Donald Trump

Then-President Donald Trump shushed journalists before signing legislation on June 5, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As the World Burns, A Cowardly News Media Endangers US Democracy

News organizations are using cowardly words to describe killing abroad and fascism at home — downplaying the danger to democracy.

There was a shocking and incredibly important story on the front page of the New York Times last week. As reported by an A-team of journalists including two Pulitzer Prize winners, the Times warned its readers that Donald Trump — if returned to the White House in 2025 — is grooming a new team of extremist government lawyers who would be more loyal to their Dear Leader than to the rule of law, and could help Trump install a brand of American fascism.

You say you didn’t hear anything about this? That’s not surprising. The editors at the Times made sure to present this major report in the blandest, most inoffensive way possible — staying true to the mantra in the nation’s most influential newsroom that the 2024 election shouldn’t be covered any differently, even when U.S. democracy is on the line.

“Trump Allies Want a New Style of Lawyer if He Returns to Power” was the original online headline for the piece, as if maybe they were talking about colorful drawling Southerners with seersucker suits, rather than rabid-dog ideologues who would do the dirty work of overturning an election that career government attorneys refused to do before Jan. 6, 2021.

That “new style of lawyer” — pro-Trump, “America First” zealots who think the ultraconservative lawyers bred in the Federalist Society are too soft to carry out their leader’s autocratic call for a “final battle” against traditional democratic governance that he calls “the deep state” — was described, numbingly, by the Times as “more aggressive legal gatekeepers.” Their dangerous antidemocratic mission was blandly outlined as a plan to “take control of the government in a way unseen in presidential history.”

I’m picking on this one article in the Times, and its timid, inoffensive packaging, not because it is unique, but because it is far too typical right now. In one of the most perilous moments of crisis the world has seen in 75 years, and with the basic notions of free speech under assault, most newsrooms aren’t fighting back. They are, instead, pulling their punches in a defensive, “rope-a-dope” crouch, and thus failing to truly inform — when democracy itself is at risk.

Right now, Ground Zero is the horrific conflict in the Middle East, where bombing by Israel in response to a violent Hamas terror attack on Oct. 7 is killing thousands of children, yet too many newsrooms adopt a passive voice to describe the bloodshed or who is to blame for attacks. It can be hard at times to distinguish what is real — “Explosion at Gaza refugee camp leaves massive crater” was the BBC headline for an Israeli bombing that killed or wounded scores of civilians — and what is satire. The Onion’s take — “The Onion Stands With Israel Because It Seems Like You Get In Less Trouble That Way” — felt more honest and heartful than many serious news headlines.

What worries me even more, frankly, is how the push not to offend with Middle East news coverage is emblematic of a bigger trend of newsroom timidity and even rank cowardice that also permeates domestic news coverage, at a moment when right-wing extremists are controlling the U.S. House and are on track to regain the White House and full governmental control in a chaotic election year.

The mainstream, elite media seems especially flummoxed by the new Republican House speaker, Mike Johnson of Louisiana. Johnson was an obscure backbencher on Capitol Hill and remains a man of mystery with no apparent bank account or tangible assets. But the extremism of his Christian nationalist views — more radical than anything seen in American history — is no secret. Johnson believes our country should be ruled by his own brand of religious fundamentalism, which posits that the Earth is only 6,000 years old but inspires hateful policies toward the LGBTQ community and fringe opposition to women’s abortion rights.

That danger isn’t conveyed in business-as-usual fluff pieces like the Washington Post’s “House Speaker Mike Johnson’s Louisiana hometown guided by faith and family” article in which neighbors hailed the softer side of a man who was at the center of schemes to block the peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election. Another Post piece questioned whether Democrats could truly make a political boogeyman out of Johnson given “his low profile and quiet tone” — as if Christo-fascism isn’t so bad when delivered in a gentle drawl, from behind oversized dad glasses.

This deference to authority is already bleeding into serious policy coverage. Far too many news outlets uncritically repeated Johnson’s first major pronouncement — that $14 billion for Israel could be paid for by cutting the number of IRS agents (who audit the GOP’s millionaire donors) when even a third-grade math student would know that reducing revenue agents would cost the government money. Getting it right isn’t only important because Johnson is now the most powerful Republican in Washington, but also because he’s a kind of a John the Baptist prophecy of an even more dangerous Trump 47 in 14-plus months.

