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US journalism’s complicity in democratic backsliding

The unelected power of the Fourth Estate is never more evident—and potentially destructive—than during campaign seasons, when antagonists exploit the news to test authoritarian themes. I pose a question here that I hope editors and reporters are also asking now that we’re weeks away from the 2020 presidential election and high-stakes state elections: to what extent does the way journalists imagine the public shape coverage, particularly the amount of attention given to candidates who advance a punitive populism?

In 2015-16, the eventual Republican nominee for president obtained the blessing of Fox News but also substantial coverage from a wide range of news outlets. Neither Donald Trump’s poll numbers, fundraising ability, nor endorsements explained the pre-primary level of attention. The press apparently imagined a populist response to Trump as a precursor to actual evidence of widespread support. In this view, populist sentiment takes on a looking-glass quality, existing as a narrative template because journalists, along with those adept at media manipulation, anticipate its activation.

The responsible press should be careful to not internalize a proto-democratic duty to represent public mood in ways that justify attention to mobilized irrationalism. Journalists must recognize an uncomfortable symbiosis of media with populism during election cycles. The purpose of anti-media populists is to undermine faith in journalism and other institutions. As Bernat Ivancsics writes, speakers for “the majority” claim to redeem participatory qualities of democracy, a move “that flouts the technical-bureaucratic operation of the constitutionality of democratic societies.”1

The “earned media” Trump benefitted from in 2016 suggests that reporters were fascinated by the emotive mainsprings of populist support. This indulgence implies more than an elitist voyeurism of agitated, downscale Americans. Did respectable news outlets co-produce a crisis of democracy in the condoning of illiberal discourse? While journalists benefit from audience engagement in periods of crisis, they can lose control of coverage to anti-establishment actors. The lavish attention to Trump was apparently less threatening to journalism’s self-image under the assumption that he would never actually occupy the White House.

A punitive populism draws emotive power from many sources, and while it fluctuates in strength, it will persist without the help of responsible media. Journalists should not see it as their duty to represent the public against a cultural elite. The attention cable news lavished on Trump in 2016 seemed reasonable to many journalists: incidents would eventually out him as unacceptable, as Sarah Palin was exposed in 2008 during interviews with Katie Couric. Journalists will acknowledge that they benefit from audience engagement during times of crisis. A bridge too far— along the road to reflexivity— is the premise that journalism is complicit in democratic backsliding. Yet media scholars Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes are persuasive in arguing that cynicism and audience fragmentation explain a retreat from ceremonial “media events” such as anniversaries and patriotic holidays. Commercially driven news outlets and anti-establishment agents are now invested in disruptive events.

Literature on democratic backsliding originated in political science but must now consider media-led weakening of norms that support responsive governance and consent of the governed. Political actors participate in backsliding through the rhetoric of popular sovereignty and in maneuvers such as executive aggrandizement and harassment of the electorate. Backsliding is alternatively known as democratic erosion or degradation to emphasize an incremental process that begins in a democratic status quo, is not outright unconstitutional, and is typically initiated by the executive. The responsible press is not to blame for propaganda, misinformation, and virulent anti-intellectualism—“the hellscape that we wake up to every morning,” as my colleague Toby Hopp puts it. Media-centered goals nevertheless become more desirable for political actors if policy outcomes are unrealistic.

In a bygone era, the cohesive folkways of Congress discouraged open conflict. Legislators today worry less about rattling colleagues. Journalism, for its part, presents itself as the more civically responsible profession in the media/government nexus, acting as a warning signal to audiences, when it has actually incentivized incivility through its attraction to polarizing discourse.

Unlike in the postwar period, news media are no longer positioned to control the spigot of rumors, conspiracies, and other tainted information in a gateless environment. Enjoying a near monopoly in the control of political attention, the press of the pre-digital era was anchored by high modernism and elite consensus. Media politics would overtake party politics, however, bringing forth new forms of participation, setting loose irrational forces in contempt of the liberal order.

A journalism vigilant about norm-breaking would take responsibility for the news as its jurisdiction. The profession would recognize its power and its duty to shape policy agendas on behalf of those left behind by neo-liberalism. As for campaign politics, the press is miscast when it sees itself as an organ of direct democracy. A journalism that views itself this way risks collusion with irrationalism and complicity in democratic decline.

[1] “Uncomfortable Symbiosis: Attention Capture, Normalization, and Criticism in the News Coverage of Fringe Social Groups and Populist Movements.” Paper presented at the Global Perspectives on Populism and the Media Preconference, International Communication Association, Budapest (May 2018).

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Recent Comments

  1. Robert Williams

    I think am afraid this is written in a turgid academic style. While I suspect the argument is important, it is difficult to follow and therefore is likely to have little influence beyond an academic elite. Hardly a good example to the professor’s students.

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