By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
Back in the dark ages of 2012, two think-tank scholars, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, wrote a book called “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” about the rise of Republican Party extremism and its dire effect on American democracy.
In a related op-ed piece, these writers made a damning statement about Washington press coverage, which treats the two parties as roughly equal and everything they do as deserving of similar coverage.
Ornstein and Mann didn’t use the now-in-vogue terms “both-sidesism” or “false equivalence,” but they laid out the problem with devastating clarity:
“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change any time soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.”
Nearly a decade later, this distortion of reality has only grown worse, thanks in part to Donald Trump’s rise to power and his ironclad grip on an increasingly craven Republican Party.
Positive proof was in the recent coverage of congressional efforts to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
The Democratic leadership has been trying to assemble a bipartisan panel that would study that mob attack on our democracy and make sure it is never repeated. Republican leaders, meanwhile, have been trying to undermine the investigation, cynically requesting that two congressmen who backed efforts to invalidate the election be allowed to join the commission, then boycotting it entirely. And the media has played straight into Republicans’ hands, seemingly incapable of framing this as anything but base political drama.
“‘What You’re Doing Is Unprecedented’: McCarthy-Pelosi Feud Boils Over,” read a CNN headline this week. “After a whiplash week of power plays … tensions are at an all-time high.”
Is it really a “feud” when Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy performatively blames Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for refusing to seat Republicans Jim Jordan and Jim Banks; two sycophantic allies of Trump, who called the Jan. 6 mob to gather?
One writer at Politico called Pelosi’s decision a “gift to McCarthy.” And its Playbook tut-tutted the decision as handing Republicans “a legitimate grievance,” thus dooming the holy notion of bipartisanship.
“Both parties have attacked the other as insincere and uninterested in conducting a fair-minded examination,” a Washington Post news story observed. (“Can it really be lost on The Post that the Republican party has acted in bad faith at every turn to undermine every attempt to investigate the events of Jan. 6?” a reader complained to me.)
The bankruptcy of this sort of coverage was exposed on Tuesday morning, when the Jan. 6 commission kicked off with somber, powerful, pointedly non-political testimony from four police officers attacked during the insurrection. Two Republicans, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, even defied McCarthy’s boycott to ensure their party would be sanely represented.
This strain of news coverage, observed Jon Allsop in Columbia Journalism Review, centers on twinned, dubious implications: “That bipartisanship is desirable and that Democrats bear responsibility for upholding it; even in the face of explict Republican obstructionism.”
This stance comes across as both cynical (“politics was ever thus”) and unsophisticated (“we’re just doing our job of reporting what was said”). Quite a feat.
Mainstream journalists want their work to be perceived as fair-minded and nonpartisan. They want to defend themselves against charges of bias. So they equalize the unequal. This practice seems so ingrained as to be unresolvable.
There is a way out. But it requires the leadership of news organizations to radically reframe the mission of its Washington coverage. As a possible starting point, I’ll offer these recommendations:
Toss out the insidious “inside-politics” frame and replace it with a “pro-democracy” frame.
Stop calling the reporters who cover this stuff “political reporters.” Start calling them “government reporters.”
Stop asking who the winners and losers were in the latest skirmish. Start asking who is serving the democracy and who is undermining it.
Stop being “savvy” and start being patriotic.
In a year-end piece for Nieman Lab, Andrew Donohue, managing editor of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, called for news organizations to put reporters on a new-style “democracy beat” to focus on voting suppression and redistricting. “These reporters won’t see their work in terms of politics or parties, but instead through the lens of honesty, fairness and transparency,” he wrote.
I’d make it more sweeping. The democracy beat shouldn’t be some kind of specialized innovation, but a widespread rethinking across the mainstream media.
Making this happen will call for something that Big Journalism is notoriously bad at: an open-minded, non-defensive recognition of what’s gone wrong.
Top editors, Sunday talk-show moderators and other news executives should pull together their braintrusts to grapple with this. And they should be transparent with the public about what they’re doing and why.
As a model, they might have to swallow their big-media pride and look to places like Harrisburg, Pa., public radio station WITF, which has admirably explained to its audience why it continually offers reminders about the actions of those public officials who tried to overturn the 2020 election results. Or to Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Chris Quinn’s letter to readers about how the paper and its website, Cleveland.com, refuse to cover every reckless, attention-getting lie of Republican Josh Mandel as he runs for the U.S. Senate next year.
These places prove that a different kind of coverage, and transparency about it, is possible.
Is it unlikely that the most influential Sunday talk shows, the most powerful newspapers and cable networks, and the buzziest Beltway websites will change their stripes?
Maybe so. But, to return to Ornstein and Mann in 2012, it’s a necessity.
“We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional,” they wrote.
They probably couldn’t have imagined the chaos that followed November’s election, the horrors of Jan. 6, or what’s happened in the past few weeks.
The change they called for never happened. For the sake of American democracy, it’s now or never.
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.