Same, Same, But [Not] Different
By Mark Jacob
There’s a basic business concept called “product differentiation.” Chipotle, for example, tries to differentiate itself from Taco Bell and other fast-food outlets by touting its “real” and “fresh” ingredients. Chipotle wants you to think if you order their burrito you’ll “become a part of nature again.”
Politicians have long tried that approach too, creating a positive image for themselves and suggesting that their opponent lacks that quality. Which is why it’s so strange that most of Donald Trump’s Republican rivals aren’t doing that. They’re afraid to differentiate. It’s as if their slogan is: “We’re Not Trump, So Vote for Us, But Don’t Get Us Wrong – We Like Trump.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was in that same camp until recently. He endured months of vilification from Trump but resisted retaliating, obviously aware of how easily Trump dispatched 2016 rivals like Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio when they came after him.
Eventually, though, Trump’s pounding of DeSantis forced the Florida governor into action, and he has ramped up criticism of Trump in recent weeks. Mainstream media wants an entertaining dogfight, so the severity of DeSantis’ attacks has been overplayed. But they are actual attacks, belatedly.
The important thing to understand, however, is that DeSantis usually isn’t differentiating himself from Trump on goals, just on results. The Florida governor’s supporters call him “Trump but competent,” saying he’ll be more effective at implementing the radical-right policies that Trump pushes.
But that’s a difficult sales job. When DeSantis promises to finish building a wall across the southern border and faults Trump for not doing so, it reminds people that the wall was a showcase policy promoted by Trump when DeSantis was still a backbencher in Congress. When DeSantis says he’ll be more effective at banning abortion than Trump, it runs into the indisputable fact that Roe vs. Wade was overturned because of Trump’s Supreme Court picks.
And you can be sure that the “Trump but competent” claim will be picked apart by the Trump campaign on issues like Florida’s COVID-19 response, where DeSantis is vulnerable. The image of DeSantis as a get-it-done politician was not helped by his poorly thought out and disastrously executed campaign announcement on Twitter last week. Rather than screaming “competence,” it whispered, “What? Huh?” Also, the campaign lacks savvy with its off-putting “Make America Florida” pitch. Most people in this country don’t want America to be Florida or Illinois or Utah or Alaska. They want it to be America.
If effective campaigns are about defining the issues, DeSantis has to create much more separation from Trump than he has so far. His wariness about straying from Trumpism is evidenced by his agreement with the ex-president’s outrageous view that many of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists may deserve pardons. DeSantis even said he might pardon Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump’s other rivals are in an even more submissive position, seemingly in the race in case further indictments of Trump create an opening that doesn’t exist now. They haven’t effectively differentiated themselves from Trump, and he obviously isn’t scared of any of them. When Sen. Tim Scott announced his campaign for president last week, Trump posted “good luck” on social media and added that “Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who was targeted for lynching by a Trump-incited mob, mostly relies on milquetoast quotes to avoid direct attacks on Trump. It took Pence more than two years to say something as strong as “His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day.” Then he added: “I know history will hold Donald Trump accountable.” History? What about the courts and 2024 Republican primary voters?
Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley has two obvious ways of differentiating herself from Trump: She’s a woman, and she’s decades younger than Trump (51 vs. 76). But those don’t seem like compelling qualities to Republican voters. When Carly Fiorina ran for the 2016 GOP nomination against an otherwise all-male field, Trump said of her: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Sexism is not disqualifying behavior in today’s GOP. Instead, it’s a given. And Trump’s supporters don’t seem to care about his age either. Just as beer goggles make someone appear more attractive at closing time, cult-like adoration makes the faithful see Trump as an ageless superhero.
Haley has ridiculed DeSantis for “copying Trump, even adopting his mannerisms. “If he’s just going to be an echo of Trump, people will just vote for Trump,” she said. But Haley has a similar problem. If you’re just a younger Trump in a dress, people will just vote for Trump.
Then there’s former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who casts himself as a genteel alternative to Trump. But being genteel apparently means criticizing Trump oh so gently, and it’s hard to see a candidate winning simply on the basis of Trump exhaustion.
The rivals to Trump have a basic problem when they run against him on biographical qualities or personal style. Fact is, MAGA voters have accepted Trump’s record as a shady businessman, and they love his rude, dishonest style. They want more of it. Newt Gingrich said last week that Trump commands loyalty because “he talks at a level where third-, fourth- and fifth-grade educations can say, ‘Oh yeah, I get that. I understand it.’” So how are Trump’s opponents going to differentiate from that? Will they go upscale and use four-syllable words or go low and talk like second-graders?
And just as MAGA voters like Trump’s style, they like his policies: the overturning of Roe, the cruelty toward immigrants, the racism. Trump’s challengers like those policies too. Or at least they’re afraid to say otherwise.
We’ll have to see whether former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will change the timid tone and find some differentiating issues. Christie, who is expected to announce a presidential bid next week, mocks Trump’s GOP presidential rivals for treating Trump like Harry Potter villain Voldemort, afraid to say his name. But Christie has a credibility problem of his own. He criticizes Trump now, but he supported him through all the awfulness of his time in the White House, even helping lead Trump’s debate prep in 2020.
Republican voters can be forgiven for asking:
If the GOP field is made up of longtime Trump supporters, why shouldn’t I keep voting for Trump? Why change burritos in mid-meal?
Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.
The 1968 Republican Party Platform Was ‘Woke’
By Mark Jacob
In 1968, the United States had a political party that pushed gun control, supported the FBI, wanted to boost the District of Columbia’s political clout, sought to liberalize the voting system, acknowledged the “frustrations” that led to urban riots, pushed for a federal crackdown on polluters, and endorsed a fairer immigration system.
That party was the Republican Party.
A look at the platform approved at the 1968 Republican Convention shows how far the GOP has devolved in 55 years. Based on the attitudes of today’s Republicans toward Donald Trump, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t have minded Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks, but they might have found Nixon to be too woke.
The 1968 platform called for a more inclusive election system: “We propose to reform the electoral college system, establish a nationwide, uniform voting period for presidential elections, and recommend that the states remove unreasonable requirements, residence and otherwise, for voting in presidential elections.”
The 1968 Republicans didn’t say how they would reform the Electoral College system, so it’s unclear how far they were willing to go. At the time, there were concerns that neither the Republican nor Democratic presidential nominee would get an Electoral College majority in 1968, leaving racist third-party candidate George Wallace to be kingmaker. Electing the president by popular vote would have solved that, but today’s Republicans hate that kind of talk. They adore the Electoral College because it’s allowed them to win the White House with fewer popular votes twice in recent decades. Meanwhile, Republican states are working hard to discourage people from voting, especially in urban areas with many voters of color.
