December 12, 2023

This summer, USA Today published a column titled “Is America on the brink of tyranny?” that noted that Donald Trump’s plan if elected in 2024 “should frighten us all.”

Among other things, such as terminating the Constitution, Trump proposes sending in the military to compel his agenda, mandating the death penalty for drug sellers, and shooting shoplifters as they leave the store.

He even has suggested executing former Joint Chiefs chairman Mark Milley.

Trump not only believes reporters are enemies of the people, but now also wants to restrict and punish and “make them pay” for critical coverage.

On Jan. 5, 2021, 24 hours before the assault on the U.S. Capitol, I warned the Poynter audience about “a coup without consequences” if journalists failed to hold accountable those who would overturn the presidential election.

“There will be a final, futile attempt to challenge the results in swing states,” I wrote, reminding editors that they had “an ethical obligation” to go on record against 126 Republican representatives and 12 senators who endorsed subversion.

On Jan. 4, 2023, I wrote about “how the news media should remember Jan. 6, referencing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Jan. 6, 1941, speech in which he reminded Congress to uphold democracy against the rising threat of fascism.

The republic was under assault by divisive, poisonous propaganda, Roosevelt said. “We must especially beware of the small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.”

Two days later, President Joe Biden referenced the same speech. “Eighty-two years ago, on this very day in 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union Address that became known as his famous ‘Four Freedoms’ speech, as he defined America’s place in the world.”

Biden noted that “there’s nothing guaranteed about our democracy.”

Neither are we assured that the Fourth Estate will respond to the threat. We explore that here with recommendations from news outlets, journalists and judges.

Nonconventional wisdom

Tenets about impartiality and balance do not apply when covering autocracy. Journalists cannot hold a tyrant accountable by framing his viewpoint as one side of a partisan story.

The January/February issue of The Atlantic admonishes the media’s coverage of Trump. News organizations have relied “on his vile words and scandalous deeds for their financial health, squeezing droplets of news from his every tweet even if the public had nothing to learn.”

In sum, we ourselves have laid the groundwork for autocracy.

I wrote about this for Poynter earlier this year, noting that Trump’s “grasp of power and media savvy have shaped newfangled genres of coverage, framing news to his advantage while making reporters look the other way.”

Despite 91 charges in state and federal trials, the twice impeached former president is leading GOP rivals by huge margins and is tied with or leading Biden in a 2024 rematch.

Former Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) warns that America is “sleepwalking into dictatorship” with a 2024 Trump win. The narcoleptic news media may slip into a coma, embellishing his bluster during court proceedings and trials.

Sounding the alarm

The Columbia Journalism Review was among the first to raise the issue in a 2018 piece titled “It’s time to rethink how we cover Trump.” The Fourth Estate requires “a new, proactive urgency” to explain the ramifications of Trump’s actions rather than publicizing “the swirl of familiar tropes and outrages.”

As Margaret Sullivan noted in The Washington Post, “the instincts and conventions of traditional journalism” may not apply covering autocracy. She proposes “thoughtful framing and context,” explaining implications to the public.

The Los Angeles Times laments that “the press is no longer a gatekeeper of what people know; it’s more often an annotator of what they’ve already heard elsewhere.” Politicians are better versed in interview dynamics than the reporters covering them.

There is no agreed-upon protocol to cover an autocrat.

A good resource may be the nonpartisan Protect Democracy’s “Authoritarian Playbook.” Among other things, it presents case studies from Argentina, Russia, Hungary, the Philippines, India, Venezuela and Nicaragua, advocating tactics that challenge governmental restrictions.

The full report states, “In light of the authoritarian threat, the ongoing process of media evolution and adaptation necessitates that the media may draw on a different toolkit today than it did in the eras of Walter Lippmann’s ‘Public Opinion,’ the Pentagon Papers, or Watergate.

It recommends reporters address three questions:

  • How much does this action deviate from recent precedent?
  • To what degree is this happening?
  • Does this action present a systemic risk to democracy?

The dilemma, however, is a political sectarian society that hates the other party more than it loves its own, deems adversaries as “others,” and justifies actions against them as morally justified.

Even if reporters address those above questions, who might believe them?

Second guessing the First Amendment

The Freedom Forum’s Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, said the “autocratic challenge will be multifaceted–in courts, statehouses, Congress and the court of public opinion.” These beats demand heightened coverage.

“Online reporting will need to move away from clickbait and back to factual reports,” Policinski said. First Amendment advocates will need to be vigilant, reminding the public what is at stake when politicians “chip away at hard-won free press court victories and legislation.”

