Contrary to most political and media expectations, democracy stood its ground in the November elections. But even before all the votes were counted and the celebrations subsided, the Washington Post unintentionally gave us a reminder of one big reason why this country remains in trouble.
In just five words – “the staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus” – the Post made clear it still hasn’t caught up with the reality of our politics today – or the truth of its own reporting. A dangerous authoritarian nationalism has infected and taken control of the Republican Party, and the Freedom Caucus is one of its power centers.
Especially in the age of Donald Trump, who has openly boasted about his ability to use the news media to carry his message because he was good for ratings, journalists have struggled with the Catch-22 of their deadline-driven jobs: It is hard to report on certain newsmakers without legitimizing the baseless, inflammatory words and actions they use to divide the nation and undermine faith in democratic institutions.
Journalists tend to be cautious about inserting their own opinions into their work. They shy away from drawing definitive conclusions or characterizing the newsmakers they cover with their own words. In the rush of the daily news stream, they typically let the newsmakers frame the narrative and define themselves and their opponents. For too long, journalists have been content to report from the political battlefield without explanation the verbal bombs lobbed by the warring factions, as if it were all simply how the system works. Conflict is good for ratings, as Trump understood, and it’s less worrisome to news consumers to see such conflict portrayed as politics as usual rather than an attack on our democratic rights and freedoms.
Newt Gingrich realized this early in his political career and is recognized for normalizing conflict politics. His confrontational style catapulted him to leadership roles from which he educated several generations of Republicans on the use of provocative language, whether it was justified or not, to vilify their Democratic opponents and extol the virtues of his own party. The journalists who covered those Republicans dutifully quoted them time after time for years.
Likewise, the Freedom Caucus says it fights for conservatives and conservative policies, and journalists still echo that claim. In the Washington Post’s November 11 article, “Congressional Republicans panic as they watch their lead dwindle”, the authors hewed to the accepted norm and referred to the Caucus as “staunchly conservative”. The New York Times has recently referred to the Freedom Caucus as a group of conservatives and hard right. The latter is a baby step in the right direction, but really no better than the Post’s characterization. And the best that Politico could muster was “fractious crew of pro-Trump conservatives”.
These different characterizations are as accurate as the National Weather Service referring to a Category 5 hurricane as a storm with strong winds and rain.