Politics is usually seen as a party-on-party fight, with the press in the middle. But does that model fit anymore when one party has gone anti-democratic? Do readers and viewers learn anything useful if journalists just report who says what without reporting on what is true and what’s at stake? There’s a new mini-movement of pro-democracy press, one I’d say we’re proud to be a part of, but it should be much bigger.
This seems like a good time to share a conversation I recently had with media critic and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. Jay is one of the sharpest minds thinking about how the press covers, and fails to cover, the democracy-threatening phenomenon that is Trumpism now that the rules have changed. You should follow his Twitter feed and read his PressThink blog.
Here’s our chat, edited for length:
We talk a lot about how the GOP project is now based on adherence to a series of lies about our democracy. Now that “stolen election” lies have taken root post-2020, how has the press done in adapting to Trumpism?
There's nothing in the playbook of political journalism to address the situation where one of the two major parties is an active threat to democracy, and the other is kind of normal. Which isn’t to say that the Democratic Party doesn't have problems and in many ways is failing to rise to the moment itself. But there's simply no comparison between the normalcy of politics within the Democratic Party and what's happening on the Republican side of the aisle. And adjusting to that kind of asymmetry, which I think is a major challenge for journalism, hasn't gone very far.
You've said that this asymmetry fries the circuits of the mainstream press. What does that mean?
Most of the practices of the political press rest on assumptions where you have two roughly similar parties that operate in similar ways but have different priorities or ideology. And they kind of fight it out for advantage, competing for votes and voters. But that just doesn't describe the world anymore. And replacing a piece of mental furniture like that is not very easy.
Many reporters are afraid that if they do the basics, like identifying that one party has become fundamentally anti-democratic, they'll get branded as biased by that party.
Absolutely. And that internalization of the bias critique is, to my mind, one of the most successful propaganda campaigns ever run in the United States. I would compare it to the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 60s or something like that. It's been tremendously successful, and I don't think that the political press as a whole has figured out what to do in that situation.
Jonathan Karl, who's a very well-known political correspondent for ABC News in Washington, recently said Trump in 2024 is an immense challenge, because, assuming he runs, you're covering essentially an anti-democratic candidate. You thought that was a big deal.
Jon Karl is a consensus figure in the press, seen as a down-the-middle reporter. And the fact that he was saying if Trump won, it's going to be a campaign that's anti-democratic, a campaign that tries to overwhelm the system, and that if Trump runs, that he's going to relentlessly lie, and that “Stop the Steal” is going to be central to those lies... None of those things does the press have a method of handling in a political campaign. How do you cover a candidate who's running within the system and trying to destroy the system at the same time?
It was encouraging that someone of Karl’s stature in Washington recognizes that Trump is fundamentally anti-democratic. But it’s a shock that there doesn't seem to be a playbook for what many people recognized five years ago.
That is super important. But it's really difficult to see how the press solves this problem. The press as an institution really doesn't have a way of redirecting itself. It doesn't have a board of directors or a pope.
This week NPR did an interview with Trump where they pre-ambled the interview with a straight litany of election facts, receipts, and debunks they knew Trump was about to lie about. I thought it was really effective. What did it say to you?
Certainly the way they did it showed a lot of thought. They anticipated what Trump was going to do in claiming a rigged election. They prepared listeners for what was coming. They pre-contextualized his propagandistic claims, then they re-contextualized after the interview was over, which brought out the fact that in Georgia, Trump's reckless lies about a stolen election probably cost his party control of the Senate.
And they did all this without resorting to "critics say" or empty displays of both-sides-do-it. When they refuted Trump's propaganda, it was in their own voice as journalists empowered to say that's false. Just look at the headline they used online: "Pressed on his election lies, former President Trump cuts NPR interview short."
In other words, they were being extremely careful with this material, and they were determined to say his fraud claims are bunk, he's got nothing.
What did you think of that strategy?
