How to Cover the Ongoing Siege On Democracy
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone, and now I want to introduce you to journalist, author and podcaster, Lewis Raven Wallace. He's been on the show before, we're fans. He lives in North Carolina and he's joining us for an episode that puts Washington on the back burner, kind of. Hey, Lewis.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Hi! Yeah, we're looking at battles over voting rights and free expression framed in Washington during the Trump administration, but fought in state after state. It's kind of like some of the trends that Trump was driving didn't go away when Trump decamped. They just bubbled up and spattered all over the place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what should we call the episode? Take your time? It's hard.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Um, little pasta sauce splatters everywhere? No, that's not quite it. How about Little Fires Everywhere?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow, that's really good. On with the show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This week, late night TV transported us back in time.
NEWS REPORT Social media went wild over Trump's giant pants, maybe with the help of some Photoshopping. The first theory was they were on backwards.
JIMMY FALLON It looks like he bumped into something and his pants deployed an airbag.
JIMMY KIMMEL Poor Mike Pence didn't know which end to kiss. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Of course, a lot has changed since 2016.
ANDERSON COOPER Facebook said it's barring the 45th president from the platform until January 2023. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But 45 is still like the world, too much with us. According to The New York Times this week, some of Trump's statements spread by ardent supporters have garnered just as many likes and shares as they did before his bans on Facebook and Twitter. There's an audience for flimflam and plenty of places to find it. Last October, Jay Rosen, media critic and founder of PressThink.org, told us that the news media needed to be, quote, in emergency mode. That the standard performative objectivity, the so-called view from nowhere, was even more than usually misleading when reporting on Trump. He said that in an era when basic norms are trampled, news people could no longer duck accusations of bias merely by assigning equal time to unequal arguments, and that the moment called for taking a stand and focusing on what matters most. He suggested, for example, declaring a position in favor of voting rights. A pro-democracy position. So, on a stormy night this week, you may detect some thunder on the line. I asked him, are we still in emergency mode?
JAY ROSEN There's still an emergency, but it looks different. It's not personified in a single figure like a Donald Trump. We live in a two-party system and one of the two parties is anti-democratic. That is a civic emergency. And the Republican Party, instead of disinvesting in Donald Trump, has invested more in his lies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your prior call for an emergency journalism, you suggested that the choice of stories be guided by the protection of democracy while it's under threat rather than reassuming what you call the view from nowhere. Do you think that in the aftermath of January's insurrection, the political press has heeded that lesson?
JAY ROSEN Let me back up for a second. I think no matter how threatening or dark the events are, you can always find the game part of it. You know, you can always ask, well, who’s the winners and the losers? Who's ahead? What's the strategy? That's a very portable lens on politics, and you can keep looking at the world through it right up to the point where democracy disintegrates. The route that I talked about last time I was on the show in which the press becomes pro-democracy, pro-voting, pro-truth. Those are much stronger identities than ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism. Or we're going to take you inside the power game. And there is some indication that it's happening here and there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You cited some examples on PressThink. One of my favorites is something that WITF Public Broadcasting in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania says it'll do.
JAY ROSEN WITF has decided on a never forget policy. Each time they put into their news product the name of a public official who voted for the big lie or to overrule the voters or to decertify the election in Pennsylvania. They will remind their listeners and viewers. They wrote like a boilerplate paragraph to insert into any news article mentioning Congressman Smith.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I found it here: "Senator, insert name here, who signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania's electoral votes despite no evidence that would call those results into question today introduced a bill..." Blada blada blada.
JAY ROSEN They're doing it to create a kind of accountability. This is their way of saying we can't just move on. We have to be a stronger force for democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE CNN anchor Jake Tapper floated a blanket ban on booking proponents of the big lie on his show.
JAY ROSEN It's interesting that Chris Wallace of Fox said Tapper's stance is a kind of moral posturing and that he wasn't going to do that. I don't think there's a general solution that works all the time. You can say we're not going to bring on our show people who participated in The Big Lie, but there could be exceptions and...
BROOKE GLADSTONE You cited what is a very familiar conversation in media criticism circles, you know, when someone says: "Don't put those liars on the air," you'll say, "I hear you, but sometimes I have to tell people what's going on." And then the other person says "You're spreading their propaganda for them!" – "It's already spread and having real world effects!" – "Well, it wouldn't spread if you denied them a platform!" – "Gatekeeper's don't have that kind of power anymore!" – "They might if they work together!" – "That just drives it underground and it gets even worse!" It was such a perfect crystallization of the endless argument. But what's your solution?
