By Tom Ehrich
American democracy is in peril when some of its key defenders lose their way.
Many work to defend American democracy. Voters who vote, of course, as well as our large and complex legal system, from judges to enforcement personnel, plus an educational system that enables citizens to process complex information, and the men and women in uniform who defend our freedoms.
But nothing surpasses the defense provided by a free press and especially by a handful of news enterprises: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, a few other newspapers, a small handful of magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and a few online news teams.
They dig for truth and hold candidates and officeholders accountable. If one candidate brags that he has been a huge success as a businessman but the record shows a consistent string of failures, bankruptcies, stiffing vendors and employees, fraudulent enterprises, and bullying government officials, a free press lets us know. What citizens choose to do with this information is a great imponderable, of course. Many denounce the media for reporting it. But nothing will be healthy if the facts aren’t known.
A free press enables all citizens to listen in on a political campaign rally or a debate and to draw our own individual conclusions. We aren’t limited to what the candidates say in ads and puffball interviews.
An effective free press provides the same fact-based, unfettered and bold coverage of the economy and its key players, education and what students are actually experiencing, and popular culture as it shapes our values and awareness.
Perhaps the single most worrisome phenomenon of this election system isn’t the demagoguery of Donald Trump. It’s the failure of The New York Times to cover this campaign effectively, with insight and perspective, and to help voters understand what is going on. Following a foolish doctrine of “false equivalence,” The Times has led the way in giving Trump a free pass on the dangerous, fraudulent, fascistic content of his campaign.
Fortunately, The Times sees its errors. Investigative reporting of Trump’s background and business enterprises has intensified. Last week, the paper demoted its Washington bureau chief for the paper’s poor political coverage. This morning, columnist Nicholas Kristof said, “We owe it to our readers to signal when we’re writing about a crackpot.” He said, “We should be guard dogs, not lap dogs, and when the public sees Trump as more honest than Clinton, something has gone wrong.”
Political coverage is more than a scorecard, more than reporting on poll results, more than naming the odds of who will win, as if American democracy were a pro football weekend. The woods and web are filled with shouts and outrage, conspiracy theories and invective of the basest sort. In this storm of one-sided words that are unhinged from fact, reason and civility, our democracy depends on at least a few news enterprises telling us the truth.
Democracy requires an informed and engaged electorate. The blizzard of lies, conspiracy theories, threats and bigotry don’t constitute “informed.” It’s important to know when a lie is a lie, a conspiracy theory is nonsense, a threat violates civil and human rights, and bigotry trespasses on American values.
Most news enterprises won’t tell us any of that. We depend on a handful of serious news organizations to remember their reason for existing.