Prominent journalists are calling for the media to champion a “pro-democracy” bias in how they portray politicians and government agencies. But tub-thumping for democracy — or at least for politicians who claim to be pro-democracy — is a poor substitute for exposing the proliferation of government abuses. Freedom will be the victim if journalists grasp a new pretext to portray government as a trustworthy savior.
In January, Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon called for a “pro-democracy media,” vigorously describing “long-standing Republican tactics such as aggressive gerrymandering as … dangers to democracy.” Bacon frets because “gun-shy editors” fail to denounce Republican “radicalism” in banner headlines. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan declared, “That American democracy is teetering is unquestionable” due to pro-Trump Republicans, requiring a “new pro-democracy emphasis” to be “articulated clearly — and fearlessly — to readers and viewers.” Post columnist Brian Klaas admits that “the media adopting a pro-democracy bias … effectively means being pro-Democratic [Party],” but there is no alternative except to “unequivocally and unapologetically condemn” Republicans.
What could possibly go wrong from journalists pretending that only one political party threatens Americans’ rights and liberties? Demonizing one political party tacitly saints their opponents. But both Republicans and Democrats have a long record of unleashing federal agencies and ignoring the subsequent constitutional carnage.
Urging the media to become “pro-democracy” is reminiscent of a corporation that is almost bankrupt and gambles everything on a desperate “Hail Mary” pass. A June 2021 survey by the Reuters Institute reported that only 29 percent of Americans trusted the news media — the lowest rating of any of the 46 nations surveyed. A Gallup poll last year revealed that “86 percent of Americans believed the media was politically biased.” Practically the only folks who don’t recognize the bias are the people who share the media’s slant.
The media-Democrat alliance
How does “pro-democracy” reporting work in practice? Journalists provide readers with a catechism specifying correct beliefs rather than providing facts by which citizens can reach their own conclusions. But the Washington press corps was aptly described decades ago as “stenographers with amnesia.” The political “philosophy” of most reporters does not go beyond “Orange Man Bad.”
Many journalists love to slap a halo over politicians and then bask in the reflective glow. In 2020 and 2021, many of the top media outlets hailed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for being far more repressive with his COVID policies than President Donald Trump advocated. A laudatory New Yorker profile, entitled “Andrew Cuomo, King of New York,” explained that Cuomo and his aides saw the battle over COVID policy as “between people who believe government can be a force for good and those who think otherwise.” For many liberals and much of the nation’s media, placing people under house arrest, padlocking schools, bankrupting business, and causing two million people to lose their jobs vindicated government as “a force for good.”
MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace declared that Cuomo is “everything Trump isn’t: honest, direct, brave.” Entertainment Weekly hailed Cuomo as “the hero that America never realized it needed until he was on our television screens every night.” As National Review noted, local reporters failed to ask questions on his nursing home edict (which forced nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients) “for months, as the governor held his much-praised daily press briefings about the pandemic. There were literally hundreds of hours of Cuomo press conferences in the first half of 2020 where not a single question was asked about nursing homes.”
The docile media paved the way to Cuomo winning an Emmy award for his “masterful use of television” during the pandemic. The media’s valorization of Cuomo helped make his self-tribute book (for which he received a $5 million advance), American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, a bestseller. Cuomo’s reign ended in a swirl of criminal investigations and outrage over his coverup of thousands of nursing home deaths caused by his policies.
The media’s coverage of the 2020 election would qualify as “pro-democracy” reporting at its best. Time magazine national political correspondent Molly Ball boasted early last year of the “well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it.” And how do we know it was “fortified,” not “rigged”? Because Biden won.
After the 2016 presidential election, the Post’s Sullivan bewailed the media’s “ridiculous emphasis put on every development about Hillary Clinton’s [illegal] email practices.” For the 2020 election campaign, liberal media found a “pro-democracy” solution for one of the potential bombshells. After damning revelations of criminal conduct and corruption began pouring out in September 2020 from the laptop that Hunter Biden left at a Delaware computer repair shop, Twitter and Facebook banned reposts of the New York Post exposés on the laptop’s contents. National Public Radio and many other outlets derided the laptop excerpts as a Russian disinformation campaign. The mainstream media succeeded in minimizing the story’s impact on the election, regardless of subsequent revelations confirming the laptop’s authenticity. The media’s pretense that the laptop was a Russian ploy shielded Biden family corruption controversies from voters. Perhaps such selectivity helped inspire Sullivan’s triumphal column just after Biden’s victory on how the media “saved democracy.”
Unfortunately, much of the media nowadays prefer to trumpet official lies instead of fighting them. It would be criminally naive to trust media outlets that championed Biden’s candidacy last year to police his presidency — especially when it comes to any wars or bombing campaigns he launches. The Pentagon Papers proved that politicians and bureaucrats will brazenly con the American public into unnecessary wars. But that lesson vanished into the D.C. memory hole.
The state media and COVID coverage
The docility of the Washington press corps has profoundly tainted their coverage of the pandemic. In a March 11 speech last year on COVID, Biden promised, “I’m using every power I have as the president of the United States to put us on a war footing.” But who was Biden going to war against?
“War footing” should have sounded an alarm bell, but media bigwigs were too busy whooping up COVID Czar Tony Fauci’s latest fear-mongering. Journalists applauded rather than vigorously scrutinized whether the new powers Biden claimed actually protected public health. When Biden announced that he would impose a vaccine mandate on all private companies with more than 100 employees, most of the press coverage was laudatory. When the Supreme Court struck down that mandate, much of the press corps was shocked that the justices did not defer to Biden’s proclaimed good intentions, like the media did.
