This week, President Joe Biden hopped onto Zoom in an effort to shepherd the world along the path to stronger global democracy, during a two-day summit with other world leaders. He’ll be making his case, however, amid growing concerns about democracy here at home. On Monday, The Atlantic’s dedicated doomscroll provider, Barton Gellman, unleashed his latest flurry of frets, warning that “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.” His masthead-mate, George Packer, followed up with a piece that urged readers to imagine democracy’s unthinkable demise in order to stave it off.
Whether we like it or not, there is reason to be gravely concerned. But against this backdrop, an interesting debate has broken out about the press’s role in protecting our too-fragile institutions and raveled civic fabric from a Trumpian assault—and whether the media, in an effort to support democracy, must unflinchingly support Biden, as well.
Over the weekend, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank made considerable waves with a column that rather lustily accused the media of offering President Biden worse coverage than President Trump. At first blush, this might seem impossible, if only because Trump’s actions—through corruption, incompetence, and the need to constantly battle the media—made it almost impossible to cover him favorably. Milbank, however, marshaled some statistics from data analytics experts, who combed through hundreds of thousands of articles to provide a detailed “sentiment analysis” supporting his thesis that “Biden’s press for the past four months has been as bad as—and for a time worse than—the coverage Trump received for the same four months of 2020.”
But Milbank’s most provocative idea posited that the media needed to be “partisan” in the service of democracy. “The country is in an existential struggle between self-governance and an authoritarian alternative. And we in the news media, collectively, have given equal, if not slightly more favorable, treatment to the authoritarians.”
Not everyone took this message well. Politico’s Ryan Lizza responded to Milbank on Twitter: “No respectable model of salvaging democratic norms would include badgering journalists to write only positive stories about the most powerful person in the world.”
Lizza is correct. Blind fealty to heads of state is the hallmark of dictatorships, not democracies.