The duty to intervene: What news organizations need to do in 2024

Vote for Democracy

It is not appropriate for news organizations to tell people who they should vote for.

But it is appropriate for them to actively strive to correct misinformation, clear up public misunderstandings of key issues in public policy, and advocate for democracy.

That a delusional, dissembling, and despotic Donald Trump remains in serious contention for the presidency in 2024 is a profound indictment of the journalism profession. It indicates that a torrent of misinformation is flowing unimpeded, that there are grave misunderstandings about the state of the country, and that the threat he poses to our democracy has not been made sufficiently clear.

The heads of our major newsrooms should be responding to Trump’s continued march toward the presidency with alarm – not just because of the threat a second Trump administration poses to a free press, but because it means that they are failing at their jobs.

Trump has made it clear that he would rule as a dictator. His plans include destroying government as we know it, while acting on his desires without guardrails or accountability. He has vowed to use the power of the state to punish political opponents. In short, another Trump presidency would end American democracy as we know it.

Most assuredly, some voters know exactly what Trump represents and are fine with that. They are the “deplorables” that Hillary Clinton spoke of so many years ago: “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.” Some large number are white Christian nationalists and correctly see Trump as an ally.

But I do not believe that such people approach 50 percent of the voting public.

Some of those who currently express support for Trump are, in fact, victims of a con. They believe Trump’s lies about how he will fight for them. They believe his lies that the country is being overrun by immigrants or that the economy is in shambles thanks to President Biden. Some are supporting him reflexively, because being on the Red Team is part of their identity, and they simply can’t imagine voting Blue.

Those people need an intervention. And it’s our obligation as political journalists to intervene: To expose Trump’s con job, refute his lies, and make it clear that what he is advocating is not conservative but is, in fact, extremely radical.

We need to flood the zone with truth.

Instead of intervening, however, most political journalists are still basically covering 2024 like a normal election, indulging in massive amount of horse-race journalism and treating both sides as equally plausible choices.

They are effectively contributing to the misinformation from Trump and his right-wing noise machine by not fighting it harder.

And they are effectively encouraging people to vote for Trump by not calling him out as an explicit danger to democracy – as a fascist.

As historian Rick Perlstein wrote recently about the New York Times, “By not naming it ‘fascism,’ when others responsibly name it that, the Times is, effectively, naming it ‘not fascism.’”

Here’s What Needs to Change

Political journalism needs to smash false narratives rather than indulging them.

It needs to fight as enthusiastically against misinformation as Fox and its ilk spread it.

It needs to call Trumpism what it is: Fascism.

It needs to stop letting Trump supporters disguise their true motivations behind empty words.

It also needs to make an assertive case for reality, e.g.:

  • The nation is not awash in crime
  • The border is not wide open
  • The economy is not in the toilet (it’s doing amazingly well)
  • Joe Biden is not mentally incompetent
  • Government is working

These should be major themes of our reporting, just as their mirror opposites are major themes for Fox and the rest of the right-wing disinformation machine.

Political journalists also need to put the increasingly near-unanimous support Trump is getting from Republican elected officials in its proper context: That many of them are supporting him only out of fear of being primaried, or of being the victims of violence.

Political journalists should help create a permission structure for conservatives not to vote for Trump. Nearly half of the Republicans who cast ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t vote for him – talk to people like that.

Interview the staunchly Red who nevertheless can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump. Find conservatives willing to acknowledge that what Fox is saying isn’t true, that you can be Red and not believe the lies and conspiracy theories.

Don’t talk so much to elected Republican leaders, who are following Trump out of base self-interest. Interview conservative former members of Congress — now immune to the threat of being primaried. A survey of several hundred former members of Congress recently found that 83 percent of Republican former members believe Biden was legitimately elected; 64 percent said Trump’s efforts to claim he won in 2020 threaten American democracy. Talk to them.

Produce more explanatory journalism providing essential but often overlooked background.

Don’t write about fascism without calling it fascism.

Don’t interview fascists and not call them that.

Remember that there’s a reason that the journalism profession is singled out in the Constitution. As Richard Stengel, an author who has served as both a top editor of Time and a diplomat in the Obama State Department, told me recently, “The idea is the press protects us. The press protects democracy. The press is protected because it protects democracy.”

That creates a special burden on the press when democracy is challenged, he said. Right now, he said, “it’s an all-hands-on-deck moment.”

“If your free-speech rights are protected by the government to prevent the government from being authoritarian, then isn’t it your obligation to speak out against authoritarianism?” he asked. “I think that is the kind of deep question that the press needs to ask itself.”

Do you think political journalism has a duty to intervene? Consider making a donation to  Press Watch, a non-profit website that depends on reader support.



