We’re heading into the slow news days of December—that blissful winter week when journalists break out the evergreen stories of puppies and kittens (or, at Mother Jones, What Would Happen if We Really Went to War Against Christmas) as the daily headlines fade. And hoo boy, can we all use the break.
This was supposed to be the year when things went back to a little more normal, and yet the anxiety-inducing news is nonstop: Inflation! Omicron! Shutdown! Weather disaster! Midterm polls! It’s easy to conclude that the world has gone mad, but historians would remind us that the world has always been mad—we just didn’t have 24/7 coverage of it. And the reason the volume—in the sense of both quantity and loudness—keeps going up is that two contradictory things about media are true at the same time.
One, there is less actual journalism being created: In the last decade-plus, some 30,000 news jobs have been lost in this country and the pandemic eliminated 6,000 more last year. And two, there is more news coming at us all the time, on more platforms and in more formats, because more content and (often) more outrage is still the path to more eyeballs and revenue.
Why does this matter? Because as a result of both these things, the flood of incremental news can numb us to the fundamental issues we need to pay attention to. And the biggest one among those, in American politics, is the attack on democracy.
As we wind down a year that began with a televised insurrection and ends with detailed reporting on what a 2024 coup could look like, it’s more important than ever to stay grounded in that story. Call it the Big Story, in contrast to the Big Lie. It’s what we at Mother Jones are focused on for next year, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say that right now is the most important time of year for our fundraising, and I hope you’ll support our reporting with a year-end donation to help us reach our urgent $350,000 online goal.
The Big Story did not begin on November 3, 2020, but it did enter a new chapter that day. Remember those surreal weeks, just barely a year ago? Protesters banging on doors at ballot-counting centers, Rudy Giuliani holding forth outside a landscaping shop, election officials reporting vile threats to their families?
And remember, too, the hope that the end of chaos was near? One by one, the states certified the election. Joe Biden calmly assembled his cabinet. As the holidays neared, it seemed as if we could breathe a cautious sigh of relief. The system had held.
For this is what we have learned since then: We barely made it. And the next time, or the time after that, we might not.
That’s the story deserves our attention—more than inflation or supply chain problems, more than Joe Manchin, right up there with the climate crisis and the fight for racial justice as the defining story of our time. It’s the story that journalists should be shouting from the rooftops and reporting out from every angle, every day, the same way we do a missing white Instagrammer.
That this is not happening represents a terrifying failure of our profession. But it’s not an irreversible one. 2022 offers a chance to get our act together and cover democracy like it matters. Before we run out of time.
For decades now, the default mode for political reporting in America has been sports coverage: which team is winning, which is losing, what the star players are up to, which tactics the coaches are pursuing, all within a framework of rules that everyone knows and mostly respects. It’s no coincidence that the dominant polling news site grew out of fantasy baseball.
That model, rooted in the need to maximize revenue and minimize offense to audiences or advertisers, has always been problematic. But its most dangerous blind spot is this: Play-by-play coverage means we don’t see what happens outside of the game. Say, if someone is setting the arena on fire.
That’s where we are. We can smell the smoke. And we have a choice: We can keep our eyes on the field and hope there’s a firefighter nearby. Or we can grab a fire extinguisher.
There was a brief moment, just about a year ago, when the news media reached for the fire extinguisher. Journalists confronted the “Stop the Steal” lie and called it what it was. Even Facebook implemented “break the glass” measures to dial back the propaganda flooding users’ newsfeeds.
And it was, in fact, a break-the-glass moment—so much more than we knew. Journalists and platforms had planned for a close election whose results would be challenged. But not many had envisioned the president rejecting a clear and convincing result, or his minions drawing up coup memo after coup memo after coup memo detailing how Vice President Mike Pence should overturn the election. Few details from that period are as chilling as the fact that it fell to ex-VP Dan Quayle to finally tell Pence that “you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away.”
On January 6, the Republican Party had its own break-the-glass moment. For a few days after lawmakers hid from the president’s insurgents, it seemed as if the party was ready to end its fling with authoritarianism. Even Mitch McConnell appeared willing to consider impeachment.
But then they shook it off. Today, Republicans have fully committed themselves to the project of undermining democracy. They just want to do it properly.
Barely any GOP official besides Liz Cheney and the retiring Adam Kinzinger dares to challenge the Big Lie anymore. The mainstream GOP line is embodied by Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who played the reasonable conservative in front of swing voters and dog-whistled about “election integrity” for Fox News. Business in front, (right-wing) party in the back. And that’s the moderate end of a spectrum at whose other end is the QAnon roar of Marjorie Taylor Greene, or the “January 6 was antifa” horror show of Tucker Carlson.
