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Mainstream media is not going to save us
It’s not that most mainstream news organizations are anti-democratic – it’s that they seem frighteningly neutral on the question.
We want America’s most prominent journalists to be fearless warriors for truth. We want them to expose crooks and confront liars. We want them to defend democracy.
We also want to live forever and eat six cartons of ice cream a day without gaining weight.
But none of that is going to happen.
It’s increasingly obvious that mainstream media is not going to save us. Here’s why:
It’s a capitalist business with expenses and revenue that does what’s best for its bottom line.
Many journalists covering American politics are self-promoting careerists rather than advocates for the facts.
Many news industry leaders have decided not to care whether their behavior helps fascists who are trying to overthrow our democracy.
Look at it this way: If you were a news executive and the only two things that mattered to you were production costs and ratings, which of these two courses of action would you choose?
A) Pay for plane tickets, car rentals, gasoline and hotel rooms to put a news crew on the road to interview experts and stakeholders in multiple U.S. cities and towns about an important issue like prescription drug prices.
B) Put a camera in front of Donald Trump.
The plain fact is that the show business of politics is more profitable for media organizations than the hard work and the issues. It’s not that most mainstream news organizations are anti-democratic – it’s that they seem frighteningly neutral on the question.
Good journalism warns people of threats to their well-being. A hurricane. A bad stretch of roadway. Republicans. Mass media should clearly and loudly tell the public that the right wing is trying to seize power through voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other assaults on free elections. Media should explain that the right is pushing for a male-centric, white-centric, Christian-dominated authoritarian state. For today’s journalists, it’s the biggest story of their lifetimes, but too many of them normalize and both-sides the situation to underplay the danger. They prospered under the old framing, so they rigidly resist any new framing.
The most relevant clash in American politics today is lies vs. truth, but major media prefer to cast it as the age-old intramural game of Republicans vs. Democrats. The partisan battle has more narrative power for the news media, with personalities instead of plain old facts. And if the media can depict the combatants as relatively equal, it’s a more entertaining competition. Mainstream news demands drama to boost ratings.
I don’t mean to tar all journalists. Many do fine work. I’m talking here about political reporting in major mainstream media. I also don’t want to denounce the profit motive. Sometimes when news outlets compete with each other for exclusives, they uncover major wrongdoing. But exclusive interviews with known liars are not a public service.
Kristen Welker’s recent sit-down with Trump was a big “get” for NBC, something the network milked for days on its newscasts and social media. It was a marketing decision first, and a journalism decision second. The interview harmed the viewers, allowing Trump to lie to them. Welker pushed back occasionally, very gently. If she got tough – if she said “You’re lying!” every time Trump lied – he no doubt would have walked out, leaving NBC with hardly any product to promote.
This access game poisons political coverage. The Trump era has shown us that television appearances translate into credibility in the public mindset, no matter whether the newsmakers are truthful or not. Trump never would have become president if he hadn’t been the boss on “The Apprentice” first.
One of the saddest aspects of the media’s refusal to defend democracy is that journalists who platform the fascists are fooling themselves into thinking their actions don’t matter. They’re underselling themselves. If they knew that broadcasting Trump’s lies might actually cause the overthrow of U.S. democracy, they might stop. But they don’t consider themselves responsible. They’re not thinking about cause-and-effect, except in how it affects their personal careers.
Since the dramatic rise of fascism in recent years, critics have implored mainstream media to confront the problem, but little has changed. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to lobby these journalists to come around, but there’s great risk in waiting for that to happen. Better to work around them. We need a major, well-financed news network to take on the current bad choices., , , , and . There’s also the news network I’m affiliated with, Courier Newsroom, a pro-democracy local news organization in nine states. In addition, social media amplifies plenty of strong, fact-based voices, including Sherrilyn Ifill, Rex Huppke, Will Bunch, Greg Sargent, Molly Jong-Fast, Maria Hinojosa, Elie Mystal and Media Matters.
Your voice can have an impact on social media, too. Tell your friends and family what you think. It’s never been easier to go around traditional news media and get your message out. Do it.
Is mainstream media unfixable? I worry that it is. I worry that major news outlets will never wake up to the fact that right-wing authoritarians are out to destroy them. I worry that when it comes time for the fascists to frog-march journalists out of the newsroom at gunpoint, the journalists will compete for the exclusive rights to cover it.