Well, you asked me if these moves were effective. That's a different question, and it depends on what effect we're striving for. If the goal is to not let “Stop the Steal” propaganda go unchallenged, then I would say mission accomplished. If it's preventing poisonous disinformation from being aired and amplified by NPR, then, no, the interview did not accomplish that.
Trump was able to convey his message through atmospherics. The tone of suspicion, the denunciation of traitors, the threats to wavering politicians, the waving away of facts: All this came through loud and clear. [Morning Edition host] Steve Inskeep challenging many of Trump's false claims actually adds to the atmosphere I am describing.
For all the care NPR took—and I agree, it was impressive—the interview could not escape this logic. Which means we have to ask: Should Trump be interviewed at all?
Is the press up to the job of 2024?
Yeah. I think the political press has enough people. It has smart people. It has people dedicated to public values rather than, for example, to their own enrichment or their own power. And it has the necessary independence and freedom because our system still provides that.
And so the ingredients are there. What’s not there is a professional culture that welcomes these kinds of challenges.
Tell your friends: Breaking the Vote is pro-democracy, pro-voting and pro-truth. Sign ’em up!
The Justice Department charged the founder of the Oath Keepers and 10 others with seditious conspiracy in the most high-profile arrest of the Jan. 6 investigation so far. Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes was arrested and charged for the first time, as was member Edward Vallejo. Nine other Oath Keepers and associates had existing charges expanded.
It’s also the first time any alleged Jan. 6 participants have been charged with seditious conspiracy, aka plotting to overthrow the government. If convicted, that’ll get you up to 20 years.
It’s the Cover-up
This Week in Subpoenas (T.W.I.S.™?), the House January 6 Select Committee reached out to all the big social media companies—including Twitter, Meta, Reddit and Alphabet—looking for material related to users’ planning and execution of Jan. 6. It also subpoenaed Andrew Surabian and Arthur Schwartz, a pair of Donald Trump Jr.’s advisers, as well as Ross Worthington,
a smug legacy frat president who has it in for our lovable nerds a speechwriter who wrote the words Trump delivered at the Ellipse before the riot. The trio are now asked to provide deposition and documents. Some outlets interpreted the subpoenas—especially Surabian’s and Schwartz’s—as evidence that the January 6 committee is inching closer to former President Trump himself. Admittedly, these three are small fry.
The Big Fish
It wasn’t a subpoena, but this week the January 6 panel made it official: They’d like to talk to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy was reportedly in close contact with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in the days before Jan. 6. Afterward, he at first condemned Trump, called him responsible for the riot, then flew down to Mar-a-Lago to make it clear Trump was still leader of the GOP. Here’s a rundown from committee chair Benny Thompson.
It only took hours for McCarthy to dis the committee in favor of withholding evidence and cover-up. That was no surprise: As Breaking the Vote has reported, McCarthy is on notice from the Trumpist House Freedom Caucus (and thus Trump) that his Speaker of the House aspirations depend on toeing the line. In other words, as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has made clear, McCarthy is on a very short leash.
VICE News Tonight’s Liz Landers questioned McCarthy on how he went from condemning Trump to covering up for him. As you can see, the answer is pretty much McCarthy throwing down a smoke bomb and trying to escape behind it.
That’s a problem because the January 6 committee isn’t quite sure what legal authority it has to get them into a chair and under oath. Can lawmakers subpoena other lawmakers? Who enforces it if (more like when) the subject refuses?
Here was committee vice chair Liz Cheney’s take on McCarthy: “I wish that he were a brave and honorable man. He's clearly trying to cover up what happened. He has an obligation to come forward, and we'll get to the truth.”
White (Haired) Whale
McCarthy knows a lot, but almost no one knows more about Trump’s coup-centric actions and state of mind than former Veep Mike Pence. It’s no secret the panel wants Pence’s testimony. It would be vital if they’re ever to refer Trump to the DOJ for potential criminal charges around the riot. But getting Pence to talk is a delicate dance of leverage, negotiation, and pressure that runs both ways. Pence has plenty of incentives to stay away from the committee, especially if he wants to stay viable for a presidential primary in the increasingly authoritarian GOP. But he’s also the guy who refused to go along with Trump’s coup plot and faced death threats and a literal murderous mob because of it.
