Covering the Republican assault on American democracy

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day—amid the typical stories about marches, political speeches, and lawmakers and corporations that have no business quoting King doing so (and being called out for it)—an impending Senate debate on voting protections loomed large in the news cycle, even as its outcome appeared preordained. Senators will today take up a pair of bills, both of which already passed in the House, that enjoy overwhelming support among Senate Democrats but will not pass a Republican filibuster unless Democrats move unanimously to sidestep it, something that senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin (them again) have said they won’t do. In a bid to pressure recalcitrant politicians into reversing course, members of King’s family led a march and convened a news conference in Washington, DC, and also spoke to members of the media separately. The family “cut through the usual lofty invocations to make a specific ask,” Politico’s Eugene Daniels writes: “No celebration without legislation.”

It’s not just senators who are coming under increased scrutiny as the fight to preserve America’s democracy heats up—the political press is, too. The debate as to whether major news organizations are doing enough to communicate the threat and fight back against it isn’t new, but seems to have taken on fresh urgency since the anniversary, two weeks ago, of the insurrection—and the reviews have, for the most part, been mixed at best, very bad at worst. Margaret Sullivan, a media critic at the Washington Post, concluded that while many individual journalists have contributed impressive coverage of the insurrection and ongoing Republican subversion, their employers are mostly “not making democracy-under-siege a central focus of the work they present to the public” as a strategic editorial priority; Sullivan’s colleague Perry Bacon Jr., argued, meanwhile, that many outlets are “now defining ‘democracy’ as a core coverage area,” but added that this coverage isn’t always sharply framed and that it could be even more prominent, particularly on widely watched local and national TV network newscasts. The press critic Dan Froomkin, for his part, was more scathing still: “Top editors and reporters,” he wrote, have effectively responded to columns like Sullivan’s and Bacon’s “by giving us all the finger.”

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Froomkin was referring, specifically, to coverage of last week’s congressional wrangling over the voting rights bills, arguing that political reporters largely framed them as they would “any other partisan dogfight—without any sense of urgency, without crucial context, and without even explaining what’s in the bills in question.” There have been other specific criticisms of this coverage, too. Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman, also of the Post, wrote that many reporters have come to accept unanimous Republican opposition to federal voting rights protections “as a natural, unalterable, indelibly baked-in backstop condition of political life,” and thus don’t often bother to hold them accountable for it, instead obsessing over Democratic infighting; Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, cited this trend as evidence that the press continues to prize political “savviness” over integrity in public life, while Wesley Lowery observed that he knows “in deep detail what Manchin/Sinema’s issues” with the bills are but “can’t say the same for the 50 GOP senators.” And various observers pointed out, in a similar vein, that the impending failure of the bills has too often been viewed primarily through the lens of President Biden’s political standing, holding him responsible for Republican obstructionism. Numerous prominent journalists fussed, for example, over Biden’s divisive “tone” after he asked in a recent speech whether senators are on the side of King or segregationists like George Wallace.

In addition to such criticism, observers have offered suggestions as to how the press as a whole might cover threats to democracy better. Rosen and others have long called for news organizations to overtly state their institutional commitment to democracy; Sullivan argued, in her recent column, that outlets should consider putting their coverage of election subversion outside their paywalls, while also emphasizing the stories of people who are fighting to reinvigorate democratic processes. Some outlets are trying to do that themselves: noting recently that media “navel-gazing…rarely results in productive reform,” Tony Marcano, the managing editor of KPCC and LAist in Southern California, explained how his newsroom is working to refocus its politics coverage, rebranding the beat as “Civics and Democracy” and instructing reporters to move beyond electoral horse races and partisan talking points to “examine who gets listened to, and why, and provide a guide to anyone who wants to more fully participate in civic life.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, meanwhile, explained that it is taking a “citizens agenda” approach to a local mayoral election, asking voters what issues they want candidates to address.

“We can’t just sit back and wait for the national news organizations based in Washington and New York to shift their focus,” Marcano wrote of the reset at KPCC/LAist. “It has to start locally to drive home the relevance of the threat.” Local newsrooms do indeed have a crucial role to play; they are in some ways the media’s first line of defense here, since so much Republican election subversion involves local-level rules and offices, with adherents of the Big Lie running for previously obscure posts with direct oversight of vote counting and certification. But national newsrooms must urgently shift their focus, too. There has already been a lot of good national-level coverage of these local maneuvers, but whenever threats to democracy become a really dominant national story, the coverage is usually organized around national-level story lines: the insurrection and probe thereof, federal voting rights bills, what Biden is saying, and so on. These stories are urgent and, in the case of the bills at least, have a necessary local component, since the federal legislation is a response to state-level laws. But, as Froomkin notes, the local specifics have often been downplayed. More broadly, as Bacon notes, the traditional division of focus between national and local outlets simply doesn’t work here. Republican operatives rely on quietly moving institutional chips into place below the level of the national spotlight. But they can’t do this quietly if the national spotlight finds them.