The 1968 platform also stated: “We specifically favor representation in Congress for the District of Columbia.” In 2023, there’s no way they would support D.C. politicians becoming members of Congress, even though the district has more residents than two states, Vermont and Wyoming. The 1968 Republicans used the vague word “representation,” so it’s unclear whether they favored voting members. The district got a non-voting delegate to the House in 1970.
Back in 1968, Republicans endorsed youth involvement in politics.
“We believe that lower age groups should be accorded the right to vote,” the platform stated, and three years later the 26th Amendment was ratified, giving 18-year-olds that right. Now political strategist Cleta Mitchell is urging Republicans to make it harder for college students to vote, and GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is pushing a proposal to sharply restrict voting by 18-to-25-year-olds.
Amid the tumult of 1968, Republicans tried to avoid divisiveness and express sensitivity to civil rights concerns. “Minorities among us—particularly the black community, the Mexican-American, the American Indian—suffer disproportionately,” the GOP said. Just months after the rioting that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the platform declared: “The Republican Party strongly advocates measures to alleviate and remove the frustrations that contribute to riots.”
That’s a far cry from the right-wing pushback after George Floyd was murdered and social justice protests ensued.
The 1968 platform has a lot of other ideas that wouldn’t fly with modern MAGA:
- 1968: The GOP offered its “full support of the FBI and all law enforcement agencies of the federal government.” Now: Leading Republicans want to “defund the FBI.”
- 1968: “Air and water pollution, already acute in many areas, require vigorous state and federal action, regional planning, and maximum cooperation among neighboring cities, counties and states.” Now: Republicans push rollbacks of environmental regulations. Last year, the right-wing-dominated Supreme Court curbed the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.
- 1968: Republicans support “enactment of legislation to control indiscriminate availability of firearms.” Now: Republicans in Congress wear AR-15 pins. Despite a rash of mass shootings, red states are expanding the ability to own and carry firearms. Half of the states require no permit at all to carry a handgun. (While 1968 Republicans pledged to fight “indiscriminate availability,” they did want to safeguard the right to a gun for “responsible citizens” and said gun laws were primarily a state concern.)
- 1968: “We will also improve the management of the national debt.” Now: It’s out of control, with Republicans among the major culprits. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan nearly tripled the national debt, and one quarter of the nation’s total debt was created in just four years under Trump.
- 1968: “Public confidence in an independent judiciary is absolutely essential to the maintenance of law and order.” Now: Republicans’ successful effort to steer the courts in a radical right-wing direction has eroded public confidence.
- 1968: “The principles of the 1965 Immigration Act—non-discrimination against national origins, reunification of families, and selective support for the American labor market—have our unreserved backing.” Now: After pushing for a Muslim ban and complaining about immigration from “shithole countries,” Trump remains deeply opposed to the principles of that 1965 act. Just last week, he signaled his desire to return to the highly unpopular family separation policy he imposed in his first term.
- 1968: “Our relations with Western Europe, so critical to our own progress and security, have been needlessly and dangerously impaired. They must be restored, and NATO revitalized and strengthened.” Now: Trump and other Republicans strongly criticize NATO, and Trump as president threatened to withdraw from the alliance.
- 1968: “Nor can we fail to condemn the Soviet Union for its continuing anti-Semitic actions, its efforts to eradicate all religions, and its oppression of minorities generally.” Now: Trump continues to praise the dictator in Moscow, Vladimir Putin, as a “smart guy.”
- 1968: “We support a strong program of research in the sciences, with protection for the independence and integrity of participating individuals and institutions.” Now: Republican leaders lie about vaccines and GOP voters’ confidence in science is plummeting. Trump says that if he’s elected in 2024, he’ll bring back Michael Flynn, who suggested that vaccines were being slipped into salad dressing.
- 1968: “Our party historically has been the party of freedom. We are the only barricade against those who, through excessive government power, would overwhelm and destroy man’s liberty.” Now: Women’s right to control their own bodies was taken away with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade. When the ’68 Republican platform talked about “man’s liberty,” did it really mean liberty was for men, not women?
Actions speak louder than words, of course, but party platforms are an opportunity to clearly express ideals. Or at least they were. Republicans didn’t even present a platform in 2020, indicating that the overriding goal for the GOP is not any policy goal but simply attaining more political power.
Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.
Here’s What Should Have Happened on CNN Last Night
By Mark Jacob
Here’s what should have happened at Donald Trump’s CNN town hall Wednesday night:
When Trump said Wisconsin officials “virtually admitted that the  election was rigged,” a loud buzzer should have sounded.
CNN host Kaitlin Collins should have said, “Sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Trump, but our panel of fact-checking experts has sounded its Truth Buzzer. The panel thinks your statement may not be 100 percent accurate. So let’s hit the pause button for a minute and listen to our panel’s deliberations.”
Then the panel — if it existed — should have cited the verified facts and concluded that, no, the 2020 election was not rigged in Wisconsin or anywhere else.
And then the town hall should have resumed until the next Trump lie and the next Truth Buzzer and the next fact-check.
It would have been good television — much better television than CNN delivered Wednesday night. As it was, CNN’s Collins was forced to challenge Trump’s lies all by herself. She pushed back in some cases, but the lies kept coming, ultimately exhausting and overwhelming her. Many blatant lies went unchallenged, including an accusation that Democrats want to “rip the baby out of the womb after the ninth month” and even kill them after they’re born. Trump also made the ridiculous claim that American military support for Ukraine means “we don’t have ammunition for ourselves.” No pushback from Collins on that one either. She was no match for the most energetic liar in American history.
CNN needed the Truth Buzzer. But cable news programmers wouldn’t like that innovation because any show with Trump would spend more time sorting out his lies than hearing him speak. If this era has shown us anything, it’s that it’s easier to lie than to fact-check lies. And professional frauds such as Trump and former aide Kellyanne Conway know that if you string your lies together in a flurry of falsehood, even the most hard-nosed journalist has trouble getting the discussion back to the first lie in the string.
As expected, the event was a big win for Trump and yet another defeat for real news. But that’s what CNN seems to be after these days, as long as it’s a player in the game. The very act of letting a known liar like Trump on the air normalizes him. And CNN went further early in the day when correspondent Kristen Holmes wrote a story for CNN’s website about how Trump’s appearance at the town hall was part of him “adopting a more traditional campaign.”