It’s weird because Trump is arguably the most media-covered figure in American history — even now, there’s an entire TV network built around covering his legal woes, in MSNBC — and yet there’s not nearly enough coverage of the stakes of his proposed second term. This includes an assault on democratic institutions and agencies in the guise of “dismantling the deep state,” a focus on political revenge that would include pardoning Jan. 6 insurrectionists while his U.S. Justice Department pursued political rivals, and brutal policies toward the marginalized such as refugees or the urban homeless.

The world is staring into an abyss, much as it did in the 1930s. Now, as then, the global rise of right-wing authoritarians like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel is linked to aggressive militarism that targets civilians and risks a world war. Here at home, the growing sense of chaos abroad and a broken government on Capitol Hill, with Republican Johnson poised to make matters worse, has imperiled the flawed small-d democratic government of President Joe Biden and has primed too many voters to fall into the waiting arms of a wannabe dictator.

Yet the news rarely reflects the reality of this risk. Why is that?

It’s not that there aren’t a lot of remarkable individual journalists out there doing some remarkable and at times courageous work, exposing the rot in Capitol Hill or risking their lives to bring news from Israel and Gaza, where at least 36 reporters or photojournalists have paid with their lives. But the institutional caution that frames their work has been getting a lot worse. Some of it is probably business-driven — to avoid offending readers who might cancel a subscription. A lot of it seems to be a desire in newsrooms, after Trump’s whirlwind, lie-filled first term, to return to normalcy and the kind of balance that treats the two parties equally, which means ignoring that one has become an authoritarian cult.

The now-retired Washington Post editor Marty Baron famously said during the Trump era that journalists are “not at war ... we’re at work” — which merely conceded the battlefield to the bellicose forces adopting Trump’s rallying cry that reporters are “the enemy of the people.” Growing threats to press freedom in America have metastasized in the weeks since Oct. 7, with pressure not to make any controversial comments about Israel or Palestine causing some editors and reporters to get fired or resign, which has a chilling effect on others. And my bigger fear is that this growing climate of fear is bleeding into coverage of the 2024 election and the threat to democracy.

Losing the war for a free press has dire consequences that we’re already seeing. Is there any doubt that nonstop media bashing from Trump and others set the stage for the recent assaults in Kansas and Alabama, where runaway prosecutors or police have raided newsrooms or arrested journalists? And why is there not more of an uproar from the American media community about the war crime killing of those 36 journalists in and around Gaza — almost all of them by Israel? Maybe it’s the timidity that caused NPR to write that journalists are being killed “in the war between Israel and Hamas” — dodging the fact that one side, Israel, has killed more than 90%.

Yet as bad as things are for the media today, things will get worse in less than two years if journalists — as individuals, as newsrooms, and as a profession — can’t stop cowering and won’t adopt a much more aggressive posture in defending democracy, the only political system that makes a functioning news media possible. Some of it is basic stuff — more boldness in calling out a blatant lie, like Johnson’s IRS claim, or making it clear when someone is to blame, like Israel’s killing of journalists.

Political reporting is useless unless it focuses a lot less on the campaign horse race and a lot more on the consequences of victory — “Not the odds, but the stakes,” as my friend, New York University journalism prof Jay Rosen, says — by those who believe a “Red Caesar” dictatorship is needed to purge America of liberalism. I’m terrified that many angry, apathetic, or ill-informed voters will wake up on Jan. 21, 2025, in a country they no longer recognize ... and didn’t see coming.

Others are proposing new ways of doing things. Mark Jacob, the former Chicago Tribune journalist who’s become a leading media critic, has proposed a more radical version of fact-checking that he calls “fact-crusading,” which would not just report out lies by leading political figures but challenge them and seek accountability. Meanwhile, traditional outlets like the Washington Post are promising to expand their 2024 coverage of the threats to democracy. I think that’s excellent, but a democracy beat won’t mean much unless journalists report it like our existence depends upon it.

We are at war, dammit, literally and figuratively, and we can’t win this fight by hiding in the corner and absorbing the punches. There is a higher truth that doesn’t repeat lies but calls them out, doesn’t hide from accountability when there is blame to be assigned, and uses the keyboard as a weapon to fight for democracy instead of dispassionately reporting, evenhandedly, on its slow death. And if we don’t start fighting for that truth right away, the BBC might eventually be reporting on “the crater” where a free press used to stand.

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