Journalism Fails Miserably at Explaining What is Really Happening to America
Journalism fails miserably at explaining what is really happening to America
Momentous week of GOP debate, Trump’s arrest gets “horse race” coverage when the story’s not about an election, but authoritarianism.
By: Will Bunch
From: The Philadelphia Inquirer
They stood on an arena stage in Milwaukee under a massive sign that read “Democracy” — the metaphorical 800-pound gorilla that loomed over this strange political event but was never really discussed. When the dust finally settled after two hours of the first televised debate of the 2024 GOP primaries, nothing — from the rude kids-table outbursts from the impertinent Vivek Ramaswamy to the doomed efforts by Nikki Haley or Mike Pence to be the grown-ups in the room — actually mattered inside the airy Fiserv Forum except for one thing.
All those not-so-wonderful people out there in the dark. A mob that raged, and ultimately ruled.
This audience seemed to only care about The Man Who Wasn’t There — Donald Trump, who was too busy refueling his private jet for his next arrest to bother attending. The restive crowd reached its peak when its bête noire, the anti-Trump turncoat Chris Christie, dared try to challenge Ramaswamy’s outburst that POTUS 45 “was the best president of the 21st century.” It filled the basketball arena with boos.
The pro-Trump ruckus was such that Fox News coanchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum dramatically turned around to face the audience. “So listen,” Baier said, “the more time we spend doing this, the less time they can talk about issues you want to talk about.”
LOL. As the night dragged on, the only “issues” the crowd seemed jazzed about were brash challenges to scientific truths that it considers elite liberal pieties — like Ramaswamy’s false claim that climate change solutions have killed more people than climate change — or authoritarian vows of violence, like Ron DeSantis’ promise to render any drug dealers at the border “stone cold dead.” None of the eight people on that stage “won” — only Trump, his angry mob, and a 21st-century brand of American fascism that is the enemy of democracy, the writing on the wall.
If you watched the hours of TV news coverage during an especially momentous week in August, there was little sense of that reality, and for long stretches of pundit blather, none at all — as talking heads gave earnest high school debating marks to candidates who are all but ignored by the GOP voter base. The disconnect deepened the next night as Trump turned what would surely be his comeuppance — his surrender at Atlanta’s bug-infested county jail for fingerprinting and a mug shot ― into an outlaw display of authoritarian force.
It was a remarkable night of imagery over substance, yet there was little discussion of why this accused felon was getting a phalanx of dozens of motorcycle cops, comprising police who are drawn to Trump’s authoritarian bluster like moths to the light. Trump’s glowering mug shot instantly became the most talked about picture in American history — yet not one pundit was able to explain why tens of millions of everyday voters are so eager to return to the White House this man who attempted a coup on Jan. 6, 2021, or why his poll numbers rise with each indictment. I guess the 20th-century author and socialist Upton Sinclair really nailed it when he wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
America is entering its most important, pivotal year since 1860, and the U.S. media is doing a terrible job explaining what is actually happening. Too many of us — with our highfalutin poli-sci degrees and our dog-eared copies of the late Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes — are still covering elections like it’s the 20th century, as if the old touchstones like debates or a 30-second spot still matter.
What we are building toward on Nov. 5, 2024, might have the outward trappings of an election, but it is really a show of force. What we call the Republican Party is barely a political party in any sense of the word, but a dangerous antisocial movement that has embraced many of the tenets of fascism, from calls for violence to its dehumanizing of “others” — from desperate refugees at the border to transgender youth.
There is, in reality, no 2024 primary because this movement embraced its infallible strongman in Trump eight years ago. And there is no “Trump scandal” because — for them — each new crime or sexual assault is merely another indictment of the messenger, the arrogant elites from whom their contempt is the number one issue. These foot soldiers stopped believing in “democracy” a long time ago — no matter how big an Orwellian sign Fox News erects.
