But for journalists, not every story is as black and white as a mob storming the United States Capitol to try to topple a free election. Often there are gray areas.
Gerrymandering is a classic example. It’s not always easy to identify heroes and villains when writing about redrawing district boundaries. Republicans have had more success with reclassification lately, and they’ve often violated voting rights laws, but both parties manipulate political maps for their own ends. In New York, for example, Democratic lawmakers tried to maximize their number of seats in the House, but ran into a court order throwing their cards away.
So is gerrymandering a fundamental threat to democracy, as some claim? Is it a tool politicians use to protect their jobs or gain an edge over rivals? Something in between? The details are important.
Journalists are faced with difficult questions every day:
How to calibrate a headline on a big story like the January 6, 2021 attack.
How to correct misinformation when repeating it can amplify lies.
How seriously should you take fringe groups that may seem insignificant now, but may prove to be dangerous in the future.
Or and how to quote politicians who make bizarre comments with the aim of generating a response.
How to cover campaigns that exclude reporters from their events or refuse to respond to basic questions.
There is no manual for this, but a group of activists and academics is trying to help.
A new 28-page report from Protect Democracy, a non-partisan, nonprofit, proposes guidelines for news outlets to help them differentiate between “normal political jokes” and genuinely dangerous behavior. The primary author was Jennifer Dresden, a former scientist at Georgetown University who has studied democracy around the world.
In an interview, Dresden said she was driven by the belief, backed up by decades of research, that “authoritarianism doesn’t happen overnight.” Like a stalagmite, it develops from the slow trickle of violations of freedoms and violations of long-standing democratic rules and traditions. That process is now well underway in the United States, she is concerned.
The idea that motivated the report, Dresden said, was to develop rules to think about how to evaluate whether something is “a systemic risk to democracy” — and expose it as such — or “just one loose cannon that can make things happen.” does that are problematic.”
Protect Democracy gathered a panel of academic celebrities for the project, including Sheri Berman, Larry Diamond, Timothy Snyder, Kim Lane Scheppele, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The group also consulted editors from several news outlets, including DailyExpertNews, to understand how newsrooms approach this task.
The panel reached a consensus on “seven basic tactics” that authoritarian leaders and movements use to pursue and maintain power, which are listed verbatim below:
They try to politicize independent institutions.
They spread disinformation.
They increase executive power at the expense of checks and balances.
They destroy criticism and dissent.
They specifically target vulnerable or marginalized communities.
They are working on corrupt elections.
They incite violence.
Each bullet has its own section, along with suggestions for journalists intended to influence their reporting. But the advice is all guided by the overarching question that fuels the report: What’s politics as usual, and what isn’t?
Dresden says there should be clearer standards than the Potter Stewart test — referring to the former Supreme Court judge, who famously said in a 1964 case that his method of identifying obscenity was, “I’ll know when I see it.” .” There’s some wisdom in that trust-your-gut approach, but democracy is a lot more complicated than a pornographic film.
Thus, the report includes advice such as “explain and contextualize the reasons why institutions are designed as independent” and “rely on experts who are familiar with the history of each specific institution”.
Read more about the House Committee hearings on January 6
The Trump era prompted many mainstream news organizations to do just that. At one point, Slate, a left-wing website that pioneered many aspects of early web journalism, had a semi-regular feature called “Is This Normal?” that was intended to answer questions from readers about actions such as the firing of James Comey by Donald Trump, the FBI director whose role in the Russia investigation rocked the former president. (Spoiler alert: That wasn’t normal.)
But we have to admit that all of us in journalism are still figuring out how best to cover what the evidence suggests as an authoritarian moment with few parallels in our lives.
To meet the challenge, researchers at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin studied the views of 56 people who believed Trump would win the 2020 election. The results are sobering: Participants “relied more on raw video content, personal experience, and their own research and judgment than they did on social media and news organizations,” they found.
The beat of democracy is now everyone’s beat
The Trump era has prompted The Times and other news media to take steps to better organize and invest in democracy and the efforts to undermine it.
The lead editor is Griff Witte, a longtime foreign correspondent who said in an interview that his years abroad gave him “new eyes” when approaching the job.
From his seats in London and Berlin, he reported on the far right’s response to an influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, and witnessed up close how Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, “managed the mechanisms of democracy against democracy” to entrench its power.
“We’ve got January 6, which is very visual and very dramatic,” Witte said, “but there’s also a lot going on in an underground way that no one sees.”
The Times’ new editor-in-chief, Joe Kahn, has been clear about his view of the paper’s responsibility to the public: that Times journalists cannot be “impartial” about whether the United States is sliding into autocracy. As he told NPR’s David Folkenflik in a recent interview, “You can’t be committed to independent journalism and be agnostic about the state of democracy.”
The Times takes a broad approach to this mandate, reflecting the size of the newspaper and the vast, global nature of the subject.
Democracy coverage is woven into multiple areas of the newsroom, including the politics desk, which deals with campaigns and elections; the enterprise and research teams, who dig deep into stories that need more than the usual elbow grease; national correspondents in the United States, covering everything from hurricanes to school shootings to major social trends; international correspondents, in many cases based in countries that do not have a free press; and the Washington Bureau, which covers the White House, Congress, and federal agencies.
We also need your input.
The Times has asked readers to express their concerns about the state and future of American democracy, and On Politics will regularly collect stories on the subject from colleagues on the editorial board. Expect new guest authors to contribute to the newsletter in the coming weeks. And please let us know your thoughts.
What to read about democracy
In case you missed it, Peter Baker wrote about the House panel’s laser-like focus on Trump’s blame for the January 6 riots. “In all of the 246-year history of the United States,” Baker writes, “there has certainly never been a more damning indictment against an American president than was outlined Thursday night in a cavernous congressional auditorium where the future of democracy was at stake. . line.”
States are spending millions to fight a “flood of baseless rumors and lies surrounding this year’s midterm elections,” reports Cecilia Kang.
Matt Apuzzo and Benjamin Novak examine how Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban “has not hesitated to use the levers of government power to erode democratic norms and strengthen a one-party system” during a decade in power. Orban, as Elisabeth Selfsky wrote for DailyExpertNews magazine last year, has become a source of inspiration for some on the right in the US.
Danny Hakim and Alexandra Berzon take apart ‘2000 Mules’, a new film about the 2020 election that makes a host of misleading and downright false claims.
In The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reflect how, after discussing the demise of Richard Nixon, “we believed with great conviction that America would never again have a president who would trample on the national interest and undermine democracy through the audacity of pursuit of personal and political self-interest.” But then, they write, “Trump came along.”
A sea of red
On Politics regularly shows work by Times photographers. Here’s what Shuran Huang told us about capturing the image above:
It was a hot day in Union Square near Capitol Hill. Survivors of gun violence and families of victims awaited the word of members of Congress during a gun control meeting. Many wore red shirts with the words “Moms Demand Action”.
People wiped the sweat from their foreheads. Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally showed up. As she spoke, I saw a woman in the crowd raise her hands and clap with every line Pelosi said.
The speaker promised Congress would take action against guns. “Why would anyone be against raising the age so that teens don’t have AK-47s?” she asked. “Why wouldn’t someone want protection in their home so that children can’t get dangerously close to guns?”
As Pelosi spoke, the woman’s hands seemed to hold both the speaker and the Capitol in the center of the frame.
Thank you for reading. We’ll see you Monday.
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Something you want to see more of? We would love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics.†