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Press Watch - Dan Froomkin: Political journalism needs a reset

A particularly good analysis of how the press needs to change to deal with these current emergencies.


No one can possibly argue that modern political journalism has fulfilled its essential mission of creating an informed electorate.

So it’s long past time for a reset.

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.

Despite all this, our elite political media recognizes no need for a course change.

Indeed, even after four years of Trump — and his continued domination of the party — there has been essentially no self-reflection from the reporters and editors who set the tone for national news coverage. They just keep doing what they’ve done for decades: remain aloof and detached from the urgent and crucial political issues that underly the partisan divide, 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.

The 2022 midterms, as Esquire political blogger Charles Pierce has noted, “are going to be a conflict between what is actually happening and what people believe is happening.”

We can’t sit this one out.

My goal here is to challenge business as usual and spur some self-reflection – ideally from the elite political reporters and editors themselves, but if not, then from the people who employ them and the people who keep them in business.

It’s also to call attention to excellent political journalism that can define best practices going forward.

And, I admit, it’s also to put into words the often inchoate fury that readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other elite, influential news organizations so often feel after reading or watching a work of political journalism that does not acknowledge the urgency of the moment, lacks historical context, offers a megaphone to liars and provocateurs, normalizes radical extremist white Christian nativism, and projects a white male right-of-center gaze under the guise of objectivity.

Steps and Issues ...

Adjusting to Asymmetry

It’s been nine years since political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein justifiably scolded the press for whiffing on the biggest story of the 2012 election: the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.

And that was nothing compared to today.

Post-Trump, any hint of a coherent governing philosophy has vanished. There is no Republican agenda, just culture warfare and obstruction. The party’s most defining principle right now is the Big Lie. Practically speaking, it reliably serves only the ultra-rich. It is inflamed with racism and nativism.

And yet the incremental, day-in-day-out political coverage still casts the GOP as a reasonable and viable alternative to Democrats. It goes beyond both-sides coverage: Political reporters consistently predict Republicans will retake at least one chamber in 2022, and quite possibly the White House in 2024.

What that does, however, is normalize the decision to vote for an extremist, nativist, anti-governance party. It presumes that there will be zero accountability for lying and extremism. When mainstream-media reporters say the next elections are going to be squeakers, it reassures non-delusional people that voting Republican would not be such a crazy and dangerous thing, which it would be.

And to the extent that it’s true — and that Republicans could in fact win again — it’s incumbent on reporters to further explore the tribalism that attaches people to the party apparently regardless of what it does.

Any political journalist who is not addled knows full well that this GOP winning a chamber of Congress would effectively shut down any attempts at governance, and that a second Trump term would cause profound, potentially irrecoverable damage to the country and its institutions.

For that reason, every news story about the two parties, especially about elections, should openly address the imbalance between the two parties when it comes to speaking the truth and wanting every vote to be counted.

Yet political reporters are more comfortable speculating about who’s winning.

I should be clear that I am in no way suggesting that political journalists endorse the Democratic Party. Political reporters shouldn’t be partisans. Partisanship distorts reality. Partisans are willing to twist facts to suit their goals, which is profoundly anti-journalistic. The Democratic Party is terribly flawed in its own way. And political news reporters should, in fact, not take sides on issues where there are reasonable, fact-based, but contradictory solutions.

What I am calling for is an endorsement of reality. A hearty one.
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