I was mesmerised this past week by two astonishing videos coming from the US, watching them both multiple times.
One showed the Kentucky Derby, where the little-known chestnut colt Rich Strike came out of nowhere to blast past the favourites and win the race by less than a length. The other showed an entire North Carolina beach house tumbling into the ocean, yet another indication of Outer Banks shoreline erosion and, more generally, the world’s catastrophic climate crisis.
And I couldn’t help but see both as metaphors for the precarious state of democracy in America and the news media’s role in helping to save the day or in succumbing to disaster.
Here’s what I mean. Since Jan. 6 of last year, a growing chorus of activists, historians and political commentators have spoken of “democracy on the brink” or “democracy in peril.” What they mean is that, thanks to a paranoid, delusional and potentially violent new strain in our nation’s politics, Americans may not be able to count on future elections being conducted fairly — or the results of fair elections being accepted.
And at least some news organisations are taking heed.
The Washington Post established a “democracy team” to expand reporting on the nationwide battles over voting rules, access to polls, and efforts to create unfounded doubt about the outcome of elections. At the New York Times, soon-to-be executive editor Joe Kahn is talking frankly about the need to investigate efforts to undermine the institutions that uphold democracy. (If they don’t, he told CJR, “we’re not doing our job as a leading news organisation.”)
A number of regional journalists are beginning to push against industry norms to speak more clearly about the threat: The Philadelphia Inquirer boldly declined to use the euphemism word “audit” to dignify state Republicans’ endless probes for nonexistent voter fraud — essentially the GOP’s attempt to cast unwarranted doubt on the results of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania.
But the clearest recognition I’ve heard so far came last week from a managing editor for CNN. Alex Koppelman is not the editor overseeing the network’s political coverage; instead, he supervises business and media news. But CNN did gave him a voice to lay out the harsh reality of what the nation is up against, and what we in the media need to do about it.
Koppelman underscored what we should all be clear about by now: that most of the Republican Party publicly touts the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election but that the vote was rigged and victory stolen from him. The Republican elected officials who won’t back Trump are being driven out of office by his faithful. “Those true believers think there is no way Trump could lose a presidential election,” he wrote, “and maybe that no Republican nominee could.”
No stopping the tide
That makes the outcome of this year’s midterm elections extraordinarily consequential. If Republicans take one or both houses of Congress, and if Trump or another Trump-inspired Republican runs for president in 2024, Koppelman added, “there may be no stopping the tide.”
These true believers will see to it that the Republican nominee is declared the winner — even if it takes a coup to do so. (Let’s face it: We saw that very thing attempted on Jan. 6 last year when a violent mob stormed the Capitol and demanded the election results be reversed.)
Nor is it just about elections to Congress. Secretary of state elections across the country may prove even more consequential because those officials oversee elections, control the machinery and vastly influence public opinion with their pronouncements about the integrity of the vote.
University of Michigan law professor Barbara McQuade pointed out in a Times opinion piece that 27 states will choose a secretary of state this fall, and in 17 of those states — including some key electoral battlegrounds — at least one of the Republican candidates denies that President Joe Biden is the legitimate president.
But do American citizens get it? Do they fully recognise that our precious democracy may soon fall into history’s sea? If they think about it at all, have they resigned themselves to what they consider the inevitable and not recognise that preserving that democracy is every bit as possible — if unlikely — as that Churchill Downs stunner?
My sense is that the news media has to try harder — and differently — to get this message across to voters, who are the only ones who can truly protect democracy.
How can news organisations do that? Is it just more of the tried-and-true: good, solid, aggressive reporting? Or is another approach necessary, and if so what might that be?
When I followed up by phone with CNN’s Koppelman, he suggested that newsroom leaders take the time to ask themselves and their teams a basic question: “Does our audience understand what the stakes of this election are?”
Given the press of daily deadlines and the constant flow of news, journalists don’t always take that step back to assess the overall impact of their coverage. “We have to spend that time now,” he told me.
I’ve written before about my own ideas: To make the threats to democracy a central part of media coverage, not a sidelight; to stop treating campaigns like so many horse races; to have coverage reflect a sharp focus on government rather than politics; to label this coverage in a defining and memorable way, as news organisations have done with “Spotlight” or “Watchdog” teams in the past; to make it accessible to all by placing at least some of the coverage in front of the paywall; to communicate with audiences plainly and transparently about what this coverage is about and why it’s important.
Those who grapple with this subject every day could probably offer better suggestions.
The midterm elections may be the most consequential ones in American history. The are less than six months away, and many Americans don’t understand how high the stakes really are. There’s not much time to fix that.
It will require a come-from-behind sprint like the one Rich Strike pulled off. We cannot fail.
Margaret Sullivan is a noted media columnist