By different, I mean no longer covering the 2024 election as if divisions about basic facts and democratic rule are just so much partisan squabbling.
I mean no longer treating it as a race between two equally legitimate contenders, but making it clear in every story that it is an epochal choice between democracy and dictatorship.
I mean abandoning the both-sides and pox-on-both-your-houses reporting style that allows elite journalists to feel like they are above the fray, and instead clearly reporting that one party’s faults are wildly more dangerous than the other’s — to the free press and to a free country.
(I do not mean being partisan or going easy on the Democratic Party. But I do mean giving President Biden credit where credit is due, and calling out deceitful Republican talking points rather than adopting right-wing frames.)
For a long time now, I’ve been pessimistic about a reset like this anytime soon. I’ve thought of this as more of a generational project.
But the stakes feel so high right at this moment – for obvious reasons — that I think there’s pretty good chance of change before November.
In fact, what I’ll be watching for intently in 2024 is: Which major newsroom will crack first? Will it be the Associated Press? The New York Times? CNN? The Washington Post?
Because as Trump claims the Republican nomination and advances toward a possible second term, I predict that enormous pressure will build up not just outside but within news organizations to more assertively call out the clear and present danger.
On one side, you’ll find the traditionalists: the older, whiter, and supremely comfortable elite national and political writers and editors who are deeply invested in the current order. “Not taking sides” defines them, to a fault. These are the kinds of people rallying around former New York Times editorial editor James Bennet‘s endless whiny screed accusing the Times of insufficient bothsidesism and, at the Times, actually forming a group I call the smug caucus.
On the other side, you’ll increasingly find everyone else: not just the younger and more diverse journalists but the ones from other desks – like international, investigative, business, lifestyles, culture – whose sense of self is defined by more than just not taking sides. It’s defined by informing the public of the truth.
The Rebellious View
Call them the silent journalistic majority, if you will. They are doing real journalism – sometimes great journalism — and they are growing increasingly frustrated by their political colleagues’ inability to reckon with the current threat environment.
Some of them read Press Watch. Some of them send me emails.
They have not been poisoned or constricted by the twisted rules and algorithms of political reporting. When they see bullshit, they call it. And they see their colleagues who cover politics falling for it instead.
They see their colleagues covering up for Republican failures – saying that “Congress” is unable to govern, rather than pointing the finger at the guilty party.
They see their colleagues call Republican abortion bans a “messaging problem” for the party, rather than a cruel denial of basic rights and autonomy for which they are understandably being punished at the ballot box.
They see their colleagues respectfully amplifying fake, bad-faith Republican scare stories about “critical race theory” in public schools, or elite universities being antisemitic (because they won’t quash dissent), or pedophiles grooming children with books that say being gay is OK.
They see their colleagues, in the name of evenhandedness, twisting every story as bad for Biden and diminishing his victories and obsessing over Biden’s age when Trump is so clearly the one who’s mentally unfit.
They see their colleagues respectfully covering a farcical impeachment investigation, rather than headlining the fact that it’s a shockingly blatant and retributive abuse of power.
In short, they see their colleagues being dishonest about the current political situation rather than loudly proclaiming the truth about the dire situation we’re in. And while they used to only be embarrassed, now they’re scared. They’re scared for their country and their profession.
These are reporters and editors who worry about the free press. They believe a free press is essential to a democracy, and that in a second term, Trump will go after media outlets that challenge him, including with criminal charges.
They care about holding the powerful to account. (How can you get outraged at any government or corporate official who betrays their office if you don’t punish Trump for trying to steal an election?)
They carefully choose their words when they write, but their political colleagues can’t bring themselves to use terms like dangerous, delusional, or theocratic, or fascist when describing the current state of the Republican Party.
And they don’t get it! The non-political reporters don’t get why their political colleagues are missing the throughline. You know what’s a helluva story? The crack-up of a major political party; the Svengali-like hold that a corrupt, bigoted and misogynistic insurrectionist has on a wide swath of the electorate and their elected leaders. That’s a helluva story. You report the hell out of it.
The Bosses Are Still in Control
For now, however, the traditionalists are very much in charge. Literally. They argue that press neutrality leads to a more informed electorate; that voters will trust their news sources more if those sources are “unbiased”; and that accurate information is more likely to be accepted as the truth if readers come to their own conclusions rather than being told what to think.
But, as I’ve asked in the past: How’s that working out? Not so great, huh?
The only people defending the way political journalism is practiced today are those who are deeply invested in it. Either they do it or they did it or they supervise it. (Even some who did it aren’t defending it anymore.)
But for those who are invested in it, it’s defining. And admitting they were wrong would be a devastating moral defeat. They’d have to acknowledge that the hippies and hysterics they have mocked and held in such contempt for so long were actually right.
The minor moves some newsrooms have made in the right direction just show how much further they need to go.
The New York Times has run an occasional series of lookaheads to a second Trump term.
And most recently, there was a round of critical coverage after Trump announced his plans to “root out” what he called “the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”
But the writing is weak, the alarm bell is muted.
As Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley – the author of “How Fascism Works” – explained it to Salon’s Chauncey DeVega: “If you are just now realizing that Trump is a fascist, you’re going to be looking for signs to assuage yourself that you are just being hysterical, because you spent so many years calling those of us who have been correctly describing reality, hysterical.”
A Story of Two Failures
I see the story of Trump coverage as the story of two massive failures, one forgivable and the other not.
The first failure – the forgivable one — was right after Election Day 2016. Virtually no one in our major newsrooms knew what hit them. They had not seriously considered that Trump might win. And they weren’t prepared to suddenly change gears, which of course they should have, so they kept on doing what they always did.
But the second failure came in January 2021, and is unforgivable. You may not remember, but there was a moment of clarity during and right after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
For a day or two, even the most imperturbable journalists had no alternative but to acknowledge that Trump had crossed a line. They had seen it with their own eyes.
“Trump Incites Mob” proclaimed the New York Times banner headline the next morning. The storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters “amounted to an attempted coup that they hoped would overturn the election he lost,” wrote the Washington Post.
But within a few days, this clarity had passed, and was overwhelmed by the bad old habits of hedging and bothsidesing.
Now I’m looking forward to a third pivotal day: The day a major newsroom changes course to fully recognize the threat posed by anti-democratic forces, and stops trying to be fair to both sides when one is lying and dangerous.
What this country needs is assertive, factual, evidence-based, properly alarmist, not hyperbolic coverage that makes it clear to every reader or listener what is at stake.
But it will take a revolution in our top newsrooms to achieve that. That revolution should start…. now.