Speaking of Pence, the mob, and a possible criminal referral for Trump, the three are connected in fascinating and (if you’re a non-lawyer) surprising ways. We can only speculate about whether DOJ is pursuing, or will ever pursue criminal charges against Trump for Jan. 6. But here’s why the prosecutions of rank-and-file rioters suggest government attorneys are at least laying the potential groundwork… and why Pence could be the bow that ties it all together.
I have a feeling it won’t be long before we’re back in Rudy’s world.
Willard Hotel coup HQ attendee and former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerick reportedly sat down with the committee yesterday. Kerick served three years in prison behind eight felonies, for which he was later pardoned by Trump. Kerick reportedly helped investigate voter fraud claims in service of the coup plot.
One vital part of the Trump coup plot was the effort to use the willing and intimidate the reluctant at the state level. The January 6 committee has taken an obvious interest, and this week we learned that results were horrifying but also hilariously absurd.
Trumpist groups from at least five states forged elector certificates and tried to pass them off as the real thing to the government. Groups in Arizona and Michigan forged the certificates and used them to try to dupe the National Archive. The Archive wasn’t fooled, and those two states’ secretaries of state told the select committee about it. Now the bigger question is who coordinated this fraudulent and probably illegal activity designed (however clumsily) to support Trump's coup? Nothing says you hate election fraud like blatant election fraud!
Burning Man, but for Lies — Every week we chronicle how being a Republican in a 2022 primary means embracing Trump’s lies about 2020. And to tell the truth about 2020 is to be “crazy”, “stupid”, “weak,” and a “RINO”, as GOP Sen. Mike Rounds found out this week.
That sordid and corrosive dynamic will be on full display in the Arizona desert this weekend, when Donald Trump throws a long-advertised rally. A large slate of violence-peddling and election-undermining candidates will be there, but so will a desert exodus of QAnon figures and others guaranteed to amp the credibility of the QAnon cult. VICE News’ David Gilbert has the story of Trump and Arizona’s captured GOP.
Jedi Mind Trick — Making voting easier is really popular. So what’s a senator in Trump’s GOP to do when the party's at work making it harder? Simple! Just say the opposite of what it is and keep a straight face. VICE News’ Cam Joseph details how Senate Republicans are fighting Dems’ voting rights push by gaslighting everyone on what “harder” means.
Epps, They Did It Again — One of the liabilities of trafficking in conspiracy theories is that when they fall apart, your credibility is shot, leaving you in chastened silence. Just kidding! What I meant to say is that when goofball theories flame out, just launch some more into the insatiable void, and you’ll be rewarded with more viewers.
Two super-dumb conspiracy theories about Jan. 6 burned bright then went dark this week. In one, a (very) red-faced Capitol riot attendee who, according to Tucker Carlson’s show, was definitely a federal agent provocateur, turned out to be a self-made St. Louis Cardinals mascot who loves baseball and Trump and is not a fed.
Then there was the one about the mysterious Ray Epps, a rally attendee from Arizona who also found himself at the center of claims that he, too, was a fed agitating peaceful Trump protesters to riot.
Both these episodes make you chuckle, but they’re insidious and dark: They spawn from the wider lie that Jan. 6 was some kind of false flag operation, not a violent bid to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power. Do giggle, but also expect much, much more of this. It’s how counter-narratives to terrible truths are made.
In Your Ears — We’ve been all over the story of violent threats and intimidation against election workers. Don’t miss VICE News Tonight’s Madeleine May on the VICE News Reports podcast, talking about the impact of threats on the people who run democracy and what’s to come in the horribly updated world of violence for political ends.
“So, in unprecedented times, unprecedented action is occurred [sic]” - Arizona GOP state Rep. Jake Hoffman, asked why he and 10 other electors signed a bogus document declaring Donald Trump the winner of the 2020 election.