Forced to choose between strict neutrality or defending democracy over the past four years, many news outlets opted for the latter, casting Donald Trump as a threat to the nation. This approach dismantled whatever was left of the facade that the media is a disinterested observer of U.S. politics — and created a new crisis for the industry.
I think America’s news media did the right thing and helped to save the country. But while journalists behaved in a way that I would argue was simply small-D democratic, it often looked big-D Democratic, in that it was anti-Trump and therefore anti-Republican Party.
Moving forward, the nearly half of voters who backed a man that the press cast as racist and authoritarian aren’t going to forget the media’s judgment on their candidate. The media can’t credibly go back to posturing as disinterested or neutral — nor should it if Trump and Trumpism remain threats to democracy. It needs to chart a new path forward for a United States with a Trumpian Republican Party. Here are three thoughts on how to do that:
CNN, the New York Times, The Washington Post and similar outlets should embrace and announce their core values.
Those three were perhaps the most important and influential mainstream news outlets (so excluding Fox News) in the country even before Trump became president, because of their large reporting staffs and reputations for accuracy. When Trump was in office, all three put defending democratic values above placating Trump-aligned voters. They can’t go back to 2014 — the rise of Trump permanently changed U.S. politics and the media’s role in it. So it would be useful for these outlets to articulate clearly the underlying values that resulted in their covering Trump so negatively.
“Democracy dies in darkness,” a slogan The Post has adopted, is not particularly clarifying. My suggestion is something along these lines:
“We are not aligned with any political party or movement — we are not on anyone’s team. We believe the United States is and should remain a multiracial democracy. We believe in equality across a number of dimensions, such as gender and race. We proudly employ staff members no matter their identity. We believe that the media should play a power-balancing role — so in a dispute between the government and everyday citizens, we will scrutinize the government more carefully than the citizens. We give more weight to arguments and ideas that are backed up by evidence.”
I’ve spent most of my career as a reporter (as opposed to my current role as an opinion columnist). The values above were embedded in the political coverage at each outlet I’ve worked for — but not openly stated. After all, most major news organizations in this country employ people who are openly gay, seek to increase the racial diversity of their staffs and would never, say, ban Muslims from their newsrooms. Moreover, news operations are “biased” against authoritarian approaches to government, in part out of simple self-interest, given how authoritarians tend to attack independent journalism. So the values of many major media outlets are in conflict with the anti-democratic, racist drift in the GOP. News organizations aren’t and shouldn’t be opposed to conservative thoughts on tax policy, but they should be opposed to politicians who want to overturn election results.
Why be more transparent? Well, there isn’t much of a downside. The consumers of these three outlets in particular are largely Democratic, so having a set of clear values that are in tension with Trumpism isn’t going to hurt their bottom lines much. And there would be real upside, too. Transparency about their values would help them defend and explain their coverage to consumers. More important, it would help them internally to have a more clearly defined sense of their own approaches. For example, the truth is that the media favorably covered last year’s protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death — because most journalists and news organizations support the idea that Black people should be treated equitably. There is no reason to shrink from that value, and many reasons to embrace it openly.
Outlets with similar values and approaches to The Post and the Times — the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, Slate and Vox, for instance — should also articulate mission statements making clear that they are pro-multiculturalism and pro-democracy.
Other national outlets should have different values — and be transparent about them, too.
If The Post and similar outlets take the path I lay out, that will result in a lot of media that seems anti-Republican (at least right now), because they will be anti-Trumpian. But I don’t think all media should adopt that approach. We should have a diverse media, and it’s not necessary for every source to be overtly democracy-defending so long as a bunch of them are.
Reporting from ABC, the Associated Press, CBS, NBC, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal wasn’t as anti-Trump as those I listed above, perhaps in part because they generally have more Republican consumers. A broad approach seems particularly apt for the three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), whose programming is supposed to reach all Americans. This does not mean that these outlets should present Trump’s lies about the election results without fact-checking. But it does mean that they should pursue approaches to coverage that bring in or at least don’t repel conservatives — something they are already doing anyway.
And these outlets should be transparent about that goal, with mission statements similar to what I laid out above, but an added sentence such as: “One of our main goals is to have an audience of people of all political persuasions.”
Local newspapers and local public radio stations should be organized into democracy-defending institutions.
At the local level, the broad media is working fine — local television stations tend to reach an audience of both parties and make money. But many local public radio stations, particularly in rural areas, get a lot of funding from the federal government, so they can’t be too critical of the anti-democratic direction of the GOP. And local papers are being cut to the bone in part because there aren’t enough people willing to pay for local news in many communities.
So we don’t currently have democracy-defending media at the local level — where Trump-style politics is proliferating most. The solution here is that most big metro areas and all 50 states need at least one outlet that is nonprofit (because this kind of local news is never going to be profitable again) and has a democracy-defending agenda. These kinds of publications could be funded by a few rich people, a wide range of donors or big national outlets like The Post or CNN.
I don’t expect any of these three suggestions to be followed. But the main reason they won’t is deeply problematic: Most news organizations, while pushing and prodding virtually every other institution in American life to clarify and act on their values, have long refused to apply that principle to themselves.
This is a mistake. Not clearly stating their values not only creates internal confusion, but it also allows outsiders to define the media’s values for them. As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen often says, there is no “view from nowhere.” The coverage decisions of the media are coming from somewhere — they should state those values honestly and clearly and act on them.
Perry Bacon Jr. is a Washington Post columnist. Before joining The Post in May 2021, Perry had stints as a government and elections writer for Time magazine, The Post’s national desk, theGrio and FiveThirtyEight. He has also been been an on-air analyst at MSNBC and a fellow at New America. He grew up in Louisville and lives there now.