Sure, Kristen. “Traditional.” That’s the first word that comes to mind about a campaign by a twice-impeached ex-president who incited an assault on the Capitol, dined with a neo-Nazi, called for the “termination” of the Constitution, is under investigation for election fraud, is under investigation in the theft of classified documents, was indicted for business fraud, and was found by a jury to be a sexual predator.
Journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University said CNN has its own motive for normalizing Trump: “If Trump switches to a traditional campaign, that justifies traditional campaign coverage. See how that works?”
So CNN and other risk-averse news outlets will act like everything is normal and the next presidential election is just another Sharks-vs.-Jets affair between two political parties of equal value or danger to our democracy. Politicians lie, we air their lies. At CNN, that’s our job.
Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.
10 Questions Trump Should Face at the CNN Town Hall
By Mark Jacob
In what CNN apparently thinks is a public service, the news channel will broadcast a town hall May 10 with the presidential candidate who plotted to overturn the results of the last election and incited a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Donald Trump will take questions from “New Hampshire Republicans and undeclared voters who plan to vote in the 2024 GOP presidential primary,” CNN announced.
We suspect that the questioners could use some help in formulating what they ask the twice-impeached, once-indicted former president. Here are 10 suggestions:
- What did you mean last December when you called for “termination” of the U.S. Constitution? Isn’t that something a traitor would say?
- Name one thing you don’t like about Vladimir Putin. Other than his failure to green-light Trump Tower Moscow.
- You’ve said former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a “total disaster,” former Attorney General William Barr “never had the energy or competence to do the job,” former Defense Secretary Mark Esper was “weak and totally ineffective,” joint chiefs chairman Gen. Mark Milley was a “f*cking idiot,” former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was as “dumb as a rock,” former White House chief of staff John Kelly was “way over his head,” former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was “a born loser,” former Defense Secretary James Mattis was “the world’s most overrated general,” former national security adviser John Bolton was “one of the dumbest people in Washington,” and former Vice President Mike Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” Mr. Trump, who hired all those people?
- What communications did your White House have with the Saudis about journalist Jamal Khashoggi before the Saudis murdered and dismembered him in their consulate? And why did you run cover for the Saudis after the murder?
- Last year, you called yourself “the most honest human being perhaps that God ever created.” Are Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muhammad and the first Buddha also in the running? And if so, is it a close competition or not?
- Last November, you dined at Mar-a-Lago with Nick Fuentes, a neo-Nazi who participated in the 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally. Fuentes has described Adolf Hitler as “cool” and “awesome.” Is Fuentes one of the “very fine people on both sides” you were talking about?
- On Aug. 9, 2016, you promised that your wife, Melania, would hold a news conference “over the next couple weeks” to explain her immigration history, including how she got her “Einstein visa.” How come that news conference never happened?
- Before you became president, you promised health insurance “for everybody.” But in your four years in the White House, you never announced such a plan. Is it ready yet? Or will it take another two weeks?
- When you used a Sharpie to doctor an official government weather map, did you really think you would fool anyone? Or were you simply saying that was the path the hurricane should take?
- What did you demand from CNN and what did you get in exchange for agreeing to appear at this town hall? You’ve called CNN “low ratings fake news.” Go ahead, dish the dirt on your deal for this town hall.
Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.
Who gives a damn about Biden’s approval rating?
By Mark Jacob
The news media is always talking about the president’s approval rating. Typical was an interview in which NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Kamala Harris: “Why do you think the president has such low popularity, favorable ratings, and you have even less favorable ratings?”
Well, Andrea, perhaps it’s because of the media’s hyperfixation on ratings. Or maybe it’s because we live in highly polarized times when Republicans wouldn’t praise Joe Biden if he brought the jobless rate down to its lowest level in half a century. Which he did, by the way.
The truth is, the news media likes to talk about popularity rather than policies because popularity is about famous people and policies are about boring and complicated stuff that makes journalists work really hard to understand it.
As Biden launches his re-election bid, his “low” approval rating is front and center with mainstream news outlets. But in reality, no national politician is likely to have a high approval rating at a time when media outlets like Fox News are constantly manufacturing dissatisfaction. In the past, people didn’t routinely blame the president for train derailments. They do now.
Bill Clinton’s average approval rating during his presidency was 55.1%. Can you imagine him polling that high today? Fox wouldn’t allow it.
So let’s get real. We need to dismiss this obsession with approval ratings and embrace the obvious fact that politics is about choices. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had low approvals and high disapprovals in 2016. But one of them won.
If Biden wins the 2024 Democratic nomination as widely expected, he won’t be running against a theoretical Not-Biden. He’ll be running against a Republican whose party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. In fact, a Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won a first term with a majority vote since George H.W. Bush in 1988, when the Berlin Wall was still standing and the World Wide Web hadn’t been invented yet.
Put in that context, Biden’s 40% approval doesn’t look so bad. (All figures cited are from Gallup.) The previous 10 presidents had lower approval than Biden’s current rating at some point in their tenures. You have to go all the way back to John Kennedy to find a president who didn’t.
And remember: It doesn’t matter what Biden’s approval is if his opponent’s is as bad or worse. And a lot of Democrats and independents who don’t “approve” of Biden would vote for him anyway if a far-right candidate like Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis was his opponent.
Another reason to dismiss approval ratings is that they’re a notoriously fluctuating metric. Gerald Ford started his presidency with a 71% approval rating in 1974. It was down to 45% in the last poll before the 1976 election, and he lost to Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush’s approval varied from 90% to 25% during his two terms. And in the two years Biden has been president, it’s varied from 57% to 38%.
So why do the media talk about approval ratings so much? It’s part of the horse-race mentality. It’s storytelling. It’s not about accountability or any serious examination of an officeholder’s performance. It’s rarely linked to specific actions. The polling on how politicians rate on various issues such as the economy might help identify where they’re vulnerable or strong, but the overall approval rating doesn’t tell us much at all.
An approval rating simply doesn’t reflect how people will ultimately vote. It’s a personality contest. It determines how we choose the homecoming king and queen, not the valedictorian.
Mark Jacob is a former metro editor of the Chicago Tribune and former Sunday editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. You can find him on twitter at @MarkJacob16.
Two Trials: A Compelling Story About How State Attorneys General Fight for—or Prevent—Justice
By dissecting the divergent outcomes in the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor cases, Two Trials offers a searing look at the criminal justice system and what happens when the people we elect to public office act in the public interest—and what happens when they don’t, when politics and personal ambition get in the way of justice.
“Why was George Floyd’s killer convicted, while Breonna Taylor’s was not? Why did the system fail yet another Black woman?”