The good news is that past Freedom Forum surveys show that some 90% of the public support a free press. But the 2023 “Where America Stands” survey found 60% of respondents want the media to serve in its traditional role as a watchdog over government, whereas a mere 36% said today’s press protects our liberty.

“In my view, that’s a far greater immediate challenge to a free press than will be mounted by whatever administration is in place after the 2024 election,” Policinski noted.

David Boardman, dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University and former executive editor at The Seattle Times, also cites the public’s lack of confidence in news coverage.

“While we would all hope that the news media would be prepared to cover an autocracy, my own belief is that it largely would not be,” he said. “Trump flouts the conventions of decorum, decency and democracy, which at times is more than the press can handle.”

“The only real defense must come from the citizenry,” Boardman added. “And unless and until the press can win back the public’s confidence, the public is unlikely to act decisively.”

In the meantime, he noted, journalists, journalism educators and conscientious public officials must help reeducate citizens “as to why legitimate, fact-based, truth-seeking journalism matters.”

Investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist Miles Moffeit noted that some news outlets already have been gearing up for such coverage. “Reveal, ProPublica and other news nonprofits have created democracy and civil rights beats to cover the autocratic fallout after Trump’s ascent to power.”

Moffeit believes the U.S. Constitution will outlast any damage inflicted by Trump. “The question in my mind is will journalism organizations rise to the moment to prevent the serious harm to society that will still result?”

Rosemarie Aquilina, 30th Circuit Court judge for Ingham County, Michigan — widely known for sentencing Larry Nassar in the USA Gymnastics sex abuse case — believes the solution resides in the voting booth.

“Voters must band together and shy away from any candidate with an extreme agenda that creates division and distrust and allows a system of government by one person with absolute power,” she said. Citizens and journalists must hold the presidency accountable via “the anchor of our freedom: the U.S. Constitution.”

Nevertheless, Aquilina worries that the “wild card” in future scenarios may be the political make-up and perpetual office-holding of Supreme Court justices, duty-bound to protect the people from an autocratic demigod. But will they?

Tom Hodson, director emeritus of Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and former judicial fellow at the U.S. Supreme Court, said normally he would bank on the courts outlasting an autocrat. But we are not in normal times.

Hodson believes that most federal and state judges will follow legal precedent even with a Trump-weaponized Justice Department. However, he fears that “Trump will use the military to enforce his will and punish those who advance First Amendment speech or advocate opposing views.”

Far-right legal scholars may devise violations of law that penalize reporters. Hodson anticipates that speech will be limited, news sources will no longer be protected as confidential, and libel laws will be changed in favor of “public officials.” Criminal libel laws, instead of civil, also may be instituted on a federal level to have a “chilling effect” on speech and criminalize actions against reporters.

Federal and state courts already are struggling with how to address Trump’s numerous criminal and civil cases at a time when he does not have presidential powers. Imagine if he does again.

The judicial system needs the public’s approval to offset threats to democracy. Support for the Supreme Court is declining with ramifications for all courts. “People don’t trust what they don’t understand. As the old saying goes,” Hodson mused, “the fish rots from the head down.”

In whom do we trust?

In 1956, America’s official motto, “In God We Trust,” replaced “E pluribus unum,” out of many, one. The 1864 appeal to the deity addressed the trauma of rebellion during the Civil War. We’re at that juncture again, with the insurrection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment being used to keep Trump off the ballot.

At issue now is a lack of trust in the news, courts, candidates, rule of law and each other. Trust takes time to build, and democracy is running out of it.

A second Trump presidency augers a dangerous era for reporters and judges. Safety in the newsroom and courtroom are immediate priorities.

Happily, the U.S. charter documents — Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights — provide news outlets with an authority base. Journalists covering politics should reference them as well as the patriots who created them.

There is no better example than our first president, George Washington.

Donald Trump and MAGA adherents might read Washington’s second inaugural address, the shortest in U.S. history at 135 words, in which he associates the presidency with accountability. Here is an excerpt:

“This Oath I am now about to take, and in your presence, that if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly, or knowingly, the injunction thereof, I may (besides incurring Constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn Ceremony.”

You can find similar statements of accountability by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and other signers of the Constitution.

America and the news media need civics lessons about insurrection and autocracy. Provide it or history will repeat itself.

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Michael Bugeja, a regular contributor at Poynter, is author of "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press) and "Living Media Ethics"…
Michael Bugeja

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