At Its Moment of Peril, Democracy Needs Journalists to Be Activists

If U.S. democracy falls, one key enabler will have been the most consequential failure to date of a vital institution doing its job: journalism.

Journalists surround former President Donald Trump at his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 30, 2024. Jurors return Thursday to a second day of deliberations in Donald Trump’s criminal trial, leaving the Republican presidential candidate and the country waiting for a decision that could upend November’s election. (Michael M. Santiago / AFP via Getty Images)

This op-ed was originally published on Medium. It is the first in a series of posts.

Dear journalists: This is your moment.

It’s your opportunity, maybe your final one, to stand proudly for reality and democracy, for freedom of expression and for human rights. To stand up as journalism’s best—think Ida B. Wells and Edward R. Murrow, among so many others—did in earlier times as they challenged a tide of political evil and helped America change its course. To reject the journalistic formulas that have made you not just ineffective, but downright helpless.

This is your chance to help bring America back from the brink, back to a path toward a more perfect union.
I write this during the week of July 4, when America celebrates our most significant holiday. This year, Independence Day arrives three days after a staggeringly dangerous ruling by our corrupted Supreme Court, clearing the way for presidents to be dictators.

The sliver of silver lining in the ruling was the way it clarified where we are as a nation. I hope this is also a clarifying moment for the press, even if early signs could be more encouraging.

The editorial board of the Washington Post, whose motto proclaims “Democracy dies in darkness,” published an astoundingly feckless response; yes, this is bad, the Post acknowledged, but it “isn’t the end of democracy.” Well, sure, not this minute. Just whistle past that graveyard, folks, and maybe everything will be okay.

The odds grow stronger every day that everything won’t be okay. A radical right-wing faction now fully controls one of our two major political parties and a supermajority in the Supreme Court. Its presidential candidate, a convicted criminal without an ounce of honor or conscience, has made clear his intention to be a dictator if elected. Supporting them is an army of activists who see the finish line in their long march to create an authoritarian—or outright fascist—regime that mocks the will of the majority with increasingly harsh minority rule.

If our democracy falls, one key enabler will have been the most consequential failure to date of a vital institution doing its job: journalism.

And that’s why I wish so desperately that American journalists will declare an independence of their own on July 4, 2024—casting aside traditional practices that serve, not resist, the forces of deceit, injustice and ultimately dictatorship.

Please, journalists, declare independence from business as usual, from the counterproductive customs that have prevailed in our media even as the danger has escalated. Business as usual is outright malpractice. Stop, before it is too late.

Please be activists in protecting democracy and by extension, freedom of expression. Everyone’s fundamental rights are at stake. But understand that your special protection—freedom of the press—would be among the first on the chopping block.

This shouldn’t be a stretch. It should be core to the mission of journalism, as a matter of self-interest if nothing else.
But it is a stretch, in part, because traditional journalism has imagined its role in a utopian way: as a neutral conveyor of unbiased information that the public could use to make good decisions. That sounds-reasonable approach has morphed into a caricature.

If journalism craft imagined its job as an honorable pursuit of truth, too many purported news journalists have practiced something else. What has emerged, for many reasons including plain old greed, hunger for power and simple ego, is a formula that does more to confuse and mislead the public than provide vitally needed information.

Far too much of today’s political journalism, in particular, is a toxic mess. The ingredients include—among many other things—presenting “both sides” when one is flagrantly lying; relentlessly normalizing extremism; chasing trivial shiny objects while mostly ignoring issues that matter; leaving out vital nuance or context; refusing to acknowledge critical mistakes, much less learn from them; and, particularly in the biggest and most influential news organizations, drowning much-needed humility with almost pure arrogance.

And that’s what so many of the well-minded news organizations do. Meanwhile, willful misinformation is the stock and trade of countless others, large and small. Even the pretense of honest journalism is a bad joke.

Obviously, not all political journalism is terrible. Scattered around in various outposts of the craft, you can find many, many examples of brilliant work from people who understand the stakes and have the resources to explain them.

Moreover, I believe most real journalists know what a dangerously wrong turn they’ve taken. They want to do the right thing if their bosses will only let them.

But the vital work some do is simply overwhelmed by the crap that spews every day from the dominant journalism companies and social media platforms. And too often, depressingly, some of the same organizations that do superb work also undermine it.

A good example of this is the New York Times. It periodically offers up coverage that makes clear how much we need it when it’s doing its job. When I recall pieces like the Times’ in-depth report on Trump’s epic tax-dodging, I’m in awe of what the organization could be if it cared enough.

Time and time again, however, the Times has served as an enabler of the people who present the greatest danger, even as it cosplays as a fearless, no-favorites arbiter by roughing up the people who are trying to stop the extremists. Remember its beyond-wretched “coverage” of the 2016 election? You should, because the Times’ obsessive pounding on the Hillary Clinton emails story was a sick parody of fair journalism. It helped elect Trump, a debacle the Times has not only refused to acknowledge but perversely still defends.