Those questions are at the heart of Two Trials, a compelling new documentary from director Candice Vernon that examines America’s criminal justice system, and specifically, the role of the state attorney general (AG), the top lawyer and law enforcement official in each state.
Featuring nearly 20 interviews with attorneys, elected officials, community leaders, police officers, and activists, the documentary meticulously analyzes the circumstances behind two tragic police killings that rocked America in 2020, the movement they ignited, and the justice—or lack thereof—that was served.
The film offers no easy or satisfying answers, but instead paints a searing portrait of what happens when the people we elect to public office act in the public interest—and what happens when they don’t, when politics and personal ambition get in the way of justice.
The Leadership Center for Attorney General Studies, one of the organizations behind the film, says the goal of the film is to help educate viewers about the importance of the state AG position.
“State Attorneys General have an extraordinary impact on the lives of their constituents and broad powers, which are typically little understood by most of the people they serve,” Sean Rankin, executive producer and president of the Leadership Center for AG Studies, said in a statement. “The person in the AG office can make all the difference—for the better or worse.”
That difference is on full display in Two Trials. In the Floyd case, Minnesota AG Keith Ellison used his power to hold Floyd’s killer accountable. In the Taylor one, Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron used his power to mislead the public and grand jurors, all but guaranteeing her killers would not be convicted.
‘Say Her Name’
On March 13, 2020, Louisville Metro police officers executed a search warrant and used a battering ram to enter Taylor’s apartment without announcing themselves. The police department said they were investigating two men for selling drugs and believed that one of them, Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, used her apartment to receive packages.
Taylor and her then boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were in bed, but got up when they heard the banging at the door. Both called out, asking who was there. Walker later told investigators they got no response and he feared it was Taylor’s ex-boyfriend trying to break in.
Officers broke the door down, prompting Walker—who had no idea they were cops—to fire his gun out of self-defense, a legal act in Tennessee due to the state’s stand your ground law. Walker’s shot struck Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly in the thigh. Mattingly and his fellow officers responded by unleashing a hail of bullets in the apartment. They shot the 26-year-old Taylor five times and she died within minutes, according to the local coroner.
The actions of the police officers came under some immediate scrutiny locally, but it took more than two months for Taylor’s death to become a national scandal.
“I truly believe but for what happened to George Floyd, nobody would have paid attention to Breonna,” Hannah Drake, a Louisville activist, poet, and writer, says in the film.
On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, suffocating him and killing him while his colleagues watched, failing to intervene.
Within hours, footage of the killing was online and protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis, demanding accountability and justice. Within days, millions of Americans from all across the country—cooped up from two months of pandemic restrictions and outraged by another police killing of a Black man—poured into the streets, launching one of the largest ever protest movements in the history of the United States
Floyd and Taylor’s deaths became intertwined—“Say his name” and “Say her name” the rallying cries of a movement fed up with police killings, racism in the criminal justice system, and a country that too often fails to recognize Black life as valuable.
A Tale of Two Attorneys General: Securing Justice and Preventing it
Typically, a local district attorney (DA) handles investigations into killings, but due to a conflict of interest in the Louisville DA’s office, Cameron, a Republican and the first Black man to become Kentucky AG, took over the inquiry into Taylor’s death in mid-May.
Two and a half weeks later, Ellison, a Black man and a Democrat, did the same with the Floyd investigation at the request of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.
From there, the investigations diverged dramatically, and the film convincingly argues that Ellison used his power to secure justice, while Cameron used his power to prevent it.
The film features interviews with Ellison and several members of his prosecution team and shows them going through pain-staking efforts to build a case against Chauvin.
In contrast, Cameron’s actions come under intense scrutiny from local leaders, attorneys, and the Taylor family. A former staffer for Sen. Mitch McConnell, Cameron is a rising star in Kentucky politics. But what he is not—and was not when he was elected in 2019—is an experienced lawyer or public servant.
“If you’ve never had a client and you have never set foot in a courtroom, you are not qualified to be an attorney general,” Steven Romines, Kenneth Walker’s attorney, says in the film. “His lack of experience as a lawyer has shown throughout his tenure as attorney general.”
On Sept. 23, 2020, Cameron announced that a grand jury convened in the case failed to file homicide charges against the officers involved in Taylor’s killing. He claimed that his prosecution team presented “all of the evidence” in the case to the grand jury and that the grand jury agreed that the officers were justified in returning deadly fire after Walker fired his gun.
In reality, as we later came to learn and as the film recounts, Cameron never recommended homicide charges and instead only recommended a charge of “wanton endangerment” for one of the three officers involved. That was the only charge grand jurors were allowed to consider—a fact Cameron only admitted after a grand juror publicly but anonymously contradicted his version of the story and a judge ordered him to release the grand jury recordings.
Piece by piece, attorneys, activists, and community leaders methodically dissect Cameron’s failures, or, looked at another way, his successes in protecting the police officers involved—and perhaps his own political future as a Black Republican hoping to be the next governor of a deeply conservative state.
“As a Black man, as someone who is supposed to help within the Black community, you didn’t do that. You did the complete opposite. You helped cover up for these officers,” Ju’Niyah Palmer, Taylor’s sister, says in the film.
“I think Breonna turned political and it shouldn’t have,” Drake, the Louisville activist, writer, and poet, added.
More than 700 miles away, in Minnesota, Ellison secured a conviction and Chauvin was found guilty on murder and manslaughter charges and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.
“The police are deadly. Deadly. And they should be held accountable,” Marcia Howard, a resident of George Floyd Square, says in the film. “An attorney general can step into their power without overstepping … They can just activate on behalf of the law. Just do your job. Because it is really obvious when they don’t.”
The film’s examination of Cameron and Ellison’s diverging actions effectively highlights the impact of the AG position—how the people’s lawyer can serve the people, or themselves.
It’s the sort of film that Rankin plans to produce more of.
“Two Trials is our first of many planned efforts to create long-form narratives that can educate the general public on the role of State Attorneys General; the clear contrast between the handling of the cases of Breonna Taylor’s death and the death of George Floyd will demonstrate to the public the importance of the office and why your State Attorney General matters,” he said.
‘We Want You to Stop Murdering Us’
The film, which has a runtime of just 50 minutes, focuses primarily on the two cases and Ellison and Cameron’s actions. But it does dedicate its final minutes to the broader issues of equality, human rights, and the fight against police brutality.
“We have not stopped this chronic use of arbitrary force against a distinct minority group. And it is within our power to stop it and we must stop it,” Ellison says.
In one of its more haunting moments, the film presents a scroll featuring the name of every victim killed by police in Minnesota since 2000. There are roughly 470 names.