It would be bad enough if this were all rhetoric for political and fundraising gain, but it’s rapidly hardening into law. More than 33 anti-democracy bills have been passed in 19 states this year, and hundreds more are on the docket. Some aim to make it harder to vote, some to ensure that certain voters’ (you can guess whose) choices don’t count. Some give state legislatures the power to send whomever they want to the Electoral College. Some are creating redistricting maps that guarantee a 2-to-1 Republican advantage in state and congressional elections even in states that went for Biden.
And all the while the Steve Bannons, Tucker Carlsons, et al. are fanning the flames for the next showdown. When a TV host with presidential ambitions tells his viewers that they are being “hunted” and “replaced,” it’s not for show anymore—it’s the real, fascistic thing. When an actual congressman tells his followers “to be armed, to be dangerous, and to be moral,” it’s no longer a dogwhistle—it’s an order.
Does it matter whether they really believe this stuff? Of course not: What matters is, it sells. It sells pillows and precious metals and guns. It hauls in donations to frivolous legal funds and campaigns, and harvests advertising dollars from Google and Facebook no matter how many times the platforms claim to have stopped it.
And what happens on the screen doesn’t stay on the screen. As my colleague Mark Follman, who has investigated gun violence and the gun lobby for more than a decade, writes, experts have been sounding the alarm about a big uptick in gun sales, whose consequences we saw play out yet again at Oxford High in Michigan. “Consider what will happen next year when armed voter suppression (surely that’s coming) meets armed voter support,” researcher Garen Wintemute tells Mark. “Perhaps vaccine or mask mandates will trigger more than isolated outbreaks of violence. Or perhaps the flashpoint will be a more focused conflict, such as private enforcement of an abortion ban in Texas or the fight over water rights in the ever-hotter and -dryer West.”
This is the story. We are in a moment of true peril for democracy (and true possibility too—more on that later). And yet, as the media scholar j. Siguru Wahutu has pointed out, from following mainstream political coverage “one might be forgiven for thinking that the most important issues right now are whether the former president is going to run again, whether or not Vice President Harris’ staff is difficult to work with, or even whether the current president will run again in 2024.”
Case in point: that day just a couple of months back when we learned about Trump lawyer John Eastman’s coup memo. It is a staggering document, straight out of Weimar circa 1932. It received, as Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy noted, absolutely no attention from the network news:
“It is ironic, given the prevalence of the word ‘dogwhistle’ in popular discourse to refer to things that everyone can actually hear, but there is something about the specific pitch of the threat that perhaps strains the capacity of some institutions to process. They’re not programmed to take on problems like this—it disturbs the comfortable equilibrium that defines a lot of political media. Republicans come on to speak to one side of things, and Democrats come on (slightly less often) to speak to the other side of things, and there are arguments, and sometimes people win and sometimes people lose. But there is always, basically, a sense that everyone is sort of acting within the constraints of the same known universe.”
That’s exactly it. You can almost feel the relief with which the DC press has leaned back into the familiar politics-as-sportsball storylines: Can Nancy Pelosi keep her caucus together? Has Joe Biden gone too far? Is Glenn Youngkin an Obama-style uniter?
And the relief is understandable: It was hard, during the Trump years, to be so far from normal, to confront earth-shattering scandals so often they start to feel routine (what my colleague David Corn calls the “cruddy pan” problem). And it’s still hard today, as we see-saw between pandemic, economic uncertainty, and political crisis on a daily basis. As Dan Rather, no stranger to the pressures of daily news, noted recently, there’s only so much freakout anyone can take. “The human body and mind cannot always be working, or it will cease to work well,” and you can say the same of the news cycle itself: It ceases to work well when it needs to be at peak metabolism 24/7 just to survive.
Required disclaimer: There is incredible reporting being done on the threat to democracy. Press critic Dan Froomkin lists a bunch of it here. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and others have published seminal work, especially on the insurrection and attempted Trump coup. It is because of their investigations that we know how bad it truly was. But is their reporting telling us how bad it is right now? How much worse it could get?
