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The Media Needs New Rules To Cover The 2020 Election. Here Are 6 Ideas

President Donald Trump waves to the crowd as he leaves after speaking during a campaign event at the Orlando Sanford International Airport on October 12, 2020 in Sanford, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump waves to the crowd as he leaves after speaking during a campaign event at the Orlando Sanford International Airport on October 12, 2020 in Sanford, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

We’ve reached that episode of our reality TV presidency in which the media’s attention are focused, laser-like, on the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. But it’s worth stepping back, as we approach the election, to consider how these hearings are being framed.

Namely, the sad and predictable manner in which much of the media has bent over backwards to amplify a phony scandal ginned up by the GOP, the idea that Joe Biden might -- gasp! -- pack the Supreme Court.

Any reporter with a functioning frontal lobe knows the real story here: when Barack Obama was president, Republican senators unilaterally blocked his judicial nominees. When Trump took office, they began packing the courts with lifetime nominees who were sometimes grossly unqualified and dangerously out of step with the values of most Americans — all while blocking nearly every piece of legislation aimed at helping Americans. (Now, 1 in 4 federal judges is a Trump appointee.)

None of this is hidden from view. Heck, Mitch McConnell chortles about it on national TV.

Of course, the Republican party supports Trump because it has become as shameless as him. And over the next three weeks, the GOP will do everything it can to distract the American electorate from this regime’s record of failure, corruption and abject hypocrisy.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett testifies during day two of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington October 13, 2020. (Demetrius Freeman/AFP via Getty Images)
Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett testifies during day two of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington October 13, 2020. (Demetrius Freeman/AFP via Getty Images)

Which means our free press needs to deploy some new rules. The alternative, as James Fallows observes, is clear: a repeat of the disastrous 2016 campaign, when the media blithely fanned the flames of Trump’s demagoguery, hyped politics over policy, spread Russian disinformation, and falsely equated a scandal about Hillary Clinton's email with Trump’s sickening record of racial incitement and criminal conduct.

As the campaign coverage kicks into overdrive, every responsible journalist in America should be adhering to these common-sense rules.

1. Call Out the Lies in Real Time. In the same way Michael Jordan appeared to defy the normal laws of gravity, Trump defies the normal laws of epistemology. He lies so instinctually, incessantly and brazenly that it’s virtually impossible to keep up.

A week before his meltdown at the first presidential debate, Trump ventured outside the safe space of Fox News to take questions from undecided voters, who wanted to know (among other things) why he lied to them about the severity of COVID-19, why he was seeking to take insurance away from people with pre-existing conditions and why he called our troops suckers and losers.

In response, Trump unleashed what CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale described, aptly, as a “firehose of lies.”

George Stephanopoulos tried to interject with some corrections. But Trump — like the Fox hosts he apes — knows how to exploit reporters’ instincts to passively defer to lying rather than aggressively confront it. That needs to stop. Any journalist who gets the opportunity to ask Trump a question, and who receives a dishonest answer, must tell Trump he is lying, to his face.

When Trump sputtered that COVID-19 would “go away” because of “herd mentality,” Stephanopoulos should have pointed out that “herd immunity” would result in 260 million Americans getting COVID, and millions of them dying.

2. Don’t Allow Lies To Frame Coverage. Too often, the mainstream media — in a doomed effort to appear “objective" — let obvious lies frame their coverage. It’s hard to believe, but the president was impeached this year. Remember that? Back in January, the lead story of the New York Times showcased the president’s “legal defense”: that the impeachment charges were nothing but a brazen partisan plot.

Reports and editors at the Times knew the impeachment charges were legitimate, that Trump had attempted to extort Ukraine and obstructed the Congressional investigation into this abuse. And yet its front-page story was predicated on a fraudulent talking point.

This is not journalism. It is a knowing amplification of propaganda.

3. Cover Policy, Not Conflict. The reason Trump generates so much news coverage is that mainstream media have a conflict-bias. That’s a fancy way of saying that news outlets operate in the same way as kids on a playground: whenever there’s a fight, everyone’s attention gets sucked into it.

