Dear Members of the Journalism Community:
Our democracy is facing a clear and present danger, and we need you to take sides on behalf of us, your audience.
There is, right now, only one story worth covering: the open sabotage of the next election by the sitting President of the United States.
There is, as well, only one side to this story — American democracy — and we need you to stop insisting that two sides are required.
You have a vested interest in getting this right. If democracy disappears, the press disappears. Reporters will be the first to be silenced, imprisoned, or executed. This is nothing new. It’s Gestapo 101, and every one of you knows it. We need you to protect us, if for no other reason than to protect yourselves.
This is not a partisan issue, so please stop treating it like one. If this were a wildfire or a flood or a hurricane, you wouldn’t be looking for both sides of the story. This is worse than those things. Millions of lives are at stake. And we need you to report it with the urgency it demands.
You know full well that Trump is all lies, all the time. You know he floods the zone with a nonstop barrage of distractions that are both noisy and obnoxious, but ultimately trivial.
Please stop focusing on what he says, as opposed to what he does. You know these are vastly different things, and that the corruption going on under the radar is far more insidious than the torrent of verbal diarrhea that merely insults our intelligence.
Please stop giving him a megaphone. Fox has already given him the biggest one in the world, and it works just fine without your help. We need you to help separate the real news from the noise, the life-threatening from the merely corrupt.
Please stop chasing shiny objects. Trump’s tweets are rarely the story in themselves, but by amplifying them you make them the story. They almost never have a basis in reality, so please just assume they spring from his current mood or medication level and give them the attention they deserve — zero. When the tweets become the story, you play into his hands, which causes widespread upset for no real reason.
Please stop the both-siderism. We get that objectivity is a cornerstone of journalism, but its limits are being more exposed every day. Balanced reporting is of little use when one side is not just engaged in mass murder and treason, but also has the full throw-weight of the federal government behind it. Objectivity is necessary but not sufficient.
Please stop letting Republican stooges sidestep your questions. Make them defend what they say. Make them go on the record in favor of the things they know full well are corrupt and most likely criminal. If all they can do is stay on message — however false or stupid that message is — make sure your audience understands that. Please don’t let a lie just lie there.
Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at NYU, has long advocated the use of what he calls the “truth sandwich” for dealing with the onslaught of deceit and obfuscation you face. Before quoting any source you know to be lying, write your story so that the lie is “sandwiched” between layers of truth. Write it so that the truth appears first, followed by the quoted lie, followed by an explanation of how that lie is not the truth.
In other words: Here comes a lie, Here’s the lie, Here’s why it’s a lie. This will make it much easier for the rest of us to cut through the bullshit.
Every election in living memory has been covered as if it’s a horse race, where the press makes an endless contest of the leaders, followers, and day-to-day gotchas of the campaign trail. We need this to stop. You know that in a fair election, Trump will be overwhelmingly defeated. That will not change, no matter how much of a horse race you make it. Better to focus on what Republicans, Russians, and corrupt state legislatures are doing to cheat. They're doing it in a hundred ways right now. We need them exposed.
The votes are by now set in stone. Surely everyone has made up their minds — most were made up the day after the 2016 election — and it’s unlikely that any minds will change. If they do, it will be away from Trump, not towards him.
So the horse race has been rendered meaningless. There isn’t one. There’s only the race between democracy and dictatorship. Your stories, from now through November, must illuminate the fight to safeguard a fair election. Whatever's happening, either above board or under the table, we need to know about it.
Trump will not win a free and fair election, but he has everything to lose. He knows he has no choice but to bring down the whole system with him. If he doesn’t, he will either go to prison or to Russia. Neither appeals to him, which makes him desperate and extremely dangerous.
I understand the pressures you’re under. I know you have bosses looking over your shoulder. Many of you report to faceless conglomerates and must measure every word.
But this is what you signed up for, right? A privileged view of a big moment?
We desperately need you to rise to it.
Much of the content in this post is derived from an important article by the aforementioned journalism professor, Jay Rosen of PressThink, a longtime critic of the press. The article is an urgent alarm directed at journalists, exhorting them to — in my words, not his — wake up and smell the fascism. I urge everyone to read it.