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The 2021 VA Statewide Campaigns Will Pit Reality-Based Democrats and “Big Lie”/Trumpian Republicans. It’s Crucial That Political Journalists Listen to People Like NYU Prof. Jay Rosen…and Adjust Their Coverage, Accordingly.

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With the Virginia 2021 election season gearing up, we all need to be crystal clear about what we’re dealing with in the first major statewide election since the 1/6/21 insurrection and since the guy (Donald Trump) who led our democracy to the edge of the abyss left office: namely, a Republican Party that’s deeply in thrall to Trump’s “Big Lie” (about “election integrity”) and to a detached-from-empirical-evidence-or-fact world. (For a recent Virginia example of what I’m talking about, check out this torrent of lies that VA GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin spewed out in just a few minutes recently.

Given that reality, it’s more important than ever for the political media, nationally and here in Virginia, to adjust its approach from its pre-Trump ways. Now, I won’t say that I’m particularly optimistic on this front, given that deeply entrenched habits die hard, even if one actually *wants* to change those habits (and I’m not at all clear the political press *wants* to change, or even truly recognizes the problem). Still, it’s crucial for the survival of our democracy that journalists make that effort. And if not? Then citizens need to step up to challenge them and/or do the jobs they are refusing or failing to do.

In that context, it’s important for citizens/news “consumers” to understand how this country’s (and this state’s) political media works – and more importantly at this point, does NOT work. If you’re interested in that topic, I’d strongly recommend that you follow the brilliant NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who puts out great information and analysis day in/day out. A few of Rosen’s most important insights, from recent social media posts, include the following:

  • The need for journalists to use the “truth sandwich” when reporting on the relentless torrent of lies by detached-from-fact-and-truth Trump Republicans (in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin is a classic case, with almost every word out of his mouth a falsehood, distortion, mischaracterization, etc.). Thus, when confronted with a lie by a Republican such as Glenn Youngkin, a journalist should report on it with the “truth sandwich formula,” namely: “*Make a true statement. * Introduce the false or misleading statement you’re criticizing (but only if it’s newsworthy, otherwise ignore.) * Make another true statement.”  For instance, if Youngkin falsely claims that Democrats are “extreme left,” report on that by saying something like: “On issue after issue, Democratic policies are highly popular/in the majority. So clearly, Youngkin’s claim that Democrats are “extreme left” is false. For instance, see this recent Wason Center poll, which found that Virginia Voters ‘largely support Democratic policy proposals’ (Voters support Medicare for all-that-want-it (76%); pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (73%); renewable energy investments (82%); a wealth tax (69%); etc.).”
  • Journalists absolutely should NOT cover politics using the “two-party symmetry” model, given that the “modern GOP is “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science.”  So…no “both sides” (e.g., on the “one side” there’s climate science, on the other side there are those who deny climate science) or “false equivalence” (e.g., “Democrats and Republicans are equally bad/flawed”). Ever.
  • Do not let lying liars like Glenn Youngkin or whoever get away with dodging clear answers by doing crap like this: “‘I didn’t see the tweet.’ ‘He has own style.’ ‘I wish he’d tone it down.’ All of which localized the lying in one man.” Instead, keep pressing to pin them down on where THEY stand (Rosen – “Now it’s… where do YOU stand?”)…and press them to be as specific as possible.
  • Do not EVER forget that we have a two-party system in which one party (the Democratic Party) is pro-democracy, while we have another party (the Republican Party) “is anti-democratic.” If you don’t make that clear to readers, then really…what exactly are you doing?
  • Avoid this “dialect,” which avoids getting at the heart of the issue and/or calling out the Trump Republican extremism, lunacy, etc. by slipping into “tactical” type of analysis (e.g., “the problem for the Republicans is…”) or “horse race”/”who’s up, who’s down” type “analysis,” treating it all as a big game. Because…nope, this is NOT a game, it’s deadly serious.
  • Also crucial for journalists covering Trumpist Republicans is to “see that they [are] in a situation in which democracy, truth, facticity, public knowledge, verification, public records…all of that [is] under attack.”
  • A related crucial point: “It’s the most important story, and it scrambles the mind of the press. Accustomed to treating the GOP as part of American democracy, it now has to shift frames to GOP vs. democracy. Meanwhile the game frame sits there saying: pick me!”
  • Journalists must always keep in mind, in covering politics in America, that “To be a Republican in good standing requires participation, or at least acquiescence in monstrous lies that poison our politics.” So take every single word a Republican politician says NOT at face value, but with that disturbing reality in mind. And respond accordingly!
  • Also keep in mind that “The GOP is counter-majoritarian. That requires it to also be counter-factual, as Brooks said. The collision with journalism cannot be avoided.”  Thus, do NOT think you can carry on with political journalism as usual, or as you were taught years ago, for instance the whole “there are always two roughly equal sides” style, because that’s all out the window at this point in America.
  • And when journalists call out Republicans for lying, which of course they should be doing if their job is to inform readers of what’s actually going on in the world, they should absolutely NOT use the “critics say” or “Democrats claim” formulations. Instead, just go back to the “truth sandwich,” stating the actual FACTS, then mention the LIE, then go back to facts again.
  • As Rosen points out here, using “newsworthiness” as a “big fat dodge” for why you “give air time to a U.S. Senator [or whichever Republican politician] sporting a strategic falsehood like ‘election integrity,’ you need a far better reason than it’s an issue in the news. The answer: “Ignore the shiniest, least reality-based objects and deeply contextualize the rest.”
  • It should be obvious, but if a politician lies, call them out using the word “lies.” Not “without evidence.” Not “baseless.” Not any other euphemism for the clear, concise word in the English language, “lies.”
  • On a related note, journalists should never for a second forget that: “Basic to what the Republican Party stands for is freedom from fact. For it to prevail, journalism must fail. There is nothing in the playbook — or in Playbook — about that.” Proceed with that in mind at all times.

UPDATE: An oldie-but-goodie from Professor Rosen“The critique of access journalism, as I receive it, is mainly about pulling punches to maintain future access.” Also, “Maybe it’s time to call the whole project of access journalism a failure. You know… start over.” So just don’t do “access journalism,” period.

P.S. I’d add that when Republicans start spouting off about how this or that Democratic policy (criminal justice reform, policing reform, clean energy and environmental protection, women’s reproductive freedom, LGBTQ equality, gun violence prevention measures, voting rights expansion, civil rights protection, minimum wage and unions, a progressive tax system, etc.) is supposedly “extreme,” journalists should have handy the latest Virginia polling which demonstrates that this is wildly false, and immediately cite those stats to the Republican they are interviewing.

 

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