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Big Media to U.S. democracy: Drop dead | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, the shocking murder of a Las Vegas journalist ups the ante on press freedom.

It’s definitely a day late and maybe a dollar short, but Happy Labor Day 2022. For most of my lifetime, Labor Day has been a time for last-gasp cookouts, glumness over earlier sunsets, and newspaper articles bemoaning the death of union power. Times have changed! Public support for organized labor is the highest its been since 1965! Let’s turn that support into real gains for workers.

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This is how freedom dies: with reruns of ‘Law and Order’ and insane TV blather about Marines

If you grew up as a baby boomer like I did in the 1960s and ‘70s, then you were raised in the enormous shadow of World War II. Could democracy ever again fail as badly as it had in the 1930s in Nazi Germany and elsewhere? We grew up with faith in our post-war institutions, especially the thriving American free press of the mid-20th century. How could the public ever choose fascism when it has access to the truth?

Yes, I really was that naïve — although it would not be until 2003 that I fully understood that a warped value system had become the norm at the highest levels of my own chosen profession: journalism. Watching the best minds of my generation cower and fall in line over their fear of looking “unpatriotic” rather than challenge the blatant and obvious lies of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush that started a war that killed a few hundred thousand human beings was a low moment for the U.S. media. I prayed that folks had learned a lesson, and that this was rock bottom.

It wasn’t.

The summer of 2022 has become a time for choosing in the United States of America. One of our two political parties — wedded to ancient hierarchies around racism and sexism in an increasingly diverse nation — is full-steam-ahead rejecting democracy as its strategy to cling to that old order.

A personality cult has adopted a Big Lie about stolen elections as an excuse to work for a new infrastructure with the not-at-all-subtle goal of actually stealing the next election. In Florida, people — mostly Black — are handed ballots and then arrested by a new breed of “election police” in a cruel ploy aimed at chilling voter turnout in November. In Texas, brown people seen not as human but as The Other are thrown onto buses for three days to be dumped in cities run by Democrats. In Mar-a-Lago, the deposed despot and his allies call for violence and civil unrest if he is called to account for his massive corruption. This has blurred into a broader climate of fear for everyday folks — librarians, teachers, and public health workers.

It’s the greatest threat to the American Experiment since 1861, and this has challenged those key players in the power capitals of Washington or New York who’ve invested so much in the status quo to adapt to the challenge. There had been no more powerful symbol of the old ways than President Joe Biden himself — who ran for the White House in 2020 on his bipartisan bona fides and a promise of restoring normalcy after four years of Donald Trump — and yet he came to Philadelphia ahead of the fall election season to instead meet our fraught moment head on. Dark forces, America’s 46th president warned, “are determined to take this country backwards, backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.”

They were harsh, difficult words the nation needed to hear, but they were not to be found on the traditional major networks such as ABC, NBC, and CBS, which thought the fate of democracy didn’t merit killing summer reruns of Law and Order and Young Sheldon or a game show called Press Your Luck. Their reasoning was that America’s dilemma — a two-party system in which the core of one party has turned its back on democracy — made Biden’s speech “too political.”

More broadly, “Press Your Luck” seemed to be not just ABC’s 8 p.m. offering but the mainstream media’s message for the American system. Some of the journalists analyzing the moment seemed to grasp its importance — none more so than the veteran inside-the-beltway journalist John Harwood at CNN. Last Friday from the White House, Harwood acknowledged what so many commentators with his background and experience would not, that the current differences between Republicans and Democrats on core American values “are not honest disagreements,” and that “the Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue.”

Less than two hours later, Harwood tweeted “some personal news” that this CNN analysis was also his last — that he was leaving the network under its new boss Chris Licht, who has not only proclaimed his desire to move America’s original cable news network back to a mythical center that is willfully blind to the current state of U.S. politics, but has even met with GOP lawmakers to see how their needs can be better served.

The new fear and loathing at CNN was evident not just in Harwood’s early ouster from his contract but more broadly in its bizarre coverage of the Biden speech, which managed to somehow equate the threat posed by Big Lie-believing vote counters and Trump’s Mussolini-esque ramblings to a ginned-up issue over the two Marines who were visible behind Biden at Independence Hall. With their new bosses — Licht and the billionaire behind the recent purchase of CNN, Trump donor John Malone — listening, CNN aired a steady stream of voices to shift the conversation away from actual book bans and toward Biden’s alleged shrillness.

But while the situation at CNN had the specific overlay of its right-tilting new ownership, other Big Media outlets — especially the premier newsrooms of the New York Times and Washington Post — picked up that same ball and ran with it. They ran wild with pieces like the Times’ classic both-sides analysis “Parties’ Divergent Realities Challenge Biden’s Defense of Democracy,” or the Post’s editorial stance that seemed to forsake the bravado of “Democracy Dies in Darkness” for the hectoring tone that “Biden should invoke patriotism, not partisanship.”

Both the Times and Post are under the sway of new leaders with a reactionary bent, who are convinced that the occasional tough story will absolve them of the need to do what Biden did last Thursday and spell out the truth that the threat is coming from one direction. Post boss Sally Buzbee laid down the marker in a recent interview when she described the democracy threat in the Big Lie-era in the most anodyne terms, that “we are not partisan. We are trying to report what is accurately happening in the country.”

Except that “both sides”-ing the current moment or equating Biden’s struggles to find the right tone to explain the threat to democracy with the actual threat itself, isn’t “accurate” in any true or moral sense of the term. Instead of rising to the occasion, the loudest voices in America want to run away, to hide in a shell of faux professionalism and medieval ethics rather than acknowledge that the foundation that allows them to perform acts of journalism is near collapse.

