Now CNN wants to be less "partisan": Will the media never learn its lesson?

With Brian Stelter off the air, CNN seems determined to repeat the grotesque errors that led to President Trump

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 26, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Close up of the podium in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Close up of the podium in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If you want to understand Donald Trump's malevolence and the immense harm he has caused the American people and the world, you need to follow one basic rule: Take the worst thing you can imagine about Trump's character, behavior and motivations. Then take that several steps further, into the realm of apparent absurdity. Then, quite likely, you will have arrived at some approximation of the truth.  

Accept that Donald Trump is a bottomless maw of perfidy, enabling and perpetrating the worst excesses of human behavior, and the reality of the Age of Trump comes into sharp focus. That is not "doom porn" or "hysteria" or "Trump derangement syndrome." It is simply the truth, which offers us some possibility of understanding, and ultimately of victory. Refusing to believe the truth, however, leads to inevitable defeat in the struggle to save America and the world from the rising fascist tide.

The axiom that we should expect the worst — or worse than the worst — from Trump and his movement applies to almost every issue before, during and since his presidency: the coronavirus pandemic, Russia's interference in the 2016 election, chronic fraud and corruption and self-dealing, and of course the Big Lie, Trump's coup attempt and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

That same rule certainly applies to the Department of Justice investigation of Donald Trump for having taken hundreds of highly classified and top-secret documents (reportedly including information about the nuclear weapons) from the White House and storing them at Mar-a-Lago for his own purposes.

Two weeks ago, the FBI obtained a warrant and searched Trump's residence at his private resort in Palm Beach, where they seized many boxes of documents. The mainstream media was compelled to act shocked and amazed at the potentially serious crimes the former president may have committed.

The axiom that we should expect the worst — or worse than the worst — from Trump and his movement applies to everything associated with his rise to power and his term in office.

Such a reaction was not wholly unreasonable. This is the first time in American history that the Department of Justice and the FBI have investigated a former president for serious criminal charges. Moreover, the implication that a former commander in chief could actually be engaged in some form of espionage or extortion involving national secrets — potentially endangering the safety and security of the American people — may sound like something torn from the pages of a subpar spy thriller rather than an actual possibility. 

Two weeks later, the scale and implications of Trump's possible violations of the Espionage Act and other laws regarding presidential records and government secrets now appear much worse.

In response to this investigation, Donald Trump is now claiming that he is a "victim" of a political "witch hunt." That is predictable and entirely untrue. Like other fascists and political strongmen, Trump believes he is above the law. To that end, Trump is effectively encouraging his followers to engage in acts of violence to defend him and the MAGA movement from President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Department of Justice, the Democrats and other perceived enemies.

If the media and the larger political class had observed my basic rule about the limitless possibilities of Trump's perfidy, nothing about his continuing political crime spree would come as a surprise.

Too many people in media and political class have chosen to remain on the endless treadmill of shock and surprise, largely because that narrative is both profitable and comforting. Controversy drives viewers, readers and advertising revenue; spectacle keeps the public watching, reading and clicking. To borrow from the world of professional wrestling, too often the mainstream news media is selling "the sizzle and not the steak."

This creates an endless cycle of the spectacular that numbs public sensibilities; the next event in the cycle must be even more shocking and amazing than the last one. Perspective is lost, and the public's capacity for discernment and good decision-making is further diminished.

To keep repeating the narrative that Donald Trump's behavior is somehow "shocking" or "surprising" is also comforting for the news media and larger political class because it presupposes that Trump and the neofascist movement are limited or somehow governed by the "norms" and "rules" of democracy. In other words, it relies on the assumption that there is some bottom to their perfidy and willingness to harm democracy, society and the American people.

Repeating the narrative that Trump's behavior is "shocking" or "surprising" is comforting — it presupposes that he is somehow limited by the famous "norms" of democracy.

To state the truth, that there are no such limits, is simply not acceptable in this context. So the mainstream media continues with its obsolete habits in attempting to explain the behavior of Trump and his movement and the threat they represent. In practice, this desperate normalcy bias results in the persistence of "both sides" coverage and an obsession with "objectivity," "fairness" and "balance," rather than a willingness to act as bold and unapologetic defenders of democracy.

There are many recent examples.

