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5 September 2020

US democracy in peril: the crisis facing the US media

In an era of hostility towards the press, strong investigative reporting is harder than ever.  

By Sophie McBain

The New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen has described the Trump presidency as an “existential threat” to American journalism. When the president lies, suggesting that the pandemic is under control even as the US death toll surges beyond 175,000, or when he espouses nonsense, speculating that injecting bleach could cure coronavirus, reporters cannot ignore him. And yet the act of reporting such statements, even if only to refute them, lends weight to them by creating a false equivalence, elevating meaningless ramblings to what might be described as an “alternative fact”. Trump makes “the job of a journalist impossible,” Gessen told me recently. “I mean, we manage. We try to squeeze into that crack between the two impossibilities. But if you do it long enough, it will destroy journalism completely.”

An optimist might observe that the challenge of reporting on Trump, and of writing about this summer’s nationwide civil rights protests, has prompted a necessary reassessment of journalistic norms. Black and minority ethnic reporters have been among the most vocal critics of the traditional journalistic ideal of “objectivity”. These journalists argue that true objectivity doesn’t exist and that so-called “objective” reporting often encodes a white, male worldview. They believe that reporters should be free to publicly express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and that their organisations should be willing to describe Trump’s statements as lies or as racist, rather than resorting to euphemism.

The counterargument is that the line between news and opinion is becoming blurred, or that using such emotive language to describe the president risks alienating readers. Yet many media organisations aim to challenge, as well as inform, and abandoning the pretence of objectivity doesn’t require giving up on fundamental journalistic values such as fairness, honesty and rigour. If anything, it underlines their importance and makes clear the urgency of moving beyond a lazy “he said, she said” approach to balance, the style of reporting more focused on canvassing diverse opinions than on establishing underlying facts. To quote a popular journalistic adage: if one person says it’s raining and another says it’s dry, the journalist’s job isn’t to quote them both, it’s to look out the window and check. Trump’s attacks on American democratic norms and institutions, and on Americans’ sense of reality, makes strong, investigative reporting more important than ever. They also make it even harder.

[See also: Why this is a revolutionary moment for US democracy]

Trump’s frequent invectives against the media as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people” and his habit of insulting individual reporters, has contributed to a hostile and dangerous press environment. In 2018, a gunman killed five staff at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland; later that year Cesar Sayoc, a fervent Trump supporter, posted pipe bombs to CNN’s New York headquarters, as well as to a number of prominent Democrats. Trump supporters have attacked reporters at his rallies, and the US Press Freedom Tracker, created by over two dozen press freedom groups, has documented over 600 incidents of journalists coming under rubber bullet fire, being tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, assaulted, arrested or otherwise impeded by police while covering Black Lives Matter protests.

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Meanwhile, the pandemic has exacerbated the financial crisis facing local newspapers: since the spring more than 50 newsrooms have closed across the US. Since 2004, more than 1,800 American newspapers have closed, creating “news deserts”, communities no longer served by a local newspaper. Not only does this damage local democracy and accountability but it severs the connections between the journalists and the communities they report on, making it easier for Trump to recast reporters as “bad people”.

[See also: The fight to save local news]

The New York Times, however, has thrived during Trump’s presidency: subscriptions have risen to a historic high of over six million, and the papers’ share price has more than quadrupled since 2016. (That the Times is frequently singled out by the left as an example of an outdated and harmful approach to journalistic “objectivity” has done little damage.) But while rising subscriptions are encouraging evidence that many Americans are willing to pay for high-quality news, it is also a sign of a shrinking news ecosystem: the New York Times and its main rival, the Washington Post, now make up around half of all digital subscriptions in the US.

To stand the best chance of resisting Trump’s attempts to delegitimise the upcoming election, and to hold the president to account over his appalling coronavirus response, the media needs to be diverse, locally engaged and well-resourced. The Times may find that its long-term interests, and the survival of American liberal democratic traditions, depend on it finding a way for other news organisations to share its success.

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