By Brandon Borrman, Senior Advisor at The Franklin Project
On September 18, hundreds of journalists gathered in Washington, DC to record a protest that never materialized but still merited mention and live coverage across national news. On September 21, it was revealed that former President Trump’s legal team authored a memo detailing how the will of the American people and the rule of law could be ignored, effectively launching a coup to retain the Presidency. The memo wasn’t mentioned by any major networks’ news. The only mention came on Seth Meyers’ late night show on NBC. On September 28, as the nation teeters on the brink of default and massive legislation sits stuck in Congress, coverage is focused on the political fortunes of the President, the Speaker, and the Majority Leader. Analysis of the impact on Americans is virtually nowhere to be found.
In the space of these few weeks we’ve been given a perfect encapsulation of what is wrong with how our political press is covering this moment. Healthy democracy requires an independent press that is focused on the issues that matter. Unfortunately, for the health of our country, political coverage today is about the game of politics, politics the reality show, not the issues that matter to people on a day-to-day basis.
There is a silent majority in this country, and it’s not the one that stands in front of a camera yelling. It’s the millions of Americans sitting at home, sickened by the non-stop attacks on our democracy, but unsure of what to do. One thing we can do is hold our press accountable. Demand that they serve their purpose and live up to the role they are meant to play in our democracy. We should publicly call them out when they fall into the trap of covering politics like it’s some television drama. We can demand that they discuss how policy affects us, the people, instead of looking at everything as a win or loss for a political party.
When was the last, real, public discussion of the press’ role in shaping our current national dysfunction? Probably Jon Stewart confronting a young, slightly less cynical Tucker Carlson on Crossfire in 2006. We’re owed better by our press. Their role in our democracy was enshrined by our Founding Fathers, and we cannot allow them to simply walk away from their responsibilities.
I say this as someone who has long advocated for the role of the media in Silicon Valley, a place where press are increasingly viewed as an enemy to be avoided. Journalists uncovered the fraud that was Theranos. They’ve held Facebook and my former employer, Twitter, to account for their impact on society. After a decade of puff pieces and Steve Jobs worship, tech press finally grew a backbone and is serving its role as a check on otherwise unchecked power. This is, despite how traitorous this may sound to some of my colleagues here, an extremely good thing for the health of our society.
That is why I’m hopeful that the tide can be turned in political coverage. I’m hopeful that journalists and editors will start to consider how their coverage contributes to the problems we have and shift their energies to being part of the solution. Our democracy is at risk, we face potential Constitutional crises like we haven’t seen since the Civil War. The press has a critical role to play in helping us understand what is at risk and the role we can play in trying to address those risks. Right now, the press are largely acting as play-by-play announcers. Reveling in the entertainment and the game play, and mistakenly thinking we’re all enjoying it as well.
One simple way to start — Twitter. They’re all on there, and whatever else you think of the service, it’s a great way to start publicly demanding better from our press. The change won’t happen unless we demand it.
Brandon Borrman is a Senior Advisor at The Franklin Project, a non-partisan, not-for-profit focused on building a grassroots effort to stop the rise of authoritarianism. Previously, he was the Vice President of Global Communications at the social network, Twitter.