If you watch enough not-Fox cable TV news, you’ll occasionally see an expert on fascism like New York University’s Ruth Ben-Ghiat or Yale’s Timothy Snyder explaining the roots of this American authoritarianism, or you can read a piece like Margaret Sullivan’s Guardian take on the fascist appeal of Trump-clone Ramaswamy. But then it’s back to your regular programming, including a desperate desire to frame today’s clash in the context of long-lost 20th-century democratic norms, and to blame any transgressions on a mysterious “tribalism” that plagues “both sides.”
This weekend, the New York Times’ Peter Baker, an influential news analyst, noted on Twitter/X that in 1994 some 21% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats viewed the other party negatively, which has risen to 62% (GOP) and 54% (Dems). Baker was recommending a story condemning “tribalism,” when what we are really seeing here is the vitriol of an authoritarian movement and the increasing condemnation from those who are appalled by it.
Some of the media’s worst avatars of what increasingly feels like hopeless democracy nostalgia are so-called never-Trump conservatives like Kathleen Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist now with the Washington Post. It was Parker who famously predicted on the eve of the 2016 election that a victorious Trump would “dress up and behave at state dinners and be funny when called upon” and show contempt for Vladimir Putin, in the most notoriously wrong column of all time: “Calm down. We’ll be fine no matter who wins.” Rather than slowly back into the bushes, Homer Simpson-style, Parker is still pining for normalcy, declaring last week that Haley won the Milwaukee debate “poised, precise and prepared” — as if that mattered in the lion’s den of Fiserv Forum.
Of course, D.C. pundits like Parker or Baker are trained to talk to the folks on the stage and their high-priced consultants, not the mob that inexorably moves modern Republicanism away from believing in elections. I’ve been inside and outside of Trump rallies in Hershey and West Chester and Wildwood, and what I learned is that the only issue that matters isn’t an issue at all, but their contempt for the media outlets like CNN they believe look down on them and their savior. Of course, the salary of Baker or Parker or the CNN punditocracy depends on not understanding that.
It was so revealing Wednesday night when Fox News launched its debate coverage by playing a snippet of Oliver Anthony’s No. 1 hit, the blue-collar populist rant “Rich Men North of Richmond,” with its mix of anti-government elitism and a downward punch at welfare recipients. It felt like the Fox message was, “We’re not comfortable talking about what’s really happening with the white working class in America, so we’re just going to turn it over to this angry singer with the big beard.”
The news media better get comfortable talking about what is really happening in places like Anthony’s Farmville, Va. They ought to be explaining both the legitimate anger voiced by the singer’s lament over working overtime hours for low pay, the manipulation of that anger by demagogues like Trump, and the uncomfortable questions about how much of the rage is over threats to outdated and detestable hierarchies of white supremacy and the patriarchy.
Anthony isn’t the only one doing a better job discussing this than our journalists. On Saturday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders went to New Hampshire to both endorse the reelection of President Joe Biden as a defense against authoritarianism — but also to warn his fellow Democrats they need to do a much better job addressing the discontents of the American middle class. Said Sanders: “In the United States, and in fact around the world, support for the establishment and their institutions is in decline. People want change. And change will come. The question is: What kind of change will it be?” Not surprisingly, Sanders’ important speech was barely mentioned in the media.
Almost on cue, the GOP’s Ramaswamy went on CNN Sunday morning with a dark, right-wing appeal that is the change far too many people are seeking, in a stunning riff that blamed this weekend’s racist mass shooting in Jacksonville, Fla., by a white gunman who targeted Black people not on racism, but on anti-racism and the media. Ramaswamy insisted that the media, universities, and certain politicians have rekindled racism and that “I can think of no better way to fuel racism in this country than by taking something away from people based on their skin color.” Meaning white people.
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 to hear from more experts on authoritarian movements and fewer pollsters and political strategists. We need journalists who’ll talk a lot less about who’s up or down and a lot more about the stakes — including Trump’s plans to dismantle the democratic norms that he calls “the administrative state,” to weaponize the criminal justice system, and to surrender the war against climate change — if the 45th president becomes the 47th. 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, it might also be the last.