Covering the right wrong

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is 2023 will be the year that journalists finally learn how not to cover right-wing extremism in the United States. The bad news? They’ll learn by unwittingly bolstering its return to power in 2024.

This past year has produced countless examples to fuel my pessimism. In the face of a coordinated right-wing assault on the rights and lives of LGBTQ people, epitomized by Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, mainstream publications, most notably The New York Times, have repeatedly questioned the growing medical and psychological consensus regarding the just and equitable treatment of transgender children — helping the right by spreading and validating transphobic ideas among moderates and liberals.

These same publications, not to mention major television outlets like CNN and NBC, have largely championed DeSantis for his political savvy — practically begging the GOP to replace Trump with him as its standard bearer. In four short years, DeSantis has made Florida unlivable for many queer people, shamelessly used refugees and immigrants for political stunts, and gerrymandered Florida to undermine the rights and political representation of Black voters. These facts are glossed over, if engaged with at all, in the breathless horserace coverage of his brilliant campaign and media tactics. In NBC News’s live election night coverage, Chuck Todd called DeSantis the “hero of the night.”

Mainstream political reporters spent the second half of October, in the run-up to the midterm elections, amplifying right-wing predictions of an imminent “red wave” of Republican victories. This predicative narrative of a Democratic bloodbath at the polls had no material basis. Late-cycle polls showed a close race nationally, which is to be expected in an election cycle that historically breaks for the party that lost the prior one. When the wave failed to materialize, it launched dozens of think pieces explaining why the Democrats held the Senate and only narrowly lost the House.

This postmortem narrative, that Republicans “underperformed,” is itself based on a faulty and right-wing premise — that the Republican Party has a coherent governing philosophy with widespread popular appeal. As I’ve argued recently, this has rarely been the case. Furthermore, it’s clear to anyone paying attention that a Republican Party still steadfastly disputing the results of the 2020 presidential election advanced the “red wave” narrative as a hedge against losing. Doing so plays into right-wing concerns about election fraud based on outcomes differing from the expectations of political conventional wisdom. In anticipating a “red wave,” mainstream political reporters were complicit in undermining Republican confidence in the 2022 election results.

We should, and must, expect more thoughtful analysis and news judgment from a mainstream political press that claims to lament the ongoing erosion of democratic norms and institutions.

Instead, the weeks following the midterms have seen an absurd media obsession with every antisemitic utterance of rapper-turned-fashion-designer-turned-failed-social-media-mogul Kanye West. Following a disturbing (and exhaustively covered) appearance on Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show in October, Ye has been goose-stepping across the right-wing media sphere — extolling Nazis and engaging in increasingly erratic behavior seemingly designed to keep political reporters transfixed.

Ye’s recent appearance on Alex Jones’ InfoWars, where he engaged in antisemitic puppetry and defended Hitler while wearing a ski mask and holding a bottle of Yoo-hoo, was covered widely by mainstream outlets ranging from local television news affiliates and newspapers to NPR to USA Today to The Atlantic. Jones, who seemed discomfited by Ye’s antics, clearly invited him on to attract attention and new followers to his bankrupt platform and to make Jones seem reasonable by comparison. Mainstream journalists across the country took the bait.

Last year, I called on journalists to stop covering the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). I faced pushback from journalists and colleagues who argue that CPAC is newsworthy, and that coverage is not tantamount to support.

But in our current political environment, characterized by a resurgent right-wing movement bolstered by its own extensive media apparatus, journalists can’t be so cavalier as to assume that “shedding light” on antisemitism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and racism is always either harmless or beneficial. Too many journalists seem to think that covering racism is the same thing as critiquing it. This is based on the false assumption that racists (homophobes, xenophobes, etc.) experience shame or feel somehow discredited when non-racists see them as racist.

But racists don’t feel shame. They want you to cover their racism to help them win adherents.

Similarly, mainstream journalists often cover and amplify the reporting of right-wing outlets (e.g., “red wave”), as if doing so doesn’t amplify those ideas beyond the boundaries of the right-wing media ecosystem. These journalists often presume that their readers are as high-information as they are. But they aren’t. Covering Ye on InfoWars, for example, introduces Alex Jones to audiences who may have never heard of him before. and who may now be inclined to seek him out. That’s a problem.

Don’t take my word for it. My guidance here is consistent with the findings of Whitney Phillips, whose 2018 Data & Society report “The Oxygen of Amplification” should be required reading for every practicing journalist in the United States right now. In it, she offers reporters tips for “establishing newsworthiness,” for “reporting on objectively false information,” for “reporting on specific harassment campaigns or other coordinated manipulation attacks,” and for “reporting on specific manipulators, bigots, and abusers.”

I also highly recommend Kathleen Belew and Ramón Gutiérrez’s 2021 A Field Guide to White Supremacy, which includes an important revision to the AP Stylebook to help reporters adequately and accurately report on right-wing extremism without advancing its aims.

If every U.S. reporter covering the right read these two works and applied their lessons, my prediction above would not come to pass. But if not, prepare yourself for a bleak 2023 and a downright terrifying 2024.

A.J. Bauer is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama.