That’s the troubling charge that longtime Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank made in his December 3rd column. (I haven’t linked to the essay because it’s behind a firewall.)
His observations meshed with my own perceptions about why President Biden’s poll numbers fail to reflect his highly productive first year. (Yes; rising inflation is a big concern—worldwide, I might add. And though Biden’s taken steps to control it, I understand that the President “owns” the issue, and people will respond accordingly, despite other very promising signs of economic health.)
Milbank backed up his assertions with data. Here are key passages.
“Artificial intelligence can now measure the negativity with precision. At my request, Forge.ai, a data analytics unit of the information company FiscalNote, combed through more than 200,000 articles — tens of millions of words — from 65 news websites (newspapers, network and cable news, political publications, news wires and more) to do a ‘sentiment analysis’ of coverage.
“Using algorithms that give weight to certain adjectives based on their placement in the story, it rated the coverage Biden received in the first 11 months of 2021 and the coverage President Donald Trump got in the first 11 months of 2020.
“The findings, painstakingly assembled by FiscalNote vice president Bill Frischling, confirmed my fear: My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy.
Milbank points out that following a brief honeymoon in the first several months of his Presidency, Biden more recently has received press coverage at least as bad as what Trump received—and even worse at times—for the same four-month period in 2020.
“Think about that. In 2020, Trump presided over a worst-in-world pandemic response that caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths; held a superspreader event at the White House and got covid-19 himself; praised QAnon adherents; embraced violent white supremacists; waged a racist campaign against Black Lives Matter demonstrators; attempted to discredit mail-in voting; and refused to accept his defeat in a free and fair election, leading eventually to the violence of Jan. 6 and causing tens of millions to accept the “big lie,” the worst of more than 30,000 he told in office.
“And yet Trump got press coverage as favorable as, or better than, Biden is getting today. Sure, Biden has had his troubles, with the delta variant, Afghanistan and inflation. But the economy is rebounding impressively, he has signed major legislation, and he has restored some measure of decency, calm and respect for democratic institutions.”
“We need a skeptical, independent press. But how about being partisans for democracy? The country is in an existential struggle between self-governance and an authoritarian alternative.”
“And we in the news media, collectively, have given equal, if not slightly more favorable, treatment to the authoritarians.”
After the column appeared, Milbank was asked by Dan Froomkin, who heads a nonprofit called Press Watch “what he thinks his colleagues should do differently.” (The Press Watch Mission Statement shows that Froomkin feels much as Milbank does.)
Milbank pointed out that journalists have no experiences to rely on in dealing with the present situation.
“…one of the two major political parties is no longer cooperating with the democratic process: promulgating the most outrageous lies, disenfranchising voters giving state legislatures the ability to overturn unfavorable election results, openly embracing white nationalism.”
Believing that we’re in an “existential struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, and between fact and fiction,” he says journalists shouldn’t be on the sidelines.
News reporting should put these aberrations from what we’ve long considered “normal” into context. Journalists should challenge Republicans who seek to enable state legislatures to ignore election results. They should fact check and point out lies, and question actions that are authoritarian—asking where and when such actions have previously been taken.
Why are journalists so negative toward Biden? Milbank thinks they’re reacting to a drop in readership since the Trump years because people like conflict. The big problem, he said, is “we’re portraying this as an ordinary conflict.”
If it’s all about conflict, Froomkin asked why journalists aren’t writing about “the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism.”
Milbank agreed that’s a worthy story. The conflict, he said, isn’t between Marjorie Taylor Greene [etc]…and Biden. “It’s between people who believe in a pluralistic democracy and people who do not.”
His overriding point is that this isn’t a topic in which there are two sides, so journalists shouldn’t fear being called partisan.
“Journalists should be partisans when it comes to democracy: defending the truth, defending free and fair elections, defending equal justice under law.”
And since many people already think journalists are biased, they should simply cover the facts.
Not surprisingly, conservative writers attacked Milbank. Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, said:
“I think this point of view is very wrong. Indeed, I think it’s this view of the press’s role that actually empowers demagogues, feeds polarization and makes crises in our system much more likely.”
