How Vigilant Journalists Are Stepping Up Their Game

President Biden used his State of the Union address on Thursday to launch a series of fiery attacks against former President Donald Trump, a competitor whom he did not mention by name but made clear was a dire threat to American democracy and stability in the world, Katie Rogers reported Thursday for the New York Times.

It is a threat hiding in plain sight, evidenced by Trump’s own words and those of his supporters.

It’s also one that many people don’t yet get, but about which some have been sounding an alarm.

In December, Trump promised that if elected, he would be not a dictator “except for day one. (New Yorker cover by Barry Blitt)

We must start urgently talking about the dangers of a second Trump presidency. With New Hampshire behind, the question isn’t who’s running but whether US democracy will endure,” media critic Margaret Sullivan wrote in January in the Guardian. Critics of excessive horse-race coverage nodded in agreement.

As the political calendar was heading toward the early primaries and last week’s Super Tuesday, the Journal-isms Roundtable grappled with the question: “Dictator on ‘Day One’:  ‘How Journalists Can Counter the Growing Threat of Authoritarianism.’ ”

The consensus: By stepping up their game. Many in the media have moved in that direction, but not enough, certainly not in proportion to the stakes.

A more pointed answer: Wake up, journalists! Connect the dots and alert your readers and viewers in ways that will move them to action.

“Authoritarianism happens by slow creep, not a bomb drop, and these range from things like quashing dissent and politicizing independent institutions, all the way to stoking political violence. They don’t all happen at once, but they do reinforce and sort of build on one another in ways that make giving context really, really important,” Jennifer Dresden told the Roundtable.

Dresden is a policy advocate with Project Democracy and the primary author of “The Authoritarian Playbook: How reporters can contextualize and cover authoritarian threats as distinct from politics-as-usual.

Others elaborated.

“The idea that could never happen in America is obviously a fallacy,” said Griff Witte, who heads the Democracy team at The Washington Post.

 Phillip Martin, (pictured), a reporter at GBH News in Boston, wished more Americans were aware of — and took cues from — a march attended by thousands in Berlin the previous weekend against the far-right AfD party, which uses the acronym for Alternative for Germany.

The march was triggered by a report exposing discussions about expelling immigrants by AfD members.

Rhetoric that sounds familiar?

“Many of these January 6 people are explicit white supremacists,” Martin continued. “That’s what January 6 was about. Some are MAGA supporters that don’t necessarily believe in white supremacy, but believe in some type of supremacy.”

 Julie Millican (pictured), vice president of Media Matters for America, said her progressive media watch group had designated the legacy media a “misinformer of the year,” declaring, in a reference to Trump, that “Nakedly authoritarian comments from the would-be president drew relatively muted coverage, while his potentially disastrous policy proposals were often ignored.”

Millican told us, “We have seen individual reporting that has been very good.” The challenge “has been that there hasn’t been a consistency. . . . You’re not constantly kind of tying this all back to, ‘here’s what the threat is,’ ‘here’s how it’s playing out,’ ‘here’s where all these alarm bells and the authoritarianism playbook are sounding.’ “

Barbara Arnwine, center, is flanked by Daryl Jones, left, and Griff Witte.

Lawyer Barbara Arnwine, president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition, a social justice group most recently working on restoring the gutted parts of the Voting Rights Act, outlined what she considered yet another affront to democracy: A court decision last year that said only the attorney general, not citizens, may take legal action against voter suppression.

Daryl Jones, the coalition’s board chair, told the group, “We have a resolution that we’re going to be passing around the country.  It’s going to county councils, to city governments, to municipalities, and what it’s going to say is, we recognize the challenges that have been overcome by the use of the Voting Rights Act of ’65 and we are in opposition to what the Eighth Circuit has stood for.”

Fourteen state attorneys general have signed onto an amicus brief [PDF] backing the coalition’s position.

For too many in the public, though, said Arnwine and Jones, that court decision and its implications have yet to register.

Nichelle Smith, an investigative journalist formerly with USA Today, contended that on the broader subject, “the issue is getting the average white person to understand that the threat to democracy is just as much a threat to his way of life as it is to the ways of life of Black and immigrant people . . . people believe that this is just something that people of color need to worry about.”

 Charles Whitaker (pictured), dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, said, “We did a survey of Chicago area students aged 15 to 20 and found that over 70 percent of them said they do not watch any form or consume any form of news,” and that “their news diet has a very well-worn pattern of TikTok videos and things that are not necessarily related to civics and the functioning of the democracy.” Journalists should be asking, “How does one get through?” the dean said.

He put his finger on what might be the biggest problem of all:

“The American public is woefully ignorant about democracy and how our government functions. And we in the media tend to operate on this level that presumes that they are all understanding of concepts like democracy, authoritarianism, demagoguery, but the reality is those are really, really abstract concepts to most of the American public.

“And the people who are are absolutely familiar with and aware of those concepts we kind of already have. The other issue that we have to confront and we haven’t really talked about here is that no matter how well we attempt to connect those dots . . . . the reality is also [that] more and more the American public is avoiding news.

“They are not seeing anything. It doesn’t matter how well we do it. They are not buying what we’re selling.

“They are not consuming it. They . . . feel embattled, they don’t like the rancor in politics or they don’t think that it has a direct effect on their lives. I wonder to what extent that is not just the fact that that information is not being presented to people as much as it is also that people are completely tuning out on that information when it is presented to them.”

Another who deals with young people, Louise Dubé, CEO of iCivics, a group founded in 2009 by the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said flatly, “I don’t think that this democracy will survive without a radical investment in civic education.”

The perspectives were all part of a Journal-isms Roundtable held Jan. 22 by Zoom and in-person, conducted at the Washington, D.C., campus of the Medill School, located in the same building as The Washington Post.

Twenty-one attended in person, with 48 on the Zoom, including Morgan State University students of E.R. Shipp, tuning in from a campus media room. Other viewers watched on Facebook. As of Sunday, 55 had seen the YouTube recording, embedded above.

Griff Witte, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent, is the democracy editor at the Post. “We stood up a Democracy team two years ago, in 2022, and I think we were among the first news organizations to do that,” he said. “The Washington Post should have had a democracy team throughout its entire existence. The Post was founded in 1877, which many of you may know was also the year that Reconstruction ended following an inconclusive presidential election.

“And what followed was 100 years of Jim Crow segregation throughout the South. That would have been a great time for The Washington Post to have a democracy team throughout the civil rights era. That would have been a great time for the Post to have a democracy team.

“Throughout the entire history of the United States, the question of who gets a say, who gets a seat at the table, whose vote matters has been in dispute. And it has been in dispute in different ways and through different means, but it remains in dispute today.

“The question of who gets a say, whose voice matters, is one that the democracy team at the Post is dedicated to covering.”

One of the team’s products is a 10-part series, “Imperfect Union,” which, in Witte’s words, “looks in detail at all of the ways in which the system of government that we have isn’t reflective of the popular will.”

Originally reported by