The press will either save American democracy…or doom it

“Democracy is bigger than Democrats and Republicans, and it’s incumbent upon journalists to defend it with all they have. I don’t believe they’re up to the task, but I’d love to be proven wrong.”

Last year around this time, I wrote an article for Media Matters calling on journalists to defend democracy against the coming tide of attacks from the right. While then-President Donald Trump was busy stomping around the Oval Office yelling about the 2020 election being “stolen” from him, my concerns centered more on what the rest of the Republican Party was doing.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a baseless, frivolous lawsuit in which he called on the Supreme Court to invalidate the election results in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Georgia. More than 60% of the Republican members of the House of Representatives, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, signed onto it. A month earlier, well after the election had been called for President-elect Joe Biden, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a press conference in which he said that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” While this was obviously a frightening thing to say, many news outlets reacted to Pompeo’s words with a shrug. This, of course, preceded the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, aimed at preventing Biden’s victory from being certified, which was itself followed by 147 Republicans voting to overturn the election results.

With few exceptions, journalists seemed to treat this all as totally normal. Turn on Meet the Press or CBS Sunday Morning some weekend and you’re likely to see someone who voted against the certification of the presidential election sitting for a friendly interview or a field report with Trump supporters filmed in the town that inspired The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry. Click over to Politico and you’ll find articles with headlines reading “‘They’re all begging me’: Trump’s 2024 veep tryouts get underway” or “Trump poll tests his 2024 comeback map.” It’s treated as a given that not only can he run, but that if he does, he might just win…some way or another.

Trump himself isn’t the threat, as his ability to return to power will hinge entirely on the actions of congressional Republicans and election officials around the country. If the Republican Party was willing and able to take a stand in favor of our democracy, they would — but they aren’t. They’re all in on it. Even the rare Republicans who “stand up” to the more anti-democratic segment of the party (Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, Georgia Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger) still either won’t help fight the attacks on democracy (Cheney and Kinzinger both voted against election reform bills proposed by Democrats) or will quietly continue the attacks themselves (Raffensperger supported the passage of Georgia’s new voting-restriction law earlier this year).

When I was asked for my 2021 predictions, I wrote that the press would risk elevating a Shadow President Trump, treating him as a leader in temporary exile — and I was right. With that in mind, I take no pleasure in offering my next prediction: 2022 will be the year that journalists either change everything about how they cover politics…or it will be the year they enable a party dead set on obliterating whatever guardrails are left between the representative democracy that the U.S. is supposed to be and the minority-rule competitive authoritarian government they have been trying to build for decades.

I want to believe that journalists and their employers will heed the alarms being sounded by experts around the world and break from the “both sides” narratives that have emboldened the increasingly radicalized Republican Party. I want to believe that they will stop viewing anger from both the left and the right as a sign that they must be doing their jobs right. I want to believe that they will take necessary care to ensure that the public understands what it means for democracy if Republicans retake power at a national level in 2022 or 2024. I want to believe all of this, but I can’t.

Some might argue that this is an issue of Democrats simply not being good enough when it comes to messaging their support for election reform. And some might argue that the “both sides” narrative is fair because, for instance, a handful of Democrats voted against certifying the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections. But it’s precisely that sort of false equivalence that I’m referring to, that sort of false equivalence that has poisoned our democracy, as in those cases the Democratic presidential candidates had all conceded their races with the votes against certification serving as nothing more than statements of protest. Democracy is bigger than Democrats and Republicans, and it’s incumbent upon journalists to defend it with all they have. I don’t believe they’re up to the task, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

I worry that 2022 will be the year we cross the democratic Rubicon, and that journalists will have played a role in committing us to a very dark future.

Last year around this time, I wrote an article for Media Matters calling on journalists to defend democracy against the coming tide of attacks from the right. While then-President Donald Trump was busy stomping around the Oval Office yelling about the 2020 election being “stolen” from him, my concerns centered more on what the rest of the Republican Party was doing.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a baseless, frivolous lawsuit in which he called on the Supreme Court to invalidate the election results in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Georgia. More than 60% of the Republican members of the House of Representatives, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, signed onto it. A month earlier, well after the election had been called for President-elect Joe Biden, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a press conference in which he said that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” While this was obviously a frightening thing to say, many news outlets reacted to Pompeo’s words with a shrug. This, of course, preceded the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, aimed at preventing Biden’s victory from being certified, which was itself followed by 147 Republicans voting to overturn the election results.

With few exceptions, journalists seemed to treat this all as totally normal. Turn on Meet the Press or CBS Sunday Morning some weekend and you’re likely to see someone who voted against the certification of the presidential election sitting for a friendly interview or a field report with Trump supporters filmed in the town that inspired The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry. Click over to Politico and you’ll find articles with headlines reading “‘They’re all begging me’: Trump’s 2024 veep tryouts get underway” or “Trump poll tests his 2024 comeback map.” It’s treated as a given that not only can he run, but that if he does, he might just win…some way or another.

