Whatever doubts you may have about public-opinion polls, one recent example should not be dismissed.
Yes, that poll – the one from Siena College and the New York Times that sent chills down many a spine. It showed Donald Trump winning the presidential election by significant margins over Joe Biden in several swing states, the places most likely to decide the presidential election next year.
The poll, of course, is only one snapshot and it has been criticized, but it still tells a cautionary tale – especially when paired with the certainty that Trump, if elected, will quickly move toward making the United States an authoritarian regime.
Add in Biden’s low approval ratings, despite his accomplishments, and you come to an unavoidable conclusion: the news media needs to do its job better.
The press must get across to American citizens the crucial importance of this election and the dangers of a Trump win. They don’t need to surrender their journalistic independence to do so or be “in the tank” for Biden or anyone else.
It’s now clearer than ever that Trump, if elected, will use the federal government to go after his political rivals and critics, even deploying the military toward that end. His allies are hatching plans to invoke the Insurrection Act on day one.
The US then “would resemble a banana republic”, a University of Virginia law professor told the Washington Post when it revealed these schemes. Almost as troubling, two New York Times stories outlined Trump’s autocratic plans to put loyal lawyers in key posts and limit the independence of federal agencies.
The press generally is not doing an adequate job of communicating those realities.
Instead, journalists have emphasized Joe Biden’s age and Trump’s “freewheeling” style. They blame the public’s attitudes on “polarization”, as if they themselves have no role. And, of course, they make the election about the horse race – rather than what would happen a few lengths after the finish line.
Here’s what must be hammered home: Trump cannot be re-elected if you want the United States to be a place where elections decide outcomes, where voting rights matter, and where politicians don’t baselessly prosecute their adversaries.
When Americans do understand how politics affects their lives, they vote accordingly. We have seen that play out with respect to abortion rights in Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and beyond. On that issue, voters clearly get that well-established rights have been ripped away, and they have reacted with force.
“Women don’t want to die for Mike Johnson’s religious beliefs,” as Vanity Fair’s Molly Jong-Fast said on MSNBC, referring to the theocratic House speaker.
Abortion rights is a visceral issue. It’s personal and immediate.
Trump’s threats to democracy? That’s a harder story to tell. Harder than “Joe Biden is old”. Harder than: “Gosh, America is so polarized.”
Journalists need to figure out a way to communicate it – clearly and memorably.
It was great to see the digging that went into that Washington Post story about Trump and his allies plotting a post-election power grab. But it was all too telling to see this wording in its subhead: “Critics have called the ideas under consideration dangerous and unconstitutional.”
So others think it’s fine, right? That suggests that both sides have a valid point of view on whether democracy matters.
Deploying the military to crush protests is radical. So is putting your cronies and yes men in charge of justice. These moves would sound a death knell for American democracy. They are not just another illustration of Trump’s “brash” personality.
We need a lot more stories like the ones the Post and the Times did – not just in these elite, paywalled outlets but on the nightly news, on cable TV, in local newspapers and on radio broadcasts. We need a lot less pussyfooting in the wording.
Every news organization should be reporting on this with far more vigor – and repetition – than they do about Biden being 80 years old.
It’s the media’s responsibility to grab American voters by the lapels, not just to nod to the topic politely from time to time.
Polls can be wrong, and it’s foolish to overstate their importance, especially a year away from the election, but if more citizens truly understood the stakes, there would be no real contest between these candidates.
The Guardian’s David Smith laid out the contrast: “Since Biden took office the US economy has added a record 14m jobs while his list of legislative accomplishments has earned comparisons with those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson … Trump, meanwhile, is facing 91 criminal indictments in Atlanta, Miami, New York and Washington DC, some of which relate to an attempt to overthrow the US government.”
So what can the press do differently? Here are a few suggestions.
Report more – much more – about what Trump would do, post-election. Ask voters directly whether they are comfortable with those plans, and report on that. Display these stories prominently, and then do it again soon.
Use direct language, not couched in scaredy-cat false equivalence, about the dangers of a second Trump presidency.
Pin down Republicans about whether they support Trump’s lies and autocratic plans, as ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos did in grilling the House majority leader Steve Scalise about whether the 2020 election was stolen. He pushed relentlessly, finally saying: “I just want an answer to the question, yes or no?” When Scalise kept sidestepping, Stephanopoulos soon cut off the interview.
Those ideas are just a start. Newsroom leaders should be getting their staffs together to brainstorm how to do it. Right now.
With the election less than a year away, there’s no time to waste in getting the truth across.