As a creature of the attention economy, Trump figured this out long ago, which is why he constantly taunts and trolls. Mainstream media outlets dutifully report all of it, even though none of it is news.

In 2016, largely as a result of this conflict bias, a paltry 10% of political coverage focused on policy. In other words, 90% of coverage focused on scandals, ad hominem attacks, polls strategy and fundraising. If that’s what journalists are covering, they're part of the problem.

Trump, not surprisingly, is now calling for his political rivals to be jailed and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, should he lose the election.

4. Don’t Spread Dirt, Instead Focus On Where It Comes From (And Stay Focused On The Integrity Of Our Election). Back in 1972, when burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, in the Watergate hotel, journalists asked two questions: Who were they? And what did they want? The answers revealed a corrupt president who abused his office, and eventually resigned.

In 2016, the DNC was again broken into, this time electronically. But rather than asking who the burglars were and what they wanted, mainstream media outlets rushed to publish the stolen goods: dirt on Hillary Clinton. In so doing, they become press agents for the Vladimir Putin and promoters of his chosen candidate, Donald Trump.

Trump, not surprisingly, is now calling for his political rivals to be jailed and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, should he lose the election.

The president’s own failed extortion scheme in Ukraine has made it obvious that he will eagerly engineer, and again welcome, foreign-sourced dirt, from anyone really.  Journalists of good faith can’t fall for this again. They must ignore the dirt and stay focused on the attempted subversion of America’s elections.

They must also recognize that Trump and his domestic allies, from Attorney General William Barr to Republican senators, have launched their own phony inquiries — often based on foreign misinformation. No responsible journalist has any business publicizing these farragoes in any way.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr arrives in the Rose Garden before President Donald Trump introduces 7th U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, 48, as his nominee to the court at the White House September 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. Attorney General William Barr arrives in the Rose Garden before President Donald Trump introduces 7th U.S. Circuit Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett, 48, as his nominee to the court at the White House September 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

5. Stop Promoting False Equivalence. The reason Trump calls the free press “the enemy of the people” is because the free press, in a liberal democracy, is supposed to hold the powerful to account. But news outlets have become so cowed by these accusations that they are constantly contorting their coverage to appear even-handed, even if that means allowing pundits and columnists (and sometimes U.S. senators) to lie to their audiences.

The Fourth Estate’s role is to expose any elected official who betrays the public trust — whether by botching the response to a deadly pandemic, lying, breaking promises, fomenting violence, fostering a culture of graft and corruption, ripping refugee families apart, dismantling environmental regulations, shredding the safety net meant to protect vulnerable citizens, or using public office to pad your profits.

Soon after President Trump tested positive for COVID-19, having flouted basic precautions for months and hosted a superspreader event at the White House, the Times had the audacity to run a front-page story tagging the Biden campaign as “cagey” about health concerns.

To pretend “both sides” engage in these sorts of ethical atrocities is cowardly and dangerous.

People wait in line on the first day of early voting for the general election at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on October 12, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
People wait in line on the first day of early voting for the general election at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on October 12, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

6. Stop Covering This Election Like Past Elections. We are on the brink of an unprecedented election. Trump is behind in the polls because his leadership has been an epic failure. He is now repeatedly making patently false claims to subvert the legitimacy of the election. He has even tried to disable the U.S. Postal Service, which is charged with delivering mail-in ballots during a pandemic.

Trump and Barr have already declared that they will use every power available to them to undermine the vote count. Republicans are openly embracing voter suppression — perhaps you’ve been following this controversy in Texas or seen stories about the 10-hour long lines to vote in Georgia.

The editors and publishers of our largest news outlets have to stop pretending that Trump is an honorable candidate, one who will wait for all the ballots to be tallied and concede if he loses. He won’t. We all know he won’t.

Instead, he will seek to create chaos and incite his most ardent supporters, as he did last month when he urged his super fans to “monitor" the polls.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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