  1. With you on most of this, but reality for huge numbers of people is not a good economy, it is difficulty affording even the basics – housing, food, etc. on their meager full-time wages, and unable to afford even a small unexpected expense. Joe Biden’s mental competence seems more of an open question, given his frequent displays to the contrary. If this weren’t a real issue, wouldn’t we see him in press conferences and other similar fora more frequently to forcefully make his case in the most direct possible way? And finally, government is working? Certainly if you are a military contractor this is true. Or a CEO or other corporate management type, for whom government is most responsive. But for average people, it is difficult to see (at least after the Child Tax Credit, which was immensely beneficial, was allowed to expire) how the federal government was responding effectively to improving people’s lives.
    None of this is to take away from treating the threats to democracy seriously – but shouldn’t that also require critical coverage of Democrats’ anti-democratic actions also (not allowing for any debates, effectively making the D primaries a coronation for a very unpopular incumbent; changing order of primaries to elevate SC – again rigging the process to favor the incumbent; opposing not only ranked-choice voting, but challenging ballot access to prevent 3rd party challenges, etc.). If our system was even moderately democratic now, would we really be marching inevitably toward a rematch between 2 such unpopular candidates? Corporate power, and its ability to corrupt both parties and the entire electoral system, was already choking off any significant power of the demos well before Trump. Trump is clearly a threat to elections, but elections, even if free and fair, are only a superficial indicator of a healthy democracy. To what extent is whomever is elected actually serving the public (as opposed to donors) seems to me a much more meaningful indicator, and one which has been flashing red as unhealthy for a very long time – and with far less media coverage than elections.

    • Jamie, haven’t you just fallen into the same trap that Dan describes? You focus on Biden’s perceived faults and failings, but where’s your comment about Trump’s failing mental faculties? This is a man who stares unblinking at the sun. Or his record of incompetence in office? Have you forgotten the COVID deaths and bleach drinking already? How well did ‘average people’ prosper during Trump’s reign? I seem to recall massive tax cuts for the super-rich and little for anyone else. Or their health? Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t Trump attempt to repeal Obamacare? Or maybe you’re cool with a sex offender who called for the execution of innocent men framed for rape? I doubt you are, so don’t buy into the right-wing narrative you echo that seeks to elevate Trump and discredit Biden.

  2. “the government is not working…” True if you are thinking of Congress and policy that requires bipartisan cooperation but in terms of executing policy: alliance in Europe is rebuilt after Trump’s efforts to destroy it; Pacific partners also working well re: threat from China; 22 million folks signed up for Obamacare this month; no external terrorist attacks, progress on green energy, student loans, managing inflation.

    That said, you are right the border needs attention, tax policy incentives corporate sharks who prey on consumers, workers, renters, patients; death by military style arms is a scourge . But these need bipartisan will, and the Republicans aren’t interested.

  3. Crime is absolutely historically low.

    While the border may not be out of control, you might not be able to tell that to residents of large cities that Texas is sending buses to; who get to watch newcomers become the burning priority of local government while the local homeless population, gets it’s usual contempt, along other actual citizens who were already struggling.

    If local government is having to expend resources on immigrants, then at some level, we are financing subsidies for immigrants, with traffic fines on existing citizens. Overwhelmingly black, poor citizens. THAT is how government actually ‘works’, now.

    It is very likely true and completely justified to say that the economy is getting better.

    But even that doesn’t mean that much to ordinary people anymore. Seventy percent are living paycheck to paycheck.

    Did rent just decrease by 30%? Did used car prices go back down to historical trend? Are healthcare costs no longer the biggest source of bankruptcies?

    The only group the economy is great for, are millionaire pretend-journalists and the demographic their ‘reporting’ is designed not to upset.

    Attempts by that group to tell the rest of us how wonderful everything is, will treated as continued gas-lighting and frankly is counter-productive.

    Anyone who thinks the economy is great is the one who needs intervention. This is critical.

    If Joe Biden is so competent, why are his operatives canceling primaries, against people who have zero chance of winning? Are Biden’s advisors terrified to have him debate fellow Democrats? The only reason he did reasonably in the debates last time is because he was treated with kid-gloves. Then he was coronated by Barack Obama. Then he had to be dragged, limp, over the finish line by people he spent his career face-spitting.

    In particular, why do they care deeply about avoiding debates in the primaries, but seem unafraid of debating Trump in the general?

    Could it be because they believe, that we will have no choice but to elect the candidate they chose for us, no matter how terrible that candidate is? Again?

    Government is working? Is lifespan increasing again, or is it still decreasing? Joe Biden declared a pandemic over by fiat. I still wear a mask and if you are not crazy, you should too.

    Government hasn’t been working since Bill Clinton and his buddies decided that the country needed a second party to serve the wealthy and business. That could work because The New Deal made the country so wealthy, that most people could continue to do okay, while not getting a raise for 30 years.

