The US Democracy Crisis is a Media Crisis and the Mainstream Press is Losing

27 December, 2021
Pho­to Illus­tra­tion by Eliz­a­beth Brockway/The Dai­ly Beast/Getty.

Only swift and force­ful change can save us from 2022 fur­ther extend­ing the chaos around us today

Lorraine Ali


This time last year, there was a cru­el joke in cir­cu­la­tion: The most spite­ful year in recent mem­o­ry would reset itself at mid­night on Dec. 31, and we’d be forced to relive 2020 from the beginning.

Fun­ny, right? Not real­ly. But we could tell the joke then because we final­ly had some hope. The worst 12 months ever were behind us, with their burnt offer­ings of dead­ly pan­dem­ic, polit­i­cal race-bait­ing, vio­lent upris­ings, QAnon absur­di­ty and toi­let paper hoard­ers. We had a new pres­i­dent-elect, access to life-sav­ing vac­cines, a peace­ful elec­tion and a rebound­ing Charmin supply.

Lit­tle did we know that 2021 would be hell­bent on steal­ing the apoc­a­lyp­tic crown from 2020. Its open­ing num­ber? A dead­ly attempt­ed coup at the U.S. Capi­tol build­ing and the rise of the delta vari­ant. Its clos­ing sal­vo? Omi­cron and con­gres­sion­al hear­ings that have revealed that the calls to over­turn the elec­tion results were indeed com­ing from inside the White House.

The long-haul chaos cul­mi­nat­ed in 2021, exhaust­ing tra­di­tion­al news­gath­er­ing orga­ni­za­tions while ener­giz­ing the far-right media. Fox News, social media jug­ger­naut Face­book and a con­stel­la­tion of hard-right out­lets rev­eled in the fear of uncer­tain times, sow­ing doubt among their fol­low­ers about the elec­tion out­come, vac­ci­na­tions and the alarm­ing wok­e­ness of “Sesame Street.” Tox­ic enter­tain­ment for tox­ic times, still in demand, even after their showy cham­pi­on lost the White House. The com­par­a­tive­ly tra­di­tion­al news media — Belt­way reporters, net­work night­ly news, morn­ing shows, Sun­day pro­grams — showed up to this poi­son-tipped knife fight with plas­tic sporks.

To be fair, the D.C. press was already deplet­ed, thanks to cov­er­ing a new fresh hell every hour since 2016. Dis­prov­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion (i.e., doing their job) made them tar­gets of a pres­i­dent and a press arm that advo­cat­ed vio­lence. Who can blame them for breath­ing a sigh of relief when Joe Biden’s pres­i­den­tial win promised them a respite of pol­i­tics as usual.

The prob­lem is that “both-sides jour­nal­ism,” as it’s come to be called, has out­lived the “fair­ness doc­trine” that cre­at­ed it, which was abol­ished in 1987 under then-Pres­i­dent Rea­gan. The care­ful, equi­table report­ing of “PBS New­sHour” and NPR remains a valu­able pub­lic ser­vice, but in this age of extremes, the point-coun­ter­point struc­ture is sore­ly out of step with the bom­bast of politi­cians like U.S. Rep. Mar­jorie Tay­lor Greene, R‑Ga., and the fact-bend­ing screeds of hang­ers-on like Rudy Giuliani.

Get­ting to the bot­tom of any­thing requires it hav­ing an actu­al bot­tom, and that’s an issue in a par­al­lel news uni­verse where life­saver Dr. Antho­ny Fau­ci is a demon, cli­mate change is a hoax and ingest­ing horse dewormer is safer than a Pfiz­er shot in the arm. How does one log­i­cal­ly debate the politi­ciza­tion of COVID-19 in a tra­di­tion­al talk-show forum with­out giv­ing a plat­form to the very folks who’ve spun these dead­ly lies?

Kyle Rit­ten­house pos­es for a Proud Boys pho­to, flash­ing the white suprema­cy sign.

It’s not a prob­lem for those lead­ing the charge. Take Fox News host Tuck­er Carl­son. He’s behind a three-part series that pro­motes unfound­ed and dis­proved con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries about the Jan. 6 siege — make-believe nar­ra­tives pre­sent­ed as fact. On an osten­si­bly “main­stream” net­work, watched by millions.

In his ador­ing inter­view with “nice kid” Kyle Rit­ten­house — the teen who brought an AR-15 rifle to a Black Lives Mat­ter protest and who was charged with killing two unarmed men and maim­ing anoth­er — Carl­son assured view­ers that Rit­ten­house was a patri­ot, not a racist. He nev­er men­tioned a wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed pho­to of the “sweet kid” in a bar flash­ing white-pow­er signs with Proud Boy mem­bers, wear­ing a “Free as Fuck” tee-shirt. And in that siloed uni­verse, no one was there to chal­lenge him. The teen’s acquit­tal embold­ened would-be vig­i­lantes and mass shoot­ers. Social media helped reach them. Rep. Madi­son Cawthorn, R.-N.C. took to Insta­gram Live to ral­ly his fol­low­ers: “Be armed, be dan­ger­ous, and be moral.”

The asym­met­ri­cal nature of the media is both a byprod­uct of and a fuel for the asym­met­ri­cal nature of mod­ern par­ti­san­ship: While Todd is inter­view­ing Fau­ci, direc­tor of the Nation­al Insti­tute of Aller­gy and Infec­tious Dis­eases, about prac­ti­cal ways of sur­viv­ing the pan­dem­ic, Fox Nation host Lara Logan is com­par­ing Biden’s chief med­ical advis­er to Nazi war crim­i­nal Dr. Josef Mengele.

In these cir­cum­stances, even news­rooms not in thrall to the hard-right cabal would be hard-pressed to strike the right tone, to see the big pic­ture, to earn the consumer’s trust. But as social media’s dom­i­nance deep­ens and right-wing plat­forms grow, main­stream media are in cri­sis and local news­pa­pers are in a fight for sur­vival against ven­ture capitalists.

After an over­whelm­ing year, in a chal­leng­ing-in-the-best-of-times busi­ness, it might seem harsh to blame the old-school press for not assem­bling the pieces of the puz­zle into a warn­ing siren for our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment. But it isn’t enough to hope that 2022 will mag­i­cal­ly offer solu­tions to either our media cri­sis or our demo­c­ra­t­ic one. It will require swift and force­ful change. Oth­er­wise, the joke’s on us.


This com­men­tary appeared in print in the Mer­cury News on Dec. 26, 2021 and is pub­lished here by arrange­ment with the author.

democracyDr. Anthony FauciFox NewsJanuary 6RittenhouseTrumpTucker Carlson

Born to an Iraqi-American father, Lorraine Ali is a senior writer and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. An award-winning journalist and Los Angeles native who has written in publications ranging from the New York Times to Rolling Stone and GQ, Ali often appears as an expert voice on television and has been interviewed on Oprah, Charlie Rose, CNN, BBC and other televised outlets discussing media, entertainment, culture, and Iraq and American-Muslim issues.


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