Not on a daily or weekly basis—and that’s because of a structural flaw in the news system, which, as media critic Jay Rosen has said, is “not really designed for public understanding. It’s designed to produce new content every day.” An informed public is an outcome that many journalists hope for, but it’s not the product; the product is a website, a broadcast, a feed that has new stuff in it each day. And for big, commercial news organizations, that product in turn has a job: It needs to generate enough revenue to satisfy shareholders or owners. That’s not a dig at these companies. It’s just a fact about what they have to accomplish so as to continue to exist.
For Mother Jones, as a nonprofit newsroom, the job is different: We do produce content every day—some days a lot—but that’s not the point of our existence. Our product is not a particular frequency of articles and videos. It is impact, by way of mission-driven reporting that can contribute to a more democratic and more just world.
Why am I bringing this up? Because the product you aim to create influences the choices you make. And few choices are as important in our business as which stories we elevate to that BFD, 24/7 coverage, volume-cranked-to-11 status.
Democracy—except for that brief period in the winter of 2020—has not gotten that treatment. It is covered more than it used to be, for sure and thank goodness. And as CNN’s Brian Stelter (whose show on the media, Reliable Sources, is one of the few to consistently and urgently take on the Big Story) has noted, there are more and more people in newsrooms privately talking about how to cover, for example, a 2024 presidential election in which one of the major parties runs an expressly antidemocratic candidate. But they are mostly not talking about it publicly (among the notable exceptions is CNN’s Jake Tapper, who has gone public with his decision not to book guests who lie about the election). And that’s scary, given that we won’t have to wait until 2024 to see antidemocratic candidates: We are less than 10 months away from an election in which many of them will be running, and some will win.
So what if the war on democracy was covered like a real war? Or maybe that’s the wrong simile, given how little attention we paid to the war in Afghanistan until it finally ended. What if we covered a wave of election rigging from coast to coast with the same fervor as a bump in inflation or a showdown in the Senate?
Headlines and newscasts would be filled with stories like these:
- In Arizona, a former TV anchor who says she would not have certified Biden’s victory in that state is a front-runner for the GOP nomination for governor.
- In Texas, Republican lawmakers pass gerrymandering maps so skewed that even though white, non-Hispanic people make up less than 40 percent of the state’s population, they are a majority in 60 percent of legislative districts.
- Ohio Republicans introduce a gerrymandering map to virtually guarantee their control of 85 percent of congressional districts in a state where Trump won 53 percent of the vote. Wisconsin Republicans are set to pass a map that would give them 75 percent of legislative seats in a state Biden carried.
- Election officials around the country—including many Republicans—have been getting threats nonstop since November 2020. Bureaucrats who never sought the public eye are installing bulletproof glass at their offices, moving their families, even leaving the profession (creating openings for those less experienced or more malevolent).
- The United States has been characterized as a “backsliding” democracy for the first time by an international think tank, putting America in the company of authoritarian-ruled Hungary (which, indeed, many conservatives now admire.)
- Corporate money is ready to start flowing again to Republicans who embraced the Big Lie. As one GOP lobbyist puts it with terrifying equanimity, “time heals all.”
As former US Attorney General Eric Holder told MoJo’s Ari Berman, “The insurrection, the gerrymandering, the voter suppression, the attacks on professional election officials—all of this puts our democracy at risk to a degree we have not seen since the Civil War. That’s how serious this is.”
(And yes, this is the kind of reporting Ari and the rest of our newsroom are focusing on, and it’s what you’ll be helping Mother Jones keep doing if you can pitch in during our December fundraising push.)
The neoconservative historian Robert Kagan—who, having been one of the chief cheerleaders of the invasion of Iraq, knows a bit about propaganda and disinformation—spelled out how serious it is a couple of months ago. And he took the media and politicians to task for failing to recognize the danger:
“Today, we are in a time of hope and illusion. The same people who said that Trump wouldn’t try to overturn the last election now say we have nothing to worry about with the next one. Republicans have been playing this game for five years, first pooh-poohing concerns about Trump’s intentions, or about the likelihood of their being realized, and then going silent, or worse, when what they insisted was improbable came to pass. These days, even the anti-Trump media constantly looks for signs that Trump’s influence might be fading and that drastic measures might not be necessary.”
Folabi Olagbaju, the democracy campaign director for Greenpeace USA, grew up in Nigeria under military rule, and has been struggling with déjà vu as he watches what’s happening in America now. “There’s a big role for mainstream media to create a sense of urgency around democracy,” he told me. “But I don’t get that from what I’m seeing in the news. I would like to see the media to be able to clearly identify what losing our democracy means for our way of life in this country. Everyone has something at stake in this.”
