"Neutrality is an Abdication of Duty": The Media and our Democratic Crisis
How to cover politics when extremists go mainstream
The reflections in this post were sparked by my participation in the Democracy Summit organized by Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones at Howard University on Nov. 15. A launch event for the Center for Journalism & Democracy, the summit aimed to educate journalists and journalism students in best practices for covering threats to democracy.
What are the challenges for media of reporting on a bipartisan political system in which one party has become an authoritarian entity? The GOP espouses election subversion and conspired in the Jan. 6 coup attempt instigated by former president Donald Trump. While some election deniers were defeated in the midterm elections, dozens won and are now “in the system.” And Trump is running for president again. How should these situations be covered by a democratic press? These are questions that concern all of us given the influence the media can have on voting behavior.
There is no audio version of the essay this week or next week since my audio engineer is traveling.
"Despite the results of the election last week, the fight for democracy is not over," warned Professor Hannah-Jones in her introduction. "The times demand that we liberate ourselves from the old conventions about journalism…We must understand that when it comes to democracy and equality, neutrality is an abdication of our duty."
Or, as Professor Jason Stanley said on our panel about propaganda and the media, "What's the neutral term for lying or fascism? There is none." I would add that the reluctance of media outlets to use such terms stems in part from not wanting to seem partisan, but this gives right-wing media, which seeks to have lies taken as reality, an advantage.
Since I knew that Trump was going to announce his 2024 run the evening of the conference, my own remarks focused on on the challenges of covering him. Propaganda is about changing the way people think, and no one did more to change the image of journalists and debase the truth than the former president. Seeing the press as deserving of punishment became part of the Trump worldview and is consistent with the past and present of illiberal rule.
Trump presents challenges for journalists because he is also a cult leader. Personality cults proclaim the leader to be infallible and a savior of the nation. Yet he must also be a victim, taking hits from the press, prosecutors, and political opposition on behalf of “the people.”
This double image of the brute and the victim is very compelling to cult followers, and victimhood ideologies can be activated to get followers to perform violent acts on the cult leader’s behalf if his power is threatened. This is what happened on Jan. 6, when Trump called on the faithful to save him from an unjust fate. Those followers were already prepped psychologically by the Big Lie, which allowed them to avoid a reckoning with his loss so they could continue to see him as an idol and “winner.”
Coverage models for elections and candidates developed for democratic contexts should not apply to Trump and his imitators. Trump and his fellow election deniers are not “regular” candidates and should not be treated as such.
This is why I scrutinized the headlines that followed the announcement of Trump's candidacy. NPR had the most pro-democracy headline in the sense that you could not read about his candidacy without also hearing about his violent coup attempt:
Yet, as Matt Gertz shows in his analysis, many other media outlets only mentioned Jan. 6 and/or election subversion mid-way through their stories about Trump’s announcement. CBS News buried it in the 21st paragraph, and Fox News did not mention it at all.
This screenshot gives a sample of the variety of approaches. Are any of these headlines "neutral," and what does it mean to be neutral in this context? Is NPR’s, above, neutral because it is factual? For authoritarians, mentioning inconvenient facts is itself a political and partisan act, as all the journalists targeted for harm by illiberal states and parties know.
Sadly, CNN's headline answers one of the questions our moderator, Dean Danielle Holley of Howard’s School of Law, posed at the summit: How does the press normalize extremism? Answer: by treating the candidate as "normal," and flattering him by alluding to his amazing ambition, both of which require the silencing of Jan. 6.
It's worth comparing headlines of the two biggest dailies. The Washington Post foregrounds the insurrection, while the New York Times seems to consider Jan. 6 no longer worthy of mention. Its focus is on Trump not heeding the advice of his party.
As I point out in my tweet, this guides readers to see the GOP as "reasonable" and Trump as a rogue figure. Choosing to leave out the insurrection and giving space to the point of view of GOP politicians (who are trying to distance themselves from association with Trump’s crimes) does not support democracy.
One can hope that the journalists will keep the insights of this important summit in mind going forward. Professor Hannah-Jones' call to move on from from outdated journalistic conventions and adjust to new realities could not be better timed.