Douthat throws in a few red herrings, questions the data on which Milbank relied while acknowledging that Biden’s coverage has been grim, then depicts Biden and Harris in terms that show his own biases against them and liberalism per se.
“Far wiser, instead, to treat negative coverage as an example of the press living up to its primary mission, the accurate description of reality — which is still the place where the Biden administration and liberalism need a better strategy if they hope to keep the country on their side.”
I do find some truth in that conclusion as written; I’ve long been frustrated by what I see as the Democrats’ lousy messaging and internal struggles. My question surrounds the definition of an “accurate depiction of reality.”
I think Milbank is speaking of the need for greater coverage of urgent and fundamental issues.
Another conservative writer, Becket Adams, began his high-minded response in The Washington Examiner thusly:
“Thank you, Dana Milbank, for reminding everyone computers will someday replace humans in the critical thinking category.
“I know of at least one who could be replaced by a toaster and no one would notice.”
Then he badly misrepresented Milbank’s premise:
“Put aside for a moment the underlying subtext to his column, which is: To save democracy, journalists must publish only flattering news stories on the most powerful man in the free world.”
I’m not suggesting that Biden, or anyone, is above criticism. I believe a free, independent press is/should/must be sacrosanct. I’m sure Milbank believes that as well.
However, his critique went far beyond coverage of Biden. It talked about the Republican party-led authoritarian sweep of our country, the flagrant lies about the 2020 election results, the methodical turning back of voting rights, and the condoning of violence and white supremacy.
Douthat’s “accurate description of reality” made no mention of any or all of that. Nor did The Washington Examiner writer.
We now know that there was a PowerPoint presentation, created by retired US Army Colonel Phil Watson, which outlined the steps that could be taken to overturn the 2020 election of Joe Biden and keep Trump in office.
In other words, a coup.
Mark Meadows, Trump’s Chief of Staff, shared that memo with certain members of the House and Senate on January 5, 2021.
It all came down to urging Vice President Pence either to delay or refuse to open envelopes certifying Biden’s win on January 6. Trump and others were repeatedly pressuring Pence to do so.
If he had, his actions would have created a Constitutional crisis.
On Twitter a few days ago, Washington Post correspondent Robert Costa, who coauthored the book Peril with Bob Woodward, tweeted a timeline that combined findings from that book with new information.
Costa, a careful journalist, tweeted that
“despite all these docs [documents] and PowerPts, the most revealing thing of this period isn’t a document. It’s what he [Trump] says to Pence on Jan. 5.
“At the end of the day, Trump isn’t looking to these docs to make his case. He looks to the gathering mob in the streets. (Ch. 43, “Peril.”) (emphases mine)
[The relevant Trump-Pence exchange]
“If these people say you had the power, wouldn’t you want to?” Trump asked.
“I wouldn’t want any one person to have that authority,” Pence said.
“But wouldn’t it almost be cool to have that power?” Trump asked.
“No,” Pence said.
The next day, insurrectionists stormed the Capitol and chanted “Hang Mike Pence.”
Do Ross Douthat and others who share his beliefs that Milbank is far off base really think they’ll be able to write what they choose if Donald Trump takes power through the Republicans’ current anti-democratic efforts in 2024? Or even if the Republicans gain the majority in one or both houses of Congress in 2022—and surely stop the investigation being conducted by the House January 6 Committee.
Only two Republicans voted to create that commission; most either deny the Insurrection occurred, falsely characterize it as a nonviolent event, or refuse to discuss it.
In the Oxford Dictionary, this is the definition of TREASON:
“the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill the sovereign or overthrow the government.”
That’s a scary word and a scary thought, and I’ve been torn about whether to include them.
But the evidence is before us, and it’s come from the former President and those who helped him–and they haven’t stopped.
[UPDATE: Although the definition of treason is technically correct, it is not according to the Constitution. Article III, Section 3 specifies “Treason against the United states, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”]
So I wonder. Why aren’t more journalists sounding the alarm that Dana Milbank has?
If you concur, I hope you’ll write letters to the press encouraging them to cover the movements toward authoritarianism and to provide an “accurate depiction of reality.”
And please urge your Senators to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. They are necessary tools to help us counter the efforts to impose minority rule that are threatening our democracy.