It’s understandable how journalists accustomed to complacently chirping from clean, sparkly corporate studios and blue-chip high-rise newsrooms might have difficulty reconciling their six- and seven-figure salaries and well-manicured suburban lawns with the fact that the American republic has entered the most dangerous period of its existence since the weeks preceding the Civil War. Because, hell, for the past eight years their reporting philosophy has served them well, although that nasty business at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, may have taken a few of them aback.
On the day of Donald Trump’s appearance in court for his fourth indictment, for example, CNN revisited, ad nauseum, its breathless 2016 coverage of Trump’s plane landing. Only this time, we were in Atlanta, with a camera trained, on and off for nearly a half-hour, on an empty mobile stairway positioned forlornly against the plane’s exit door. The panel jabbered on and on, waiting patiently for the object of their ratings fascination to appear. A few panelists described in lurid detail the “horrific” conditions at the Fulton County, Georgia, jail, eager to seize on the amazing irony that Trump would soon be making his appearance in its filthy bowels—as if the man stood the slightest chance of being incarcerated on an even temporary basis
There was, of course, little substantive discussion about exactly how the jail came to be so appalling and under investigation by the Department of Justice—at least not in that segment. But, as it always is with Trump: the spectacle was the primary draw: yet another rendition of “let’s marvel again at the shiny object.”
The media in this country, from CNN’s fabulous Atlanta headquarters down to the most mundane drywall stage sets of local news affiliates, has continually treated the transformation of the Republican Party into an abject, unthinking cult of Trump worship as if it’s just another story, just part of the constant background hum of American politics that still can be both-sided into oblivion.
Anyone waiting for an audible, collective gasp cognizant of the real implications when the Heritage Foundation unveiled its sordid, detailed plan to dismantle the U.S. government upon the ascent of any Republican to the Oval Office, will, for the most part, wait in vain. Just waiting for a “eureka” moment of alarm to be passionately conveyed to the American people about just what the GOP intends to do to its political opponents should it attain executive power? Even the most mild emotional response to the now-routine, bizarre invective that spews out of the mouths of elected Republicans on a regular, constant basis isn’t coming. We’re reduced to reading a few strident opinion pieces in the opinion section of The New York Times or The Washington Post.
That’s because covering the news in this country has now largely become a laborious exercise in normalizing one Trump outrage after another, until a numbing pattern has set in. As a consequence of Trump successfully “flood[ing] the zone with shit” (as onetime Trump "chief strategist" Steve Bannon approvingly put it), the great mass of the American public really has no idea that the country they grew up in is now under existential threat. A threat that could be made manifest and turned into a terrifying reality by the outcome of one simple election, only a year away.
That is, in a word, a disgrace. But it’s a predictable result of the reflexive, historical tendency by the media to treat and think of Americans as good and decent people, perhaps with differing viewpoints, who must be “fairly” served, and thus giving less time, thought, and emphasis to the disturbing totality of what has actually happened to nearly half the electorate over the past eight years.
This media slide into complacency is the subject of a Friday column by The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, who offers some good suggestions about how this moment in time really ought to be covered if the press wanted to actually do its job.
Rubin noted she felt a sense of deja vu watching the media handle Trump’s latest indictment in Fulton County, along the press’s reflexive “winner-loser” reaction to the first Republican presidential debate, which had occurred just the day before, as well as the release of Trump’s mug shot, which had the press hyperventilating late into the evening of his indictment.
This sort of coverages shocks but does not surprise. The media has whistled past the graveyard of democracy for eight years. You want to ask: Can’t they recognize this is not simply another election to be gamified in pursuit of clicks and audience ratings?
Rubin’s point? None of this is normal! That it hasn’t been normal for eight years is beside the point: It’s the progression, the constant devolution of the Republican Party into a cult of fascism, and the degradation that it’s foisted on our country that is being ignored.
