Pledging allegiance to American democracy is becoming popular among the press. Recently, as part of its “Democracy Challenged” series, the New York Times’s executive editor lauded the paper’s “dozens of explanatory and investigative stories on the causes of our democratic decline.” The Washington Post has a “Democracy Team.” The Associated Press has named a Democracy News Editor. Other major news outlets like ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have posted openings for a “democracy reporter.”
The rise of the “Democracy Beat” is necessary and overdue. But a focus on coverage – what stories the press tells – is a worryingly narrow vision for how the press might halt autocracy’s creep, both at home and abroad. Dozens of news stories won’t stave off fascism.
Despite staggering declines in profits and decades of newsroom closures and layoffs, the press remains a key democratic institution. It still has power to influence culture, politics, and the law. Now is the moment to wield that influence. Yes, the press certainly needs to publish stories about attacks on voting rights, violence against public officials, and politicians who refuse to concede defeat. But it also needs to cast its critical eye inward. It should look for ways to refashion journalism itself and adopt business practices that foster democratic ideals. The news media needs to think proactively and holistically about its democratic role. Newsrooms have the tools to do this, but news organizations and their leaders need to muster the courage and imagination to use them.
Collaborating Across Organizations and National Boundaries
Collaboration is anathema to many journalists. News organizations are fiercely competitive. For many reporters, sharing a scoop is journalistic malpractice. Although pooling resources among news organizations happens, it is typically driven by a crushing volume of material to sift through or the need for particular expertise. The Panama Papers and Paradise Papers collaborations, which led to stories detailing secretive financial machinations by global elites, are examples of this kind of pragmatic cooperation.
But to be democratic defenders, journalists should seek out partnerships without particular stories in mind. News organizations based in the United States could partner with journalists operating in autocratic regimes or regimes sliding toward autocracy. American journalists would need to think hard about how to mitigate any risk this might pose to foreign journalists. But in other respects, this relationship would avoid a paternalistic model in which American journalists (who may still mistakenly believe they work in the nation with the freest press) merely bestow expertise and resources. Rather, it would be symbiotic.
By learning more about how journalists operate in places with limited freedom, American journalists would better prepare for a potential near-term future in which they too face greater threats. This could involve informing American journalists on how to protect reader privacy and use encrypted messaging platforms like Telegram or virtual private networks. It could involve educating journalists on the signs of autocratic creep and the tools that autocratic regimes use to stifle journalism – such as forced consolidation of news outlets, licensing, and tax audits.
Meanwhile, for their part, American journalists could provide resources to foreign partners, including publishing work under pseudonyms or without bylines that, were it to be published by foreign journalists, could lead to prosecution or worse. This type of resource sharing has happened before. Recently, a journalist at a pro-Beijing news organization in Hong Kong told Vice News that he and his colleagues were giving scoops to competitors “because their own publication did not want to break news that looked bad for the [Chinese] government.”
As philosopher Hannah Arendt recognized, under fascism, citizens are “atomized” or disconnected. But unions can counter this atomization. Unions are one of the few societal institutions that have the power to connect people across various dimensions of difference such as race and gender. It is not surprising, then, that autocrats often prioritize union busting. News organizations can be a foil.
Driven largely by difficult economic conditions, the number of American news organizations whose journalists have unionized has surged. Since 2015, when Gawker Media became the first major digital media company to unionize, at least 100 news organizations have done the same.
Many of these efforts have involved prolonged fights between newsroom employees and management. For example, years after voting to unionize, journalists at BuzzFeed News, the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant, The Arizona Republic, and NBC News still lacked initial contracts with management. Recently, New York Times employees are increasingly frustrated that their union contract has not been successfully renegotiated since it expired in March, 2021.
Anti-unionism has deep roots in the news business. Among the most famous anti-union papers was the Los Angeles Times. In 1907, the International Typographers Union called the Times “the most notorious, most persistent and most unfair enemy of trade unionism on the North American continent.” In 1910, a bomb planted outside the Times by labor activists killed 20 employees. A bomb intended to kill the paper’s publisher, failed to detonate. Today, after a hard-fought effort, the Los Angeles Times is a union shop.
But anti-union campaigns and violence don’t need to be the norm. Instead, management could adopt the approach of Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton. Denton didn’t fight the unionization effort at Gawker in 2015. Rather, he said he was “intensely relaxed” about it. “Gawker Editorial is run like a worker’s collective. That seems to be the natural order of things,” Denton said.
