Poor Media Practices Enable Democracy’s Decline

America has a journalism problem. Those in the press entrusted with First Amendment protections to report on the goings-on in Washington and across the country have largely abandoned what should be their first priority: the preservation of American democracy. Even when discounting the Murdoch-backed propaganda machines and their fringe copycats, the supposedly neutral organizations meant for more fair-minded consumers have been tainted by a plague of false equivalence, both-sides-isms and poor prioritization that have damaged their reputation and propped up democracy’s opponents. Instead of adapting to the new reality that plagues U.S. politics, our elite media pretends that they can continue with business as usual, to our immediate detriment, and, in the long term, to theirs.

The rot starts with Fox News. Whereas it’s now clear that the network is more than just conservative-leaning news but rather a full-blown propaganda outlet that Vladimir Putin would be proud of, for years mainstream journalists came to the network’s defense. Back in 2009, when Jake Tapper was the White House Correspondent for ABC News, he challenged the Obama Administration’s characterization of the network. “It’s escaped none of our notice that the White House has decided in the last few weeks to declare one of our sister organizations ‘not a news organization’ and to tell the rest of us not to treat them like a news organization.” Though the intervening years have proven Obama right, that has not stopped other news organizations from hiring staff straight from Fox, including CNN, MSNBC, and perhaps most egregiously, CBS News. And they can take them out of Fox News, but they can’t take the Fox News out of them.

Most recently, CBS hired 2020 election skeptic and former Trump Administration OMB director Mick Mulvaney as an on-air analyst. Despite repeatedly lying to the public while serving on behalf of the taxpayer, including on issues that led to Trump’s first impeachment, and while currently raking in dough as a special-interest lobbyist, CBS News put him on air without even mentioning his earlier deeds, current conflicts of interest, or even his political affiliation. Yet such an egregious oversight is merely part of a recent pattern at CBS of taking in biased right-wingers and presenting them as fair-minded journalists. White House reporter Major Garrett went straight from Fox News to CBS, but not without complaining that “The Obama administration went on a two-month campaign to demonize and delegitimize the network I worked for.” Another Fox News reporter, Catherine Herridge, left for CBS, taking her conservative spin to network news. If other media organizations are still willing to hire people after publicly and consistently engaging in lies and propaganda, either for a presidential administration or for a far-right cable channel, then what incentive do these individuals have to stop? CBS wasn’t the only organization that hired straight from Fox, after all, as NBC was quick to bring Megyn Kelly on board at one point. But CBS is the first in the post-Trump era to double down on a strategy that is turning the former home of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather into Fox News-lite.

Whereas we can expect bias and propaganda from Fox News and its employees, it’s much harder to grasp the downfall of the paper of record. The New York Times, once the gold standard for journalism, has become a parody of itself under its current editor, Dean Baquet. When it’s not offering glowing profiles of white supremacists or burying stories about Republicans that it would have put on the front page for Democrats, it’s letting its reporters sit on important information for either access or for their books. Its poor practices have become such a joke that the New York Times Pitch Bot on Twitter (@dougjballoon), which creates satirical headlines dripping with the false equivalence that the Times has become known for, has, more than once, predicted an actual headline. But while journalists who go to Fox know what they’re getting themselves into, the Times still maintains some semblance of its once sterling reputation and can still attract talent from other venues. Its brand still has value, and there are more than a fair share of reputable and hard-working journalists employed there. Unfortunately, they have to compete with the lower standards and poor decision-making that, well, lifted Trump in 2016 while, at the same time, burying Hillary Clinton.

So, is The New York Times’ decline all on Dean Baquet? Undoubtedly, some of the worst decisions made at the paper completely fall on his shoulders. And there was no worse call than the elimination of the ombudsman, or Public Editor, at the paper. It was the ombudsman’s job to recognize errors in facts or judgment, as well as ethical lapses at the Times, and then report them to the public. After mounting criticism for their coverage of the 2016 election, and their public editor’s response, the Times didn’t just fire their ombudsman, but eliminated the position entirely. An internal check on their practices and publications was gone. Since then, it’s only fallen further, and the Times hasn’t responded because the position that was created to do so no longer exists.

