Today on “The Argument,” if American democracy fails, is it the media’s fault?
I’m Jane Coaston. We love to blame the media for everything, including who wins or loses presidential elections. And let’s be real. Occasionally, we deserve it.
Jay Rosen is a media critic who thinks that journalists need to learn some hard lessons from the last few election cycles. He’s an associate professor of journalism at N.Y.U. He says that with voting rights under attack and people planning coups and PowerPoint presentations, journalists need to seriously rethink the way they’ve covered politics.
What’s happening there is that journalists want to assure themselves, their colleagues, and the audience that they can be fair, that they can be balanced. And as my friend Norm Ornstein says, a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is distortion.
But for my colleague Ross Douthat, a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is just good journalism. Ross thinks that, in the wake of the 2016 election, the media seriously overcorrected when it came to covering the Trump presidency.
I think that it led to a lot of highly exaggerated stories, where Trump’s real sordidness was blown out of proportion, a lot of cases where Trump did things, sometimes, that were reasonable policy that got covered as if they were the work of Hitler.
Ross wrote a column all about this last week, called “Can the Press Prevent a Trump Restoration?” And I knew when I read event that I needed to hear more about what he was thinking. Jay tweeted about that column. He acknowledged that Ross disagrees with his view on the media. And I think I disagree with both of them.
Jay, in November of 2020, thousands of years ago, you wrote about a real moment of change in the media leading up to the 2020 election. What did you observe about how the media’s priorities, to you, seemed to shift last fall?
Well, once it became clear that Biden had in fact won the election — which is normally something that the media actually decides for us. I mean, that is when Americans determine that the election is over, when all three networks call it in the same direction. But when it became clear that he did win the election and Trump continued his campaign and started on Stop the Steal as a post-election strategy, I think journalists realized that this was an attack on the Democratic system, and they really had to try and reject it, and in ways that are much more frank and direct than they normally would use. They simply said, Trump was lying about the election, and they even expressed their outrage about it. And that, I took, to be a moment where journalistic practice changed.
Ross, did you see the same shift as Jay did last year?
I think there was a more gradual shift that took place, really, beginning in the 2016, campaign where there was a question — given that both the scale but also just sort of the boldness with which Donald Trump shades the truth. All politicians lie, but Trump was obviously something different in the way that he told lies. I think there was a shift in how the media — and you could see it in the pages of our newspaper — how the media described things that he was saying and how willing the media was to say, this is a lie, or this is an untruth. And I think yeah, in certain ways, that accelerated with the post-election 2020 period. But I think it was a more continuous process, where you develop this media shorthand, where you would have Trump or one of his allies say something, and it would be reported as, he said falsely, or he said spreading a debunked conspiracy theory, these kind of things, which is yeah, definitely a change in how the media writes about national politicians and their rhetoric.
Your column is about how that shift in media has and hasn’t changed under President Biden. What made you want to write about this?
Well, I think there’s a general argument that Jay, among others, has made, both that this shift is sort of more of an unmixed good thing than I think it is; and, two, that it needs to go further in the event that Trump is running again in 2024, and you have the possibility of another bogus voter fraud mythology tending towards constitutional crisis. So there’s that a general narrative out there for a while, that the mainstream press institutions like The New York Times need to go further in, essentially, taking sides on behalf of democracy, which I’m somewhat skeptical of. And then you had, specifically, a column by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post arguing that, in covering Joe Biden negatively over the last few months — and Milbank had a algorithmically-created analysis that purported to show that Biden’s coverage has recently become worse than Trump’s coverage was, or at least as bad as Trump’s coverage was in much of 2020. That by covering Joe Biden negatively, reporters are effectively taking sides against democracy because, however bad Joe Biden is, he’s not as bad as Donald Trump. And so if you tear down Joe Biden, you are paving the way for authoritarianism in 2024. And I thought that analysis was very, very wrong, so I wrote about it.
Jay, what do you think about this and Ross’s points?