For unionization to be able to fight the “atomization” that is a signature of fascism, and for it to create a thread across race, gender, religious and other lines, news media needs diverse employees. For decades, news organizations have voiced a commitment to diversity, but the failure to achieve it has been chronic. Newsroom employees are still more white and male than U.S. workers overall. This needs to change if newsrooms want to serve as a better bulwark for democracy.
Diverse journalistic workforces are an antidote to what has been called the “pensée unique” – the uniformity of thought that autocracies require to flourish. Indeed, diverse news organizations can help disrupt passive thinking and imposed conventional wisdom by seeking out diverse sources and stories and finding new ways to reach their audience. For example, last year, the Los Angeles Times ran an article with instructions about how to build a home altar for Día de Muertos, a holiday celebrated by many Catholics of Mexican heritage. The newspaper also created a digital Día de Muertos altar that invited readers to submit their own “ofrenda” – a photo of a deceased loved one along with a short tribute. Such projects can build the kind of cultural empathy that helps citizens resist autocracy.
Newsrooms can also help to elevate a diverse array of voices and ensure that a single narrative doesn’t become entrenched simply because it originated with a particularly loud or powerful individual. As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has said, those on “the mastheads at the top of organizations [need to] understand how critical this reporting is for our democracy.” Hannah-Jones’s own work, The 1619 Project, is a powerful example of journalism in service of democracy. The explicit aim of the project was “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Lobbying and Litigating on Behalf of the First Amendment
In the second half of the twentieth century, when news organizations had a monopoly over advertising and were flush with revenue, they used some of that windfall to shore up the law around free expression. Many news organizations were fierce advocates in courts and legislatures for First Amendment values. Journalists are credited with pushing through the Freedom of Information Act, which from the beginning has made federal agency records available to all members of the public, not only journalists. And news organizations litigated landmark cases, like New York Times Co. v. United States (in which the Supreme Court allowed the Times to publish the Pentagon Papers in the face of the government’s attempted prior restraint). Without question, the news media’s lobbying and litigation efforts broadened the scope of constitutional protections for free expression.
Yet, the press’s impact on legislatures and courts has dwindled considerably. The Supreme Court has not decided an important press case in recent memory. The news media failed to push through the Free Flow of Information Act (a federal reporters shield law), the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (which would create an antitrust exemption allowing media organizations to join together to negotiate with platforms over their use of news), or the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (which would provide a payroll tax break to subsidize local news reporting). In a bright spot, a newer incarnation of a reporters shield bill – the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act – passed the House unanimously in September, but requires a sustained push to become law.
Of course, many news organizations are otherwise occupied struggling just to stay solvent. For them, litigation and lobbying are luxuries. Yet, a growing number of news organizations are run by billionaires. Among these are the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Time, and Bloomberg News. Many have rightfully worried about the downsides of such an ownership structure, but an upside is that these rich owners presumably care about First Amendment rights. Perhaps they can be convinced by their own employees to spend some of their wealth on the promotion of free expression beyond the publication of particular stories in the newspapers and magazines they own. A more radical version of this corporate altruism is Yvon Chouinard’s recent relinquishment of his ownership of outdoor outfitter Patagonia, which is valued around $3 billion. Chouinard and his family have ensured that all of the company’s future profits will be used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land.
Press-owning billionaires can channel Chouinard and fund an institutional force for free expression in the courts and legislatures. Transparency would be key in these efforts and require a clear explanation of their nonpartisan aim – the protection of free expression and democracy. But given the precarious economic state of so many news organizations and the general distrust of the press among so many Americans, an investment of this kind could prove especially beneficial in defending free expression, a key democratic value at this pivotal time.
The threat to democracy is not disappearing soon. Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of the 2018 bestseller “How Democracies Die,” recently told the New York Times that “there is a crisis coming.”
Democracy Beats are vital and welcome. The public needs to understand as much as it can about the threats to democracy and its own role in shoring democracy up. But if the press is truly committed to preventing democracy’s demise, publishing stories, even hundreds of them, isn’t enough. It needs to do much more. Doing more might prompt critiques of an activist press, but journalists have long been devoted to protecting democracy. News organizations need to renew and expand their efforts by collaborating across borders, strengthening ties through unions, and pushing for legal protections for free expression. Autocracy is on the rise, but a pro-democracy press can be too.