“Why does there have to be a fight for human rights? Why is it just not the norm?” community organizer Talesha Williams asks in the film. “We don’t want justice. We want you to stop murdering us. We don’t want to have to ask for justice. We just simply want to exist.”
. . .
The Two Trials is a co-production between the Leadership Center for Attorney General Studies and Five to Sixty.
Director: Candice Vernon
Executive Producers: Sean Rankin, Nic Weinfeld, Jack Rosman, Ethan Moore
Producer: Cindy Lu
Editor: Carlos Crooks
Director of Photography: Veronica Bouza
COURIER in 2022
The 2022 midterm cycle could have been democracy’s last stand. The shadow of January 6, the fall of Roe v Wade, an epidemic of election deniers — all fueled by disinformation — signaled the 2022 midterm as more than an average election. The fate of democracy was on the ballot.
COURIER — cited as a “media powerhouse for the left” by Wired — recognized the stakes of the election and the right-wing authoritarian threats earlier than any other media organization. Driven by our mission to preserve and protect democracy by increasing civic participation, COURIER and our eight battleground state digital newsrooms delivered good, quality information to under-reached audiences in the places they actually get their news: online in their social media feeds and email inboxes.
The Americans who comprise our audiences have been left behind by the paywalls, stratification, and both-sidesism of legacy media and national newspapers. They get their news instead by scrolling their social media newsfeeds for free, and because of this, they are more likely to fall prey to bad actors and right-wing media outlets online sowing 24/7 lies and conspiracy theories to further their own quest for power. Our audience do not vote regularly – 50% of them voted for the first time after 2016 — but when supplied with year-round engagement and reporting that connects the dots between their lives communities and the politics politicians who make decisions that impact them directly, our research has proven they are more likely to vote – and over time, can be converted into lifelong, regular voters. We meet these millions of Americans with good information that matters before the lies can influence their relationship to democracy, and are strengthening democracy in the process.
Predicted to be a “red wave,” marked by historic losses for the Democratic party, the midterm elections proved the pundits and pollsters wrong, especially in COURIER states.
- • Democratic governors won election or re-election in 2024 firewall states Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin
- • Democratic senators or senators-elect held or flipped U.S. Senate seats in COURIER states Arizona and Pennsylvania
- • Election deniers were defeated in key Secretary of State races in COURIER states Arizona and Michigan
- • Democratic candidates for Attorney General saw victories in COURIER states Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin
- • A ballot measure to protect reproductive freedom passed in COURIER state Michigan
- • State legislative victories in Michigan flipped the State House and Senate, giving the Democratic party a governing trifecta for the first time in 40 years, and the first time in U.S. history a women-led majority will run the state of Michigan
- • Pennsylvania Democrats won control of the State House for the first time in 12 years
WHAT WE DID TO MAKE IT HAPPEN
COURIER’s network of more than 1 million online subscribers across eight newsrooms in key states allows us to deliver crucial information to under-reached audiences. Our content contextualizes and localizes from Washington and state capitals, driving home every day impact of policies and policy-makers, and increasing our left-leaning share of voice- and facts, in the online spaces that matter most.
Building Local Trust
Staffed by local journalists who live in the states they cover, our newsrooms know the importance of building trust within the communities they serve. Across our eight states and 75+ member team, our newsrooms strive to become trusted local sources for news, human interest stories, and information. This allows our teams to tell strategic stories that inform and instill a sense of agency and empowerment in our readers to motivate civic participation. In Arizona, for example, our team at The Copper Courier, was able to break a story about a Republican legislative candidate wearing blackface. Because they are the most trusted local source for news, they were given an exclusive tip about this story, and could quickly verify it, leading to wide pickup of their breaking news story. Here, Copper’s managing editor explains how:
But Copper Courier didn’t just break news that state, national, and international outlets picked up. The team knew this information had to be shared repeatedly with their audience to drive home the impact. Their insight into what makes information sticky — and why it matters to their community — impacted that race’s election outcome. The extremist candidate lost by 2.5 points, to a Democrat who previously lost that district by 20.
Boosting Our Content
For years, COURIER has been testing the hypothesis that our content impacts outcomes, as long as people see it. Randomized Control Tests (RCT) experiments in the 2021 Virginia elections and the 2022 Iowa Primary showed us that more of our folks get out to vote when we boost news from our outlets into their social media feeds. In Michigan, our experiment found that boosting our coverage on reproductive freedom led to increased opposition to recriminalizing abortion by four points and a growth in support for Governor Whitmer’s plans to protect that freedom.
With the support from COURIER underwriting partners, we ran an ambitious boosted news program that targeted 10 high profile, competitive races across seven states. Gaining nearly 100MM impressions, our boosted news programs targeted and reached essential voters for both state and federal races. While we will not know the full impact of these advertising programs until state voter file data is released in the new year, we believe that these programs, like those tested in the past, ensured more of our low-turnout voters showed up to vote, and moved the needle, in a crucial year for pro-democracy candidates and issues.
Innovative Distribution Tactics
COURIER understands the rapidly shifting landscape of how people consume news and information. By being laser focused on our audience — and where they spend their time — we stay ahead of the trends and capitalize on opportunities to innovate. Which is why we capitalized on the popularity and success of vertical video social content ahead of the election.
Our deputy editor for social media Victoria Leandra trained several of our journalists to package their reporting for platforms like TikTok and Instagram Reels — platforms that have increasing reach with younger voters and our underserved audiences. She also piloted a trusted messengers program with state-based influencers, using our newsroom content to create videos for their trusted followers. This rapidly-scaled program delivered critical information and stories about the stakes of the midterm elections to more than 1.3 million people in Pennsylvania alone — through known, trusted, personalities.
Here, Victoria explains:
Stories That Move The Needle
At COURIER, we know we have to do more than flood the zone with good information. Our strategy is simple: tell the stories that matter in the smartest way, and tell it often enough that it shifts peoples’ opinions.
We don’t just break hard hitting political news, but also engage audiences with human interest, cultural and lifestyle content that fills a need other local news organizations are failing to provide to audiences on social media, keeping them informed and engaged with their local communities. When we do publish political coverage, our reporters center their reporting on issues that people care about, like reproductive freedom and extremists in their local government, and connect the dots between our audience, those issues, and politics through local, human stories.
A case study from Michigan this cycle hammers home how COURIER’s layered approach to political coverage leverages community connection and the most relevant narrative “drumbeats” that are necessary to move voters to take action.