In recent months, the Times has been on a campaign to make sure Joe Biden won’t have another term in the White House. It’s engaged in what a former top newspaper editor, Melanie Sill, has aptly called an old-school newspaper crusade, in which the editorial (commentary) and news (supposedly neutral) sides of the operation act in concert to get something done. The paper pretends that it’s not on a campaign, but the reality is so blatant that no one paying the slightest bit of attention should conclude otherwise.

I’d respect the Times’ activism more if the organization was fully transparent about its motives and goals. (Giving them the benefit of many doubts, perhaps the paper’s bosses have convinced themselves that forcing Biden off the ticket is the best way to stop Trump.) Still, the fact that the Times is taking a stand—however misguided and counterproductive it may be in this case—shows that a top news organization can be an activist. If only the Times saw fit to go on an old-school campaign to save democracy.

When I first started urging journalists to see themselves as activists on certain issues more than a decade ago, I steered clear of partisan American politics. I focused on topics—such as freedom of expression—where journalists might recognize that they were already playing that role.

After all, even the Times had taken a stand against China’s repressive regime when its journalism was under threat there.

Crucially, the Times took the same stand at home. In 2015, reporter James Risen, facing possible jail time for refusing to disclose sources, called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation” (the vastly more press-hating Trump regime still being in the future). The Times’ standards editor defended this alleged editorializing by a reporter, telling Margaret Sullivan, then the public editor: “In general, our reporters understand that they don’t and shouldn’t editorialize on issues we cover…” But because The Times was not at all neutral on freedom of the press; this was “in a different category.”

It’s not a different category, even if the Times won’t admit it, even now.

The media’s naive faith in the power of traditional journalistic norms prevailed during the Trump administration when a craving for normalcy overruled a recognition of reality. When the most powerful person on the planet declared you to be an “enemy of the people,” the proper response is not to say, “We’re not at war, we’re at work”—the famous but misguided aphorism of former Washington Post editor Marty Baron, for whom I have enormous respect otherwise.

The proper response to being declared the enemy is to find allies and fight like hell for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

What will journalists do when a malicious, press-loathing president can back up his hatred with anti-press acts that shred the First Amendment with total impunity—as Trump will certainly do if he retakes that office.

After the Big Election Lie and the attempted coup of Jan. 6, there was a moment of journalistic courage and even activism on the political front. It was beginning to dawn on our press, or so it seemed, that one of the two major political parties wasn’t just lying about the fundamental truth of who’d won the election. That party had launched an attack on democracy itself. Even journalists who’d welded themselves to the “both-sides” anchor took notice—briefly.

Journalists will be among the first targets if a right-wing dictator deputizes a seething mob and urges it to terrorize those who oppose him.

As the Biden administration took power with thin Democratic majorities in Congress, the moment passed. Political journalism, in particular, returned to business as usual, albeit with a bit more recognition that something bad might be happening.

Then came the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the end of women’s right to make decisions about their own bodies in states controlled by Republicans. Most journalists framed this mostly as a political matter and didn’t come close to explaining to the public that the case was obviously a harbinger of right-wing intentions to deny basic rights, not an outlier.

The Court’s ruling this week that presidents (at least if they’re named Trump) have immunity from punishment for their crimes could remove the last scales from journalistic eyes. Will it?

As has been the case for years, the only place where you consistently see anything close to consistent journalistic urgency is in commentary. With some honorable exceptions, the bosses who tell their reporters what news is, and the people they work for, have from all appearances decided that if people say this stuff out loud in editorials or commentaries, that’s good enough. The commentators’ warnings are helpful, but not close to good enough.
Nor is merely sporadic coverage of the right wing’s increasingly successful attack on the voting rights of people who might vote for Democrats—voter suppression, violent intimidation of voting officials (among others), overt plans to challenge results that extremists don’t like and more.

Big journalism treats voting rights as an issue to catch up on periodically. The bosses of big media seem to think that if they’ve covered it a couple of times, that’s plenty. It’s not even close.

The dangers are multiplying fast. One is especially stark. Right-wing extremists have countless millions of guns and are itching to use them. Journalists will be among the first targets if a right-wing dictator deputizes a seething mob and urges it to terrorize those who oppose him. The press should face this now, and talk about it while there’s still a chance to head it off.

It makes my journalism friends profoundly and understandably uncomfortable to think of themselves as activists. But if they won’t use their platforms to raise the alarm loudly and persistently, beyond spotting some burning brush while ignoring the blazing forest, we—and they—are in deep, deep trouble.

Even if they do, we’ll all still be at risk, but at least the craft I believe in will have tried. And that will be a start.

Up next:

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Dan Gillmor has spent his life has been in media—music, newspapers, online, books, investing and education. He's a recently retired professor from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His current focus is “to help people who are working to save democracy, and by extension freedom of expression, in part by helping journalism perform its most essential role.”