Me­dia should be bi­ased to­ward democ­racy

Jour­nal­ists must hold the pow­er­ful ac­count­able and not be lured by the next shiny ob­ject

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Perspectives - E.J. Dionne is a syn­di­cated colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

The be­lief that con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy is su­pe­rior to other forms of gov­ern­ment rests in part on its ca­pac­ity to en­cour­age open de­bate and thus so­cial learn­ing.

So­cial learn­ing is un­der­rated. Cit­i­zens can and do learn to­gether and from each other. They pick up tid­bits and cues from the pub­lic de­bate and then ar­gue over back fences or kitchen tables, in their houses of wor­ship or at their fa­vorite bars and restau­rants.

True, this is an ide­al­ized view. In the Trump era, many peo­ple avoid po­lit­i­cal talk with neigh­bors or fam­ily mem­bers they dis­agree with for fear of ig­nit­ing bit­ter shout­ing matches.

And so­cial learn­ing is prob­lem­atic when we only hang around with peo­ple who re­in­force our own views and prej­u­dices, as Bill Bishop sug­gested in his rev­e­la­tory book, “The Big Sort.” So­cial me­dia pushes us fur­ther into ide­o­log­i­cal si­los, some­thing Rus­sian hack­ers un­der­stood in 2016.

It ought to be the job of tra­di­tional me­dia to help break this cy­cle. As Matthew Press­man shows in his re­cent his­tory of jour­nal­ism, “On Press,” there was a pur­pose be­hind the old ideas of “ob­jec­tiv­ity” and “fair­ness.” At their best, jour­nal­ists ex­am­ine ques­tions of gen­uine im­por­tance and of­fer cit­i­zens a chance to hear com­pet­ing ar­gu­ments on var­i­ous sides of the is­sues at stake. This task in­cludes point­ing out when claims are at odds with the facts.

Now only a naive ra­tio­nal­ist would claim that pol­i­tics is purely cere­bral. It’s also about pas­sion, self-in­ter­est and the foibles of would-be po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. But for democ­racy to work well, we need a bal­ance among rea­son, emo­tion and in­ter­est. When rea­son is in re­treat and when can­di­dates are given strong in­cen­tives to stir up ugly pas­sions, we have a prob­lem.

This is where we are now, and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is both the prod­uct of this cri­sis and its apoth­e­o­sis. He brought home just how non­sen­si­cal and dis­hon­est our pol­i­tics have be­come with his as­ser­tion last Thurs­day about Mex­ico pay­ing for his bor­der wall: “Ob­vi­ously, I never said this, and I never meant they’re go­ing to write out a check.”

This was shock­ing, even from an un­re­pen­tant liar. Mr. Trump de­nied ever say­ing some­thing that, as David Naka­mura re­ported in The Wash­ing­ton Post, he did say “at least 212 times dur­ing his cam­paign and dozens more since he took of­fice.”

This points to the me­dia’s ma­jor short­com­ing in 2016: its con­tin­u­ing com­mit­ment to “both sides are equally flawed” jour­nal­ism, which led to its fail­ure to por­tray Mr. Trump as the moral aber­ra­tion he is. As Frank Bruni re­cently noted in The New York Times (cit­ing the re­search of Har­vard pro­fes­sor Thomas Pat­ter­son), treat­ing Mr. Trump and Hillary Clin­ton “iden­ti­cally” in terms of their “fit­ness for of­fice” was “mad­ness.”

And as The Wash­ing­ton Post’s me­dia critic Mar­garet Sul­li­van noted, jour­nal­ism needs to pull back from a “fo­cus on per­son­al­i­ties and electabil­ity” and on blow­ing gaffes “way out of pro­por­tion.” She en­dorsed New York Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Jay Rosen’s idea that the press fol­low a “cit­i­zens agenda” in 2020. Why not more re­port­ing on the prob­lems vot­ers care about and how can­di­dates pro­pose to solve them?

There are ob­vi­ous re­sponses to all this: Many vot­ers knew who Mr. Trump was and voted for him any­way be­cause they dis­liked Ms. Clin­ton even more; the crit­ics just don’t like the way the elec­tion turned out; and many of our fel­low cit­i­zens are so stuck in “me­dia bub­bles” that what main­stream jour­nal­ism does won’t mat­ter.

But what­ever their mer­its, these as­ser­tions come down to a de­nial of re­spon­si­bil­ity. The main­stream me­dia still greatly in­flu­ence how we talk to each other about pol­i­tics and should take this re­spon­si­bil­ity se­ri­ously.

Con­sider just two ex­am­ples. A video of Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sioCortez’s col­le­giate danc­ing made for fun sto­ries, but it’s far less im­por­tant than the New York Demo­crat’s pro­posal for a 70 per­cent tax rate on in­comes of over $10 mil­lion. Cov­er­age of Mr. Trump’s 2016 at­tacks on Jeb Bush for his “low en­ergy” were a suc­cess­ful dis­trac­tion from a se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion about Mr. Bush’s prophetic as­ser­tion that Mr. Trump would be a “chaos pres­i­dent.”

None of this takes away from the fact that jour­nal­ists still pro­vide an abun­dance of ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion. This in­cludes, thank good­ness, smart and tough cov­er­age of Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Bruni, Ms. Sul­li­van, Mr. Pat­ter­son and Mr. Rosen are right to ask the me­dia to pon­der what role it has played in bring­ing our democ­racy to its cur­rent state. The ar­biters of the news should be en­cour­ag­ing bet­ter con­ver­sa­tions over those back fences — and do­ing a bet­ter job of warn­ing us early on about politi­cians who lie even about their lies.

AFP/Getty Images

The me­dia ob­sessed over Don­ald Trump’s la­bel­ing of Jeb Bush as “low en­ergy” in 2016.

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