A school of thought holds that if Donald Trump sweeps back into power in 2024, or loses narrowly and plunges America into the kind of constitutional crisis he sought in 2020, the officially nonpartisan news media will have been an accessory. It will have failed to adequately emphasize Trump's threat to American democracy, chosen a disastrous evenhandedness over moral clarity and covered President Joe Biden like a normal politician instead of the republic's last best hope.
This view, that media "neutrality" has a tacit pro-Trump tilt, recently found data-driven expression in a column by the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. In a study "using algorithms that give weight to certain adjectives based on their placement in the story," Milbank reported that after a honeymoon, Biden's media coverage has lately been as negative, or even more negative, than Trump's coverage through most of 2020.
Given the perils of a Trump resurgence, Milbank warned, this negativity means that "my colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy."
I think this point of view is very wrong. Indeed, I think it's this view of the press' role that actually empowers demagogues, feeds polarization and makes crises in our system much more likely.
To understand why, let's look at a case study where, at one level, the people emphasizing the press' obligation to defend democracy have a point. This would be the Georgia Republican primary for governor, which will pit David Perdue, a former senator who lost his re-election bid in a 2021 runoff, against Brian Kemp, the conservative incumbent who is famously hated by Trump.
That hatred is the only reason this primary matchup exists: Trump is angry at Kemp for fulfilling his obligations as Georgia's governor instead of going along with the "Stop the Steal" charade. He's eager to see the incumbent beaten.
As a result, the Georgia governor's primary will effectively be a referendum not just on Trump's general power in the GOP but also on his ability to bully Republican elected officials in the event of a contested election. And reporters have an obligation to cover the campaign with that reality in mind, to stress the reasons this matchup is happening and its dangerous implications for how Republican officials might respond to a future attempt to overturn a presidential vote.
But now comes the question: Is that the only thing that a responsible press is allowed to report during the campaign? Suppose, for instance, that midway through the race, some huge scandal erupts, involving obvious corruption that implicates Kemp, Trump's nemesis. Should Georgia journalists decline to cover it, because a Kemp loss would empower anti-democratic forces? Or suppose the economy in Georgia tanks, or COVID cases surge. Should civic-minded reporters bury those stories, because democracy itself is in the balance?
Or suppose a woman comes forward with an allegation of harassment against Perdue, Trump's ally, that doesn't meet the normal standards for publication. Should journalists run with it anyway, on the theory that it would be good for American democracy?
You can guess my answers to these questions. They are principled answers, reflecting a journalistic obligation to the truth that cannot be set aside for the sake of certain political results, however desirable for democracy.
But they are also pragmatic answers, because a journalism that conspicuously shades the truth for the sake of some higher cause will inevitably lose the trust of some of the people it's trying to steer away from demagogy — undercutting, in the process, the very democratic order that it's setting out to save.
I think this has happened already. There were ways in which the national news media helped Trump in his path through the Republican primaries in 2016, by giving him constant celebrity-level hype at every other candidate's expense. But from his shocking victory onward, much of the press adopted exactly the self-understanding that its critics are still urging as the Only Way to Stop Trump — positioning itself as the guardian of democracy, a moral arbiter rather than a neutral referee, determined to make Trump's abnormal qualities and authoritarian tendencies the central story of his presidency.
The results, unfortunately, included a lot of not particularly great journalism. The emergency mentality conflated Trumpian sordidness with something world-historical and treasonous, as in the overwrought Russia coverage seeded by the Steele dossier. It turned figures peripheral to national politics, from Nick Sandmann to Kyle Rittenhouse, into temporary avatars of incipient fascism. It invented anti-Trump paladins, from Michael Avenatti to Andrew Cuomo, who turned out to embody their own sort of moral turpitude. And it instilled an industrywide fear, palpable throughout the 2020 election, of any kind of coverage that might give too much aid and comfort to Trumpism — whether it touched on the summertime riots or Hunter Biden's business dealings.
You could argue that at least this mind-set achieved practical success, since Trump did lose in 2020. But he didn't lose overwhelmingly, he gained voters in places the establishment did not expect, and he was able to turn media hostility to his advantage in his quest to keep control of his party, even in defeat. Meanwhile, the public's trust in the national press declined during the Trump era and became radically more polarized, with Democrats maintaining confidence in the media and Republicans going the other way.
This points to the essential problem with the idea that just a little less media neutrality would put Trumpism in its place. You can't suppress a populist insurgency just by rallying the establishment if suspicion of the establishment is precisely what's generating support for populism in the first place. Instead, you need to tell the truth about populism's dangers while convincing skeptical readers that you can be trusted to describe reality in full.
Which brings us to Joe Biden's press coverage. I have a lot of doubts about the Milbank negativity algorithms. As a newsreader, my sense is that Trump's negative coverage reflected more stalwart opposition (the president we oppose is being terrible again) while in Biden's case the negativity often coexists with implicit sympathy (the president we support is blowing it, and we're upset). But still, there's no question that the current administration's coverage has been pretty grim of late.
But it's turned grim for reasons that a serious press corps would need to acknowledge in order to have any credibility at all. Piece by piece, you can critique the media's handling of the past few months — I think the press coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal was overwrought, for instance — but here's the overall picture: A president who ran on restoring normalcy is dealing with a pandemic that stubbornly refuses to depart, rising inflation that his own White House didn't predict, a border-crossing crisis that was likewise unanticipated, increasing military bellicosity from our major adversaries, stubbornly high homicide rates in liberal cities, a party that just lost a critical gubernatorial race and a stalled legislative agenda.
And moreover, he's confronting all of this while very palpably showing the effects of advancing age, even as his semi-anointed successor appears more and more like the protagonist of her own private "Veep."
Can some of these challenges recede and Biden's situation improve? No doubt. But a news media charged with describing reality would accomplish absolutely nothing for the country if it tried to bury all these problems.
We just had an object lesson in what happens when the public dissatisfied with liberal governance gets a long lecture on why it should never vote Republican because of Trump: That was Terry McAuliffe's argument in a state that went for Biden by 10 points, and McAuliffe lost. Having the media deliver that lecture nationally is likely to yield the same result for Democrats — not Trumpism's defeat but their own.
Far wiser, instead, to treat negative coverage as an example of the press living up to its primary mission, the accurate description of reality — which is still the place where the Biden administration and liberalism need a better strategy if they hope to keep the country on their side.