Comment: What media must now do to ensure democracy’s survival

More than alerting the public to the threats to democracy, media outlets need to focus on its heroes.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

In the year since the Jan. 6 insurrection, mainstream journalists have done a lot of things right. They’ve published major investigations, pointed out politicians’ lies and, in many cases, finally learned how to clearly communicate the facts of what happened leading up to that horrendous riot at the U.S. Capitol; and what is happening now as pro-Trump Republicans steadily chip away at the very checks and balances that saved American democracy last year.

Much of this work has been impressive. And yet, something crucial is missing. For the most part, news organizations are not making democracy-under-siege a central focus of the work they present to the public.

“We are losing our democracy day by day, and journalists are individually aware of this, but media outlets are not centering this as the story it should be,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a scholar of autocracy and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.”

That American democracy is teetering is unquestionable. Jan. 6 is every day now, in the words of a recent New York Times editorial that noted the growing evidence: election officials harassed by conspiracy theory addicts, death threats issued to politicians who vote their conscience, GOP lawmakers pushing measures to make it harder for citizens to vote and easier for partisans to overturn legitimate voting results.

“The reactionary counter-mobilization against democracy has accelerated,” wrote historian Thomas Zimmer, a visiting professor at Georgetown. “It’s happening on so many fronts simultaneously that it’s easy to lose sight of how things are connected.”

To be sure, even some of the most studiously neutral of news organizations are doing important journalism on this subject.

“‘Slow-motion insurrection’: How GOP seizes election power,” read the headline of an Associated Press news story last week. It detailed the ways in which Republicans aligned with former president Donald Trump, after the near-miss of last year’s coup attempt, “have worked to clear the path for next time.”

The story explained what’s happening in the battleground states that could determine the next occupant of the White House: “In Michigan, the Republican Party is restocking members of obscure local boards that could block approval of an election. In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the GOP-controlled legislatures are backing open-ended ‘reviews’ of the 2020 election, modeled on a deeply flawed look-back in Arizona.” Writer Nicholas Riccardi stated his findings in his own equivocation-free words, without washing it through the voice of some academic or activist: “The efforts are poised to fuel disinformation and anger about the 2020 results for years to come.”

Similarly, NPR recently ran a seven-minute segment on what it called “the clear and present danger of Trump’s enduring ‘Big Lie.’ ” As NYU’s Jay Rosen noted, the piece was admirably direct in its language: “No dilution via ‘both sides,” no ‘critics say,’ Just a straight-up warning.” And on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this weekend, moderator Chuck Todd — who has deservedly drawn criticism in recent months for too often allowing GOP talking points to go unchallenged — stepped up in a significant way to detail the “big lie” spread by Trump allies this past year to evoke the specter of a supposedly stolen presidential election.

More pointedly, the Atlantic magazine — which positions itself as centrist rather than left-leaning — published an entire issue in December devoted to the topic of democracy under threat. The cover headline’s message was hard to miss: “January 6 was practice.” The cover story by Barton Gellman began with this chilling paragraph:

“Technically, the next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect. The winner will be declared the loser. The loser will be certified president-elect.”

All of this is good, necessary and important. The Atlantic, particularly, seems to have taken on the challenge.

But, in general, this pro-democracy coverage is not being “centered” by the media writ large. It’s occasional, not regular; it doesn’t appear to be part of an overall editorial plan that fully recognizes just how much trouble we’re in.

That must change. It’s not merely that there needs to be more of this work. It also needs to be different. For example, it should include a new emphasis on those who are fighting to preserve voting rights and defend democratic norms.

“We focus on the enemies of democracy, the villains, but we also need to focus on democracy’s heroes,” including those working at the grass-roots level, Ben-Ghiat told me, such as voting rights advocates and public officials in communities across the country. An occasional feature story on Stacey Abrams, the celebrated activist and former Georgia state lawmaker, is not nearly enough.

This new pro-democracy emphasis should be articulated clearly — and fearlessly — to readers and viewers. That could be in statements from editors or publishers, in advertising campaigns, or in other ways, declaring, in essence, “we are devoting more resources to this crucial subject because it is at the heart of our mission.” (As a reference point, think about how the heads of news organizations announced they were going to pay more attention to “the heartland” after the 2016 presidential election, or how some, at long last, are bearing down on climate change coverage.)

Then, news leaders, show that you really mean it. Put that pro-democracy coverage in front of your paywall, just as you’ve done with much of your covid coverage. Put teams of reporters and editors on the subject. Label it in a defining and memorable way, as news organizations have done with “Spotlight” or “Watchdog” teams in the past.

Don’t be afraid to stand for something as basic to our mission as voting rights, governmental checks and balances, and democratic standards.

In other words, shout it from the rooftops. Before it’s too late.

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.

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