When Roe fell with the Dobbs decision leak in spring 2022, reproductive freedom became the biggest voting issue in Michigan, a state with an antiquated trigger ban still on the books. With polling partners, our team ran a poll in Michigan that found six in 10 Michiganders opposed re-criminalization of abortion. We knew that was an important statistic to share with our audience-but it wouldn’t stick unless told through a local and human lens.
When looking for a source, we went straight to northern Michigan-in the newly redistricted 103, a competitive but stretch state house district where turnout would have an outsized impact on the entire state- it was the lynchpin flip seat to secure a majority.
Telling personal stories to humanize policies makes an impact. An impact multiplies tenfold when the person is a member of your community.
We knew no other outlet in the region would have the capacity to localize reproductive freedom coverage, and we also knew voters in the 103 would decide between an anti-choice incumbent, and a fierce advocate for reproductive freedom.
Our analytics team designed an experiment to test the impact of The Gander’s story and when the experiment concluded, we saw a four point jump in opposition to recriminalizing abortion in our state.
Through our unique model of content organizing, we were able to rapidly scale this personal and impactful content to reach our target audience on a hyper-local level. We also layered in coverage of anti-choice extremists in hyper local races in the region, knowing the margins would be razor thin.
That district flipped by 750 votes, securing the first Democratic majority in the State House in 40 years. Local news matters. COURIER’s model for local news delivers measurable results. The communities our newsrooms serve are the direct beneficiaries.
COURIER IN THE NEWS
We are building the largest left-leaning media network in America, and it’s making a difference both in bettering the information environment millions of Americans live in today, and strengthening our democracy. But our work on the ground requires support from leaders in mission-aligned and media landscapes, which is why we’re thrilled to see legacy outlets taking notice of the value a news network like COURIER has in strengthening and protecting our democracy.
Columbia Journalism Review: “A Good Information spokesperson told the Tow Center that Courier is a legitimate network of newsrooms—saying that Courier is investing in real on-the-ground reporting; that it discloses its funders and values transparency; and that the newsrooms follow industry guidelines on fact-checking, corrections, bylines, and the separation between reporting and opinion.”
WIRED Magazine: “”The best antidote to disinformation,” McGowan says, “is increasing the volume of good, factual information” in the places where low-quality information is spreading.’”
Washington Post: ““[Courier] has gone to extensive lengths to try to earn journalistic credibility. At Courier, McGowan has gone to extensive lengths to try to earn journalistic credibility for her newsrooms, which publish on sites with names like UpNorthNews in Wisconsin and The Gander in Michigan. Their coverage is far broader than just election news…”
Columbia Journalism Review: “The Gander, like Courier’s other seven newsrooms, avoids what’s called ‘bothsidesism.’ The basic idea being that there’s a tendency in journalism to represent both sides of an argument, which presents things as equal, although they might not be.”
COURIER BY THE NUMBERS
The threat to democracy did not disappear after the midterms. While campaigns unravel and electoral organizations regroup for the 2024 fight ahead, COURIER’s newsrooms keep doing exactly what they have been doing every single day – telling the stories that matter to Americans, reaching them with the facts, and engaging them in their local, state and national government. Our teams will be closely covering state legislative sessions in their statehouses, implementation of the Biden administration’s historic legislation victories on the ground, and growing a trusted community of millions of Americans who, when reached authentically and in a sustaining way, are the difference makers in elections big and small.
We also know investing in COURIER’s model builds infrastructure beyond just our newsrooms. We test, hone, and share our most effective content strategies and distribution tactics with ally organizations and newsrooms throughout our states, and have built a program to increase our collective share of voice online to scale next year. We do this work because we know that in order to win the war for our democracy, we have to keep winning the information war.
Join us as a founding supporter of COURIER today, and be part of a family of supporters who are building the most influential left-leaning media network in the nation. We can’t do this work without you, and we can’t afford not to keep it going and growing with your help.
To find out how to support our work or for more information please reach out to COURIER’s Head of Partnerships, email@example.com.
FACT CHECK: Joe Biden is not coming for your gas stove
Right-wing media’s newest culture war du jour is the use of gas stoves. Following a Bloomberg report where the head of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) discussed safety hazards of emissions from gas stoves, the right decided that meant President Biden was coming to take the gas stove out of your kitchen.
Fox News personalities spent hours this week raging on air about the egregious affront to freedom that this would represent. Politicians like republican Congressman Ronny Jackson and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis expressed their anger online and vowed not to comply with the White House’s alleged stove grab.
However this story, of course, is an outright lie.
While it is true that Commissioner Richard Trumpka, Jr. said that “[p]roducts that cannot be made safe can be banned,” he never stated that a ban was imminent or that POTUS had directed him to consider a ban. The CPSC clarified on Wednesday that they are not looking to ban gas stoves, rather they are seeking out ways to reduce harmful emissions.
The same article that caused the controversy also lays out empirical research about the dangers of household emissions from gas stoves:
Natural gas stoves, which are used in about 40% of homes in the US, emit air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter at levels the EPA and World Health Organization have said are unsafe and linked to respiratory illness, cardiovascular problems, cancer, and other health conditions, according to reports by groups such as the Institute for Policy Integrity and the American Chemical Society. Consumer Reports, in October, urged consumers planning to buy a new range to consider going electric after tests conducted by the group found high levels of nitrogen oxide gases from gas stoves.
Research published at the end of 2022 also shows that gas stoves are likely the cause of nearly 13% of childhood asthma cases in the US.
The Biden administration is making historic progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting Americans. However, no one from the government will be busting down the doors of the 40 million homes with a gas stove to remove it.
Rather, this is another example of a bad-faith attack on the president launched by right-wing lawmakers and media personalities.
In the fight to save democracy, journalists need to pick a side
By Tara McGowan and Mark Jacob
Just a few days after taking over Twitter, Elon Musk shared a bizarre conspiracy theory blaming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, for his own assault.
“There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk wrote.
The tweet (later deleted) reflected a dangerous and growing view that all theories are worthy of wide public attention and that opinions are as valid as facts.
This view helps right-wing liars, of course. It’s why so many people don’t believe that one of the cleanest elections in modern American history was riddled with fraud. It’s why a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. was shot up over a ridiculous lie about a child sex-slave ring. It’s why anti-Semitism is being mainstreamed today.
Yet the idea that every elaborate lie or whack-job theory deserves attention has seeped into mainstream media. Under the guise of “objectivity” and deference to “free speech,” news media amplify voices they know are either sadly deluded or intentionally trying to mislead their audiences.
Why do the media do this? Do they think this performative “objectivity” serves the public? Or are they actually trying to serve their own desire to protect themselves from criticism and market themselves to a wider customer base?
