On June 21, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Republican nominees for a select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection. The nominees in question were U.S. Reps. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Pelosi’s decision was objectively sensible: After first being nominated for the committee, Jordan described the situation as “impeachment round 3,” while Banks said, “If Democrats were serious about investigating political violence, this committee would be studying not only the January 6 riot at the Capitol but also the hundreds of violent political riots last summer.” This is presumably a reference to the deluge of overwhelmingly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests which took place after the murder of George Floyd. In short, Banks and Jordan, both of whom intended to turn the investigation back on Pelosi, were interested only in sabotaging the commission’s actual work.
Despite these indisputable facts, much of the media coverage of Pelosi’s decision would make it seem as if her choice to reject Banks and Jordan’s appointments to the committee was a horrible and miscalculated move which — more importantly than anything else — granted Republicans a political victory. “Pelosi’s move will make the investigation even easier to dismiss for people who aren’t die-hard members of Team Blue,” said Politico Playbook that day, adding that “moving to silence members by kicking them off committees, instead of trying to make the better argument, is a new tack in oversight.” On CNN, Chris Cillizza wrote that although Pelosi’s decision would prevent Banks and Jordan from making a mockery of the panel, “it also dooms the committee — before it even holds a single hearing or meeting.” The Washington Post announced the news with the headline “Bipartisan House probe of Jan. 6 insurrection falls apart after Pelosi blocks two GOP members,” going on to explain how it will pave the way for “two separate and largely partisan investigations of the violent attack on the Capitol.”
Perhaps more than any previous event, the media coverage of the special committee highlights a fundamental problem with contemporary coverage of national politics. Today, when confronted with a blatantly anti-democratic Republican Party, many American news outlets still seem either unable or unwilling to conceptualize governmental disputes as anything beyond mere partisan disagreements. This phenomenon characterizes political clashes as nothing more than battles over electoral strategy, providing an intellectual cover for the Republican Party’s illiberal policies and exacerbating the crises already facing American democracy.
The problem with this politics-centric coverage is not that media outlets are lying about specific events or reporting things that are factually incorrect, but rather that their framing choices massively downplay the significance of major underlying issues. Each of the quoted articles states, correctly, that Pelosi chose to reject Banks and Jordan from the select committee. However, the articles contextualize this decision through the narrow lens of partisan politics, explaining how and why this decision might impact each party’s political fortunes going forward.
By taking such a reductive approach, these media outlets are effectively normalizing the insurrection itself; focusing on the political ramifications of Pelosi’s decision implies that the parties are engaged in a legitimate debate over the merits of the insurrection. Additionally, this framing also specifically vindicates Banks and Jordan’s plan to sabotage the committee. Instead of presenting them as bad-faith actors intent on derailing an investigation into an extrajudicial attack on the United States Capitol and obfuscating their own party’s role in facilitating that attack, it characterizes their plan as a shrewd political maneuver which forced Pelosi to back off.
On a fundamental level, poorly contextualized press coverage like this magnifies the dangers American democracy faces. By continuing to focus primarily on the possible electoral implications of the Republican Party’s decisions, many media outlets absolve themselves of having to make a determination about whether or not the party’s actions are undemocratic and, more significantly, whether those undemocratic actions are problematic. In doing this, these outlets are helping normalize illiberal tactics as political tools which represent valid strategies for gaining power. This is ultimately not a question of facts themselves, but rather one of context: Media outlets have to choose whether they want to present political developments to their readers in the context of America’s democratic well-being, or whether they want to evaluate them through the lens of “scoring political points.”
As Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah demonstrates in a satirical Washington Post column titled “How Western media would cover the U.S. election if it happened in another country,” America’s obsession with partisan news coverage feels sorely out of place in any other context. “Trump, the populist right-wing leader of the Republicans, has repeatedly cast doubt on the voting process, especially mail-in ballots,” Attiah writes. “The international community is watching with great concern. Leading observers wonder whether the United States is in the grips of an anti-constitutional seizure of power.” In her column, Attiah presents the exact same information as conventional election updates did. However, instead of cloaking those facts beneath a veil of bad-faith Republican political contestation, she places them in the context of American democracy’s survival, a backdrop that paints a much more dire picture of the situation.
American broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite once said, “Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” However, that saying only rings true if journalists use their power and influence to stand up for democracy. Although many reporters and media outlets have spent the last five years calling out Republican illiberalism and covering America’s political landscape commendably, many more have not yet reckoned with the consequences of poorly-framed political journalism. Today, American democracy is at risk. In order to pull America back from the edge of the cliff, national political reporting has to evolve to meet this new political environment.
Zack Blumberg is an academic year Senior Opinion Editor and can be reached at email@example.com.