American democracy is in grave peril because journalists are insufficiently hysterical and biased. That is the conclusion of a trio of Washington Post columnists and a panoply of other media experts. But journalists’ rush to the barricades risks opening the floodgates to new abuses of government power.
Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. last week called for a “pro-democracy media,” vigorously describing “long-standing Republican tactics such as aggressive gerrymandering” as “dangers to democracy.” Bacon frets because “gun-shy editors” fail to denounce Republican “radicalism” in banner headlines. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan declared, “That American democracy is teetering is unquestionable” due to pro-Trump Republicans, requiring a “new pro-democracy emphasis” to be “articulated clearly — and fearlessly — to readers and viewers.” Post columnist Brian Klaas admits that “the media adopting a pro-democracy bias . . . effectively means being pro-Democratic” Party but there is no alternative except to “unequivocally and unapologetically condemn” Republicans.
Journalists cannot demonize one political party without tacitly sainting its opponents. Even worse, “pro-democracy” cheerleading can quickly become cravenly pro-government.
This danger is stark, with the growing enthusiasm for official crackdowns on alleged misinformation (which sometimes simply means data that expose federal falsehoods and abuses). In a recent report, the Aspen Institute, one of Washington’s most revered think tanks, called for the Biden administration to “establish a comprehensive strategic approach to countering disinformation and the spread of misinformation, including a centralized national response strategy, defining roles and responsibilities across the Executive Branch.” Law professor Jonathan Turley condemned the report’s “full-throated endorsement of systems of censorship” by government.
But The Washington Post loved the call for crackdowns, endorsing the Aspen report with an editorial headlined “America is sick with information disorder. Time for a cure.” And how do we know Americans are “sick”? Because they distrust President Joe Biden and the feds. And the cure is more federal power and more censorship.
How does “pro-democracy” reporting work in practice? Journalists provide readers with a catechism specifying correct beliefs rather than providing facts by which citizens can reach their own conclusions. But the Washington press corps was aptly described decades ago as “stenographers with amnesia.” The political “philosophy” of most reporters does not go beyond “Orange Man Bad.”
Do we need the same journalists who hailed Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a savior for his heavy-handed COVID lockdowns returning for an encore to save democracy? A laudatory 2020 New Yorker profile touted “Andrew Cuomo, King of New York.” Entertainment Weekly hailed Cuomo as “the hero that America never realized it needed.” (The New York Post dissented.) Cuomo’s reign ended in a swirl of criminal investigations and outrage over his coverup of thousands of nursing-home deaths his policies caused.
The media’s coverage of the 2020 election would qualify as “pro-democracy” reporting at its best. Time magazine national political correspondent Molly Ball boasted early last year of the “well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it.”
And how do we know it was “fortified,” not “rigged”? Because Biden won.
After the 2016 presidential election, the Post’s Sullivan bewailed the media’s “ridiculous emphasis put on every development about Hillary Clinton’s [illegal] e-mail practices.” For the 2020 election campaign, liberal media found a “pro-democracy” solution for one potential bombshell: Twitter banned the New York Post for reporting the incriminating foreign payoffs exposed in Hunter Biden’s laptop. But most media outlets pretended that laptop was a Russian ploy, thereby shielding Biden family corruption controversies from voters.
Nothing could be more perilous to the truth than encouraging journalists to pirouette as saviors when they grovel to The Powers That Be. “Pro-democracy” press is a threat to liberty because it will ignore or downplay abuses committed by purportedly pro-democracy rulers. Rather than rigorously scrutinizing Biden’s proposals, the media presume his pursuit of vast power is simply proof of his benevolence.
“Pro-democracy” reporting will be uplift at its worst. It is no harmless error to portray politicians (or at least Democrats) as more honest and honorable than they are. The Biden administration has signaled plans to make both the FBI and IRS far more intrusive. Will “pro-democracy” media outlets refrain from mentioning past constitutional debacles by those agencies? Will it be “pro-democracy” to pretend new scandals don’t actually exist? (That recipe worked for the media and President Barack Obama.)
The “Hunter Biden Laptop Recipe for Saving Democracy” is the latest crock from the media elite. Journalists are not fit to serve as Grand Inquisitors who spoon-feed their beliefs to docile readers and viewers. Instead, the press should vigorously investigate and expose federal crimes regardless of who is president.
James Bovard is the author of 10 books and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.