Well, I don’t think journalists should put their thumb on the scale for the Democrats because of how bad Donald Trump is. It’s not something that I believe. I’ve never written that. It’s not my point of view. Ross wants to argue against it. But he’s not arguing against anything that I’ve ever said. My starting point is a little different. We have a situation that is unanticipated by the craft of political journalism. Rather than two roughly equal parties fighting it out for advantage, we now have a radical imbalance between the two parties. One is normal. And by normal, I don’t mean angelic or that it has all the answers or it’s the one right way to go, but it’s just a normal party. The Democratic Party looks roughly like what we expect our major parties to be. And the other political party is bowing to an authoritarian mindset and willing to break the election system in half in order to return an authoritarian to power. And my point is not that journalists, as I said, should put their thumb on the scale. It’s rather they have to recognize that the picture of politics on which they base their practices is shattered. And therefore, they have to rethink their practices, in a sense, from the beginning because the premises underneath it have collapsed. We still have, of course, elections between Democrats and Republicans. But increasingly, the conflict that really matters is between those willing to uphold the democratic system and those who are seeking another way. And political journalism is still stuck in this world of two parties, that has vanished from our grasp. And what I’m really interested in is, how does political journalism respond to that crisis? Now, what do you do about this new reality where you have one normal party and one that’s driving towards an authoritarian system? That’s a hard question, a very hard question. And I don’t have all the answers to that, but I think this is a generational challenge to political journalists — is to figure out what to do when the premises of their world have collapsed.
Something that I think about a lot, Jay, is that, it seems to me that, because of who Donald Trump was — I remember back in 2015 that the Huffington Post was going to only cover his run for the presidency in the entertainment section —
I wrote about it. I remember that.
That Trump was weirdly given a lower bar to surpass based on the media’s existing biases. How do you think that the media’s existing biases influenced how the media covered Trump and how the media is covering Biden now?
Well, I start on that question with the simple fact that Donald Trump was newsworthy by the traditional criteria of newsworthiness in journalism. In fact, he was almost too newsworthy. Every time he opened his mouth, he said something controversial or something that represented conflict or something just crazy or something so out of the ordinary for candidates and presidents that it had to be news. And through that newsworthiness, he controlled the system in the sense that everybody had to have some Trump. And that became disastrous because, not only was he allowed to dominate public attention that way, but part of his message to his supporters was that, you can’t trust what the news media says about me. And so when coverage of Trump turned from this, oh, my God, atmosphere to more critical coverage, which did happen, as Ross said, it was useful to Trump to have the mainstream press attacking him because he was able to say, they’re critical of me because they hate you, to his supporters. And that doesn’t mean you can stop criticizing Trump. It means that, as I said earlier, the premises of the political journalists’ world have collapsed, and they need to get together with themselves, within their own organizations and think about what they’re going to do.
Well, I want to take up Jay’s point about the idea of a reconceptualization, because I think that, during the 2016 campaign, especially in the Republican primary — but in certain ways, extending into the general election — there was this — partially a lower bar for Trump, partially of just a phenomenon where his celebrity absorbed all of this oxygen and made it difficult for rivals to attack him effectively, and then, partially, this sense in the general election that he couldn’t possibly win. And therefore, it was needed to focus on Hillary Clinton as a presumptive president. And all of those things, I think, helped him in different ways. There were things that hurt him, too, in media coverage, and there was plenty, plenty of criticism of him in the press, to put it mildly, in the 2016 campaign. So then he wins, right? And at that point I think a version of this reconceptualization happened, where the media — again, we’re speaking collectively, but we’re talking about institutions like CNN, like our newspaper, like the Washington Post and so on, developed this sense that America had elected an authoritarian personality as president. And all of this, I think, was taken into the framework for coverage that, this is not normal; we are not going to normalize anything that Trump does; and we are going to cover things he does as if an authoritarian is doing them, an authoritarian who might be controlled by Vladimir Putin. And Trump did a lot of crazy and bizarre things. He also did a lot of things, though, that were either not crazy or bizarre or just within the range of things that presidents are allowed to do. Like presidents are allowed to question European nations’ commitments to NATO, right? These are things that presidents are allowed to do, that, in Trump’s case, got covered as, Trump dismantles liberal world order because he’s an authoritarian who loves Putin, right? And I’m using shorthand here, but this really was a dominant framework for media coverage. And I don’t think it worked well and, generally, I think, contributed to something like the way Jay is describing, although I think I have more sympathy than he does for the view that the media is structurally biased in various ways against conservatives and Republicans, but contributed to public alienation from the media that imagined itself to be sort of defending democracy against Trump. So having lived through that period, I think I agree with Jay that Trump poses a unique challenge to the way that the media has historically covered national politicians, Democrats and Republicans, and I just don’t see how some other reformulation is going to avoid that trap.
