A Pressing Responsibilty

When it comes to helping preserve democracy, the press can do better. But it’s going to need some help.

On Tuesday night, former President Donald Trump announced that he was going to be running for president again in 2024.

Because it made them money, there are broadcast media outlets that had no problem letting the public know back in 2016 that they didn’t care about Trump’s propensity to lie repeatedly and showcase his love for all things authoritarian.

But because of where I heard this announcement, which was on a train back to Wilmington from the Center for Journalism and Democracy’s inaugural Democracy Summit in Washington, DC, I found myself remembering something I heard there.

That something: There are countries in Latin America that won’t let you run for office if you fomented or participated in a coup d’etat. But because the standards in the United States apparently aren’t as high, Chile, which was a dictatorship at one time, has a higher democracy score than the United States, according to Freedom House, an organization that accesses political rights and civil liberties around the world.

This bit of information I’ve just shared came from Steven Levitsky, the co-author of a book called “When Democracies Die”, which talks about, among other things, how multiracial democracies are sometimes seen as an existential threat that must be brought to heel.

Why multiracial democracy is seen as an existential threat, how that perception is manifested by those in power, and how the press covers this perception was the focus of the summit, which was held at Howard University in Washington, DC. It was a daylong series of workshops that brought students, political scientists, sociologists, historians, and journalists together to talk about the state of America’s multicultural democracy and how journalism figures into it.

The center is the brainchild of New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. If her name sounds familiar to you, she’s the author of the “1619 Project”, a series of articles (and a book…and a podcast) that looks at the founding of America through the lens of the moment that the first boatload of slaves was dropped on the shores of what is now Hampton, Virginia.

The reaction that got is an example of the existential threat Levitsky was talking about. Because it presented a view of history that focused on things like the structural reasons why Philadelphia is the poorest city of its size in America, the backlash was such that there is now a movement in Virginia to remove teaching about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King from the curriculum.

(I wonder how they’re going to explain the federal holiday honoring King’s birthday to these kids. I guess they’ll call it National Man We’re Not Supposed To Talk About Because He Was Killed In the Name Of Equality Day or something…)

Since the focus on the summit was on how the Fourth Estate is covering the other three — executive, legislative and judicial — in this moment, I guess I should say how we’re doing in this moment where democracy is hanging by a thread.

Not well. We’re not doing very well.

In fact, here’s an example of how badly we’re doing: Right now, there’s a case that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear that would basically allow individual state legislatures the right to control elections (and presidential electors) with no oversight from the courts.

Have you seen anything about this in the newspapers, on television or on the radio? No? I haven’t either. In fact, if Sherillyn Ifill, the former head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, hadn’t talked about it during the Democracy Summit, I probably still wouldn’t know about it.

While all of the panels during the summit were interesting, one that stood out to me was on propaganda and authoritarianism. The panelists — historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat and philosopher Jason Stanley of Yale University — talked about such things as buzzwords, how authoritarians thrive on misinformation, and what can be done to combat it.

Which brings me to Philadelphia Hall Monitor, and how we figure in as a source of combatting misinformation as we head into the 2023 Mayor’s Race.

One of the ways that propaganda can be combatted is through a vibrant local news ecosystem. Because the news business has become as much about economics as it is about information, and information gathering requires resources, Philadelphia’s local news ecosystem is a bit of a mess right now.

Sure, there’s lots of people working on it. For the last two years, I’ve been a member of a group put together by the Lenfest Foundation whose mission is to expand the local news ecosystem. A bunch of us get together and try to figure out ways to support folks who are trying to cover what’s not being covered.

That’s what we try to do here at Hall Monitor. While we recognize that we’re not the biggest news organization out there, we try and provide the kind of coverage of City Government and consumer affairs that our bigger brothers and sisters in the media can’t necessarily.

We hope it’s something that you find valuable. If it is, take a moment to subscribe to Philadelphia Hall Monitor. We’d love your support.

Especially since the Mayor’s race is going to be one of the most important we’ve had in a while.

Our reporters sit through hours of city council meetings, dig through piles of documents, and ask tough questions other media overlook. Because we’re committed to addressing Philadelphia’s poverty crisis — and challenging those who sustain it. If you think this work is important too, please support our journalism.

We’re counting on readers like you.


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