Rubin offers guidance:
What would responsible media look like? The media could educate the public and defend democracy. Serious news outlets could examine Trump’s sickening similarity to strongmen such as Silvio Berlusconi, Viktor Orban and Benito Mussolini. (And yet, rarely, do we get discussions about how Trump’s abusive treatment of women, toxic masculinity and misogyny perfectly fit within the tradition of fascist leaders from Mussolini to Berlusconi to Moammar Gaddafi.) Reports could discuss how the MAGA movement tracks previous fascist movements that invariably deify a leader and revel in a cult of personality. The media could explain how the GOP has morphed into an anti-democratic party that deploys violence and appeals to white nationalism and nostalgia.
Print, online and cable news could promote political literacy, helping voters understand how authoritarian movements cut deals with big business and religious fundamentalists to secure power. Instead of just reporting that Trump called the media or the judiciary biased, reporters should acknowledge that strongmen and their apologists degrade professional ethics — to discredit the truth.
Rubin also targets the media’s casual normalization of Republican behavior.
Interviewers could routinely grill all Republicans about their party’s adherence to the “big lie,” demonization of law enforcement and support for congressional attempts to interfere with prosecution. And the media could seriously investigate how so many Americans have suspended logic, decency and devotion to the rule of law just as others around the world have fallen under the sway of demagogic leaders — rather than amplify their prejudices, conspiracies and anger.
Parenthetically, Rubin notes that while the media have fallen over themselves to try to “understand” Trump voters, little effort has been made to emphasize the implications of what such a movement portends in the context of our democracy: “Persisting to cast MAGA supporters as down-and-out working-class folks is misleading and condescending, and ignores the statistically significant correlation between Trump support and views on supposed persecution of White people, gender roles and Christian nationalism,” she writes.
All of these are the classic and dangerous hallmarks of fascism, but that fact gets short (if any) shrift from the media’s “horserace” coverage. Rubin also quotes Will Bunch, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, as one of the few journalists who seems to appreciate the acute peril and urgency of what the nation is facing.
From Bunch’s Friday column:
These are the stakes: dueling visions for America — not Democratic or Republican, with parades and red, white, and blue balloons, but brutal fascism or flawed democracy. The news media needs to stop with the horse-race coverage of this modern-day March on Rome, stop digging incessantly for proof that both sides are guilty of the same sins, and stop thinking that a war for the imperiled survival of the American Experiment is some kind of inexplicable “tribalism.”
We need the media to see 2024 not as a traditional election but as an effort to mobilize a mass movement that would undo democracy and splatter America with more blood like what was shed Saturday in Jacksonville. We need to understand that if the next 15 months remain the worst covered election in U.S. history, that it might also be the last.
The transformation of the Republican Party into a Trump-worshipping cult has brought us a year of book bannings, assaults on reproductive freedom, anti-trans hysteria, arrogant and now-routine disregard of the law, and a capitulation by our judiciary to flagrant partisanship and corruption.
It has normalized partisan violence as a weapon against those who oppose it. It has turned election denial into a customary right of passage. None of this just happened. It is the consequence of an emergent, malignant fascist ethic that had metastasized below the surface of the GOP for decades, and was catalyzed and reinvigorated by Trump.
And it is absolute poison to our democratic traditions.
As Rubin writes, it is long past time for all of those media not already co-opted by this fascist juggernaut to acknowledge that the 2024 election will actually decide the fate of our country. There is no more time for “false equivalences and feigned neutrality.”
Rubin believes that the media are—mostly unwittingly—sleepwalking us toward a country that the majority of Americans should rightly fear. It’s a country with an ugly, authoritarian, and racist vision none of us would want for our children.
But those who once thrived by ignoring the reality that’s now appearing before their eyes need to face up to it and change course now, before it’s far too late.
No, it won’t be easy. It will require those comfortable journalists to come face to face—in some cases, quite literally—with the monster they’ve allowed to gestate for eight years: the death threats, the harassment, all the rank evil that surfaces when fascists are forced out from under their rocks. After all, fascists don’t take kindly to being called out. It makes them very, very angry, and as we well know, this group has its own, formidable media universe to strike back.
It’s a difficult responsibility the press has. Unfortunately for its ranks, taking any other course simply renders them complicit.