By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
The journalists at WITF, an all-news public radio station in Harrisburg, Pa., made a perfectly reasonable decision a few months ago.
They decided they wouldn’t shrug off the damaging lies of election denialism.
They wouldn’t do what too many in Big Journalism have done in recent months: shove into the memory hole the undemocratic efforts by some Republican elected officials to delegitimize or overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Too many Sunday news shows repeatedly book the likes of Kevin McCarthy, Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson without reminding viewers how these members of Congress tried to undo the results of the election; and encouraged the Trumpian lies about election fraud that led to the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol less than four months ago. A rare exception is CNN’s “State of the Union,” which hasn’t booked a single member of the so-called Sedition Caucus since January.
“There’s a kind of clubby atmosphere on these shows, part of the Beltway Bubble mentality, in which it’s become almost impolite to raise the topic of the insurrection,” Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse told me.
“CBS This Morning,” for example, sent out an email alert last week touting its exclusive interview with Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., one of the seven senators who voted against certifying the election results in Pennsylvania. Scott blasted President Biden for “spending us into oblivion” and mocked him for not achieving bipartisanship; yet interviewer Anthony Mason never mentioned that Scott had literally tried to overturn Biden’s election.
“109 days after Jan. 6, ‘history will remember’ is a complete joke,” Matt Negrin of “The Daily Show” tweeted last week. He added: “These media outlets want you to forget.”
But Harrisburg’s WITF has gone a different route: They want you to remember.
Months before the election, the station’s reporters and editors were already deeply alarmed by what they saw unfolding. “We could see the disinformation really taking hold, this idea that the only way President Trump could lose is if the election were rigged,” Tim Lambert, the station’s news director, told me last week.
The deadly culmination of that anti-democratic lie, the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, solidified their thinking. In late January, the station — whose newsroom includes six reporters and two editors — posted an explanatory story stating that they would be regularly reminding their audience that some state legislators signed a letter urging Congress to vote against certifying the Pennsylvania election results, and that some members of Congress had voted against certifying the state’s election results for Biden, despite no evidence to support their election-fraud claims.
These elected officials, WITF reminded its audience, either knowingly spread disinformation or flat-out lied in an effort to keep Trump in office.
“This was an unprecedented assault on the fabric of American democracy,” the statement said.
The station has stuck to its pledge in its day-to-day coverage ever since, by simply and without fanfare including boilerplate language about how lawmakers conducted themselves during the attempts to overturn the election whenever they are mentioned in the course of regular news coverage.
For example, a recent story about a state legislator’s efforts to get Pennsylvanians vaccinated was accompanied by a sidebar of text about the lawmaker in question.
“State Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) was one of 17 Republican state senators who signed a Jan. 4 letter that asked Congress to delay electoral college certification because, it said incorrectly, SCOTUS ‘is to hear Trump v. Boockvar in the coming days.’ On Jan. 11 SCOTUS refused to fast-track the case. The election-fraud lie led to the attack on the Capitol.”
On-air stories use similar language as a tagline at the end of news segments.
The station’s effort has been generally well-received, said Scott Blanchard, editor of StateImpact Pennsylvania, a public-media collaboration, who joined in the planning.
“We struggled because this is not the normal thing,” Blanchard told me. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Does this mean we are not independent journalists?’” But ultimately, he and Lambert — and the WITF reporters — felt that sustained accountability was paramount.
“We’re out on a ledge here,” Lambert remembers thinking. Both he and Blanchard hoped other news organizations would join them. “But it’s been radio silence,” Lambert said.
To be sure, other news organizations, including The Washington Post, are covering the aftermath of the election fraud lies and the insurrection, sometimes in innovative ways, as NYU professor Jay Rosen recently wrote. ProPublica has established a “democracy beat,” and a nonprofit news organization, Votebeat, focuses on election integrity.
But I’d like to see more accountability. So would Princeton’s Kruse. “There’s a tendency in the political media to get caught up in the story of the day and not dwell on the things that need to be reckoned with,” he said.
If it were up to him, Kruse would prescribe a simple rule for network TV producers thinking about putting election denialists on-air: “Don’t book them, as long as they haven’t publicly retracted.”
The Harrisburg station expects to continue its practice at least through the 2022 elections and possibly through 2024. If legislators change their minds, the station will reflect that in their language, but it won’t simply wipe the slate clean for them.
“Elected officials are going to run on this,” Blanchard said. “This is an example of their judgment.”
In other words, no memory hole. No “let’s just move on.” And, sorry, no amnesty.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.