it’s to write about how “Democratic norms are facing a historic test. Many Americans doubt the results of the 2020 election, and extremism, global authoritarianism and disinformation are on the rise.”
The other team is worse
Then again, I’m not sure how much good a serious, functioning democracy team would have done either at the Post or at the Times given how outnumbered and outgunned they were by what I call Team Impunity – the hackish political reporters whose both-sides horserace coverage dominates the front pages.
See, for instance, the New York Times front page on Monday. Top of the fold: Lisa Lerer, Jennifer Medina and Jonathan Weisman don’t tell you what’s at stake, they report that voters “buffeted by record inflation, worries about their personal safety and fears about the fundamental stability of American democracy… showed clear signs of preparing to reject Democratic control of Washington and embrace divided government.”
And star reporter Peter Baker also didn’t tell you what’s at stake. He wrote about how “As Midterms Near, Biden Faces a Nation as Polarized as Ever“.
This on the eve of what could be a huge step toward authoritarianism.
Just the other day, Baker’s colleague Jonathan Weisman made a mockery of democracy fears, actually writing that “Of course, just what is threatening democracy depends on who you talk to.”
It never stops.
Even at their best, the democracy teams pulled their punches. At their worst, they gave comfort to the wrong people.
A May 21 Washington Post article by Amy Gardner and Matthew Brown cast a surge of voting in the Georgia primary as “undercutting” Democratic claims that a new election law would make it harder to cast a ballot.
A more accurate framing would have indicated that the surge was a testament to how hard voting-rights groups and Democrats worked to overcome those barriers.
To her credit, Amy Gardner of the Post has relentlessly chronicled and counted the election-deniers on the ballot. But she failed to explain what that means.
Her August 15 article, “Election deniers march toward power in key 2024 battlegrounds” was full of crucial information, but she choked on her nut graph. If people willing to steal elections are in positions of power in 2024, the risk is not that they will “delay the result, undermine confidence in the democratic system and sow the seeds of civil strife.” It is that they will steal elections for Republicans forevermore.
Another terrific Gardner piece, on October 12, found that “A majority of GOP nominees deny or question the 2020 election results“. But Gardner again punted on the consequences, leaving “experts” to make understated conclusions about the “willingness among election-denying candidates to undermine democratic institutions when it benefits their side.”
Experts? Really? By now, these democracy team members should be the experts themselves. And they should be blunt about the obvious consequences, in their own voice.
The New York Times also did some standout reporting about the hundreds of Republican midterm candidates who “have questioned or spread misinformation about the 2020 election” and “represent a growing consensus in the Republican Party, and a potential threat to American democracy.”
But they didn’t address why they’re doing this.
The goal of the Republican Party is to decouple politics from reality, and seize power regardless of the will of the voters. It’s evil.
Leonhardt identified what he called the “twin threats to democracy.” One is “a growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties — the Republican Party — to refuse to accept defeat in an election.” But the other, he wrote, is that government power “is becoming increasingly disconnected from public opinion.” Those are twin threats like Schwarzenegger and DeVito. (And although he didn’t say so, counter-majoritarianism is also a Republican phenomenon.)
He both-sided polarization: “The divergent sense of crisis on left and right can itself weaken democracy, and it has been exacerbated by technology,” he wrote.
Worst of all, he insisted that some Republican support for “aggressive tactics” is “rooted in anxiety over real developments, including illegal immigration and ‘cancel culture’.” But in reality, it’s rooted in racism and bathed in corporate money. And calling those “real developments” is effectively making excuses for racists and bigots.
By their word choice ye shall know them. So read what Patrick Marley, Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger wrote in the Post on October 25 about pro-Trump election volunteers:
Supporters of former president Donald Trump who falsely claim the 2020 election was stolen have summoned a swarm of poll watchers and workers in battleground states to spot potential fraud this year. It is a call to action that could subject voting results around the country to an unprecedented level of suspicion and unfounded doubt.
Doubt? Doubt?? How about intimidation and violence?
I’ve noticed that a lot of the disappointing democracy coverage uses the word “doubt” a lot — as in doubting the results. It’s also in both newspaper’s mission statements. I guess in those newsrooms, “doubt” has become an acceptable way to address and lump together the addled right-wing conspiracy theories on the one hand, and the legitimate concerns of normal Americans on the other.
But “doubt” is a Republican talking point, it’s not an acceptable frame for democracy coverage.
There has been no widespread doubt about the election process until Republicans started yelling about alleged voter fraud, which never really existed, in order to effectively reinstate poll taxes. It wasn’t a serious issue for presidential campaigns until Trump started yelling about how the Democrats were going to steal the election.
Democracy is in danger, of that there is no doubt. Meanwhile, our top newsrooms just sit there, as if it were business as usual.