Democracy as a News Beat
Terry H. Schwadron
May 3, 2022
That multiple full pages of the Sunday New York Times were devoted to a tough look at Tucker Carlson’s dominating position as a Fox News commentator on current events, detailing his affinity for conspiracy theories and white nativist themes, was surprising only for its length and prominence.
After all, the basic question here — how did an angular and provocative Tucker Carlson become so popular — seems fair game, especially because his rise has come about despite a presentation tone that is generally sarcastic and demeaning, a reliance on consistently repeating “facts” decried as “misinformation” and giving significant voice to conspiracy theories.
Tucker Carlson’s politically rightist political views are obvious and, as the lengthy examination shows, his messages both are endorsed by Fox and reflect a remarkable amount of overlap with white supremacist groups.
What may have been less noted was the note that The Times attached to its web page:
“This series is part of an ongoing examination by The Times of challenges to democratic norms in the United States and around the world,” offering a link to other stories gathered under the heading “Democracy Challenged.”
The link drew up a number of news stories, commentaries and essays that discuss the general attack by Republican-led states on election procedures, coverage related to the continually unfolding plotting towards the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, international hurdles to free speech and the growth of autocratic governments, including in Hungary, and the fight over information distortion.
The Times offers this statement: “Democratic norms are facing a historic test: Many Americans doubt the results of the 2020 election, and extremism, global authoritarianism and disinformation are on the rise. The Times is examining this landscape of challenges through a range of coverage.”
Democracy as a News Beat
In the last two months, The Washington Post launched a “Democracy Team” within the national staff — a commitment that includes two new editors and six reporters, a big commitment — specifically to inform readers about the growing laws, orders, election procedures and such that are challenging the future of our democracy.
As part of MSNBC’s daily two-hour “Deadline: White House” talk show, host Nicolle Wallace repeats daily that the program is highlighting examination of anti-democracy efforts.
The New York Times Magazine, like many other outlets, offered essays from panel of political scientists, historians and political operatives to address who have studied the lurching advances and retreats of democracy in other countries and the dynamics of American partisanship.
Lots of other news outlets are highlighting segments or programming about the future of democracy in this time of aggressive division not only about policy but about the rules by which we will vote, teach and speak. Naturally, much of these efforts come across as partisan attacks on Republican efforts towards “election integrity” from having baselessly and endlessly pursued election fraud charges from the November 2020 presidential election.
As Matea Gold, the new Democracy editor at The Post told NPR, The effort by the sitting president and his allies to overturn the results of the election, and that campaign tested all the pressure points of our democratic system. Local canvassing boards, state lawmakers, federal officials and Congress itself, as we saw on January 6, when Congress came under violent assault. And it soon became clear that the January 6 attack was not the end of something, but rather the beginning.”
As a result, her new beat is sending six reporters not only in Washington, but in Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, the states that continue to reflect the most electoral contest. The goal is “to centralize and expand our reporting on the battles over voting rules and access to the polls, the pressures on election systems across the country and efforts to sow doubt about the outcome of the vote,” the Post explained.
From the state legislatures passing new book bans and speech limits, the culture wars all are based on insisting that some people deserve democracy and others don’t.
Are There Two Sides?
Those who write about media and press, groups like Press Watchers and Media Matters, all see the same trend. There is discomfort with covering the demise of democratic practices like free speech and voting as if there are two legitimate sides of these issues about voting and counting as being of equal weight.
Where democracy is concerned, Republicans have decided that democracy is second to winning. Democrats talk about democracy, and then turn around and gerrymander as well when they have the chance. But they don’t talk about overturning results.
If democracy is what this country is all about, the question facing the press is how the media — and our citizens — live within the bounds of traditional balancing.
The usual balancing act does not fully recognize a reality is democracy is giving way with the spread of partisan laws coming from state legislatures in coordinated fashion that deny voter rights, that set up these legislatures legally to overturn unwanted election results, that have seen a vast spread of misinformation and authoritarian-style governing.
The shame of all this is that any change in press role is being perceived as partisan because the political attacks on democracy basically are partisan.
Here’s Dan Froomkin from Press Watchers calling for a reset of journalism to be more confrontational about anti-democratic policymaking. “Let’s start with the overarching problem: Misinformation, disinformation and gaslighting have become rampant in our political discourse, turning citizens against each other, choking the legislative process, eroding confidence in elections, and, in the age of Covid, literally getting people killed. A striking number of voters are laboring under a series of delusions that make them incapable of rational decision-making. The country is still reeling from a violent attempted coup in the name of a Big Lie — a lie that has essentially become doctrine for one of our two major political parties.”
His complaint is that the political media should be yet more forceful in calling out what he sees as anti-democratic excesses from the Donald Trump years. In his view, news outlets are “so intent on covering the play-by-play and ‘not taking sides’ that they have refused to scream out the truth. As a result, they’re being drowned out by the lies.
I am a proponent that good journalism gets at the explanation for how the world works as well as its daily agenda. As we have seen, simply holding a microphone up to a House Republican leader like Kevin McCarthy shows the wispiness of truth when he cannot explain his remarks we hear on a recorded tape.
We already have too much perceived partisan media. I continue to have hope that enough people can recognize and read, view and understand that there are dogged campaigns under way to undercut traditional democracy for partisan results.