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Now that cable news wants to be less “partisan,” will the media ever learn its lesson?

With Brian Stelter off the air, CNN seems determined to repeat the grotesque errors that led to President Trump

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Donald Trump’s malice and the tremendous damage he has inflicted on the United States and the world can be understood by adhering to a single rule: In other words, think of the worst possible thing that could be said about Trump and his actions, words, and motivations. Then, let’s take that a few steps further, into the realm of apparent absurdity. Then you will have probably found a close approximation of the truth.

The truth of life in the Age of Trump becomes crystal clear once you acknowledge that Donald Trump is a bottomless maw of perfidy, enabling and perpetrating the worst excesses of human behavior. Neither “doom porn” nor “hysteria” nor “Trump derangement syndrome” describes what you just read. It’s just the truth, and it gives us a fighting chance at comprehension and success. However, in the fight to save America and the world from the rising fascist tide, refusal to believe the truth leads to inevitable defeat.

The coronavirus pandemic, Russian interference in the 2016 election, chronic fraud and corruption and self-dealing, and, of course, the Big Lie, Trump’s coup attempt, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 all prove that the axiom that we should expect the worst — or worse than the worst — from Trump and his movement is universally true.

The same principle applies to the investigation being conducted by the Department of Justice into allegations that President Trump stole hundreds of highly classified and top-secret documents (including, allegedly, information about the nuclear weapons) from the White House and secretly stored them at Mar-a-Lago for his own purposes.

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The FBI obtained a warrant and conducted a search of Trump’s Palm Beach private clubhouse two weeks ago, during which time they removed numerous boxes of documents. In light of the gravity of the crimes that may have been committed by the ex-president, the mainstream media felt compelled to play the role of shock and amazement.

Everything associated with Trump’s ascent to power and term in office is infused with the axiom that we should expect the worst, or worse than the worst.

The reaction was understandable, to some extent. The Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are looking into serious criminal charges against a former president, a first in American history. Furthermore, the suggestion that a former chief executive could be involved in espionage or extortion involving national secrets, potentially endangering the safety and security of the American people, may sound more like something torn from the pages of a subpar spy thriller than a real possibility.

Trump’s possible violations of the Espionage Act and other laws pertaining to presidential records and government secrets appear much more serious and widespread two weeks later.

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Donald Trump has responded to this investigation by saying that he is the target of a political “witch hunt.” That is completely expected and false. Trump, in the same vein as other fascists and political strongmen, thinks he is above the law. Trump is effectively inciting his supporters to commit acts of violence against President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Department of Justice, the Democrats, and other opponents of the MAGA movement.

Nothing about Trump’s ongoing political crime spree should come as a surprise if the media and the larger political class had observed my basic rule about the limitless possibilities of Trump’s perfidy.

For financial and emotional reasons, too many in the media and political class have chosen to stay on the never-ending treadmill of shock and surprise. Audiences, readers, and ad dollars are all attracted by controversy, and the public is riveted by spectacle. The mainstream media too often sells “the sizzle and not the steak,” to borrow a phrase from the world of professional wrestling.

This creates a never-ending cycle of the spectacular, which dulls public sensibilities, as each successive event must be more shocking and amazing than the one before it. The public’s ability to think critically and make sound decisions is hampered because of the loss of perspective.

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The media and political establishment find solace in the narrative that Trump’s actions are shocking or surprising because it implies that the neofascist movement is constrained by democratic norms and standards. That is to say, it is predicated on the idea that they have limits to how far they will go to undermine democracy, society, and the American people.

It’s reassuring to keep hearing that Trump’s actions are shocking or surprising, as this implies that he is constrained by the well-known “norms” of democracy.

The truth, that there are no such limits, cannot be stated in this setting. To explain Trump’s and the movement’s behavior and the danger they pose, the mainstream media persists in using tired old tropes. In practice, this desperate normalcy bias leads to a fixation on “objectivity,” “fairness,” and “balance,” rather than a willingness to act as bold and unapologetic defenders of democracy.

Several examples come to mind from just recently.

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Additionally, Licht did something very out of the ordinary by meeting with both Democratic and Republican leaders to discuss the future of CNN. This move has been hailed by the right-wing echo chamber as a formal admission of the network’s “liberal bias.”

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When one political party is systematically attacking democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and even truth and reality, what does “balance” and “fairness” look like? When it comes to holding government officials and others in positions of power accountable, what about the responsibility of the fourth estate in a democracy to speak the truth and challenge those in authority?

Observing that “fascism will be welcomed and normalized in America as long as it delivers good ratings, money, and access to power,” Wajahat Ali wrote recently on Medium:

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Most American institutions, especially corporate media, have ignored the past five years during which the Republican Party and the entire right-wing ecosystem have transformed into a radicalized and weaponized authoritarian movement that sees them as oppressive instruments of “the deep state.”

… That would send the message to the United States that dishonesty is rewarded. You’re welcome to make a fool of yourself as long as you’re the one to submit the reviews. Think about Donald Trump as an example. Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” former CBS CEO Leo Moonves famously said in 2016. With “The Apprentice” and CNN’s early coverage of Trump’s rallies in 2015, former CNN CEO Jeff Zucker helped bring Trump into the mainstream, and he has no regrets about it. Obviously, no one is faultless. Not just CNN, but the entire media industry, has made the wrong conclusions. CBS News hired Trump’s former chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, in May 2022. Mulvaney was fully complicit in enabling Trump’s destructive incompetence. A CBS executive explained the move by saying the network needed to increase its number of Republicans in order to gain more “access,” in the expectation that the Democrats would lose control of Congress in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections. Chris Christie’s contract to become a political commentator at ABC News is reportedly quite lucrative. Alyssa Farah, Trump’s former director of strategic communications, has joined The View as a regular panelist. Even though Farah and other conservatives were fine with Trump’s racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, lies, and cruelty until the big lie and the violent insurrection, they now have a free pass to fail at life. There is media affirmative action, but it favors Republicans exclusively. In 2023, I hope to see news panels where people discuss whether or not slavery was a force for good and whether or not Jews are using space lasers to replace white people. After all, if you don’t allow for these types of forums where all voices can be heard, you can’t call yourself a “centrist” journalist who reports fairly.