Those questions come up a lot when you read legacy newspapers or watch the new CNN. As CNN has purged some of its voices most critical of the rise of MAGA Republican extremism, it’s clear that the network is turning in a “more neutral direction,” as one news report described it. For CNN, that means putting disinformation specialists like Kellyanne Conway and Mick Mulvaney on the air. CBS even pays Mulvaney to appear as part of its attempt to appeal to “both sides,” or at least to preserve access to both sides.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, CBS’s history provides great examples of journalists uncovering facts and then courageously drawing conclusions when those facts pointed in a clear direction. Edward R. Murrow confronted the fraud of McCarthyism. He didn’t “both sides” it. Walter Cronkite took a reporting trip to Vietnam and then told Americans they were failing to win the war there.
Would a CBS news anchor be allowed today to tell the American people that the Republican Party is systematically attempting to overthrow our election system? The evidence is obvious that this is occurring. But if a CBS anchor said that today, would they be in the chair again the next day?
Part of the problem is that the two-party system in America has created a mentality in which the news media have ceded their role as an arbiter of truth and decided instead to be a moderator in a debate between the parties, with each side given its say, however honest or dishonest that say is.
But this is a fairly modern convention in American journalism. A century ago, most newspapers staked out sharply defined positions along the ideological spectrum. They took policy positions. They embarked on crusades. And to the extent that their positions were supported by the facts, they developed credibility.
Today, though, many major news outlets are posing as objective. They want you to think that reporters could cover a beat for three decades and not reach any conclusions about where the truth sits. In reality, the reporters have come to conclusions. They just won’t tell you what they are.
This posture of objectivity actually hurts the credibility of journalists. It’s a performance — a mutually agreed-upon myth. The very act of an editor assigning a story to a reporter is a value judgment. Editors are not assigning every possible story. They’re assigning stories based on what they deem important on any given day. And the best journalism rarely looks objective. When reporters confront liars, they make the liars look bad. And strong journalism presents facts that are so compelling that they inspire action.
In his Nobel Peace Prize speech. Elie Wiesel had something to say about making a commitment.
“We must always take sides,” he said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Too many people in the news industry are afraid of telling the whole truth and dealing with the impact and criticism that it brings. They fear that the right wing will call them “woke” leftists. Of course, these right-wing critics do not really want fair and objective coverage. They want coverage that amplifies and enforces their spin. They will never be satisfied. And this defensive posture by news organizations certainly isn’t preventing the right from calling them “fake” or accusing them of having a “liberal bias.” Yet major news operations keep trying to satisfy them.
It would be more honest for journalists to come clean on where they stand. And to embrace clearly established facts instead of pretending that anything could be true. After all, they’re not basketball referees tossing up jump balls.
COURIER is an example of the rise of “values journalism,” with a thoughtful and deliberate focus on impact. COURIER is a network of local newsrooms that adhere to hard facts and present them in the context of its clearly stated left-leaning values. What’s more, at COURIER, we measure the impact of our reporting to ensure we are achieving our mission to build a more informed and engaged electorate — what action did our journalism inspire? Did this reader register to vote? Did they change their mind? Did they vote in their local elections?
This is part of a “here’s where I’m coming from” movement in journalism. Tech journalist Casey Newton and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen encourage news people to write their own “coming from” statements, declaring their values and what they see as their mission.
That is a step toward transparency and credibility. And it is a step away from journalists serving as mere delivery systems for lies that bad actors on the right wing of American politics want to dump into the national conversation. Disclosing where we’re coming from is not only the right thing to do but also a way to succeed in a challenging news environment. Many consumers distrust performative “objectivity” and support content creators who earn their trust by telling it to them straight. For example, email newsletters that gain strong audiences are those that have a distinctive voice, not those that use the phrase “on the other hand” a lot. And social content creators are gaining larger audiences than most media start-ups today.
News organizations must respond to the current political crisis by trumpeting the democratic values that oppose fascism and support a free press. They must reject the policy of neutrality that makes media outlets willing partners in their own potential demise. For journalists who understand their role in society as holding the powerful accountable so that our democracy remains strong, the only way to live up to those ideals is to shed the conventional wisdom that elevates objectivity over the courage to report the truth, at any cost.
Tara McGowan is the founder of Good Information Inc., a public benefit corporation that operates COURIER, a network of local news operations in eight states. Mark Jacob, former metro editor of the Chicago Tribune and former Sunday editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, is a consultant to COURIER.
Messaging is a challenge. But without messengers, it’s impossible.
BY: KATE BASSETT
I once wrote an obituary for a pet pig. In that same paper I also wrote about important city policy discussions, celebrated an ordinary citizen with extraordinary ideas, or planted seeds for community organizations that are thriving now.
I spent more than 20 years writing for a family-owned, small town newspaper. I can say with certainty: locally-based reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. But real local news needs trusted community messengers who are intentional about lifting up factual, relevant content.
With so many online bad actors spreading disinformation, we can only get so far by debunking twisted facts. We need a playbook that goes beyond telling the truth. That is why we at COURIER developed Good Info Messengers as part of that strategy. This new model of organizing melds the best principles of advocacy with civic journalism to help win the information war and increase the flow of good, strategic information online.
I know some newsrooms may balk at the idea of training volunteers to engage with and share the content they create. However, the evergreen rule of relevant stories finding their audience ignores two modern developments: paywalls and social media. Readers are less likely to pay for news and are increasingly getting the majority of their information from online social platforms.
We know disinformation spreads far faster than real news. Quality content alone is no longer enough to break through the noise – and not just on a national level. Communities are being torn apart by disinformation. The panic, anger, and mistrust it creates simultaneously suppresses civic engagement and froths up a new, misinformed faction steered by politically-motivated cultures of resentment.
By teaching communities how to use social media platforms as tools to share quality news, Good Info Messengers help shape the information diet of people within their sphere of influence. This theory of change has a goal bigger than slowing down disinformation. We also want to increase civic participation, and ultimately, help restore trust in the foundations of democracy (and yes, in journalism, too).
Good Info Messengers is, at its core, a simple idea that may help reduce an algorithm deficit quality news often faces. But it’s also about building connections, re-learning how to have civil dialogue, and most importantly, entering into a two-way conversation with local news.
Subscribers of my small town paper did not always agree with the stories we chose to publish…or chose to ignore. They would come to the office or pick up the phone, write frustrated emails or Letters to the Editor. But also, they would keep coming back, week after week, to read.
