Jay Rosen on the mess at CNN and the perils of "both sides" journalism
CNN's purge of prominent Trump critics is the latest example of the press unilaterally disarming.
Nearly one year ago now, the first edition of this newsletter grappled with what it means for our politics when every election cycle becomes a referendum on democracy. This installment features a Q&A with Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, about how the media is struggling with a related problem.
In the Trump era, the stakes of each election are far greater than which party gets to set tax and spending policy. But that puts journalists in a challenging position. Covering the MAGA assault on truth and elections accurately makes it easy for the Fox Newses of the world to dismiss their coverage as biased and partisan. Political reporters face an uncomfortable dilemma where doing their job well means opening themselves up to attacks from Trumpers, but appeasing them requires treating misinformation and authoritarianism as though they are valid sides of a debate.
Rosen has been a prominent critic of this “both sides” mode of journalism — one that often seems more concerned about offending Trump supporters than it does reporting honestly about their assault on democracy.
Relatedly, he’s been very critical of recent moves CNN’s new management has made to purge prominent Trump critics from the network — people like Brian Stelter and John Harwood — as part of what seems to be a broader effort to reach some sort of detente with MAGA Republicans.
So as misinformation-spewing Republicans vie to retake control of Congress and telegraph they’ll use their power for politicized investigations aimed at taking out Biden, Public Notice contributor Thor Benson connected with Rosen to talk about the problem with CNN’s new direction, the importance of journalists being unapologetically pro-democracy, and why he thinks right-wingers have had so much success convincing newsrooms that “liberal bias” is a problem they need to root out.
A transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, follows.
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Let’s start with what’s going on at CNN. What did you think of how they were covering threats to democracy before this apparent shift to the right, and what are your concerns about how their coverage might change?
I’m not sure “shift to the right” is a good way of saying it. It sounds a little bit like that sometimes, but I don’t think it’s as coherent as that.
To go back a bit, CNN had, eventually, a strong response to what’s happened to the Republican Party, to Trump himself, and to Trump-supporting politicians who told falsehoods. They learned how to resist that and call it out and talk about it as a real thing — as opposed to pretending that it never happened.
The new bosses at CNN somehow determined this was excessive or leading to the wrong place or not what the network should be doing, and they haven’t really been clear or convincing in explaining how they came to that conclusion. But that’s the conclusion that they came to. Because they have done so little to unfold the logic that they’re working with, it’s also led to a lot of uncertainty within CNN.
[Editor’s note — the below piece from Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall does a nice job unpacking how the uncertainty Rosen mentions seems to already be impacting the on-air behavior of CNN employees.]
A lot of people are nervous about losing their jobs, and it’s unclear what the executives want them to do, which contrasts dramatically with their relationship to Jeff Zucker, who was very clear to the staff about what he wanted from them. I think the CNN leadership has made the situation more opaque and frightening to the journalists who work there.
When a journalist is going to cover threats to democracy, how should they think about how they frame their coverage?
I think it’s really important to make it extremely clear what the stakes are in the coming election in 2022 and then again in 2024, and differentiate a normal argument about policies and priorities from this attack on democracy that we see.
It’s a threat. It’s super important to be extremely clear that stakes of this kind have not been seen in politics in a long time. I think it’s also important to emerge as pro-democracy, pro-truth, pro-voting, pro-participation. I think those are all fundamental values that journalists have to learn to stick up for and also weave into their coverage in a more creative way.
I’ve heard people say journalists should have a “pro-democracy bias.” Is that central to this?
It is. I wouldn’t call it a pro-democracy bias, but people do say that, and I understand what they mean. I think it’s important for journalists as a group and individually to be pro-democracy. That was something that was maybe latent in journalism before. It was a background assumption, you could say. Now it has to be much more in the foreground.
Another thing I would like to see happen is if our journalists turned this from a two-way fight into a three-way fight. What I mean by that is there is a MAGA movement, which is anti-democratic. There’s the Republican Party, which is being taken over by the movement, but hasn’t completely been yet. Then there’s the Democratic Party. It might spark the imagination if more newsrooms were ready to narrate the election with those three forces instead of two.
People staying in their own information silos is another big problem we face. A lot of people supporting candidates who are threats to democracy might not even realize it. What do we do about that?
I know it’s an important question, and I think you framed it the right way, but that’s a really hard problem. They’re not necessarily listening to you at all. This is one of the things that’s turning this moment into a crisis. The right-wing has its own information ecosphere. It doesn’t usually touch the rest of the information ecosphere unless it’s to frame the news media as a hate object, which was one of Donald Trump’s most important political methods.
Increasingly, there’s no common set of facts that the political leaders from the Democratic side and the Republican side can agree on. It’s very difficult to have a debate under those conditions. I don’t think anyone really has an answer to that. What we have instead is endless observations about how we’re so polarized.
So there’s a lot of “both sides-ism” out there, and I think journalists sometimes feel that if they don’t criticize Democrats in the same way they criticize Republicans — even though many Republicans represent a danger to democracy — that they’re going to seem partisan. How does that play into all of this?
I think you characterize it well. They’re afraid of seeming partisan, so they try to find something that’s kind of similar the Democrats are doing as a way to ward off that criticism.
[Editor’s note — the below clip of CNN host Brianna Keilar making a big fuss about Marines standing in the background as Biden delivered a primetime speech calling out the MAGA threat to democracy is a perfect example of this.]
When you watch that pattern occur again and again, you realize that the decades-long campaign to persuade journalists that they are filled with liberal bias was one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in post-War America. I would rank it up there with the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry propaganda campaigns because they’ve been so successful at getting journalists to internalize the liberal bias critique.
As someone who focuses on journalism and democracy a lot, what is something that you think is often misunderstood about these issues?
What frustrates me most is that when people in my position point out the weaknesses of “both sides” journalism, the automatic assumption — from many people in the press— is that we favor one-sided journalism, as though the alternative is to pick a side and become an advocate for Joe Biden.
Another way it shows up is when people in my position say the press needs to become more pro-democracy, a lot of people hear that as pro-Biden. That is frustrating. That’s not what it means.
A Republican could surely be pro-democracy.
Yes. Exactly. A Republican could be pro-democracy, and some of them are. That’s why the shift from two to three [sides] could help. You’d be able to show there are different kinds of Republicans — the MAGA kind and the kind that are still pro-democracy.
That’s it for today
Aaron will be back with more Wednesday.