What the Data Say: Problematic mainstream media

As American democracy teeters on the brink, the mainstream media is faltering in its role as a protector of democracy.

I am a longtime critic of President Joe Biden. Throughout his political career, he has been my example of a person who “goes along to get along.” I blame him for Clarence Thomas—how as chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he eased the way for Thomas to get enough votes to join the Supreme Court. However, in the last few years, he might have learned the error of his ways. Among other good things, recently, he called out the “MAGA Republicans” for their democracy-killing actions. 

In his speech in Philadelphia on September 1, 2022, Biden accurately assessed current political behavior, “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”

Although Biden was cautious in not calling all Republicans MAGA folk, the mainstream media, in its ill-advised centrism, pounced on him for being divisive. In The Nation magazine, Jeet Heer called out the mainstream media–CNN, the major TV networks, The Washington Post, and The New York Times–as “radical centrists.” Of course, these mainstream media are not known as Trump supporters; however, their adherence to this unwarranted attempt at neutrality is helping Trumpism, a nice name for white nationalist fascism.

As Heer noted, the mainstream media focused on “Biden’s alleged violation of the norms of civility and ignoring the facts and arguments he presented.” The anchor of one of the Sunday morning news shows said that Biden was spreading hate. An editorial in the Washington Post lamented the lack of bipartisanship in Biden’s speech. And the list goes on. The three major television networks did not carry Biden’s speech, deeming it merely “political.” 

These unfortunate reactions of the mainstream media are continuations of past behaviors; however, one would expect some changes in the face of the thunderous march toward fascism. However, I am continually appalled by the ongoing “evenhandedness” of the media. For example, they keep discussing the upcoming midterm elections as the usual horse race, as if things are normal and that the only national issues are the traditional ones. But white nationalist fascism is on the ballot in the next election or two.

As one analyst on Bill Moyers Journal put it, We don’t have a press willing to say, “This is not a legitimate argument this person is making.” We don’t have a press that’s willing to say, “He said it, but it’s completely out of bounds,” or “It’s completely baseless,” or “It has no grounding in reality.” We don’t have a group of political interpreters willing to say that.

From their work and that of others, professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, provided four key indicators of authoritarian behavior they had observed around the world. Here are some representative items.

  1. Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections?
  2. Do they deny the legitimacy of political opponents?
  3. Do they tolerate or encourage violence?
  4. Have they praised repressive measures taken by other governments?  

There should be no need to discuss these except to say that the MAGA Republicans score a “yes” on each of the four items. Remember that 74 million people voted for Donald Trump in 2020. They willingly or unwittingly support this Trumpism, this blatant fascism.  

While the cable networks carried Biden’s speech on September 1, and MSNBC hosts regularly discuss the “bear in the room” of authoritarianism, this failure to report this problematic distortion of democracy in the political realm spread to MSNBC, which is characterized as a liberal network. My best example occurred in 2017 when even after the Charlottesville riot, the Great Rachel Maddow argued that there were no white nationalists in the White House, something Donald Trump admitted publicly months later.

As we criticize the hell-bent direction the MAGA Republicans are pushing the country, we should criticize just as harshly the mainstream media’s role in providing it cover, whether that action is intentional or not.