Local Journalism Is Critical To Saving Democracy in Our Authoritarian Era

A new report by the group Protect Democracy should be required reading for editors and reporters at the Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer newspapers.
Image courtesy of Protect Democracy.

There’s a new resource available for journalists to help them navigate the increasingly authoritarian landscape we find ourselves in. 

Protect Democracy’s report, “The Authoritarian Playbook: a media guide,” outlines seven authoritarian tactics so that journalists can identify them, understand them, then contextualize and explain these threats to readers – who then will hopefully engage as citizens to reverse them whether through the ballot box or organizing. 

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[Excerpt from the report.]

Aaron Baird, director of policy communications at Protect Democracy, told me that our country’s slide toward authoritarianism and some of the anti-democratic trends the report talks about clearly pre-dated President Donald Trump. However, many of these troubling tendencies seemed to have accelerated once Trump came into office.

“It’s worse than you think,” said Baird. “It’s been happening for over a decade.”

While the nonprofit’s report positions the United States within the context of the current global slide toward authoritarianism, and uses examples from both here and abroad to provide a macro view of this anti-democratic moment we find ourselves in, the report can be applied on the micro level as well given the growing extremism and authoritarianism of Bucks County’s Republican base.

“A lot of these politics, dangerous politics, are manifesting at the real local level,” Baird said. “We think that local news … is critical to the long-term health of our democracy.” 

Statewide, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who won’t even talk to the mainstream press (or even some right-wing media), serves as a perfect case study for journalists to apply this report to.  

“Mastriano is characterizing how the authoritarian threat can be embodied in a movement — not just a populist/autocratic leader,” said Baird. 

Locally, this Mastriano authoritarian movement manifests itself in school board meetingstownship supervisor meetings, and in local elections, among numerous other places.  

And there’s one more really important point the report makes that local editors and reporters need to keep in mind: 

“The media has an essential role to play that is unbiased, but not neutral in applying a consistent standard about threats to democracy. In other words, when specific actions threaten democracy, they should be covered as major news stories in themselves, not as part of a political or ideological debate.”

READ: The Bucks County Courier Times Stumbles With Its NAC Editorial 

Too often, editors and reporters mistakenly believe so-called objectivity means that “two sides” to a story have equal weight, and they deserve equal treatment and an equal amount of space.

That’s just not true, as Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, recently reminded Press Think’s Jay Rosen.

We need an explicit and unapologetic pro-democracy press that’s not afraid of misguided push back from some angry readers.

“We strongly believe journalists have a responsibility to help Americans understand the process of how authoritarianism arrives and presents itself,” added Baird.

This needs to happen locally, not just at papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times. 

The Bucks County Beacon is committed to this, and I sincerely hope Gannett’s Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer newspapers will get on board as well.

The future of our democracy depends on it.

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Picture of Cyril Mychalejko

Cyril Mychalejko

Cyril Mychalejko is the Editor-in-Chief of the Bucks County Beacon. Read his columns on Sundays and follow him on Twitter.