Spot-on Dahlia Lithwick, pivoting off the White House Correspondents dinner:
All of which leads us to the second category error. It’s not merely that the American free press is not quite as free as we’d prefer to believe, but also that American democracy itself is not nearly as free as Noah implied. And while Noah and his colleagues in the ballroom have quite creditably reported on that fact—on election suppression, and entrenched minority rule, and speech restraints, and the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and the continuing consequences of the lack of accountability for those things—the truth is that none of that news is terribly sticky or new or exciting as a story. In fact, the U.S. media pays stunningly little sustained attention to the possible looming death of freedom and democracy in the U.S. because it’s vastly easier to seek to entertain than to document abstract creeping illiberalism at home.
Consider just for example last week’s essay from Judge J. Michael Luttig, who offered an explicit warning about the ways in which the 2020 election was a dry run for stealing the 2024 election. The argument was shocking coming from an avowed lifelong Republican judge. It was, however, also fundamentally the same analysis professor Richard Hasen has been offering for more than a year, that pro-democracy organizations have been reporting on consistently with alarm, that academics have been on fire over for years, and that has been the subject of innumerable open letters as scholars have warned repeatedly about what’s been taking place at every level of voting rights. As the nation reemerges from more than two years of pandemic life with mounting inflation worries as the chief public concern, it’s really, really, really hard to get people to care about the same problem of authoritarian creep that has been going on for years and that is just always getting incrementally worse.
Yes, the media has done the big stories about what is happening on the ground to elections apparatuses, elections officials, and democratic collapse. The Washington Post may have devoted great resources to the tick tock of Jan. 6, but you can only really write—and get readers to click on—so many pieces about the independent state legislature doctrine, even if we do try and try and try and try. The truth is that the ballroom gala on the decline of democracy would probably happen at an airport Holiday Inn somewhere in Muncie, Indiana, and at the conclusion—after all in attendance had nodded vigorously at the 30-minute keynote by some famous academic who has been warning of this every day for years, and no longer has any friends on the faculty—everyone would just go home and feel sad.
So while Noah’s fundamental critique is correct, and every working journalist in the world should do some soul-searching about what they are doing to protect freedom every day, the larger truth is that we have constructed a world of journalism in which most consumers don’t want to buy that news and most purveyors don’t really care to sell it. Faulting the press for systemic failures around what “the press” means, or actually does every day, is quite literally the definition of shooting the messenger. The U.S. media is not “free” both because there are increasing economic and ideological constraints on news-gathering and news publication, but it’s also not “free” because it depends on a system that has no meaningful or sustained interest in reporting on freedom. That is a much bigger problem than flighty reporters and their insufficient ethical or political seriousness. It is the problem of an entire machinery of news-gathering and news dissemination that lacks that necessary degree of ethical or political seriousness.