Arun Venugopal: I'm Arun Venugopal, a senior reporter for the WNYC, Race and Justice Unit in for Melissa Harris-Perry. You're listening to The Takeaway. During his four years in office, Donald Trump dominated political news coverage. Whether we're talking about unwieldy press conferences, 140 character rants on Twitter or campaign events designed to galvanize his space. So much of what we saw was unprecedented and that includes his furious and sometimes dangerous war with the media itself. Even after he lost the 2020 election, Trump stayed in the headlines, claiming the results were "rigged".
Donald Trump: We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.
Arun Venugopal: As we now know, Trump's rhetoric ultimately paved the way to the violent January 6th Capitol insurrection. For its part the media has done a good job at calling out Trump's big lie and the actions it fueled, including the insurrection. Journalists have led major investigations looking into January 6th [unintelligible 00:00:57] They've also repeatedly fact checked politicians lies.
Yet at the same time, the media more broadly has failed to communicate how much our democracy is under threat right now. The mainstream news organizations are rarely centering that story instead opting to cover the political theater of Washington. For more on this we're joined now by Margaret Sullivan media columnists at The Washington Post and Lewis Raven Wallace author of The View from Somewhere and the host of the podcast of the same name. Margaret, Lewis, great to have you here.
Margaret Sullivan: Thanks for having me.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Good to be here.
Arun Venugopal: Margaret, in a recent piece, you wrote that in the year since the insurrection the American news media has failed to create an overall editorial plan that fully recognizes just how much trouble we're in. What do you want to see that you're not seeing?
Margaret Sullivan: Arun, I think that there's been, as you said, a lot of good work, there's been a lot of good fact checking. There's been a lot of good investigation and certainly if you're paying attention you could figure out what was going on quite easily. I would like to see the news media, the mainstream media, if you will, center this story more and give it more of a focus so that we're communicating to the public that our democracy is actually threatened here.
That it's not just a single story about what's happening with Trump day to day, it's a broad story about voting suppression. It's a broad story about trying to break down the guardrails that keep our democracy whole and I think we need to put it in a more centered and a more focused way in our coverage.
Arun Venugopal: Lewis, much of your work takes on, I guess, the obstacles to getting there. One of those is the problem of objectivity in US Newsroom as you see it for people who think objectivity is the point, how is it in fact failing us?
Lewis Raven Wallace: I think it's been creating a situation for a long time where journalists feel like they have to continue with this horse race coverage and both sides and he said, he said, and that approach which has been going on since before Trump and then during the whole Trump era, as it became more and more obvious that reporters were reporting a side of this story that was often packed with lies and with white supremacist rhetoric.
I think we've also seen a significant shift in that attachment to traditional journalistic objectivity and mainstream newsrooms over the last few years as folks have seen the urgency of naming the big lie among other things.
Arun Venugopal: You argue that historically this idea of objectivity has been shaped by whether someone is white as opposed to being Black or Trans or an immigrant. Why do these distinctions matter when we're talking about US Newsroom?
Lewis Raven Wallace: The assumption that journalists go in order to be trustworthy should be to remain uncontroversial has never included an analysis of racial justice and of the ways that Black journalists throughout history and particularly during slavery and during Jim Crow and during the civil rights era and all the way up to now have often worked in a tradition of they're fighting journalist.
That's where I think there's a lot of hope for us now because we're not without models. For journalists who have stood up, who have not lived under a democracy in the United States and who have stood up to that effectively through their journalism, but the framework of objectivity has always restricted and limited those movement voices and voices and resistance.
Arun Venugopal: Margaret, Lewis refers to the horse race back before times, pre pandemic mode when all of us were still working in our respective offices and newsroom. I remember looking up at the bank of TVs above my desk, and all of them were just muted and I'd just taken the optics of cable news, the headlines and the scrolls and that sense of theater.
From that perch, I'm wondering, it was clear to me that the 2020 election coverage looked no different from say 2016 or 2012 coverage came down to the spectacle, to the horse race. I'm wondering, how do you see the coverage at its core, does it ultimately adhere to the spectacle?
Margaret Sullivan: Too much it certainly does and that's a great image that you bring up of not listening to the voices, but just seeing what cable news is presenting to us. A lot of it is built around this, it's a conflict, it's a game, who's up, who's down. Even the most important pieces of things that are completely core to our democracy are still viewed as, "Oh, the Democrats lost that one today or the Republicans are winning," when actually this is about such things as are we all going to be able to vote fairly.
I think that journalists can overcome that by actually standing for something and Lewis makes a great point that this false neutrality doesn't serve us very well and definitely as we're talking about, doesn't represent all of America.
Arun Venugopal: Lewis, what do you think president Joe Biden's election to the White House meant for this political coverage? Did it go back to what it was pre-Trump, was it just in that same holding pattern?
Lewis Raven Wallace: I would say that it's been a holding pattern for the most part, I think it would definitely be a mistake for anyone to think, "Oh, well, Trump's out of office so these problems that came along with him are gone." It doesn't seem to me that most journalists are thinking that. I think there's a problem for all journalists at more of the business and distribution level about how our stories are being distributed and which stories tend to trend so you can do a really wonderful, complex deep dive into crumbling democracy and it can be less popular than the latest story about Trump.