JAY ROSEN Sunlight is the best disinfectant, but it also allows things to grow. It's kind of a paradox. There's no solution to it. There are only better or worse decisions. This is another reason I talk about this simple method of the truth sandwich. When you feel you have to report on a falsehood, you should start with a true statement, sandwich the misleading one in the middle, and end with a true statement. As opposed to this isn't true, but you know what? It could be a winning strategy. Suppose Kevin McCarthy becomes speaker of the House. Now you have to decide whether you're going to give a platform to that person or invite and confront.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But as you've observed also in PressThink, it's very hard for these mainstream shows to even book Republicans.
JAY ROSEN Because there's a huge portion of the public that has tuned mainstream journalism out. The politicians who appeal to that group can also tune it out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was once this notion that if you made fun of a leader, you would diminish the power of that leader. But if making fun of the leader means also making fun of the leader's supporters, then you're only pushing them further and further away from the opportunity to read actual facts.
JAY ROSEN You know how in politics you try to raise a candidate's negatives? Trump originally, but now the Republican Party as a force has successfully raised reality's negatives. It's extremely difficult to adapt our political vocabulary to that reality. And so, we use other terms that we're more familiar with. So, like Brian Stelter is convinced that Fox became more right wing after the election in order to recapture the Trump base. To me, that really understates how weird the phenomenon it wasn't so much that Fox drifted to the right.
JAY ROSEN What was that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was just this huge thunder explosion when you said that.
JAY ROSEN See? That's an indication of the kind of point I was making. Fox News is not moving to the right, it's moving, you know, less connected to reality than it was. By investing so much in this lie about the election, in bizarre rituals like the Arizona audit, which are premised on fantasies and political fictions, you can't even debunk anymore because they've been debunked so many times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So sidestep the political spectrum and create a reality spectrum instead, when describing arguments and cases made?
JAY ROSEN What does it really mean to be pro-verification or pro-truth? I think there are changes in practice that come with that, and it's up to our big newsrooms to develop those changes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If Trump, let's say he was a dumpster fire – easy to spot. There are now little fires everywhere, dividing the attention of the national media and creating a space where local reporting is so much more important.
JAY ROSEN Yes, the Republican Party turning anti-democratic is an example of a story that's national in scope, but happening at the local level. This is a case where the national story is actually not happening in the nation's capital. It's happening in the state capitals, so that's one thing. A second thing is that the local level is still a place where it's possible to imagine a common set of facts between people on opposite sides of the political divide. For example, how do we open our schools now that we have the vaccination? That's not an easy problem, but it's at least possible to imagine people just want to solve it, even with those on the opposite side of the aisle. The more politics is rooted in problem solving that people can see in their lives, the less likely this dueling realities universe is to take over. The more things shift to national politics, the more the result of raising reality's negatives will be seen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On the national level, one positive sign you've seen is the creation of democracy beats.
JAY ROSEN Yes, there are more reporters who are in a way full-time on this problem of an anti-democratic movement that's in charge of one of the two major parties. Ari Berman of Mother Jones has been covering elections and voting rights for years, but there are many more reporters on that beat now. ProPublica has a democracy beat. But that's just the start. We need that, we need the focus on local problem solving and we need to create accountability like WITF.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Their never forget policy.
JAY ROSEN Their never forget policy, and we need to find a better language for talking about this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But even if outlets and reporters were explicitly pro-democracy, if local news were better funded, I mean, how powerful are the media?
JAY ROSEN Even if the political press did everything that critics like myself wanted them to do, a lot of it wouldn't make any difference because the Trump base isn't there at the end of the receiving channel. They're not listening. At one time, the gatekeepers addressed the majority of the public. And now the mainstream media is only one stream within a river system that flows in many directions independently of what journalists are doing. The press that we wish were better has lost power to social media, to going direct between a political figure and fans. You can have something completely debunked and it still has a political life. We don't have the power in journalism to alter the situation that we're in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jay, thank you very much.
JAY ROSEN My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and is founder of the media criticism site, PressThink.org.
LEWIS RAVEN WALLACE Coming up, the authoritarian mullet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
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