Former Public Editor of The New York Times Margaret Sullivan knows that there is much more at stake in this year’s Presidential Election than the traditional horse-race between two candidates of parties that differ profoundly on the role that the Federal Government should play in the lives and fortunes of it’s citizens, but instead contests the continued existence of democracy – and she wishes media would focus on that important aspect of the race.
Sullivan takes to the pages of The Guardian today to remind her fellow journalists that while Biden’s speech is a kickoff for his 2024 campaign, his candidacy is less about who will occupy the Oval Office in 2025 but whether our right to choose who will govern us will continue to exist at all.
“When Joe Biden talks on Saturday about US democracy on the brink, there’s no doubt that it will be a campaign speech. Maybe the most important one of his life.
But the speech will be more than that. It’s intended as a warning and a red alert, delivered on the anniversary of the violent January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
The date was chosen for good reason – to make the point that more mayhem and more flagrant disregard for the rule of law and fair elections, are just around the corner if Donald Trump is re-elected.
Can the political media in America get that reality across? Or will their addiction to “horserace” coverage prevail?
So far, the signs aren’t particularly promising.”
Ms. Sullivan the contrasts headlines from CNN and USA Today to make her point.
While CNN coverage of the speech opens with the horse-race aspect… “Biden Opens Campaign Push”… USA Today chose to emphasize the existential nature of the coming campaign – “Biden will mark Jan. 6 anniversary with speech warning Trump is a threat to democracy.”
Sullivan than quotes Biden Campaign Manager Julia Chavez Rodriguez on why it is so important that the press should continue to frame the contest as a struggle between authoritarian and democratic principals:
“The choice for voters,” Rodriguez said, “will not simply be between competing philosophies of government. The choice will be about protecting our democracy and every American’s fundamental freedom.”
Before returning sum up the core of our current predicament, a media that Republicans have cowed into submission:
“That’s where the media gets tripped up. In a constant show of performative neutrality, journalists tend to equalize the unequal, taking coverage down the middle even though that’s not where true fairness lies.“
Sullivan then ends with a flourish, quoting former Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron‘s decidedly non-neutral take on Trump and on the coming contest:
“He’s the only politician I’ve heard actually talk about suspending the constitution. He’s talked about using the military to suppress entirely legitimate protests using the Insurrection Act. He’s talked about bringing treason charges against the then-outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. He’s talked about bringing treason charges against Comcast, the owner of NBC and MSNBC. He’s talked explicitly about weaponizing the government against his political enemies. And, of course, he continues to talk about crushing an independent press.”
Sullivan and Baron are exactly right in framing this year’s election not as a contest between two candidates with differing ideas about how democracies should function, but rather about two candidates who do not agree that American Democracy should continue to exist at all.
Media that does not clearly address that fundamental question should not be taken seriously.