There has been no greater failure of the American media than its campaign coverage of the 2016 Presidential Election. And while I already covered the institutional failures that needed addressing at the time (spoilers: absolutely nothing has been fixed), the one that I didn’t address was the Fourth Estate itself. The outsized coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails compared to the minimization of the moral bankruptcy, sexual depravity, financial corruption, and fascistic rhetoric of one Donald J. Trump will go down as the worst journalistic malpractice since causing the Spanish-American war. While Donald Trump was given free airtime worth billions, Hillary Clinton was lambasted constantly over an issue that amounted to almost nothing. Yet journalists treated it like a real scandal, hyped it up over and over, and tainted her entire campaign with alleged impropriety that didn’t exist. James Comey may have dredged up the issue on the eve of the election, but it’s the media that played it up. The New York Times gave it full front-page coverage, and cable news repeated it over and over. And there was nothing there! Not only did Comey’s reopening of the investigation fail to find anything new, but in 2019, the State Department itself announced that there “was no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information.” Ultimately, the real scandal was Hillary Clinton’s treatment by mainstream journalists, and how it led to the election of Donald Trump.

If elite journalists learned any lessons from their 2016 coverage, they didn’t announce them publicly. In fact, there was absolutely no public introspection or apology from any major U.S. media organization or its employees. No one was willing to take credit or blame for prioritizing certain coverage that emphasized Hillary’s emails, for equating any negative Trump story with Hillary’s emails, and for implying corruption and scandal when none existed. There was one notable exception. Upon the release of the State Department’s 2019 report, CNN contributor Jeffrey Toobin said, “I talked about the emails here at CNN, I wrote about it in The New Yorker. And I think I paid too much attention to them and I regret that.” No other reporter, no other journalist, no other host, who offered endless coverage of Hillary’s emails to the American electorate has even come close to expressing sorrow or regret. Why is that?

The Fourth Estate is no longer primarily composed of reporters and muckrakers who make a living exposing corruption and fighting on behalf of democratic norms and principles. Instead, the most well-known in the journalistic profession are now celebrities with multimillion-dollar contracts and egos to match their outsized pay. They make numerous TV appearances, if they don’t host a show themselves, pal around with other wealthy celebrities and politicians, and answer to a multibillion-dollar conglomerate. They have more in common with those they’re supposed to be reporting on than those they are reporting the news to. Journalists are an elite class, guaranteed to get that verified checkmark next to their name on Twitter even when they’re just pasting quotes verbatim from the politicians they have access to. While there may still be plenty that remain in a lower tax bracket, the decisions that guide the news and how it’s covered are not made by them. Editorial discretion is left to those with the big paychecks, and they are the ones with public recognition. But their status has also left them out of touch, and either unable or unwilling to relate to the body politic at large and their own influence upon it.

Those large egos among journalists reveal a serious personality flaw common to those in similar positions of prominence: they do not believe they can make a mistake. And when they do, they refuse to admit it or acknowledge it. This is especially problematic in positions of public trust. When it comes to how poorly journalists covered the 2016 presidential campaign, they are not able to recognize how the abysmal decisions they made led to President Donald Trump. And because there is no introspection of their major malpractice, they are unable to address its cause and reform their own actions going forward. Dare mention their screwups on social media, and they will defend themselves, ignore it, or block it out. Public criticism, especially coming from the left, is not considered valid. And the Public Editor, whose job was to address this internally and externally, no longer exists. Because journalists have isolated themselves to protect their egos and their jobs, they are unable to see the obvious: American democracy is at risk from an extreme and growing fascistic right-wing.

As fascism continues to take root in America while democracy is in decline, the journalistic profession is no longer positioned to fight it. Instead of being the guardians of the republic, journalists have continued on a bend of false equivalency that has dominated their coverage this century. Nuanced and informed takes have been sacrificed on the altar of both sides. If Republicans have done something wrong, they must mention something that Democrats have done wrong, even if it’s unequal and incomparable. This sort of coverage, meant to exude fairness and independence, has irrevocably corrupted the ability of journalists to accurately depict existential threats. For many years, climate change deniers were given equal time to scientists despite the overwhelming evidence. And, dare I mention it again, Hillary Clinton’s emails were always the flipside of Donald Trump’s latest impropriety. This method of reporting was explored with greater depth in Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann’s book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. But their analysis was widely ignored and dismissed by those who needed to read it (with the exception of John Harwood). While the Republican Party drifted into extremism even pre-Trump, their radicalization was made to appear equal to the Democratic Party’s own leftward march. And so even now, when Republicans seem ready to abandon the democratic experiment, mainstream media institutions are unable to identify and warn the public about the growing threat.