Last week, journalist Brian Stelter's CNN show "Reliable Sources" was abruptly canceled by Chris Licht, the network's new CEO. Licht reportedly did not approve of Stelter's "opinionated style,"  has issued directives to writers and on-air personnel to stop referring to Trump's false claims about the 2020 election as the "Big Lie" because that language is too "partisan." Licht also reportedly wants more conservative guests and more "straight news reporting" on CNN. These changes are not about presenting a more robust truth to viewers, but about maximizing profits by appealing to Republicans, Trump supporters and "centrists."

Licht also took the unusual step of meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders, apparently to discuss CNN's future direction. The right-wing echo chamber is celebrating this decision as a de facto apology tour for the network's purported "liberal bias."

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What do "balance" and "fairness" look like when one political party is engaged in a systematic assault on democracy, freedom and the rule of law, not to mention truth and reality itself? And what about the fourth estate's obligation in a democracy to tell the truth, stand up to the powerful and hold elected officials and other leaders accountable?

Writing at Medium, Wajahat Ali recently observed that "fascism will be welcomed and normalized in America as long as it delivers good ratings, money, and access to power":

Most American institutions, especially corporate media, have refused to learn anything from the past five years in which the GOP and the entire right-wing ecosystem have become a radicalized and weaponized authoritarian movement that views them as oppressive instruments of "the deep state."…

The message that sends to America is that it pays to be a bad-faith actor. You get to fail up, as long as you provide the ratings. Just look at Donald Trump. In 2016, former CBS CEO Leo Moonves infamously admitted that Trump "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." Former CNN CEO Jeff Zucker still has no regrets about helping elevate and mainstream Donald Trump through "The Apprentice" and CNN's initial coverage of his 2015 rallies. Nobody's perfect, right?

It's not just CNN, but media companies across the board, that have learned all the wrong lessons. In May 2022, CBS News hired Mick Mulvaney, Trump's former chief of staff, who was utterly complicit in enabling all of his destructive incompetence. A CBS executive justified the hire by saying they needed more Republicans for "access," assuming Democrats would lose the majority in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections. ABC News gave a lucrative contract to Chris Christie to become a political commentator. The View just added Alyssa Farah, Trump's former White House Director of Strategic Communications, as a permanent host. The big lie and the violent insurrection were a bridge too far for Farah, and that gives her and other conservatives a lifetime pass to fail up in life even though they were fine with Trump's racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, lies and cruelty. There is affirmative action in media, but it only exists for Republicans. ...

I look forward to news panels in 2023 in which guests will debate whether slavery was actually a force of benevolence, and whether or not Jews have space lasers and are using them to replace white people. After all, you can't be a good "centrist" journalist who plays it down the middle if you don't make space for these conversations where everyone can come and be heard.

A recent Washington Post article offered another example of how the mainstream media continues to normalize Trumpism and American neofascism. The headline reads: "Six drastic plans Trump is already promising for a second term." The subheading follows: "In recent speeches, the former president has begun specifying new policies he'd pursue if he returns to the White House, with an emphasis on crime, voting and shrinking the government."

This linguistic frame presents Trump and the Republicans' assaults on democracy and other authoritarian behavior through the broken lens of "normal politics" and "business as usual." In reality, Trump's plans for a second term would involve establishing himself as an American king or emperor with the power to fire government employees for "disloyalty", to use the National Guard as his personal stormtroopers in Black and brown communities and to expand the war on multiracial democracy by creating a new Jim Crow-style system of white minority rule.

American politics has been broken by asymmetrical polarization and negative partisanship: On one side, the Republican fascists want to end multiracial, pluralistic democracy and replace it with a Christo-fascist apartheid plutocracy. On the other side, the Democrats and other pro-democracy forces want to stop them. There is no moral equivalency: The two parties are not equally responsible for the country's democracy crisis.

Yet institutional norms and rules within mainstream media continue to encourage false equivalency. Last June, media scholar Jay Rosen interviewed Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, about the media's failures in the Age of Trump. Jacob reflected on how he tried to ensure an equal number of quotes from Republicans and Democrats in news articles, and how that supposed commitment to "balance" actually empowered Trump and his forces:

There were a number of errors in my process. One was in thinking of a news story as a stage that allowed Republicans and Democrats to perform their talking points, rather than as a way to inform readers about the issues and the facts as much as possible. It was also a mistake to prioritize who was speaking rather than what they were saying. There are times when a party's leadership has coalesced around a lie. The Republican disinformation about the Jan. 6 committee, for example. If you're obligated to run a quote by Republican leaders on that, you're going to run a lie. And if you don't debunk it at the same time, you're enabling the liars.

