Two paths forward for the American press

As the results of the 2020 election come fully into view, I am asking myself what will happen with the American press after Donald Trump leaves the White House.

Most of the commentary on this question has centered on the media’s addiction to, and commercial dependence on the Trump phenomenon, as if the infamous quip from CBS Chairman Les Moonves — “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” — might now run in reverse. (It may not be good for the media, but it’s damn good for the United States!)

The industry calls it the Trump Bump. What happens to it when he leaves office is not on my list of concerns. As a division of a larger company (now AT&T) CNN has generated more than $1 billion in operating profit in recent years. If profits suffer because Joe Biden is not as exciting as Donald Trump, I’m sure the analysts on Wall Street can handle any interpretive tasks that might arise.

What happens now in the political imagination of the press, and to its practices that Trump broke; how journalists can build it back better after the siege lifts; the dangers of reverting to form after form failed them, and us— these are things that do concern me.

This post describes two paths forward for the professionals who report on politics for the “mainstream” media (I refer here to its national wing: ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, NPR, the AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, Politico, The Atlantic, Time magazine…) The first path is a restoration of order as a more normal president takes office. A recent dispatch from that world: Biden is bringing back the daily briefing. Yay! The second path is a democratic breakthrough in journalism after what Masha Gessen calls an “autocratic attempt,” which failed in the 2020 elections.

Powerful forces favor a restoration. It is by far the most likely outcome. After coping with an avalanche of news, an excess of controversy, and a hate campaign against them for five years, journalists would no doubt welcome a return to regular order, and a more human pace.

In Washington the setting will feel excessively familiar. A Democratic president trying to enact an ambitious agenda against Republicans in Congress who would rather do nothing, unless it involves tax cuts. All the old cliches will be within easy reach. Divided government. Partisan warfare. Gridlock in Washington. The extremes on both sides. Democrats in disarray. Republicans being mean again. Why can’t they compromise? Plus a new one: Dueling realities.

Several layers down in the construction of normalcy is the position from which the national press likes to narrate the story of politics. Party on the left, party on the right. Each with an “extreme” and a “moderate” wing that can come into confict. Savvy journalists sit in the middle, sizing up the state of play, posing tough questions and checking fudged facts with equal aggression toward both sides.

Trump screwed with the “both sides” system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back. You can hear it in these thoughts from Dean Baquet, top editor of the New York Times, who was quoted in a recent Vanity Fair article: (“News media begins to contemplate a post-Trump White House.”)

“If I’m CNN, if there’s a transition, I’m going to sit down with Daniel Dale and say, ‘This was great. Let’s be just as aggressive on a Democratic administration.’ Frankly, a Democratic administration doesn’t warrant as much fact-checking as Donald Trump did. No politician has warranted as much fact-checking as Donald Trump did. But let’s talk about other ways to use this important journalistic tool.”

Several things going on here. Baquet recognizes Trump as an outlier. You can’t compare Biden’s clumsy patter to Trump’s zone flooding, and he doesn’t try. But you can also hear the wish: for the opportunity to be just as aggressive toward a Democratic administration, even though the facts, as it were, do not warrant it. Here’s Daniel Dale on August 25 making this very point:

The Republican National Convention started off with a parade of dishonesty, in stark contrast with last week’s Democratic convention. While CNN also watched and fact-checked the Democrats, those four nights combined didn’t have the number of misleading and false claims made on the first night of the Republicans’ convention.

Just as aggressive? Well, a man can dream. The longing for symmetry is not a wholly conscious thing, anyway. I doubt the Times editor who crafted this headline quite knew what they were doing: It was later taken down after online criticism, but I can imagine the headline’s author feeling quite bewildered about that. In Times journalism, it is utterly natural to set off one “extreme” with another: Black Lives Matter at one pole, QAnon at the other. The formal requirements of symmetry permit and encourage this.

In reality, the Congresswoman from QAnon, Marjorie Taylor Greene, didn’t “meet” Black Lives Matter any more than she “met” mainstream liberalism or movement conservatives, but setting it up this way feels right to Times people, just as the criticism they got for “false equivalence” probably feels overblown. The “study in contrasts” I recommended to them was different: reality-based office holders vs. the other kind, of which Marjorie Taylor Greene is a fine example. But that way of picturing the political world — reality-based vs. the denialists — isn’t the regular order to which editors like Baquet wish to return.

Which brings me to a second path forward for the American press.

Many presidents have tried to remove restraints on executive power. The restraint Trump tried to remove was reality itself. This was part of what Masha Gessen (following Bálint Magyar) calls an “autocratic attempt,” the stage in the process of a country’s takeover by an autocrat when things in motion are still reversible by democratic means. Many dangers remain, but two weeks out from the election, it is fair to say that a majority of Americans put a stop to Trump’s attempted subversion of their democracy.

And they were assisted by American journalists. Now in saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that people in the news media did as much as, say, the poll workers, or the public officials who ran the elections in 50 states, or the police who kept order and prevented michief, or the voters themselves, who turned out in record numbers.

Americans overcame Trump’s autocratic attempt, preventing it from advancing to the second stage, the autocratic breakthrough, “when it is no longer possible to reverse autocracy peacefully,” as Gessen writes, “because the very structures of government have been transformed and can no longer protect themselves.”

