Departing the Washington Post for Duke University, media critic Margaret Sullivan's final column focuses on being a stern warning for her colleagues on how to deal with Donald Trump in the months and years ahead.
Here’s the good news: The media has come a long, long way in figuring out how to cover the democracy-threatening ways of Donald Trump and his allies, including his stalwart helpers in right-wing media. It is now common to see headlines and stories that plainly refer to some politicians as “election deniers,” and journalists are far less hesitant to use the blunt and clarifying word “lie” to describe Trump’s false statements. That includes, of course, the former president’s near-constant campaign to claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged to prevent him from keeping the White House.
What’s more, the media seems finally to have absorbed what should have been blindingly obvious from the beginning: Trump is by no means a normal political figure, and he will never reform into some kind of responsible statesman. (Who can forget the perennial predictions that he was becoming “presidential” every time he read from a teleprompter instead of veering off on an insulting rant?)
Another encouraging development is the decision by a number of major media organizations, including The Post, to form democracy teams or beats, concentrating on efforts to limit voting access, the politicization of election systems and the insidious efforts to instill doubt in the public about legitimate voting results.
And yet, I worry that it’s not nearly enough. I don’t mean to suggest that journalists can address the threats to democracy all by themselves — but they must do more.
I’m often reminded of the troubling questions posed by ABC News’s Jonathan Karl in multiple interviews late last year about what it would mean to cover Trump if and when he runs for president again. He deemed it perhaps the greatest challenge American political reporters will ever face.
“How do you cover a candidate who is effectively anti-democratic? How do you cover a candidate who is running both against whoever the Democratic candidate is but also running against the very democratic system that makes all of this possible?” wondered Karl, a former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. His questions hit hard, the more so because of his reputation in the political press corps as a straight shooter.
The deeper question is whether news organizations can break free of their hidebound practices — the love of political conflict, the addiction to elections as a horse race — to address those concerns effectively.
For the sake of democracy, they must.
Journalists certainly shouldn’t shill for Trump’s 2024 rivals — whoever they may be — but they have to be willing to show their readers, viewers and listeners that electing him again would be dangerous. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk.
One thing is certain. News outlets can’t continue to do speech, rally and debate coverage — the heart of campaign reporting — in the same old way. They will need to lean less on knee-jerk live coverage and more on reporting that relentlessly provides meaningful context.
Real-time fact checking is of limited usefulness, in my view. Better to wait until these live events have occurred and then present them packaged with plenty of truthful reporting around them.
Journalists simply can’t allow themselves to be megaphones or stenographers. They have to be dedicated truth-tellers, using clear language, plenty of context and thoughtful framing to get that truth across.
Unfortunately, as Sullivan's voluntary departure from the Post (and Brian Stetler's involuntary departure as the host of CNN's Reliable Sources) heralds, ratings, circulation, and access to a presumed Republican majority in Congress is the only thing that matters to the news industry, that and the coverage of Trump's inevitable 2024 run...and a second term in the White House at the cost of American democracy itself.
Sullivan's warnings will fall on deaf ears, even as she finally sees the light after her decades in Beltway journalism.
We didn't get Trump in a vacuum, folks.