With so many problems surrounding journalism and the presentation of news and commentary to the American public, you would think that an entire crop of new media critics might rise up to press for reform. But there is a surprising lack of notable media critics that hold positions of prominence or sway. While a concerted effort of Fox News personalities and right-wing elites can often push journalists to cover their latest bogus outrage, be it Hunter Biden’s laptop or critical race theory, there is no independent or left-wing network with equal influence. The most successful media critic this century was Jon Stewart, who regularly used The Daily Show to lambast journalistic malpractice. But even as he managed to get the partisan debate-fest Crossfire cancelled at CNN, he had zero effect on his most regular target: Fox News. Still, he gained the respect of journalists who might be more willing to listen to him than, say, liberal writers at Media Matters. After Stewart departed the Daily Show in 2015, there was no one of similar stature around to replace him. This was felt most starkly, yet again, in 2016

Though Twitter has no shortage of media critics, from Jay Rosen to Matt Negrin, to the late Eric Boehlert, media organizations and their employees rarely pay attention to or respond to their criticism. This was true in 2016 when they repeatedly pointed out the absurdity of the coverage of Hillary’s emails, and it’s true now. When Jay Rosen lambasted the AP over a particularly appalling tweet in 2016, it took weeks before they responded. When Sunday morning shows repeatedly book Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election and fail to give any airtime to Democratic officials, Matt Negrin is quick to point it out. But he gets no response, not even from a network’s PR department. And the shows continue with business as usual, with absolutely no effort to change their ways. Is it any wonder there are no prominent media critics when the media refuses to take them seriously?

Again, there is an exception. Brian Stelter is a media reporter and possibly the only media critic given airtime by mainstream organizations. Though he does not systematically analyze and critique the news, he does occasionally offer criticism during analysis and reporting. Up until now, this included Fox News. But CNN’s new owners apparently want a truce with Fox News, limiting what Stelter can say about the propaganda network. This couldn’t come at a worse time, when Fox News consistently spreads misinformation intended to prop up the growing anti-democracy movement in the country. Since the elite media can bar its employees from calling out the most obvious anti-democratic rhetoric and practices even among its alleged competitors, it’s removing an incentive to do so at any level, including toward elected officials.

Though the American media has prioritized an untold number of stories ahead of the dangerous and anti-democratic actions of the Republican Party, its employees are at the greatest risk should an actual fascist government take charge of the country. With authoritarianism and fascism on the rise throughout the world, there are recent examples of what happens to journalists when those far-right despots take power. In Viktor Orban’s Hungary, journalists’ reports are severely limited under the watchful eye of the state’s Media Authority. In Erdogan’s Turkey, journalists are regularly imprisoned. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, journalists aren’t just censored or jailed, but assassinated if they go too far in the eyes of the state. The independence and well-being of journalists, regardless of their celebrity, is dependent upon a free and democratic state. We can only speculate on what would happen here in the event of a fascist takeover, but we can assume the least they will do is censor what can be reported. It is in journalists’ own self-interest to keep the spotlight on the extremist rhetoric, the state-level legislation, and the candidacies of democracy’s opponents, yet it rarely makes the headlines.

It can happen here. President Trump could be a harbinger of what’s to come. But his presidency is also a warning that democratic rules and traditions are only upheld if the participants in government choose to uphold them. By and large, the American public is pro-democratic. But it is not necessarily pro-Democratic. We exist inside a two-party system, where one party has been keen to let lies and misinformation feed a growing fascist movement within its ranks. Should this continue unabated, they will inevitably take power. But if mainstream journalists call out this frightening fringe and sufficiently warn the public about the consequences of putting them in power, democracy can still rebound. So far, the entire fourth estate has failed and Republicans are poised to take over Congress in the 2022 midterms. There is not much time left to forestall fascism in America.

--

--

--

Current independent author and IT professional. Former NJ political operative.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Podcasts for Dummies (AKA Me)

News you can Lose

Being a media critic doesn’t mean you hate the media.

Web 3 And The Rise of Small Media

Ethnic Media Report

Media Innovation Wins International Award and Scales to Kenya

Principles of Media #1

Change Idiom To Untie Us From Banded Idea of Click Bait News (part 2)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
D. N. Meinster

D. N. Meinster

Current independent author and IT professional. Former NJ political operative.

More from Medium

Madam Speaker: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the U.S. Speaker of the House

War May Change How We Rely on Big Oil

The Best and Worst Parts of Winter Olympics 2022

SC Decision on Roe Vs Wade Leaves Little Imagination To What’s Next