Journalists can't save American democracy

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Donald Trump.
Donald Trump. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Ever since Donald Trump's shocking victory in the 2016 presidential race, a debate has been raging among mainstream journalists over the media's role in paving the way for the demagogue's win. With Trump sounding very much like he intends to make another run for the White House in 2024 and polls indicating he will easily win his party's nomination if he does, this argument has surged to life once again.

For Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, media critic Jay Rosen, and others, the stakes are obvious and enormous. Trump poses an existential threat to American democracy. Given that reality, aspiring to neutrality between the parties ends up contributing to the realization of the worst-case scenario. According to Milbank, that's already happening, with coverage of Democrat Joe Biden rivaling the negativity that characterized stories about Trump's time in the White House. It would be much better for members of the media to do their jobs with a proper sense of proportion, consistently describing the danger Trump and his party represents, placing them in a category distinct from whatever faults the Biden administration displays, and actively becoming "partisans for democracy."

On the other side of argument, Ross Douthat of The New York Times argues that this view of news coverage will only increase the appeal of right-wing populism. Because "suspicion of the establishment is precisely what's generating support for populism in the first place," rallying the establishment behind one of the two parties won't succeed in suppressing the populist insurgency. "Instead, you need to tell the truth about populism's dangers while convincing skeptical readers that you can be trusted to describe reality in full."

If forced to choose between those two positions, I incline toward Douthat's side of the debate. I fear that if mainstream media outlets become more openly partisan, they will lose even more trust and authority, and end up being taken seriously only by those who already agree with them about the threat of the populist right.

Yet I fear that even Douthat is being more than a little naïve about our fractured and polarized epistemic reality. What counts as a scandal worthy of coverage? Which ones are huge and which are trivial? How much time and attention should be devoted to which kinds of political corruption? Douthat's column presumes that the answers to these questions are fairly obvious, that journalists should cover them accordingly, and that if they don't, conservative viewers will see this as further evidence of media bias and untrustworthiness.

That might have been true in 1998. But in 2021, it's beside the point. The right's media ecosystem actively encourages its audience to view any and all mainstream coverage that makes Republicans look bad as evidence of bias and bad faith. This same ecosystem treats any and all mainstream coverage of Democrats that doesn't savage them as infected by hypocrisy and double standards. These judgments are made prior to any open-minded assessment of the facts in particular cases.

In that kind of tribal and trustless environment, it may already be too late for mainstream journalists to demonstrate their fairness — let alone save American democracy.

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