OK, Ross. But hold on a second. We have one party that’s willing to lose an election and another that’s not willing to lose an election. What should the press do about that?
The press should tell the truth about what the Republican Party is doing, when it, for instance, champions bogus conspiracy theories. I think it’s totally reasonable for — I used this in my column, that there is now a Republican primary in the state of Georgia, where the Republican incumbent, Brian Kemp, behaved like a normal Republican politician. Donald Trump is very angry at him for certifying Trump’s defeat in Georgia and so has backed a primary challenger against him, and the implications of that for a potentially contested election in 2024 are quite clear. And the press should cover that race, saying, clearly Donald Trump is trying to topple Republican politicians who didn’t support his conspiracy theory-driven Stop the Steal campaign, and that bodes very ill for a close election if Trump is on the ballot in 2024. That’s a totally reasonable thing for the press to do. But the press is doing that. I don’t think you’re going to read New York Times coverage of that race and not come away with an awareness that that is happening. I guess my question is, what beyond that should the press do? Or what should the press not do in covering a race like that? But I want to go back to what I think is the fundamental question here, which is — I want to know — take the case that I wrote about, where I was arguing with Dana Milbank and not with Jay, so I know it’s unfair, in a way, to ask Jay to take up this question. But the question of, how do you cover the Biden administration? So in the current paradigm, it is definitely true that mainstream media institutions are delivering a lot of negative coverage for Joe Biden. Now, I think that coverage is — even if it’s, in certain ways, as negative as coverage of Trump. It’s negative in a different way. I think the negative coverage of Trump was, authoritarian menace is still doing bad things. And the negative coverage of Biden is fundamentally, good guy is flailing, and we wish he’d stop flailing. Those are different kinds of negative coverage, but let’s concede there’s lots of negative coverage of Biden. There are, however, also a lot of, he is the president, and there are a lot of things going wrong in the world at the moment. So I just want to know, what is the recalibration for an era where the Republican Party — or at least part of the Republican Party — is not abiding by democratic norms — what else should the media be doing while it’s covering the real problems that Biden is wrestling with? Jay has already said it’s not just a matter of criticizing Trump more, even as he’s somewhat offstage. What is it? What is the recalibration?
Well, it begins with a sense of freaking proportion. I mean, Donald Trump is not just a wild and crazy guy who happened to luck into the presidency. He’s, in a sense, systematically building American democracy and is preparing for the final stage of that. It’s an autocratic movement that he is heading. And he’s breaking almost every bipartisan norm for how candidates and presidents should behave and attacking the very heart of the democratic system, which is the integrity of the vote. And so it’s not that we should bury bad news about Biden because Trump is so bad. One has to report what’s happening in politics. I think there are tons of legitimate criticisms to be made of Biden, including some from the left as well as from the right. So it’s maintaining some sense of proportion when you have a normal president doing normal things within a normal party and trying to act normally like a leader, and a rogue figure who has, through the political movement that he created, the engine of which is the denial of reality or straight-up lying — the comparison between the two is bizarre. And so I think this is what journalists have to recognize, not that they should be nice towards Biden, but that, when they are critical, they have to set what he’s doing within this larger context, and that’s not always what I see. [INTERPOSING VOICES]
But I want to know what that means in practice, though. So I’m looking at like looking at the front page of The New York Times, so, as the Omicron variant surges. And let’s say that you have a series of stories about rising Covid cases and Russian saber rattling on the border of Ukraine, and so on, the big stories of right this moment. Is it a question where those stories should somehow find more room to say, all of this is happening in the context of Donald Trump planning to have state legislatures overturn votes that he loses in 2024? Is it in the stories that you need it? Is it that the front page of The New York Times should always have a feature saying, here’s what Donald Trump is doing to undermine democracy? I want to know what the practice is.