Including, it goes without saying, the media. We need only look as far as Hungary, India, or Brazil to be reminded what happens to journalists in places where authoritarians take over.
What does it mean to cover democracy like a Big Story? Here are some ideas. They inform our coverage here at Mother Jones, but there’s nothing to stop other newsrooms from stealing them, or finding better ones. What matters is that we crank up the volume, in both quantity and loudness, on this issue—and if that means cranking it down a bit on the Kyrsten Sinema tea-leaf-reading, maybe that’s okay.
- Cover the war on democracy every day, not every once in a while.
- Create a structure that ensures this coverage: Make it a full-time job (or better, more than one), a full-on beat.
- Call things what they are—including, where needed, the F word.
- Abandon the fiction of the “view from nowhere” and acknowledge that we all have something at stake here. It’s not unethical to be, as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank writes, “partisans for democracy.”
- Report on the different parts of the democracy beat—disinformation, extremism, exhortations to violence, gerrymandering, voter suppression—as the connected and often coordinated assault they are.
- Pay more attention to democracy erosion at the state level, especially because there are fewer journalistic eyes on state Capitols than ever before. This spring, Ari exposed how just one conservative group was exporting cookie-cutter anti-voting legislation to state Capitol after state Capitol. Even Republican state lawmakers paid heed.
- Seek out audiences beyond the “choir” of news junkies or loyal subscribers. (That’s why, despite all the downsides of Facebook, we at Mother Jones still do our best to connect with people there, as well as on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok.)
- Spread the word: Boost and share the best reporting from competitors: On this story, we’re all in it together.
- Connect the battle for democracy to the other issues a majority of Americans care about—the climate crisis and economic and racial justice. Progress on any of these is progress on all of these.
- Take risks. As CNN’s Stelter has said, “journalists are sometimes worried about rocking the boat. But the boat is rocking, whether or not we like it.”
Fine, you might say, but even if all that happens, is there a point? Isn’t our politics already too far gone?
No. And I don‘t just say that because I default to “glass half full,” though I do. I say it because while the extremists and authoritarians are dangerous, they are a distinct minority. That’s why they work so hard to manipulate people and systems: They can’t win on the strength of their arguments. Consider:
- 31 percent of Americans believe the 2020 election was fraudulent. That number is way too high, and lots of ink has been spilled to point that out. But how often do we talk about the 69 percent who know the Big Lie for exactly what it is?
- 70 percent of voters, in poll after poll, support expanding voting rights. That’s called a supermajority.
- Likewise, we know that Joe Biden’s polls are in the tank right now—but what about the overwhelming majority—57 percent—who support his social agenda?
- And how about the notion that “half the country” is in the thrall of Fox News? The channel’s average viewership is 1.4 million at any given time. That’s a lot, especially when your loved ones are among them. But it’s about 0.4 percent of the population, or one-sixth the number of people who watch ABC’s nightly newscast. And it’s been falling.
These are the numbers. A supermajority of Americans want democracy to grow stronger, not weaker, and government to work for more people rather than fewer. That is a glass more than half full.
But that supermajority is not being reflected or served very well by a news ecosystem that is increasingly bifurcated into a universe of cheap, shallow content (including, sad to say, a fair bit of cable news and swaths of those eviscerated local newspapers) on the one hand, and on the other an elite tier of strong, national outlets whose highly tuned-in audience pays for access to content that the rest of the public can’t see.
And that’s why I believe so much in the unique model that Mother Jones is built on. There are no owners or shareholders demanding a firehose of fluff to pad the bottom line. Of course we have to break even (and that’s why we’re urgently asking you to pitch in), but so long as we do, we can stay focused on the Big Story, and we can bring it to a broad audience without requiring everyone to pay. As the next round of elections approaches, that feels like an intensely necessary job, and I’m deeply grateful to those of you who can help support it.
Whether or not you can, though, I want you to consider doing something that doesn’t cost a penny: Give yourself the gift of turning down the volume. Allow yourself to not click on that scary headline. Mute that pundit who gives you heartburn. The truly important stories will come through regardless (and you can trust us to send them to you in our Daily newsletter or David Corn’s This Land if you’d like to sign up for either). We’ll have your back and keep reporting here at MoJo, and the Big Story will still be here if you disconnect for a bit to recharge. Give yourself a chance to recover so you have the strength to take action. There’s a supermajority on your side.
Image credit: Daniel Alvasd/Unsplash, Marjan Blan/Unsplash, Tiffany Tertipes/Unsplash; Getty