A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
Since the day Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, we’ve known Roe was dead too — the only question, really, was whether it would be formally overturned or just gutted in everything but name. Now, just more than a week after the publication of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe, it’s worth looking back and asking ourselves: Did our coverage over the past two years, all of it, really reflect what we knew?
It’s worth asking this now because there are other significant things we know.
We know that most of the Republican Party embraces — at least publicly — the outright falsehood that Donald Trump was the real winner of the 2020 election, but that it was stolen from him by a vast conspiracy. We know that the most prominent Republican elected officials who refused to back Trump on this are leaving office or being drummed out or primaried by the true believers. We know those true believers think there is no way Trump could lose a presidential election, and maybe that no Republican nominee could.
We know — though not all of us may admit it — that if the GOP takes one or both houses of Congress this fall and enough of those true believers get into office, then in 2024 there may be no stopping the tide. We know they do not believe he could lose, so we know there is a good chance he will not be allowed to.
And we know the result would likely be not just the overturning of an American election but a reshaping of the world order. Is your newsroom’s coverage of the midterms reflecting these things that we know? Will it?
(Some people will think all of this alarmist or naïve, and will rightly think that just about every election gets treated as if it’s the most important election ever and then the vast majority aren’t. Some will think that we don’t actually know these things, that we don’t know what happen if the Republican nominee loses convincingly in 2024 and there is no evidence of fraud. But Trump lost convincingly in 2020 and there was no evidence of fraud.)
This is not a question about whether you’re covering the January 6th commission and what it’s learning, or what people who believe the lies about 2020 are saying as they run for office; many newsrooms are doing stellar coverage of both. It’s not a question about whether you’re starting up one of the units now popping up dedicated to covering democracy and challenges to it; those are worthwhile efforts but can’t do the job on their own.
This is a question about all of your coverage of politics and the midterms from now until November and then beyond. Is it business as usual, albeit with some of these stories sprinkled in – or does it show the world as it actually is?
Big picture thinking
Let’s be honest: The nice thing about writing something like this is I just get to hector everyone without actually having to solve the problems myself. Because there is no simple solution. It would be great if this were as easy as doing one story a day about the democracy sky falling, or doing some overwrought punditry, or adding a “to be sure, democracy is at stake” paragraph to every article – but of course it’s not.
People in newsrooms typically don’t have time amid the crush of news to think about the big picture of our coverage, to step back and look at all of it and the overall story it conveys to our audiences. But now, right now, we have to make that time. We have to think about the coverage decisions we make, the stories we cover and don’t and the ones we play big and the ones to which we give short shrift.
This doesn’t mean being biased. It doesn’t mean rooting for one side. It doesn’t mean slanting our coverage. It means recognizing that doing anything else will slant our coverage.