Well, to some degree, that’s up to journalists, because, when you tell them from the outside what to do, you don’t usually get a very good response.
We are an angry, angry bunch.
Yeah. But I think one thing we need is a kind of urgency index. That’s the way I would put it. Where starting from the disaster that we can all see coming — this train that we know is going to just wreck us in 2024 if he runs and the election is close, which seems likely. We need some way of knowing how far from that collapse are we. Are we at the 11:59 stage? Do we have a little bit more time? Are things getting better? What are the key indicators of democratic collapse? I should be able to open The New York Times or tune in to the news networks and know where we are in disaster space? And instead, what we have is a news system that’s not constructed for anything like that. It’s constructed to produce one piece of content after another, and wipe away each day in order to have another day’s worth of news. A second thing that I think would be important, though — that doesn’t quite answer your question, Ross — is for journalists to consult, in order to enliven their imaginations, what political scientists and historians who studied Democratic collapse have determined so that they can find out what those key indicators are. There’s quite a lot known now about how democracies turn into something more autocratic, and that knowledge should become part of The Washington Bureau of The New York Times and the way that it operates. Exactly how? I don’t know. That’s up to the journalists. Another thing that would be useful is for our political press to make alliances with people who have been through this situation in other countries, where a at least somewhat democratic system turned into an authoritarian one and the news media was a key like pressure point for that to happen. So it would be great to learn from those experiences as well. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t lay out for you the code of conduct that follows from these logical deductions. I just know that, if you go in to the 2024 campaign with Trump as a candidate with the same equipment that you used in 2020 and 2016, that’s going to be a disaster. And I’m trying to avert that disaster through the poor, limp means I have as an outside critic. [MUSIC PLAYING]
For our final episode of 2021, we’re asking you to make your argument. Did the world get better or worse this year? And we’ve heard from a lot of you, that it totally depends. Some of you think that things are finally looking up.
I think there’s something bittersweet about feeling like you’re making personal progress while the world circles the drain.
But for other listeners, 2021 wasn’t much cause for optimism.
Some parts of the world are slipping into authoritarianism. In the United States, polarization is getting worse and worse and worse. I struggle to see the positive.
So what do you think? Did the world improve in 2021? Did this year leave you with hope for the next one? This is the last week we’re taking submissions. So if you have a strong opinion, I want to hear it in our voice mailbox. Give me a ring at 347-915-4324. Tell me your answer to the question, how do the world get better or worse in 2021? And we may play some of it in an upcoming episode. Either way, congrats to us for making it through another year. We did it.
Part of the problem seems to me that a bunch of different trends in media are converging all at once. But with the shifting business model in media and the decline in local news and the rise of social media and the audience participating very directly in the news cycle, to tell people, like me, what they want to read and want to hear about — you hear about, quote unquote, kitchen table issues, which — I record this podcast from my kitchen table, so everything’s a kitchen table issue to me. But I am curious — how should the news agenda be? Is it being externally imposed by an audience? Should it be internally driven instead?
I think this is a really hard question. Again, I don’t suggest I have all the answers. I do think that, when, if the rethink of election coverage happens within the national media, a part of it is going to have to deal with some of the questions that you just raised. I think, in order to counter the anti-democratic agenda of Trump, or a Trumpified Republican Party which we do have — and that is a huge difference between 2020 and 2024. In order to do that, the national news organizations have to find some way of reconnecting with audiences around the country that are, at least, still open to listening to them, and asking the following question, which would provide a counterweight to some of the other pressures on journalists, which is, what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? Which is not, who are you going to vote? For which party do you favor? Or which horse do you want to bet on? And if major news organizations can ask that question again and again in many different contexts, not just through a single poll like they frequently do, but in a campaign of their own, they could develop, from the answers they get to that question, a kind of civic agenda that they can use as a counterweight to things like the horse race, to spectacle politics, to outrageous things that Trump or his successors are doing. And if they can be accurate — and that is, actually capture the priorities of the electorate, not in these hot button, one word issue packages, like, the economy, or, critical race theory — but instead, from an understanding of what C. Wright Mills in his work in the 1950s called “troubles,” as against, issues. If they can get a better handle on, troubles, they can use that as a kind of counterweight. And they have to do something like that. They have to reach out to improve their understanding of American voters, beyond polling, beyond the horse race, beyond Washington and New York. Now, again, I’m not suggesting that it’s going to be easy. It’s not within their existing practices. But some sort of program like that is going to be required.
