My final column: 2024 and the dangers ahead
After a recent announcement that I have decided to retire this column and leave The Washington Post, a Vanity Fair reporter asked me by e-mail about the media’s performance in covering threats to democracy. That certainly was a fair question, since it has been one of my most frequent subjects here.
I’m “encouraged one day, despairing the next,” I told her, adding that the next election cycle is going to be a real test for the reality-based press.
This is my last column for the Post — my plans include teaching at Duke University and publishing a book this autumn, both a personal memoir and a tell-all about what I’ve seen in my four decades in journalism. So I will explain more about what I meant.
Here’s the good news: the media have come a long, long way in figuring out how to cover the democracy-threatening ways of Donald Trump and his allies, including his stalwart helpers in right-wing media. It is now common to see headlines and stories that plainly refer to some politicians as “election deniers”, and journalists are far less hesitant to use the blunt and clarifying word “lie” to describe Trump’s false statements. That includes, of course, the former president’s near-constant campaign to claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged to prevent him from keeping the White House.
What’s more, the media seem finally to have absorbed what should have been blindingly obvious from the beginning: Trump is by no means a normal political figure, and he will never reform into some kind of responsible statesman. (Who can forget the perennial predictions that he was becoming “presidential” every time he read from a teleprompter instead of veering off on an insulting rant?)
Another encouraging development is the decision by a number of major media organisations, including the Post, to form democracy teams or beats, concentrating on efforts to limit voting access, the politicisation of election systems and the insidious efforts to instil doubt in the public about legitimate voting results.
And yet, I worry that it is not nearly enough. I don’t mean to suggest that journalists can address the threats to democracy all by themselves — but they must do more.
I’m often reminded of the troubling questions posed by ABC News’s Jonathan Karl in multiple interviews late last year about what it would mean to cover Trump if and when he runs for president again. He deemed it perhaps the greatest challenge American political reporters will ever face.
“How do you cover a candidate who is effectively anti-democratic? How do you cover a candidate who is running both against whoever the Democratic candidate is but also running against the very democratic system that makes all of this possible?” said Karl, a former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. His questions hit hard, the more so because of his reputation in the political press corps as a straight shooter.
The deeper question is whether news organisations can break free of their hidebound practices — the love of political conflict, the addiction to elections as a horse race — to address those concerns effectively.
For the sake of democracy, they must.
Journalists certainly should not shill for Trump’s 2024 rivals — whoever they may be — but they have to be willing to show their readers, viewers and listeners that electing him again would be dangerous. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk.
One thing is certain. News outlets cannot continue to do speech, rally and debate coverage — the heart of campaign reporting — in the same old way. They will need to lean less on kneejerk live coverage and more on reporting that relentlessly provides meaningful context.
Real-time fact checking is of limited usefulness, in my view. Better to wait until these live events have occurred and then present them packaged with plenty of truthful reporting around them.
Journalists simply cannot allow themselves to be megaphones or stenographers. They have to be dedicated truth-tellers, using clear language, plenty of context and thoughtful framing to get that truth across.
Consider, for example, the disparate presentations that the Associated Press and The New York Times gave to a recent story out of Florida about a new push by the governor Ron DeSantis to crack down on the supposedly terrible problem of voter fraud; in fact, illegal voting is a rare occurrence, but something that Trump and his allies would have you believe underlies all the efforts to deny him victory.
As Kate Pickert, director of Loyola Marymount’s journalism programme, noted last week, AP’s Twitter news alert took DeSantis’s hyperventilating news conference at face value, providing the kind of treatment the Governor might have written himself: “Florida governor Ron DeSantis announced criminal charges against 20 people for illegally voting in 2020, the first major public move from the Republican’s controversial new election police unit.” Whereas The New York Times tweet cut through the noise: “Governor Ron DeSantis said 17 people have been charged with casting illegal ballots in the 2020 election, in which 11.1 million Floridians voted. There is no evidence that election crimes are a serious problem in Florida or anywhere else in the US.”
(For the record, the AP often does a good job with framing, and the Times sometimes blows it.)
News organisations also have to continually explain to their readers, viewers and listeners why they are doing what they are doing. If they aren’t taking a speech live, for example, they ought to say why. Not because they are on the team of the opposing candidates, but because they are not in the business of spreading lies.
If Trump runs, as Karl put it, he will be running “against the very democratic system that makes this all possible”. And he is bringing the vast bulk of the Republican Party along with him.
As Edward Luce, associate editor of the Financial Times, tweeted this month: “I’ve covered extremism and violent ideologies around the world over my career. Have never come across a political force more nihilistic, dangerous & contemptible than today’s Republicans. Nothing close.” General Michael Hayden, the former CIA director appointed by George W. Bush, chimed in with two ominous words: “I agree.”
So my prescription — and it is only a start — is less live campaign coverage, more context and thoughtful framing, and more fearless straight talk from news leaders about what is at stake and why politics coverage looks different. The latter could take many forms: editors’ notes on stories, columns written by news directors and posted prominently on websites, public appearances, and more.
Even if the reality-based press do a perfect job with coverage focused non-stop on the truth — and that is unlikely — it will be no match for the duplicitous right-wing media, particularly Fox News with its all-in audience and constant work on behalf of Trump and his allies. Prime-time commentators such as Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity will do the heavy lifting. A candidate cannot buy that kind of help.
I hope that newsroom leaders are thinking hard about moving outside their longstanding practices as the presidential campaign approaches. This will not be a traditional contest, and the stakes are high. We simply have to get it right.
A final, and personal, word. As I wrap up a 42-year newspaper career, I’m deeply grateful to those of you who have read my Post columns over the past six years, and to those who have written or called me to offer constructive comments or suggestions. And yes, sometimes to correct or (respectfully) disagree.
It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to write for The Washington Post — the very newspaper that inspired a teenage girl awed by its Watergate reporting to get into journalism in the first place.
• Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times's public editor and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her home-town paper