What must we expect of journalism in this crisis?
To tell America the unvarnished truth
Biden’s core message Thursday night was clear. American democracy is under attack.
But Friday’s media coverage of the speech was just more he-said/she-said reaction — as if the media were covering a typical political race instead of a contest between democracy and authoritarianism.
The New York Times quoted Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy as claiming Democrats are the ones “dismantling Americans’ democracy.” The Times failed to point out that McCarthy’s claim is inaccurate, and that McCarthy himself was one of 139 House Republicans who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election even after the attack on the Capitol.
The same article quoted Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, as calling Biden “the divider in chief” and accusing him of exhibiting “disgust and hostility towards half the country.” But there was no mention of McDaniel’s role in advancing Trump’s Big Lie. The Times also characterized a more general Republican objection to Biden’s speech — that he “was maligning the 74 million people” who voted for Trump in 2020 — again, without mentioning that Trump has illegally refused to concede the election.
It is dangerous to believe that “balanced journalism” gives equal weight to liars and to truth-tellers, to those intent on destroying democracy and those seeking to protect it, to the enablers of an ongoing attempted coup and those who are trying to prevent it.
Two Sundays ago, CNN’s Brian Stelter said:
It’s not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required. It’s patriotic. We must make sure we don’t give platforms to those who are lying to our faces.
That was Brian Stelter’s last show on CNN.
Today, CNN White House reporter John Harwood said:
“The core point [President Biden] made in that political speech about a threat to democracy is true. Now, that’s something that’s not easy for us, as journalists, to say. We’re brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them. But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements. The Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue.
“Many, many Republicans are rallying behind his lies about the 2020 election and other things as well. And a significant portion—or a sufficient portion—of the constituency that they’re leading attacked the Capitol on January 6th. Violently.
“By offering pardons or suggesting pardons for those people who violently attacked the Capitol, which you’ve been pointing out numerous times this morning, Donald Trump made Joe Biden’s point for him.”
Shortly afterward, Harwood announced he was no longer with CNN. (A source told Dan Froomkin of Press Watch that CNN had told Harwood last month that he was being let go despite his long-term contract with the network, and that Harwood used his last broadcast to “send a message.”
Why must we wait until some of our ablest journalists are sacked before they are willing and able to tell America the truth?
It is not “partisan” to explain what Trump and his anti-democracy movement are seeking. It is not “taking sides” to point out that the Trump Republicans are trying to establish an authoritarian government in America. It is not “violating journalistic standards” to tell the unvarnished truth about what we are facing today.
In fact, a failure to call out the Trump Republicans for what they are — liars, enablers, and accessories to crimes against the Constitution — itself violates the most basic canons of journalistic ethics.