Dear Journalists: Please Declare Independence from Business as Usual

Independence Day, America’s most important holiday, arrives next week. A flawed but fixable republic emerged from that fateful July 4 in 1776. We struggle toward a more perfect union, but we do make progress.

Today, a radical right-wing faction is waging war on democracy. Its leaders and followers have come to loathe much of the progress they see as a threat to their way of life. They are activists, working tirelessly to regain power and turn our nation into an authoritarian — or worse — regime that mocks the will of the majority with increasingly harsh minority rule.

If they succeed, one reason will be the most consequential failure yet of an institution our nation needs to do its job: journalism. And that’s why I wish so desperately that American journalists will declare an independence of their own on July 4 2021.

Declare independence from modern norms and practices that serve, not challenge, the forces of deceit and dominance. Declare independence from the business as usual that, with some honorable exceptions, has prevailed as the danger has grown.

(Please tune into the current Joe Trippi Podcast for a longer discussion of this situation.)

I revere journalism and the journalists who try so hard to get things right and to be fair. Now we need them to muster the independence to realize, at long last, that on some issues in some eras, journalists should become outright activists. Activists, I believe, for at least these ends:

  • Now more than ever, for our constitutional government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
  • For public grounding in reality, via better education and journalism itself, not — to name just one common hackery — context-free stenography of “both sides” when one side is lying.
  • For freedom of expression — and other increasingly jeopardized rights and liberties at the core of an open, modern world, such as the freedoms to associate, collaborate, and innovate.
  • For basic fairness with more level playing fields that, among other things, reduce the dangerous concentration of wealth at the top and, in one step toward long overdue racial justice, ensure universal voting rights for all citizens.
  • For the future of civilization itself, by helping to deal with accelerating climate change before it’s too late.

Neutrality, objectivity — pick your journalistic norm — should not apply to these topics, not logically or morally, if we want to achieve that more perfect union and sustainable planet. Yet they remain entrenched, in too many journalistic circles, even when they are failing us.

Why? Probably because — and I’m being charitable — too many journalists can’t bring themselves to believe that these dangers are here today, or imminent, or necessarily even real.

That’s most evident when it comes to the growing threat to our republic. The people who report our news can’t, or won’t, imagine how close we may be to a tipping point that leads to the collapse of the great, unfinished American experiment in liberty.

Caution: While it’s vital to take the growing threats to democracy seriously, we can’t our battle against the real authoritarian threat become a backdoor to a different kind of authoritarianism. That’s part of how we turned the 9/11 attacks into years-long (and ongoing) civil liberties backsliding at home.

I steered clear of partisan American politics some years back when I first started urging journalists to see themselves as activists on certain issues. I focused on topics — such as freedom of expression — where journalists might recognize that they were already playing that role.

After all, even the New York Times had taken a stand against China’s repressive regime when its own journalism was under threat there. Crucially, the Times took the same stand at home. In 2015, reporter James Risen, facing possible jail time for refusing to disclose sources, called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation” (the vastly more press-loathing Trump regime still being in the future). The Times’ standards editor defended this alleged editorializing by a reporter, telling Margaret Sullivan, then the public editor: “In general, our reporters understand that they don’t and shouldn’t editorialize on issues we cover…” But because The Times was not at all neutral on freedom of the press, this was “in a different category.”

It’s still a different category in the craft, which goes routinely and properly bonkers when (American) journalists are under threat. There’s a blind spot when it comes to people from other countries, such as American journalists’ refusal to recognize that the precisely the same logic the U.S. is deploying to try to prosecute Wikileaks’ Julian Assange could be used against American national-security reporters.

But a misguided belief in the power of traditional journalistic norms prevailed during the Trump years, when a craving for normalcy overruled a recognition of reality. When the most powerful person on the planet declares you to be an “enemy of the people,” the proper response is not to say, “We’re not at war, we’re at work” — the famous but misguided aphorism of former Washington Post editor Marty Baron. The proper response is to find allies and fight like hell for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Yet journalists couldn’t even be bothered to call the incessant lies of the Trump regime and its cult what they were, preferring even now to use weak-kneed euphemisms. At a time when the government had become a corrupt cesspool that defied the rule of law and blew through governance, social, and economic norms like a tornado through balsa wood, showing up for work wasn’t enough.

Along the way there was some superb spot journalism, world-class stuff that did us all proud. But it was sporadic. It never, ever put in context the full picture of what had happened during the Trump years. Journalism did better on the government’s murderous coronavirus debacle, in many ways, than it had on previous topics. When one story dominates so much of our lives — and a president so visibly and deliberately botches his government’s deadly response to the worst public emergency in our lifetimes — business as usual on everything else seemed less damaging.

After the Big Election Lie and the attempted coup of Jan. 6, there was a moment of journalistic courage, and even activism on the political front. It was beginning to dawn on journalists, or so it seemed, that one of the two major political parties wasn’t just lying about the fundamental truth of who’d won the election. That party had launched an attack on democracy itself. Even journalists who’d welded themselves to the “both-sides” anchor took notice — briefly.

As the Biden administration took power with thin Democratic majorities in Congress, the moment passed. Political journalism, in particular, returned to business as usual. There’s little recognition at the highest levels of the industry, if the content of the news pages and programs are any indication, that we are in a growing emergency — a direct attack on democracy by one party and its increasingly radical leaders and followers.

The only place where you consistently see this reality is in commentary. The bosses who tell their reporters what news is, and the people they work for, have from all appearances decided that if people say this stuff out loud in editorials or commentaries, that’s good enough. The news pages/programs, meanwhile, are filled more with Republican-fed distractions than the party’s in-your-face strategies of a) preventing Biden and the Democratic majority in Congress from getting anything serious done; and b) rigging our voting systems wherever possible to prevent Democrats from holding power again, at least in our lifetimes, no matter what voting majorities they would command in fair and honest elections.

And there are only small nods toward the rancid anger building up among the right-wing extremists who are veering toward outright violence on a scale this country hasn’t seen in a long, long time — violent activism aimed at creating an authoritarian or even fascist state. It can happen here.

If journalists won’t use their platforms to raise the alarm, beyond spotting some burning brush while ignoring a blazing forest, we are in deep, deep trouble. Even if they do, we’re in trouble, but at least the craft I believe in will have done its best.

I’m fairly sure that many journalists would do more if they could. Some may be intimidated, as they are increasingly under direct threats from the extremists and their cult adherents. But I suspect, as noted earlier, that mostly they’re locked into business as usual by the people they work for — editors, publishers, news directors, CEOs, shareholders, and others.

Donald Trump was an emergency, and journalists did not measure up to the times. To the journalists who did their jobs during his catastrophic presidency, I offer my thanks. To the many more who stayed with business as usual, for whatever reason, I beg that you rise to this occasion, this time. Please, before it’s too late.

***

Everything I’ve said above about the journalism trade applies, I believe more and more, to a related field: journalism education. I’ll have more to say on that in a separate post, soon.

For further consideration:

  • Jay Rosen has done some of the most important thinking and writing about modern journalism’s ongoing blind spots. He says, and I agree, that there has been some genuine progress in the craft, and in the linked post he offers examples that should be widely emulated.
  • No commentators have been more diligently on the save-the-republic case than the Washington Post crew, in particular Greg Sargent and Jennifer Rubin. Please follow their work.
  • The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU has been a consistent chronicler and supporter of voting rights. I’m a donor and hope you’ll consider helping them out as well.

The first rule of a conversation: listen. Bio and disclosures: http://dangillmor.com/about