That's a good example actually about Trump himself and something that he said. That's a challenge that we're all facing because of how media is being distributed and the lack of accountability for social media companies in regulating dis and misinformation. I would say since Biden that we're pretty much in the same position.
Arun Venugopal: Let's go a little deeper with the insurrection last year and how that was covered by the media. What coverage did we initially see?
Margaret Sullivan: At first it was most of the, again, use the phrase mainstream media the elite national journalism outlets, we're covering it as a huge news event. At that time even key Republicans, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy were all saying, "This is horrible, this is clearly Trump's fault," and so the coverage was very oriented toward what exactly just happened. Since then, I think it's gone more into the political realm of Trump and his allies saying that, "Well, it wasn't that bad and it wasn't the fault of people who were trying to support Trump." All of these kind of misapprehensions have been spread more. The news media needs to make a decision about how much they want to magnify that and how much they want to decide against having people who represent false claims, given a megaphone on the major talk shows or in our major newspapers and so on.
Arun Venugopal: I guess, based on just your knowledge of people who run newsrooms, who run news media, what holds them back from pivoting towards something that you think would be more appropriate for this moment in history?
Margaret Sullivan: It's funny, I think about that a lot. I guess I think that there's a really strong feeling of wanting to be fair to all sides and to do things basically in a time honored or tested way that has been the tradition of journalism. When you pivot to thinking of yourselves as a pro-democracy organization that does news, that's a big mental paradigm shift that I think it's easier for that to happen at a magazine.
For example, I've seen The Atlantic make that shift in recent weeks and more difficult to do so at a big traditional newspaper or TV network.
Arun Venugopal: Right. Lewis, you were fired from your last mainstream media job from not being objective enough and for questioning the conventions of the objectivity. How much do you think has changed since then?
Lewis Raven Wallace: I think for a couple of years that happened in 2017 right after Trump was inaugurated. I had written that Trump benefited from white supremacy and transphobia and that was considered overly partisan or taking a stance. I think that many, many individual journalists and some outlets have moved a lot on that question over the last five years.
In the summer of 2020, I started receiving apologies from people who had worked with me or who had seen me get fired and been silent about that at the time sort of saying, "Oh, we're in the middle of these uprisings and the coronavirus and everything is falling apart, maybe you were right and we should have said something earlier."
I think one of the things that's been going on with news leadership is a lack of perceived self-interest in standing up for democracy or standing up to white supremacy, but I think that's a mistake. I think we all have a self-interest in that, and that these organizations aren't going to be able to exist as such in a post-democratic environment. News leaders would do well to be looking to movement leaders. Leaders of grassroots efforts to defend voting rights, to learn how to do that, because we're all going to have to do it.
Arun Venugopal: You mentioned the protest has been sort of this pivot point for a lot of the journalists who had been close to you and who were now apologizing. Why do you think that was such an important moment for them, kind of a wake-up call?
Lewis Raven Wallace: I think that George Floyd's death and the video and the story, obviously that tragedy affected a lot of people really deeply, but I also think that combination in 2020 of pandemic racial violence and racial terror continuing the uprisings and the fear that we were going to have this failed state election really overcame people and shifted a lot of people's perspective on the status of democracy in the US.
I would hope that journalists and everybody don't sort of slip back into complacency now, and I think that's the point that Margaret's been making is that we're in a very high-risk situation, democracy-wise. That moment of urgency needs to become attitude of urgency. We need to look toward solutions and movement building and what people are doing at a grassroots level to fight this. It doesn't have to be a constant, "Ring the alarm, ring the alarm," but more like, what can we do to fight this?
Arun Venugopal: In a sense it has to advocate for democracy, which is something advocacy which a lot of journalists really feel allergic to.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Yes. Advocate for democracy and also report on how to advocate for democracy. In some ways I think that's even more helpful because people don't want to hear another like, "This is bad, you should do that," but how to do it, what you can show up for that would actually protect our democracy. That's the kind of valuable news I think people need now.
Arun Venugopal: News you can use. Not to be overly cynical Margaret, but can the same news media that elevated Donald Trump, the spectacle, the soundbites, the Heartland appeal be realistically expected to change at this moment?
Margaret Sullivan: I think we have changed, and I'll say we because I feel as though I'm a part of it as well, not just an observer. I think we have changed. I've seen a lot of change. I think we had to understand that Trump was a whole new elected official to cover and the normalization that went on for such a long time eventually people kind of got over that somewhat. I do think we've changed and more changes necessary.
Arun Venugopal: Margaret Sullivan is a media columnist at The Washington Post and Lewis Raven Wallace is author of The View from Somewhere and host of the podcast by the same name. Thanks to you both for joining us.
Margaret Sullivan: Thanks very much for having me.
Lewis Raven Wallace: Thank you.
[00:14:50] [END OF AUDIO]
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