Trump himself isn’t the threat, as his ability to return to power will hinge entirely on the actions of congressional Republicans and election officials around the country. If the Republican Party was willing and able to take a stand in favor of our democracy, they would — but they aren’t. They’re all in on it. Even the rare Republicans who “stand up” to the more anti-democratic segment of the party (Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, Georgia Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger) still either won’t help fight the attacks on democracy (Cheney and Kinzinger both voted against election reform bills proposed by Democrats) or will quietly continue the attacks themselves (Raffensperger supported the passage of Georgia’s new voting-restriction law earlier this year).

When I was asked for my 2021 predictions, I wrote that the press would risk elevating a Shadow President Trump, treating him as a leader in temporary exile — and I was right. With that in mind, I take no pleasure in offering my next prediction: 2022 will be the year that journalists either change everything about how they cover politics…or it will be the year they enable a party dead set on obliterating whatever guardrails are left between the representative democracy that the U.S. is supposed to be and the minority-rule competitive authoritarian government they have been trying to build for decades.

I want to believe that journalists and their employers will heed the alarms being sounded by experts around the world and break from the “both sides” narratives that have emboldened the increasingly radicalized Republican Party. I want to believe that they will stop viewing anger from both the left and the right as a sign that they must be doing their jobs right. I want to believe that they will take necessary care to ensure that the public understands what it means for democracy if Republicans retake power at a national level in 2022 or 2024. I want to believe all of this, but I can’t.

Some might argue that this is an issue of Democrats simply not being good enough when it comes to messaging their support for election reform. And some might argue that the “both sides” narrative is fair because, for instance, a handful of Democrats voted against certifying the 2000, 2004, and 2016 elections. But it’s precisely that sort of false equivalence that I’m referring to, that sort of false equivalence that has poisoned our democracy, as in those cases the Democratic presidential candidates had all conceded their races with the votes against certification serving as nothing more than statements of protest. Democracy is bigger than Democrats and Republicans, and it’s incumbent upon journalists to defend it with all they have. I don’t believe they’re up to the task, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

I worry that 2022 will be the year we cross the democratic Rubicon, and that journalists will have played a role in committing us to a very dark future.

Izabella Kaminska

Anita Varma

Sarah Stonbely

j. Siguru Wahutu

Cristina Tardáguila

Jonas Kaiser

Kerri Hoffman

Wilson Liévano

Gonzalo del Peon

Jody Brannon

Millie Tran

Moreno Cruz Osório

Raney Aronson-Rath

Jennifer Brandel

Kathleen Searles & Rebekah Trumble

Mike Rispoli

Paul Cheung

Andrew Freedman

Joshua P. Darr

Melody Kramer

Natalia Viana

Shalabh Upadhyay

Simon Allison

Victor Pickard

Whitney Phillips

Larry Ryckman

Janelle Salanga

Gabe Schneider

Julia Angwin

Kristen Muller

Julia Munslow

Tom Trewinnard

Candace Amos

Francesco Zaffarano

Chicas Poderosas

Tony Baranowski

Ariel Zirulnick

Don Day

A.J. Bauer

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Parker Molloy

Catalina Albeanu

Gordon Crovitz

Brian Moritz

Joe Amditis

Joy Mayer

Cindy Royal

Richard Tofel

Alice Antheaume

Anthony Nadler

Nikki Usher

David Skok

Doris Truong

Ståle Grut

Robert Hernandez

Kristen Jeffers

Chase Davis

Matthew Pressman

Joanne McNeil

Christoph Mergerson

Megan McCarthy

Sam Guzik

Juleyka Lantigua

Christina Shih

John Davidow

Cherian George

Matt DeRienzo

An Xiao Mina

Jim Friedlich

S. Mitra Kalita

Mary Walter-Brown

Jesenia De Moya Correa

Stefanie Murray

Joni Deutsch

Tamar Charney

Kendra Pierre-Louis

Jessica Clark

David Cohn

Laxmi Parthasarathy

Jennifer Coogan

Meena Thiruvengadam

Mandy Jenkins

Eric Nuzum

Mario García

Burt Herman

Sarah Marshall

Shannon McGregor & Carolyn Schmitt

Daniel Eilemberg

Stephen Fowler

Michael W. Wagner

Errin Haines

Simon Galperin

Zizi Papacharissi

Matt Karolian

James Green

Amy Schmitz Weiss

Amara Aguilar

Rachel Glickhouse

Anika Anand

Jesse Holcomb