When did I come to grips with this problem? As the Republican Party became more corrupt and at the same time more adept at laundering its message through legitimate media. You see, my equal-time approach made more sense when the two major parties were equally corrupt and dishonest. They were both pretty bad in the '80s and '90s, and there are still bad actors in the Democratic Party today. But as the Republican Party en masse has become an increasingly dangerous, anti-democratic force, equal time for the parties has become equal time for truth and for lies.

This "old-fashioned mainstream journalism approach," in which both Republicans and Democrats get to "have their say," Jacob said, was "failing our democracy" and "was increasingly being exploited by propagandists": 

The idea that we had to be fair to Republicans-vs.-Democrats instead of being fair to the public and the facts was a great gift to professional political liars. They were able to insert fake issues into the mainstream news agenda. And they saw their falsehoods repeated by "objective" journalists, conferring a sense of legitimacy. Old-fashioned journalism has been no match for right-wing propaganda. It's been a slaughter.

Saving American democracy from the Republican fascists requires the news media and other public voices to defend, without apology or qualification, multiracial democracy, the Constitution, human rights, civil rights and the rule of law. To be "biased" against fascists and other authoritarians is a virtue; it's the minimum that should be demanded of the fourth estate in a liberal democracy.

If the American media were truly objective, it would consistently report on the Republican fascists' existential threats to democracy, freedom and society. What the Trumpists and neofascists thrive on is cowardly neutrality in which evil and good, right and wrong, lies and truths are presented as effectively the same thing. As a practical matter, that framework empowers the Republican fascists and larger white right and other anti-democracy forces.

American politics has been broken by asymmetrical polarization: There is no moral equivalency between the two parties. They are not equally responsible for the crisis of democracy.

Embracing pro-democracy journalism would also mean acknowledging that reporters, editors, producers and other journalists, are real human beings, not automatons or abstractions who exist outside society, untouched by the consequences of politics and larger questions of power and society. The pursuit of "objectivity" is both pointless and false. Alex Sujong Laughlin explores this in an article for Poynter following the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, when managers at some newsrooms sent emails "reminding workers to avoid tweeting anything that may give a perception of bias":

The emails were sent in service of newsrooms' desire to uphold the journalistic value of objectivity — or at least the appearance of it. When, according to Gallup, only 36% of the country has a "great deal" or "fair" amount of trust in the mass media, I understand why the need for legacy newsrooms to be perceived as "unbiased" seems critical.

But the pursuit of the appearance of objectivity (as opposed to focusing on truthful and contextual reporting of the news) has always been a cynical public relations tactic, one that came to prominence at a time when the industry — and who works in it — looked very different than it does today. Performing objectivity is outdated, and if we want to preserve public trust in media institutions, the best thing we can do is to tell the truth. ...

Rather than adapting to the rhetorical needs of an unprecedented period of democratic destabilization, legacy newsrooms are clinging to outdated values while conceding only when public opinion demands it, or when the Overton Window shifts so an issue becomes mainstream….

We can do the important work of witnessing the world, verifying truth, and contextualizing it for our readers while acknowledging our humanity and telling the truth about how these decisions will affect us personally.

We are running out of time in the struggle to save American democracy and society from the Republican fascists and their forces. The American news media and other public voices must escape the comforts of normalcy bias and the empty hope that the Republican fascists and other "conservatives" are fundamentally good people who will snap back to their senses and renew their supposed commitment to shared democratic norms and values.

In the final episode of "Reliable Sources," Brian Stelter said: "It is not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It is not partisan to stand up to demagogues — it's required, it's patriotic. We must make sure we do not give a platform to those who are lying to our faces."

The American media should treat Stelter's words as a guiding principle and embrace the responsibility of defending democracy. This is an existential battle. We have no need of neutral referees.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Authoritarianism Brian Stelter Cnn Commentary Democracy Donald Trump Fascism Media Republicans