How can journalists tell “who is serving democracy?” Many Washington journalists reflexively presume that being pro-government is the same as being pro-democracy. The New York Times reporter covering the Justice Department, Katie Benner, evinced this mindset when she denounced Trump supporters as “enemies of the state” in a 2021 tweet. Benner believes journalists must take action “if a politician seems to threaten the state.” (Prior to joining the Times, Benner wrote for the Beijing Review, owned by the Chinese Communist Party.)
When the Chinese government arrested journalists in Hong Kong in early 2022, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issued a clarion call: “A confident government that is unafraid of the truth embraces a free press.” Blinken received plenty of accolades from pundits for his declaration. But no one in the mainstream media called out the US government hypocrisy. While detained Hong Kong journalists are supposedly an outrage, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains jailed in Britain at the behest of the US government, which is seeking to extradite him for the crime of exposing US government secrets. The Washington Post and other top media outlets that happily used Assange’s leaks more than a decade ago have effectively forgotten about his plight.
All hail the Deep State
Most Washington press poohbahs show more affection for Leviathan than for freedom. The Washington Post devotes far more newshole to publishing leaks from FBI officials than to exposing FBI abuses. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson whooped “God Bless the ‘Deep State,” — touting his blind trust in federal agencies with vast secretive powers.
Nothing could be more perilous to the truth than encouraging journalists to pirouette as saviors when they grovel to The Powers That Be. “Pro-democracy” media is a threat to liberty because it will ignore or downplay abuses committed by purportedly pro-democracy rulers. Rather than rigorously scrutinizing Biden’s proposals, the media presumes his pursuit of vast power is simply proof of his benevolence.
“Pro-democracy” reporting will be uplift at its worst. It is no harmless error to portray politicians (or at least Democrats) as more honest and honorable than they are. The Biden administration has signaled plans to make both the FBI and IRS far more intrusive. Will “pro-democracy” media outlets refrain from mentioning past constitutional debacles by those agencies? Will it be “pro-democracy” to pretend new scandals don’t actually exist? (That recipe worked for the media and Obama.)
“Pro-democracy” cheerleading by the media is especially perilous nowadays thanks to the rising support for official censorship. Of course, it is not labeled “censorship”; instead, it is portrayed as public service crackdowns on alleged “disinformation” or “misinformation” (which sometimes simply means data that expose federal falsehoods and abuses). In a recent report, the Aspen Institute, one of Washington’s most revered think tanks, called for the Biden administration to “establish a comprehensive strategic approach to countering disinformation and the spread of misinformation, including a centralized national response strategy, defining roles and responsibilities across the Executive Branch.”
The Aspen report portrayed objectivity as an enemy of truth, and its commissioners “discussed the need to adjust journalistic norms to avoid false equivalencies between lies and empirical fact in the pursuit of ‘both sides’ and ‘objectivity,’ particularly in areas of public health, civil rights, or election outcomes.” The report called for creation of a “Public Restoration Fund … with a mandate to develop systemic misinformation countermeasures through education, research, and investment in local institutions.” The Aspen Institute also urged government officials to impose “Superspreader Accountability,” to “hold superspreaders of mis- and disinformation to account with clear, transparent, and consistently applied policies.”
And how will citizens be able to recognize “superspreaders?” The government will tell them so. Law professor Jonathan Turley condemned the report’s “full-throated endorsement of systems of censorship” by government. Turley castigated the Aspen Institute’s recommendations as “the latest evidence of a building anti-free speech movement in the United States.”
But the Washington Post loved the call for crackdowns, endorsing the Aspen report with an editorial headlined: “America is sick with information disorder. Time for a cure.” And how do we know Americans are “sick?” Because they distrust Joe Biden and the feds. And the cure is more federal power and more censorship.
Which federal agencies are qualified to lead the fight against “disinformation?” Should the Pentagon be in the lead — despite its profound deceit of Americans and members of Congress regarding the pending collapse of the Afghan army in the summer of 2021? Should the Centers for Disease Control be in charge — despite deceiving and endangering Americans by refusing to count so-called “breakthrough infections” resulting from the snowballing failure of Pfizer vaccines to protect people from contracting COVID?
In 2002, Bush administration Solicitor General Theodore Olson informed the Supreme Court that the federal government had the right “to give out false information” whenever it deemed necessary. “It’s easy to imagine an infinite number of situations where the government might legitimately give out false information,” Olson proclaimed. How can intelligent citizens permit the feds to crack down on “superspreader accountability” when Uncle Sam is the most dangerous superspreader? Or is the government entitled to a monopoly on lies in order to better serve the public?
When did Washington reporters became qualified to serve as Grand Inquisitors for Democracy, casting judgment on every politician and proposal? Most reporters have the same level of intellectual curiosity as the average lottery ticket buyer. Reporters react to the word “bipartisan” like cocaine addicts desperate for another political virtue signal.
The “Hunter Biden Laptop Recipe for Saving Democracy” is the latest crock from the media elite. Journalists can provide an invaluable service to self-government by providing citizens with sufficient information that they can pass their own judgment on government policies and aspiring tinhorn dictators. The press should vigorously investigate and expose federal crimes regardless of who is president.
**By James Bovard