The New York University journalism prof Jay Rosen, who has long chronicled a value system that places insider “savvy” over the risk of defending democracy, wrote on Twitter that “over time professionalism got identified with the act of not taking sides, and its many accompaniments. A caution became a kind of constitution, and now both-sides is not what they do but who they are.”

Now should this be the moment to throw that caution to the wind, to infuse the parting words of John Harwood that “this is not an honest disagreement” into every report. The failure to summon that honesty, and the courage to break the familiar mold, aided and abetted so many unnecessary deaths in Iraq two decades ago. The consequences on U.S. soil could be even worse.

Yo, do this

  1. OK, I’m officially on a reliving-the-’90s jag. Having finished Chuck Klosterman’s extended rumination on the decade where little happened yet somehow everything changed, I’ve now downloaded the brilliant historian Nicole Hemmer’s new Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. Her smart take is that the rise of hard-right politics in the decade that gave us peak Newt Gingrich, the Clinton impeachment and Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect was less a foreshadowing of Donald Trump than a repudiation of Ronald Reagan. Good stuff.

  2. I didn’t really think I was ready for some football, as the saying goes, until the Phillies launched their annual September tailspin. Over the offseason, the Eagles’ front office seemingly completed a two-year clinic in how-to-rebuild, assembling arguably the Birds’ best receiver corps of this millennium (A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith). But can Jalen Hurts get them the ball? We’ll begin to find out this Sunday (9/11) at 1 p.m. in their season opener against the traditionally hapless Detroit Lions on Fox 29.

Ask me anything

Question: With so much focus on the PA Senate and Governor races, little attention is being given to the PA congressional races. Can you give us a primer on possible seat flips? — Via John Latimer (@JohnMLatimer) on Twitter

Answer: John, you’re right. The weirdness of the John Fetterman-Mehmet Oz Senate race and the threat to democracy posed by Doug Mastriano have sucked the oxygen around any focus on some key House races in Pennsylvania, at a moment when control of the lower chamber in 2023 could mean either a) an LBJ-style flurry of progressive legislation or b) the impeachment of President Biden. I’d keep a close eye on whether surging Democratic enrollment of young women voters in place like Bucks County could topple the GOP’s seemingly hard-to-beat Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, or whether his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection could take down Harrisburg-area Republican Rep. Scott Perry (who faces a compelling challenger in Shamaine Daniels). Conversely, a GOP wave and new district maps could spell trouble for several Dems elected in 2018 — especially Rep. Susan Wild in the Allentown area.

History lesson on today’s tragic echoes of a 1976 murder

On June 2, 1976, a veteran investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic named Don Bolles drove to a Phoenix hotel where he thought he was meeting a source on crooked land deals and politicians. Instead, it was a ruse to plant a dynamite bomb under the driver’s seat of his car; he died from the powerful blast 11 days later. The murder shocked America because — despite the crime and general tumult of the 1970s — the work-related killing of a U.S. journalist was so rare. There was a massive response to Bolles’ death both from the authorities — who found, tried and convicted a couple of the seedy players involved — and from a national community of investigative reporters who launched a unique cooperative venture called the Arizona Project. The idea — pulled off pretty successfully — was not just to solve the crime but to pick up the investigations Bolles has been working on, and rip the lid off corruption in the Grand Canyon State.

Unfortunately, the 21st century has seen the killing of journalists become less rare, both internationally but to some degree here at home. High profile cases have included the 2007 killing of Oakland’s leading Black muckraker Chauncey Bailey, at the hands of drug dealers, and the 2018 mass shooting that left five dead inside the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. And heightened rhetoric from the likes of Donald Trump, branding the press as “enemies of the people,” has raised fear to new levels.

That’s the context in which we learned over Labor Day weekend the shocking news that a top investigative journalist in Nevada — 69-year-old Jeff German of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, with a record of taking down corrupt pols not unlike Bolles a half-century earlier — had been stabbed to death outside his home. Police on Monday released a photo of a suspect — still at large — and it’s not clear whether or not the incident is connected to German’s reporting. However the case plays out, German’s death is an irreplaceable loss for a breed of hard-hitting local journalist that struggles to survive in today’s harsh environment — so precarious in so many ways.

Recommended Inquirer reading

  1. Only one column this week as I leaned into the spirit of the Labor Day holiday. In that piece, I finally tackled a project that’s been on my mind since the May primary — a deep guide to the strange and secretive inner circle of the Doug Mastriano campaign. False prophets, QAnon adherents, participants (like, of course, Mastriano himself) in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection ... Pennsylvania has never seen a high-profile campaign quite like this. The goal of my guide is hopefully never seeing one again.

  2. Philadelphia’s reputation as one of the last great union towns is the root of the city’s beloved if slightly faded blue-collar swagger, but unfortunately there are aspects of the story that should also be a source of shame. Specifically, why has the fight for a fundamentally noble cause — that working people share the fruits of American capitalism’s prosperity — largely benefitted white Philly workers and excluded most of the Black population? With the arrival of a new Labor Day, and with The Inquirer on a mission of racial reckoning called (fittingly, in this case) A More Perfect Union, Juliana Feliciano Reyes (one of the best chroniclers of work in America right now, for my money) explained this painful and too often overlooked history in her new piece: “Broken Rung.” This is why news organizations exist: To tell the truths our institutions would love to avoid. This kind of journalism can only survive as long as readers like you subscribe to The Inquirer.