Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

“Political journalism needs to wean itself from right-wing agitators and call this period what it is: an erosion of democracy and attempts to radicalize large chunks of the electorate.”

While I think the last couple of months have added a few more twists and turns as we hurtle to the bottom of the roller coaster I spoke about in 2018, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t foresee how this ride would unfold.

For example, take the extent to which the media has seemed to silently accept the harassment by the current regime over the last seven months. Political journalists seemed flummoxed and unprepared for what is unfolding in this interregnum period, despite my urging last year that American media to learn from their African colleagues. My friend Joe Penney and I tried to warn of this eventuality.

No one took us up on our offer to provide an opportunity for this learning to happen. While we’ll have some respite from the institutionalized chaos that has left an indelible mark on all of us, the threats of violence in Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania remind us that this is far from over.

As we hobble into 2021, It feels like we’re about to wake up from a dream within a dream. The last four years, coupled with the past ten months, have felt like a scene from Inception, where the primary function for bad actors has been to find a way to curtail media freedoms during multiple crises within crises. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker found that in May alone, law enforcement officers assaulted 190 journalists. In 2020 as a whole (at least up to now), 313 U.S. journalists have been attacked, again with many pointing to attacks by law enforcement officers.

Yet we’ve also seen international actors refuse to call what is happening in the U.S. an outright assault on journalistic freedoms. I watched a well-respected media observer from an international NGO claim on Twitter that assaults on journalists resulted from a “few bad actors” who weren’t adequately trained. This same observer is not shy about claiming that press freedom is under attack in Africa when similar assaults unfold on the continent.

While the double standard isn’t shocking to me and other Africans, to be honest, the extent to which the media field echoed this unimaginative response was astonishing. Despite watching Omar Jimenez, Kaitlin Rust, and James Dobson be assaulted on live TV, many in the profession were unwilling to call this systemic issue out for what it was: The State was trying to muzzle the press.

And don’t forget that one time America’s paper of record published an op-ed that called for the willful killing of protestors by the State in the name of “fostering a debate” — a debate about the killing of Black people during protests demanding recognition that lives like mine matter, have rights, and should be treated with respect and decency. These types of “debates,” Errin Haines reminds us, have a name.

After four years of bedlam, political journalists have not, as Burna Boy would say, taken the time to “Ja Ara E.” What we’ve seen over the past four years is American political journalism fumbling in the dark and failing to take a macro view of the chess game they were engaged in with the tate. They lost at every turn, often without even realizing that they were headed into a cul-de-sac. So here we are in December, and political journalists haven’t taken stock of what the last four years might mean for the next four.

At the same time, because the incoming administration is likely to be competently boring, the press will give the current occupant of the White House and his acolytes more airtime than they deserve. They will provide them with platforms to provide “the other side” of the day’s debates. Right-wing media will continue to draw political journalists into its atmosphere in much the same way as the main protagonist in Lady A’s “Hurt.”

Political journalism needs to wean itself from right-wing agitators and call this period what it is: an erosion of democracy and attempts to radicalize large chunks of the electorate. We’ve seen this playbook before. We know how, if left unchecked, it ends.

james Wahutu is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

While I think the last couple of months have added a few more twists and turns as we hurtle to the bottom of the roller coaster I spoke about in 2018, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t foresee how this ride would unfold.

For example, take the extent to which the media has seemed to silently accept the harassment by the current regime over the last seven months. Political journalists seemed flummoxed and unprepared for what is unfolding in this interregnum period, despite my urging last year that American media to learn from their African colleagues. My friend Joe Penney and I tried to warn of this eventuality.

No one took us up on our offer to provide an opportunity for this learning to happen. While we’ll have some respite from the institutionalized chaos that has left an indelible mark on all of us, the threats of violence in Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania remind us that this is far from over.

As we hobble into 2021, It feels like we’re about to wake up from a dream within a dream. The last four years, coupled with the past ten months, have felt like a scene from Inception, where the primary function for bad actors has been to find a way to curtail media freedoms during multiple crises within crises. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker found that in May alone, law enforcement officers assaulted 190 journalists. In 2020 as a whole (at least up to now), 313 U.S. journalists have been attacked, again with many pointing to attacks by law enforcement officers.

Yet we’ve also seen international actors refuse to call what is happening in the U.S. an outright assault on journalistic freedoms. I watched a well-respected media observer from an international NGO claim on Twitter that assaults on journalists resulted from a “few bad actors” who weren’t adequately trained. This same observer is not shy about claiming that press freedom is under attack in Africa when similar assaults unfold on the continent.

While the double standard isn’t shocking to me and other Africans, to be honest, the extent to which the media field echoed this unimaginative response was astonishing. Despite watching Omar Jimenez, Kaitlin Rust, and James Dobson be assaulted on live TV, many in the profession were unwilling to call this systemic issue out for what it was: The State was trying to muzzle the press.

And don’t forget that one time America’s paper of record published an op-ed that called for the willful killing of protestors by the State in the name of “fostering a debate” — a debate about the killing of Black people during protests demanding recognition that lives like mine matter, have rights, and should be treated with respect and decency. These types of “debates,” Errin Haines reminds us, have a name.

After four years of bedlam, political journalists have not, as Burna Boy would say, taken the time to “Ja Ara E.” What we’ve seen over the past four years is American political journalism fumbling in the dark and failing to take a macro view of the chess game they were engaged in with the tate. They lost at every turn, often without even realizing that they were headed into a cul-de-sac. So here we are in December, and political journalists haven’t taken stock of what the last four years might mean for the next four.

At the same time, because the incoming administration is likely to be competently boring, the press will give the current occupant of the White House and his acolytes more airtime than they deserve. They will provide them with platforms to provide “the other side” of the day’s debates. Right-wing media will continue to draw political journalists into its atmosphere in much the same way as the main protagonist in Lady A’s “Hurt.”

Political journalism needs to wean itself from right-wing agitators and call this period what it is: an erosion of democracy and attempts to radicalize large chunks of the electorate. We’ve seen this playbook before. We know how, if left unchecked, it ends.

james Wahutu is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

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