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Agree we’re partisan — for the democratic system

“Our prism of partisanship as the fundamental way to view the world is dangerously myopic, blinding us to the real workings of power, and causing us not to ask the right questions.”

This is the year — I hope — that journalists will begin to admit that there is no such thing as neutrality.

All over the world, the forces of authoritarianism and the forces of democracy are struggling for control of the future. You can see it in Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, the United States and just about everywhere else. To believe that because you’re a journalist you’re a neutral observer to this battle is to be as detached from reality as Donald Trump claiming his inauguration was the biggest in history. You may not have intended it at the time, but the moment you decided to become a journalist, you chose a side. The very act of doing journalism means allegiance to the forces of democracy.

And yet American journalists remain obsessed with being “neutral.” We’ll do anything to avoid being called “partisan.” But is it possible that our concept of “partisanship” is outdated, left over from a time when newspapers were still transitioning away from being the organs of party machines? When independence from political faction was a new idea, a selling point? It’s as if, somewhere along the way, the (crucial) idea of independence from party lines became ossified. We confused non-partisanship with never taking a side on anything. As if that were even possible — as if news organization aren’t taking sides every day about what they choose to cover, who they quote, and what gets left out.

In this historical moment, when such a power-grab by authoritarian forces is underway, we can’t afford not to see reality as it is. Our prism of partisanship as the fundamental way to view the world is dangerously myopic, blinding us to the real workings of power, and causing us not to ask the right questions. If we accepted that we are inherently advocates for a democratic system, that could change. We’d be less focused on what’s good or bad for the Democrats or Republicans, and more focused on what’s good or bad for the democratic system. Everything from editorial decision making to reporter training would change if we refocused on power rather than party.

Obviously, the question of what’s good for democracy is one over which honest people can differ, and those debates belong on the pages of any serious news organization. But too often, today, with our myopic frame of nonpartisanship, we give equal weight to the spin of people whose allegiances are simply to something other than democracy. If you think that demanding quality education and healthcare, clean air and water, affordable housing and a functioning justice system makes you a left-wing radical, you’ve been hoodwinked by anti-democratic forces. Those are simply things that are necessary for a democratic system to flourish.

If news organizations came out as advocates for democracy, we might also find ourselves with new allies. And U.S. journalists — aka the Enemies of the People — could use some new friends. Could we claim people in education, health care, justice reform, environmental studies, and income equality work as our allies? What if we allied ourselves with voting rights advocates and made a metric of success whether our readers voted?

In other words, could this be the year when we all agreed we were partisan — but for the democratic system? Please.

Heather Chaplin is the director of the Journalism + Design program at The New School.

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