Ross, what do you think about Jay’s proposal?
I don’t think it’s unreasonable. I do think, though, that there can be a tendency for high-minded journalists — again, operating in an environment that — unless you work for Fox News, is likely to be generally center left — to assume that if you could get the media public interaction to be based on core issues rather than temporary controversies, that the results would be, let’s say in this case, more votes for Joe Biden and fewer votes for Donald Trump. And to the extent that the Democratic Party is out of step with fundamental parts of public opinion, I’m not sure that that would be the result. The real challenge, it seems to me, is that, if you look at trust in the media over the course of the Trump presidency, it falls among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents — again, exactly the group that the media is notionally trying to reach if it’s trying to persuade a majority of the country to reject the worst things that Trump embodies. And so any kind of media strategy has to think about why Trump, who had really strong party opposition relative to other politicians — how the media still ended up losing ground and credibility with people who weren’t enthusiastic about Trump — voted for him reluctantly and so on.
I am curious because, Jay, when you spoke with Nicole Hemmer for my colleague Ezra Klein’s podcast, she asked — that the citizen’s agenda would require a populace that’s very well-informed. But I think that, for most people, the ideal would be where they didn’t have to be. I keep thinking about how there’s been a decline in the ratings of news programs because, to reference comedian John Mulaney, the horse has left the hospital, and they can go do something else. And obviously, the ideal would be that people are always plugged in and tied in to journalism, which I think explains some of the way that things are covered in a way that really is like, no, this is super serious. Pay attention to it. But I am curious how much the audience plays into this and how we can think about this in a way that appeals to an audience that we need but we may not understand.
Why do you have to be super informed and dialed in to Washington journalism in order to give a good answer to the question, what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? What is wonky about that question? To me it’s a very human question. It’s something that almost anybody could answer.
Yeah, but what if their answer is I want to hear about critical race theory? Or they want to hear about the economy.
Well, yeah. One of the complexities of this question is that there is about 20 percent of the electorate, in my estimation — nobody knows exactly how big it is — that not only not listening to the mainstream media and very unlikely to be influenced by it, but rejects it and, even more, treats what’s in the mainstream media as false and defamatory, by definition. And the cord to those people has been cut. There is no way that the American mainstream news media is going to reach them. And at this point, journalism serves only as a hate object for this group, which is informed about Trump by Trump and the Trump-loving right wing media. So we already have at least a fifth of the electorate that’s out of the equation. There’s nothing that I think American journalists at this point can do to win them back until this fever, if it ever stops, stops. So you’re talking about — when I said, ask voters, what do you want the candidates to be talking about when they compete for votes? I mean the people that you’re trying to inform. And yeah, a whole lot of them are going to reject what the mainstream media does as a reflex that Trump has encouraged. And right now, I don’t know how the repair is going to happen. I don’t see that as on the horizon.
Thank you so much, Jay. And thank you, Ross.
Jay, thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Jay Rosen is an associate professor at NYU and author of the blog PressThink. And Ross Douthat is a columnist with The New York Times Opinion. If you want to learn more about the role of the media in a democracy, I recommend Ross’s piece that we talked about in this episode. It’s called “Can the Press Prevent a Trump Restoration?” And it was published last week. And for more of Jay Rosen’s thoughts, check out “You Cannot Keep from Getting Swept Up in Trump’s Agenda Without a Firm Grasp on Your Own” and “Two Paths Forward for the American Press,” published in PressThink in May 2020 and November 2020, respectively. There are links to all of those pieces in the show notes for this episode.
“The Argument” is a production of The New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Annabelle Bacon and Alison Bruzek, with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones, additional engineering by Carole Sabouraud, fact checking by Kate Sinclair and Andrea López-Cruzado, and audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks this week to Kristin Lin. [MUSIC PLAYING]