Op-Ed: Why the media are still failing Americans as we lurch toward Nov. 8

A voter at a voting booth, with a bulldog on a leash
A voter with his dog casts a ballot at Westminster Elementary School on June 7 in Venice.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“Wake up, America! Wake up!” John Lewis shouted at the 1963 March on Washington.

That message is even more needed today, in the final stages of the most critical election for the survival of the American experiment since 1864. What was at stake then, during the war to put down the enslavers’ rebellion, was, as Lincoln had said two years earlier, whether “we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.”

Those words precisely describe where we are nearly 160 years later. Today, America’s future hangs on the defeat of the right-wing extremist authoritarians who have seized the name of Lincoln’s party. If we lose, news corporations and journalists with a misplaced sense of “balance,” “neutrality” and “nonpartisanship” will bear a considerable share of the blame.


Waking up Americans requires first waking up the media.

The nation is in a crisis that requires journalists and the companies that employ them to distinguish patriotism from politics. “Equality and democracy are under assault,” President Biden warned on Sept. 1. “We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.”

Since then, the danger has become ever more apparent, with right-wing politicians promoting a “cult of violence,” “poll watchers” dressed for battle intimidating voters, the mainstreaming of virulent antisemitism, and the attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband by a man radicalized by extremist propaganda, who’s now facing attempted murder and kidnapping charges. It is increasingly reminiscent of the militarization of politics that preceded Hitler’s coming to power in Germany.

The default position of the news media is still to focus on politics as sport. The opposing parties are treated as racehorses or teams, and most reporting is about where they are in the horse race, how many games ahead or behind they are in the standings, rather than on their beliefs and what their gaining of power would mean for the country. Even the progressive news site Daily Kos routinely refers to “Team Red” and “Team Blue,” making it seem like just a game.

In the final days of this election season, Americans must recognize that the existential struggle we are engaged in now is not just a game. If the enemies of democracy prevail and take control of either house of Congress in the midterms, there will be no “wait till next year.” They would probably refuse to accept the election of a Democratic president in 2024. The game would be over, if not permanently, at least for many years.

The media should realize that exiting from democracy would be like departing the security area in an airport: EXIT ONLY. NO RE-ENTRY. The right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court have begun to show us what life would be like on the other side of that one-way door. It is the media’s duty to inform citizens that those are the stakes in Tuesday’s elections.

In fact, MAGA candidates, who fully embrace and actively promote Donald Trump’s Big Lie, now refuse to say that they will accept the election results if they lose. It is irresponsible in this time of existential crisis to continue to pretend that the two parties competing in this election are equal in their devotion to democracy or that they merely have different approaches to policy questions. It is journalistic malpractice to call right-wing extremists by the non-threatening word “conservative.”

Even on issues like the economy, mainstream journalists too often shortsightedly report on public surveys showing voter concern without noting that the economy is improving or that the Democrats have passed legislation to reduce inflation. There is relatively little reporting on GOP candidates’ inflation-fighting plans — because they have few plans and some would make inflation worse, by, for instance, repealing the Democrats’ legislation to lower prescription drug prices. These are facts that voters need to know to make an informed choice.


News outlets should, of course, strive to be objective. But that does not mean treating palpably unequal sides as equal. When one side is objectively wrong, is lying, and is exceedingly dangerous, being objective requires consistently and relentlessly laying out these facts.

Journalists have a responsibility to become partisans for democracy, truth and the rule of law. Instead of doing the reflexive and easy thing — reporting endlessly about the horse race — they need to spend more time explaining and showing the public where each “horse” wants to take its riders, the American people.

Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College. He is the author, most recently, of “The Times They Were a-Changin’ – 1964: The Year the Sixties Arrived and the Battle Lines of Today Were Drawn.”