If you are driving by the Orleans rotary on Thursday, Jan. 6 between 1 and 2:30 p.m. you will see the local edition of a nationwide “day of remembrance and action” on the anniversary of the assault on the Capitol. It’s being organized by the progressive group Indivisible, who are calling it a “vigil for democracy.”
As Dennis Minsky pointed out in a recent column, a vigil is a period of deliberate wakefulness to keep watch or to pray — sometimes over a person who is gravely ill. It’s an appropriate term in this case, with American democracy on life support.
It will surely feel good to see people standing up in public to denounce those who planned and nearly succeeded in carrying out a violent coup and to demand action by the president and the Senate to protect the right to vote. But will a demonstration really change anyone’s mind? How many of the 11,116 Lower and Outer Cape residents who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 believe that the election was stolen from him even though the facts overwhelmingly show that is untrue? In a recent UMass poll, only 21 percent of Republicans believed Biden’s victory was legitimate. And the new GOP is well on its way to seizing control of Congress this November.
Our eroded conception of “the news” is partly to blame, as a few journalists, like the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, have observed. “Pro-democracy coverage,” she wrote this week, “is not being ‘centered’ by the media writ large. It’s occasional, not regular; it doesn’t appear to be part of an overall editorial plan that fully recognizes just how much trouble we’re in.”
Instead, many publishers, editors, and reporters are stuck in what has been called “both sides journalism,” trying so hard to give equal time to the opponents in a fight that they end up equating “the frustratingly hapless Democrats with a Republican Party that has embraced authoritarianism and voter suppression,” as WGBH’s Dan Kennedy put it.
“My colleagues in the media are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy,” wrote Dana Milbank in the Post last month. “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction. It’s time to take a stand.”
It’s not hard to see where “both sides journalism” comes from. We teach our young reporters to avoid one-sided stories, to search out opposing points of view, and to keep their personal opinions out of news coverage. But neutrality and the superficial “fairness” of allotting equal time to combatants is not enough. Reporters must check facts, ask probing questions, and challenge questionable assertions. Editors must be mindful of history, put today’s news in a meaningful context, and push back hard against the lies of the powerful.
What’s most needed right now is not just a day of remembrance but a year of such days and the courage to act. “We must stick together in the New Year to bring hope to the country,” wrote U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin on Christmas Eve. “We have the people, the power, and the creativity to renew American democracy.”