Why? We had relationships. We saw each other in the grocery store, or at school pick-up, or a non-profit fundraiser. We built a rapport around a mutual love of place. We could agree to disagree without falling into conspiracies or reducing each other to that dreaded sense of “other” we know all too well today.
That era of small town news started fading with the rise of social media. We fell prey to the belief that good information will always rise to the top. We didn’t think to be proactive in building a grassroots movement to protect not only truth, but trust. Everyday, I witness the systematic destruction of faith in local government and public institutions in a town without a single stoplight. In 2021, I was sent screenshots of someone wanting to string me up in our nonexistent town square following coverage of the great school masking debate. Less than 24 hours later, I was in the grocery store picking out honeycrisp apples next to the person who posted that comment. He didn’t say a word.
That’s the shift. National rhetoric tinged by disinformation has reached our doorsteps.
There is a growing movement to return to local news after a decade-plus of papers folding or being bought by large corporations. Without intentionally developing news verifiers within our communities, however, this renewed interest may be a nonstarter.
Trust in media institutions is at an all-time low. Investing in local reporting without an innovative model – both to remove the stigma of elitism and to create a sense of pride in state-based journalism – may only deepen the divide. When it comes to local coverage, we need newsrooms that can survive without a paywall, and we need to think like non-profits who invest in ambassadors for their cause.
I believe in local news. I believe to repair what’s broken in democracy, we have to start with a well-informed electorate. I also believe that in order to breathe real, authentic life into that ideal, we need to first be in the places we are trying to serve. We need to all become Good Info Messengers.
Kate Bassett is the National Organizing Director for Courier Newsroom — a network of newsrooms across eight U.S. states. Prior to joining COURIER, Kate was a political and community organizer and also spent two decades reporting for a local newsroom in northern Michigan.
Democrats Won the Election. So Why Does Only Half of the Country Believe It?
BY: TARA MCGOWAN
Depending on what news you consume- or what social media platforms you hang out on, you may not know that the historic 2020 presidential election is, in fact, over. President-elect Biden won by a margin of votes more than twice as wide as that of his predecessor, and will be sworn into office on January 21st. President Trump has very publicly refused to concede to reality, and only a handful of elected Republicans have publicly accepted the outcome. The collective delusion of elected Republicans is not representative of their constituents however, as more than half of all Republicans say that Biden won the race. But a more troubling trend is starting to gain traction.
According to a recent Morning Consult poll, a shocking seven in ten Republicans don’t believe the election was free and fair. This partisan divide of trust in our elections is no accident, but the result of a deliberate strategy. For months, Trump and his administration have been laying the groundwork with one clear goal: to protect their power at all costs, even if the cost is our Democracy.
While we knew this could happen, too many Democrats didn’t see it coming. Through hubris, denialism (or both) many prominent voices on the left believed that this election was an open and shut case against a flailing president, and that Joe Biden and Democrats up and down the ballot would deliver a resounding rebuke of Trump and all he stands for. It’s painful to admit but the numbers don’t lie: over 70 million Americans did cast their votes for a second term of Trump. That’s not enough to keep him in power, but it is enough for us to be struck by their power.
The power of this bloc shouldn’t have felt like a surprise. The dangerous myths that are still circulating that claim that “the election results aren’t true” are being spread by the same voices and through the same channels that helped deliver Trump 63 million votes in 2016 and another 72 million votes in 2020.
Fueled by powerful conservative voices like Ben Shapiro and outlets like The Daily Caller that reach tens of millions of followers online every day, right-wing media have been using misinformation to cultivate and reinforce voters’ support of Trump for years. By spreading conspiracy theories and outright lies, these digital-savvy channels work lockstep to surgically influence the opinions and behavior of millions of Americans, drawing them into an alternate reality where facts don’t matter and the only source you should trust is Trump himself. Those efforts have paid dramatic dividends — both financially and politically.
Pandemic misinformation started in the early spring of 2020, seeded directly by the President. Right-wing outlets — online and through talk radio and Fox News — amplified this misinformation at dramatic scale, resulting in large numbers of Republicans refusing to wear life-saving masks, putting millions of Americans at risk and slowing any hope of economic recovery. Baseless conspiracy theories about “liberal pedophile rings” and “radical socialist” coups jumped from Americans’ news feeds to their group text threads, dinner tables, and ultimately, ballot boxes. And, now, in the weeks following the election, the posts with the most engagement on Facebook scream election fraud — from the same usual suspects.
Though this election also saw Democrats step up their digital investment and tactics in ways that undoubtedly contributed to Biden’s victory, the harsh reality is that those efforts are not sufficient on their own. Paid advertising is not how the majority of misinformation is spread online, so when campaign media budgets dry up or political ads are arbitrarily banned by platforms like Facebook, as they are today, Democrats have no recourse or lever to counter the disinformation actively gaining traction online.
The always-on conservative media ecosystem not only ensured another too-close-for-comfort election at the top of the ticket, but effectively kept Democrats on the defensive in hundreds of Senate, House and down ballot races across the country. For Democrats to blame any one message or tactic for these losses would be reductive and destructive when the media ecosystem they are actually competing with exists to misinform and inflame Americans to vote against them — regardless of their agenda or the facts. Given their dramatic reach through social media, conspiracy theorists like Ben Shapiro are the new mainstream media that candidates and parties must contend with — and this new ecosystem is only going to get more volatile in the years to come.
The reason that Democrats still find themselves losing the information war after winning the presidential election is clear: we’re still not fighting on the same battlefield Trump and the Right are — and the field they’re fighting on is one where the vast majority of Americans are getting their information. As long as Democrats continue to over-rely on cyclical paid advertising to get their message to voters rather than building online communications infrastructure that can communicate to voters year-round, we will remain at the whim of narratives driven by the Right.
This is not an argument to stoop to Republicans’ level to win the information war, either. We can tell the truth. We can reveal and counter the lies. We can compete and win with the facts — and with the powerful stories of Americans impacted most by the decisions being made for them in Washington. What we can’t do is win real and sustainable political power if we show up to the wrong game.
As Trump continues to deny us the concession we all crave and buy time to plot his own pardon, raise his bailout money, or build his own media empire, Democrats need to think hard about how we move forward. Winning the election was a good and necessary first step, but having President Biden in the White House will not silence Trump or put a stop to the disinformation machine that propelled him to power. It’s time to get serious about building a modern media infrastructure that engages Americans year round, online, with the facts and stories that counter the lies — and to begin the critical work of rebuilding trust in our government, elected officials and one another. If we don’t, we may still very well lose the democracy we just narrowly secured the opportunity to save.