    That accumulated wealth has was used up some time ago. How do we know? Because Donald fucking Trump is a political candidate. Every election is a change election, as the electorate punishes whoever has power, for policies both parties agree on. Until someone makes it better, and then doesn’t take it all back.

    Fascist parties gain power for two reasons; first, the minor factor; the mainstream right sees them as a political opportunity, in an environment where there are few other opportunities, because the right has mostly gotten its way on policy for a very long time.

    That will mean that things have been getting worse and worse for ordinary people. There are no right-wing policies left to enact, that aren’t crazy or deeply unpopular on their face. This is what has been happening in Great Britain as well as here. And so, the mainstream right allies with the fascist party because it’s the only new thing left that isn’t a repeal of their own disastrous policies.

    The second, primary reason fascist parties gain power, is that the other mainstream political parties prefer fascist party rule, if the alternative is helping the people they were elected to serve or fixing their countries problems.

    That is what happened the first time in Europe.

    That is what happened in Italy more recently, and that is what has been happening across Europe for years.

    And that is what it means that the Democratic Party is perfectly fine with Donald Trump as President, as long as it isn’t Bernie Sanders.

    And the current Democratic Party is absolutely, perfectly fine with a second Trump Presidency, if the alternative includes Medicare for all.

    The Democrats consider progressives to be a greater enemy than either Donald Trump or his party.

    Pretending otherwise would be a deadly, deadly mistake.

    In re-electing them, we should expect that they themselves are going to be almost zero help if not actual active impediments. Just like last Presidential election. Money and resources should go to local and or grass-roots re-election efforts. Any money sent to the national party is in danger of mostly being wasted.

    Additionally, we can expect stuff like anti-choice Henry Cuellar to again get royal treatment in defeating any potential pro-choice rival, just as he did last time. That is how seriously we can expect the party to take abortion rights, as they are running on it as their main issue.

    • Agree with much of your take – while Dan F. is correct about the threat of fascism, he is incorrect in thinking voting for Biden is how to deal with this very real threat. It will take real action by Democrats to address the very real problems ordinary people are suffering (obviously being missed by those crowing about the wonderful economy), otherwise the only “change” candidates available will be the fascist types. We can have real, left-wing populism echoing the successful New Deal response to similarly difficult times, or we will get the fake right-wing version that Trump and his ilk represent.

      • I think you misunderstand me; Biden isn’t the lesser evil choice, he is the survival choice and I am absolutely voting for him.

        This election isn’t about fixing anything, it’s about living to fight another day. Just like the last election.

        Joe Biden is objectively the best President of the last 20 years.
        The problem is that the country is in such grave shape, that isn’t even close to being enough.

        I happen to believe that Joe Biden’s ‘success’ is primarily a product of luck and actions that he was forced to take, against his will.

        I honestly expect to see Joe Biden himself flush everything I consider positive down the toilet the second he gets re-elected. That’s why I have a hard time talking up his accomplishments.

        But I am still voting for him.

  4. (1) Concerns over Trump’s “dictatorial” intentions are widespread. But for him to do what he wants, doesn’t he — like dictators since the beginning of time — need countless people to enable him? And if those countless people exist (in the form of, for example, attorneys at DOJ who know better but nonetheless salute and do what they’re told), isn’t the country facing a problem far larger than Trump which, in turn, tells us that Trump is symptom not disease?
    (2) It’s true enough that MAGA-World doesn’t equate to 50% of the electorate. But, as we found out in 2016, given our moldy Constitutional structure, it doesn’t need to. A couple of percentage points either way in swing states is enough. Why Americans tolerate being ruled by the minority remains an enduring mystery.
    (3) “[V]ictims of a con”: I disagree. MAGA-ites consciously choose what they do because what they’re being offered appeals to them. That what appeals to them reflects their subordination of reason and thought to primal impulses doesn’t negate, though, their agency in making the choices they do. More broadly, of course, as seen from a reality-based (read non-MAGA) perspective, there is the enduring scam Republicans have been running for decades on their rising-tide-will-life-all-boats economic policy. Here, too, though, half the country continues to buy into what the GOP offers.
    (4) “[I]ntervention” by political journalists is a tall (impossible?) order. Their priorities are to stoke conflict (the horse race) and ensure continued access to those in power, because that’s what brings in the money. Coming in at a distant third is the “protection” of democracy.
    (5) The problems with the use of “fascism”: (i) yes, it’s convenient short-hand, but it’s also incendiary name-calling that puts off readers more than it arouses their curiosity to understand an issue better; (ii) it’s inaccurate when used to describe the feral nihilism of Trump and his cult of personality; (iii) it’s a conclusion, something that, one would think, should be left to the news consumer; the role of the press is to serve up accurate facts that would lead to that conclusion; and (iv) like accusations of “genocide,” it’s a distraction from the underlying facts by letting the accused divert the debate to word games over definitions.


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