At Drury University, NPR White House Correspondent paints bleak picture of American democracy – Springfield News-Leader
NPR Politics White House correspondent Tamara Keith does not have a good prognosis for the future of American democracy and the news media that covers it.
Upon discovering she would speak on that topic at Drury University Wednesday night, she reportedly thought, “Oh no, this is not going to be very uplifting.”
Asked to speak in Springfield as part of Drury’s “Information and Democracy” speaker series, Keith has covered the White House since 2014 and is the host of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Much of her presentation discussed how difficult it is to counter misinformation in a political environment where the press is seen as just another partisan player.
“We lack agreement on really basic things like whether Joe Biden is currently serving as President of the United States and whether he was elected in a free and fair election, whether what happened on January 6 was an insurrection or a tourist visit…” she said. “The evidence backing up reality is ample. And yet these things are somehow controversial. History is being revised before our eyes.”
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While trying to counter misinformation, the press could no longer maintain “the same level of detachment” they had before the Trump presidency, according to Keith.
“We were now part of the story. We were a foil to a president intent on tearing us down because we weren’t willing to conform to his version of reality. And also because he needed somebody to fight with. He needed someone as big as him. And we were there,” she said.
At the same time, liberals saw the press as “frontline warriors for the resistance,” which made Keith “uncomfortable” and merely served to make the press appear more partisan.
Keith recalled when press secretary Sean Spicer called her out specifically for being “fake news.”
“And all of a sudden my phone was blowing up, I was getting angry messages and threats. I had to delete Twitter from my phone that weekend so as not to lose my mind.”
With that firestorm swirling around her, she was asked by a stranger in an elevator if she was a reporter.
“And in that moment I was a little afraid,” Keith said. “And maybe a little nervous, I sort of tentatively said yes.”
But the stranger meant no harm — merely commenting that they had never met a journalist before. And that fact saddened Keith.
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“There was a time when local newspapers were part of the fabric of every community —where reporters would show up at every school board meeting and tree planting and journalism wasn’t some distant activity. Journalists were part of the communities they covered. And it’s a lot easier to question the motives of reporters, to boo us, to say we’re out to destroy America if you’ve never met a reporter.”
Combined trust in print, broadcast, and radio news is at 36 percent, according to Gallup polling from last month. This is only four points higher than the lowest percentage ever recording during the 2016 election.
While admitting Trump’s denigration of the media played a part in the public’s distrust, Keith outlined legitimate reasons for distrust.
For example, it can often be difficult to distinguish a legitimate news source because of the internet’s “democratization” of media.
“The barrier to entry is very low. Almost anyone can have a podcast without much trouble. Joe Rogan has an incredibly popular podcast. He readily admits that he’s a comedian. He’s the fear factor guy but… people rely on him for their news, for their health advice,” Keith said. “People can spread misinformation on YouTube and present it as citizen journalism. Twitter and Facebook amplify falsehoods. There is no barrier for entry.”
On the other hand, cable news has also lowered the credibility of journalists, according to Keith.
“On these shows, the partisans are seated right next to the journalists who aren’t supposed to be partisans. We’re not supposed to be political hacks, but to the viewer at home, it can easily look like the journalists are on one side and the politicians are on the other. It just muddies the waters.”
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Journalists do have a great deal of blame themselves for the public’s mistrust, but she does not believe there is a liberal bias as is so often alleged.
“Our bias isn’t liberal versus conservative — our bias is institutional. We are institutionalists, we believe in institutions. But sometimes I think that we are institutionalist to a fault,” Keith said.
Because journalists spend so much time trying to get Americans to trust the institutions of American democracy, it can often appear as if they are in cahoots with the interests influencing those institutions, according to Keith.
Readily admitting she had “no solutions” to the crisis in the news media and American democracy, Keith asked the audience to support local journalism and pay more attention to their school board and city council rather than national politics.
“Find a hobby that isn’t politics. Yes, stay engaged, but also get involved in your community in a way that makes it possible to see the humanity in those on the other side.”