In yet another example of the mainstream media normalizing Trumpism and American neofascism, a recent article in The Washington Post provides. There is a headline that reads, “Six extreme promises Trump is making for a second term.” The following is a summary of the article’s subheadings: “In recent speeches, the former president has begun specifying new policies he’d pursue if he returns to the White House, with an emphasis on crime, voting, and shrinking the government.”

The attacks on democracy and other authoritarian behavior by Trump and the Republicans are presented in this framing of language as the continuation of “normal politics” and “business as usual.” In reality, Trump’s plans for a second term include establishing himself as king or emperor of the United States, with the power to fire government employees for “disloyalty,” to use the National Guard as his personal stormtroopers in Black and brown communities, and to expand the war on multiracial democracy by creating a new Jim Crow-style system of white minority rule.

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The Republican fascists want to end multiracial, pluralistic democracy and replace it with a Christo-fascist apartheid plutocracy, which is just one example of how asymmetrical polarization and negative partisanship have shattered American politics. Democratic and pro-democracy forces, on the other hand, are working to counteract them. The two parties are not equally to blame for the crisis in democracy facing the country.

However, false equivalence is still encouraged by institutional norms and rules in the mainstream media. Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, was recently interviewed by media scholar Jay Rosen to discuss the media’s shortcomings in the Trump era. Jacob reflected on his efforts to include quotes from both Republicans and Democrats in news articles, and how his dedication to “balance” unintentionally bolstered Trump and his supporters.

A number of mistakes were made in my procedure. The first mistake was viewing a news story as a platform for partisan rhetoric rather than an opportunity to educate readers on the issues and the facts. Putting the speaker’s identity ahead of the content of their words was also a bad idea. Occasionally, a political party’s top officials will unite behind an outright fabrication. Consider the Republican party’s lies about a committee formed on January 6th. If you feel compelled to use a quote from a Republican leader on the subject, know that it will be a complete fabrication. And you’re aiding the liars if, at the same time, you don’t debunk it. When exactly did I realize how serious this issue is? Because the Republican Party was getting more and more adept at using the mainstream media to sanitize its message of corruption. My fair-share strategy made more sense when both major parties were equally crooked and dishonest. Both were quite bad in the ’80s and ’90s, and some shady characters remain in the Democratic Party even now. Equal time for the parties has turned into equal time for truth and lies as the Republican Party as a whole has become an increasingly dangerous, anti-democratic force.

Jacob claimed that the “mainstream journalism approach” of allowing both Republicans and Democrats to “have their say” was “failing our democracy” and “was increasingly being exploited by propagandists.”

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Professional political liars were given a huge gift when we decided to prioritize being fair to Republicans versus Democrats over being fair to the public and the facts. Fake issues were successfully inserted into the mainstream news agenda at their behest. And their lies were echoed by so-called “objective” media, giving them credence. Standard journalistic practices have been no match for conservative propaganda. That was a bloodbath.

In order to save multiracial democracy, the Constitution, human rights, civil rights, and the rule of law from the Republican fascists, the media and other public voices must defend these principles unapologetically. A liberal democracy’s fourth estate should, at the very least, be “biased” against fascists and other authoritarians.

The Republican fascists pose an existential threat to American democracy, freedom, and society, and a truly objective media would report on this fact on a regular basis. Cowardly neutrality in which evil and good, right and wrong, lies and truths are presented as effectively the same thing is what the Trumpists and neofascists thrive on. The Republican fascists, the larger white right, and other anti-democracy forces would all be strengthened by such a framework.

Asymmetrical polarization has shattered American politics, leaving no room for compromise between the two major parties. The democratic crisis is not their fault to the same extent.

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Adopting a pro-democracy stance in the media would entail accepting that journalists are not immune to the effects of politics and larger questions of power and society, but are instead real people with feelings and thoughts. Attempts to be “objective” are both misguided and inaccurate. After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, managers at some newsrooms sent emails “reminding workers to avoid tweeting anything that may give a perception of bias,” as Alex Sujong Laughlin writes for Poynter. These emails were sent in an effort to maintain the appearance of objectivity, a core value in journalism. I can see why it’s important for established news organizations to maintain a reputation for objectivity in an era when only 36% of Americans say they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media. However, the pursuit of objectivity (rather than focusing on truthful and contextual reporting of the news) has always been a cynical public relations tactic, one that first gained prominence at a time when the industry and its employees looked very different from how they do now. Putting on an act of objectivity is out of date, and the best way to keep people’s faith in the media is to be honest. While the public demands change, or when the Overton Window shifts and an issue becomes mainstream, legacy newsrooms stubbornly cling to outdated values and refuse to adapt to the rhetorical needs of this unprecedented period of democratic destabilization. Acknowledging our humanity and being honest about how these decisions will affect us personally does not preclude us from doing the important work of bearing witness to the world, verifying truth, and contextualizing it for our readers.

There is no more time to stop the Republican fascists and save American democracy and society. The American news media and other public voices need to stop clinging to the illusion that Republican fascists and other “conservatives” are basically good people who will eventually come around and recommit to democratic norms and values.

The American press should take Stelter at his word and take up the mantle of defending democracy. Defeating this enemy is a matter of life and death. Referees who are not taking sides are unnecessary.

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