The media landscape in 2020 is radically different than even the vitriolic (and sometimes physically dangerous) climate that enveloped the 2016 election. Still, many newspaper editorial boards are going about business as usual by issuing formal endorsements of candidates in the Democratic primary — as the New York Times did on Sunday night with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — before they will most likely endorse whomever wins over Donald Trump, much as they did in 2016.
But editors nationwide need to wake up to the new reality and sit out endorsing anyone in the 2020 election.
If the nation's newspapers do what they did in 2016 — when only one major newspaper, Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal, endorsed then-reality TV star and now President Donald Trump — they risk irreparable harm to not just their bottom lines but to their formerly essential place in voter’s lives. Americans of all stripes are now seemingly more convinced by fact-less memes than by thoroughly researched articles. The media has a credibility problem, and that’s what’s truly threatening the very underpinnings of our democracy.
A 2018 report by the nonpartisan James L. Knight Foundation found a previously startling downward trend is now on steroids: “Most U.S. adults, including more than nine in 10 Republicans, say they personally have lost trust in the news media in recent years. At the same time, 69 percent of those who have lost trust say that trust can be restored.”
Those numbers, especially within the GOP, are terrifying. The nation needs conservatives — along with everyone else — to read their local papers. They need to, at the very least, be exposed to information other than what conservative and alt-right publications are peddling as "fact," especially since many are now Trump propagandists, not journalists.
In conservative circles, Fox News, the Daily Caller or even Breitbart are now essential parts of a media diet plaguing millions with mental malnutrition. Those publications have become mouthpieces for the steady stream of falsehoods, misrepresentations and lies coming out of this White House and the president himself.
The conservative media machine is now a misinformation, conspiracy theory tinged juggernaut. Now that former Fox News and Breitbart power players are working inside the Trump administration, far right media outlets have practically replaced K. Street as the fastest, most favored revolving door in the administration. The innate power of the media — holding the powerful to account — has been squandered in service of Trump or "owning the libs." Hence, many within the conservative media ecosystem now act as unthinking lap dogs for this president — or cheerleaders performing for his base. That’s given Trump a bully pulpit unparalleled in American history.
The sacred perch he occupies in the Oval Office has been weaponized against the nation’s traditional press corps: It’s been used to cast the purveyors of news as the president’s adversaries — a characterization Republican lawmakers, pundits and candidates have eagerly mimicked. Just as the mindless repetition of "fake news" undermined people's trust in accurate reporting, Trump’s repeated refrain that the media is the "enemy of the people" has solidified the myth of a wholesale liberal media bias into a reality for millions.
But It’s not just Trump rallies: It’s even seeped into the Capitol, where last week Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz, was praised by conservative and alt-right outlets for calling a CNN reporter a “liberal hack” after refusing to answer a question about what evidence she wants presented in the Senate impeachment trial. (She then used the attack to help fill her campaign coffers, because berating reporters is a cash cow for the right these days )
Many conservatives — elected and otherwise — openly espouse the belief that the press is their enemy, which is disturbing. There can’t be civic discourse if the nation’s divided into tribalistic corners where citizens in one region don’t speak the same language as those who live a state, county or even just a town away.
That’s why the best journalists strive to speak in one language: That of facts, backed up with the best data, science and sources available. Sure, we often fall short of our ultimate goal, but that doesn’t mean we have an agenda; just that we’re imperfect humans.
Unlike the majority of journalists, endorsements have an agenda: They're intended to convince readers how to vote. But in an era in which a disturbingly large number of voters already believe that most traditional reporting is slanted, and after an election in which every major newspaper (save that one owned by a billionaire casino magnate who has donated tens of millions of dollars to Trump) inveighed against Trump, there doesn't seem to be any smart reason to do so again.
Besides risking one's own publication being discredited by millions for "bias" after an editorial board weighs in on a race, endorsements don’t even seem to work. According to a 2008 Pew study, nearly 70 percent of Americans are unmoved by endorsements. That case study focused on Oprah Winfrey (who’s arguably more important to many Americans than any nameless editor).
So why risk the integrity of an entire newsroom just to pen a self-righteous and potentially alienating hot take?
By picking candidates in 2020, the top brass at many publications may feel they’re doing a public service for readers, but that’s shortsighted. Editors and publishers — whose past shortsightedness, in many cases, hastened today’s steep decline in newspaper readership — need to take the long view.
They should spend 2020 focusing on protecting the institution of journalism, which is under assault from the president, his aides and conservative publications. Besides redoubling their actual newsrooms' efforts to provide accurate, honest and unbiased content, editors must reestablish trust with voters of all stripes. One way to start that healing process is to simply not endorse in 2020.
Voters decide elections. Now’s the time to focus newspapers' full energy and limited resources on providing every voter with the information that’s essential to making informed decisions. We can’t do that if millions of voters won’t ever read, let alone trust, the solid journalism flowing from the fingers of the underpaid and overly abused reporters in the field. We certainly can't do that if they won't read and won't trust fact-based reporting because a few people with six-figure salaries felt they had a civic duty to bloviate about the candidates and thereby undermine the unbiased work of the reporters whose content keeps their publication — and any well functioning democracy — afloat.
- Matt Laslo is a reporter who has written for NPR, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and VICE News, among others. He's also an adjunct professor teaching regularly at The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Boston University and The University of Maryland
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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