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The compelling criticisms outlined above are, to my mind, less about increasing the volume of democracy-subversion coverage—we’re seeing a lot of it at the moment, even if there could still be more—than a hard reset in the culture of much political journalism, which is a harder ask. One part of this, as I’ve written many times here, is to stop muddying lines of accountability and to get away from covering politics as a game, as outlets like KPCC/LAist are trying to do. Another imperative is not only to inject more existential urgency across the board, but also to marshal it with greater care; well-placed, genuinely sharp explanatory scrutiny can often do more good than setting your hair on fire on cable news night after night. We also need to see democracy not as a beat or story, but as a principle undergirding all our coverage, since democracy itself is the principle undergirding public life. It’s ridiculous, as I’ve written before, to cover future elections as normal races when the rules are being warped. But my point here is broader. The climate crisis is a democracy story, as is social policy. Yet Biden’s stalled legislation in these areas is often covered separately from his voting legislation; as competing, not complementary, priorities.

Over the long weekend, a Trump rally in Arizona loomed in the news cycle. Thankfully, it didn’t achieve the saturation-level coverage of Trump rallies past—even Fox didn’t carry it live—but it nonetheless sparked no little content and punditry. The bulk of this, that I saw, centered on Trump himself, but as Waldman points out in the Post, the much bigger story out of the event should have been “the parade of Arizona politicians who came to pay tribute to him,” including Kari Lake, a TV anchor turned Big Lie–spewing gubernatorial candidate, and Mark Finchem, a QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theorist who was in DC on January 6 and now wants to oversee Arizona’s elections as a Trump-endorsed candidate for secretary of state. As Waldman notes, “you probably haven’t heard of Finchem, but it is almost impossible to exaggerate what a fanatic he is.” If Lake, Finchem, or anyone else of their ilk gets elected in November—and that’s the first your readers are hearing of them—you’re probably doing something wrong.

Below, more on democracy and the press:

  • The labor angle: Writing for the American Prospect, Caitlin Petre, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, argues that outdated journalistic norms alone cannot explain inadequate coverage of threats to democracy—the media industry’s metrics-driven economic imperatives are to blame, too. “Digital journalists are often subjected to the kinds of production quotas and work speedups that are more typically associated with a factory floor or call center,” Petre writes. “In order for journalism to take the kind of ‘pro-democracy’ direction that many press critics are calling for, working conditions in the industry must improve.”
  • Trump v. NPR: In an interview last week, NPR’s Steve Inskeep pressed Trump on his election lies and Trump hung up on him. Sullivan credited Inskeep with “cracking the code for interviewing Trump,” arguing that he exposed the Big Lie without handing a megaphone to it, but Rosen was less convinced that the exercise was worthwhile. “Trump was able to convey his message through atmospherics, which do not depend on weight-of-evidence conclusions,” Rosen told Vice. “The tone of suspicion, the denunciation of traitors, the threats to wavering politicians, the waving away of facts: all this came through loud and clear. Steve Inskeep challenging many of Trump’s false claims actually adds to the atmosphere I am describing.”
  • Self-OAN: Nearly a year ago, in the aftermath of the insurrection, I wrote about burgeoning calls for pay-TV providers to drop far-right networks that were complicit in spreading Trump’s election conspiracies. Now, Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith reports, DirecTV, one of the largest such providers in the US, is planning to drop One America News Network when their current contract expires in April. DirecTV described the decision as the result of a “routine internal review” and Smith notes that providers “have been dropping channels to lower their programming costs,” but it nonetheless constitutes a “major blow” for OAN. (ICYMI, Andrew McCormick profiled OAN for CJR in 2020.)
  • An interesting job posting: The New York Times is hiring a pair of politics reporters to cover right-wing media and “Trump and Trumpism,” respectively. The paper described its ideal candidate for the former job as being “prepared to inhabit corners of the internet that popularize far-right or extremist ideas, providing our readers with a critical listening post on those ideas before they achieve wider circulation,” with “the backbone to withstand aggressive blowback” as a prerequisite for the job; it said that the latter job, meanwhile, will require “emotional fortitude.” (H/t to Elana Zak, of Politico.)


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Several hundred activists march in Washington on Jan. 17, 2022, a holiday honoring civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., urging Senate action to pass a bill to protect voters from racial discrimination. (Kyodo via AP Images) ==Kyodo