It was a narrow escape. Journalists assisted. Again, I say that not to inflate their role, but to recognize that at some point in the final weeks before the vote, and especially after Trump declared that the election had been stolen from him, a critical masss in the press finally acted on what so many Americans had been trying to tell them for years: That this was a civic emergency, and American democracy really was endangered by Trump. That describing it as a propaganda presidency wasn’t campaign rhetoric or partisan reflex. That we really could lose the Republic in the sense Benjamin Franklin meant when, according to legend, he emerged from the Constitutional Convention and was asked by the citizens of Philadelphia what kind of government we have. “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

It was easier to see this from abroad. Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of a book on Brexit. I am going to quote an extended portion of his column dated November 6, 2020 because it describes well the moment I am talking about. “This time, journalism was prepared,” Dunt writes.

You got a very strong impression of the editorial meetings which had taken place before the election. They had clearly grappled with how to manage what Trump was going to try and do. Instead of the usual formulations of saying his comments were ‘controversial’, or ‘contested’, or ‘rejected by experts’, they said what they actually were: Lies. Attempts to take away the democratic rights of voters. Attacks on the most basic foundations of what constitutes a legitimate state.

They worked tirelessly to protect and even lionise the local officials and vote-counters who were being branded conspirators by the White House. They constantly explained, in clear terms, how the electoral process worked, what was counted where and why, which safeguards there were, how there were Republican representatives at the counts alongside Democrats and independent observers, why the litigation the Trump administration was pursuing was baseless and being rejected by the courts.

Strict balance in this context would be self-annihilating. It would give equal voice to those who want to destroy democracy and those who want to protect it. But if the former are victorious, there will be no ability to hear ‘both sides’ in future. When democracy is under threat, objective reporters protect it as the basis upon which they can continue to discharge their professional obligations. Empirical truth – how a count is conducted, whether there is merit to a claim against it, the credibility of a statement – finally became the active principle of journalistic coverage again.

Listen to the words once more. When democracy is under threat, objective reporters protect it as the basis upon which they can continue to discharge their professional obligations. That is the breakthrough American journalists had during the 2020 election. And it wasn’t the crew at any one network or newsroom.

Press scholar Sarah Oates describes a similar moment on the night of November 5th. “As votes mounted to oust the president from office, Trump appeared for rambling, repetitive accusations of electoral fraud based on the flimsiest of evidence. One by one, many networks decided to stop airing the press conference. Instead, some returned to their studio announcers to criticize the president for lying.”

This, she says, “is the moment when U.S. media norms, under enormous pressure from Trump-led disinformation, switched.” Newsrooms exchanged a “libertarian” model, in which they are conduits from information sources to the public, for a more direct defense of democracy. Oates writes:

Journalists had come to realize that the game was rigged. Trump and his supporters were parasites in the libertarian media system, taking advantage of how they could assert disinformation and still get covered. What changed is that journalists realized that the libertarian model dictates that media must cover the news – but should avoid propaganda. By accepting and embracing that messages from the White House were now propaganda and not news, the networks were liberated to stop the flow of disinformation for the good of democracy.

She calls this a “revolutionary decision,” and “a seismic shift under enormous provocation.” (Of course it helped that Trump appeared to be losing, and would be gone in 75 days.)

CNN did not stop airing the president’s ramblings the night of November 5th. But a more direct defense of democracy came through anyway. Here are the words of Jake Tapper reacting to Trump’s declaration that the election was fraudulent.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: What a sad night for the United States of America to hear their president say that. To falsely accuse people of trying to steal the election, to try to attack democracy that way with this feast of falsehoods, lie after lie after lie about the election being stolen. No evidence for what he’s saying, just smears about the integrity of vote counting in state after state.

And here is Abby Phillip a few minutes later:

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This president clearly knows that this is not going to end well for him, or he believes that. And he’s trying to take the rest of the country down with him. He’s trying to take the voting system down with him. The Democratic process down with him. And beyond being completely selfish, it also is just wrong.

So here is what I mean by another way forward:

Trump’s attempt on the Republic was defeated by a coalition of the American people, mostly Democrats, some disaffected Republicans, and a majority of independents. The press helped to prevent an autocratic breakthrough, especially in the tense days after the voting stopped and before the victor emerged with clarity. As Ian Dunt said, “journalism was ready.”

This was a powerful moment for the people who report on politics. It did not destroy them. It made them stronger, and restored some pride. It also illuminated a different path for political journalism after Trump leaves office. Instead of lapsing back into routines and enjoying the restoration of an old order, the press could continue with its democratic breakthrough.

For it is by no means clear that the Republic will be kept when 70 million people voted for Donald Trump after they knew what he was, or when the Republicans seem determined to compete for power by limiting the franchise and ruling as a minority party.

To continue with its moment of breakthrough, the American press will need new leadership. It will have to find a way to become pro-truth, pro-voting, and aggressively pro-democracy. It will have to cast its lot with those in both parties who are reality-based. It will have to learn to distinguish bad actors with propagandistic intent from normal speakers making their case. And there’s one more thing.

In his New York Times column on the media business after Trump, Ben Smith talks to the current editor of the Los Angeles Times, Norm Pearlstine, who is thinking of retiring after the election. Pearlstine says the old top-down newsroom management is a thing of the past: “Consent of the governed is something you have to take pretty seriously.” In other words, democracy begins at home. If newsrooms themselves become more democratic — more representive, diverse, and differently led — that could keep the breakthrough going.

No, I won’t be betting on it. But I will be watching for it.