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On democracy — and objectivity

New Republic Editor Michael Tomasky argues that reporters should be what he calls “partisans for democracy.”

Former President Donald Trump gesturing during a rally in Conroe, Texas, on January 29.
Former President Donald Trump gesturing during a rally in Conroe, Texas, on January 29.
REUTERS/Go Nakamura

For most of my years as a professional scribbler, my title was “reporter,” operating under the norms and rules of what journalism calls “objectivity.” Now MinnPost classifies me as a “columnist.” The difference is mostly that I can express my opinions. The norms of “objectivity” are still in my brain, but the Trump years have become a powerful new element. What level of “fairness” or “balance” is owed to such an odious, lying, self-dealer?

I don’t claim to know the right answer. And, although Trump is almost done trying to overthrow the 2020 election result, his apparent intent to attempt a 2024 comeback makes the question still relevant. 

In a column yesterday — building on a previous column by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post — The New Republic Editor Michael Tomasky argues that while non-opinion reporters should continue to be factual and nonpartisan (specifically meaning not favoring one party or the other) they can and should be what he calls “partisans for democracy.”

If the 2024 election is a Biden-Trump rematch, as seems somewhat likely, Tomasky doesn’t advocate that reporters openly favor one candidate or the other as to their qualification or issue positions, but that they give themselves permission to tell the blunt truth when Trump lies, and to not shy away from simple facts about Trump’s despicable behavior during his presidency because they cannot be “balanced” against comparable despicable behavior by Biden.

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Being partisans for democracy, Tomasky argues, would mean not being shy about reminding the electorate of how Trump behaved as president, specifically of the damage he inflicted on the norms of democracy, and not pretending that Biden’s offenses are comparable if they are not comparable. 

If, as seems likely, Trump continues to act unbound by the norms of conduct toward democracy itself, Tomasky wants reporters to call it out bluntly, and not be shy because it perhaps cannot be balanced by similar denunciations of the conduct of Trump’s opponent. 

Preached Tomasky: “We in the political media now — that is, the honest political media; the right-authoritarian media is another problem — must ask whether we can be partisans for democracy. Doing so will require shedding some long-held assumptions about objective journalism. But if we’re going to play a part in saving democracy, we have no choice.”

I don’t know whether non-subscribers to The New Republic can access it, but it’s here. The Dana Milbank Washington Post column from December, on which Tomasky builds, is here.