The studies don’t lie. One, a survey of the most trusted professions in America, found that “Journalist” came in at number 42 — beaten by lawyers, taxi drivers and baggage handlers, and just nudging out sex workers and insurance salespeople. Another poll found that only 36 percent of Americans trust the news media, the second lowest rate in history.
So let’s begin by stipulating that you can’t stand journalists. Too many of us talk at you, not to you. We’re biased, and in denial of our bias. We finger-wag. We whine. I’ve written ad nauseam about this — as an industry, media has a lot of mea culping to do.
But let’s not lose sight of the fact that, for all its faults, a free press remains the heart and soul of the American experiment. It was always thus, as argued in The Words That Made Us, by Yale Law professor Akhil Reed Amar. Without newspapers, Amar documents, the colonies likely would have never been Americanized. Newspapers nationalized debate and dissent; they hosted a messy, but vital, national conversation.
“All of the great founding fathers were early sires and children of America’s emerging newspaper culture,” he writes, showing how Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton were all shrewd readers and insightful writers. The debates weren’t always civil, but they were robust. For a fledgling democracy, they knew, the greatest bulwark against the autocracy of the crown was a cacophony of voices. “We The People,” in other words.
Mastriano is not normal
Which brings us to Doug Mastriano, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, who is waging a war against the free press the likes of which we’ve not seen. We thought it was funny when, in the primary, a Mastriano henchman dressed in 1776-era garb, complete with a tri-corner hat, stood in the way of journalists seeking simply to cover the public remarks of the candidate. But it continues, and it isn’t funny. In one recent day, Vanity Fair chronicles, Mastriano went to great lengths to thwart local press coverage in three different stops.
Time and again, reporters are treated with suspicion and demonized as the enemy, Trump’s 2016 rallying cry taken to the level of routine campaign policy. Make no mistake: the Mastriano campaign is waging an assault on the values espoused by the Founders, at the same time that it hypocritically claims high patriotic ground. And media needs to find a way to put that story front and center, lest it get lost in the usual campaign noise.
Every newsroom should be guided by Protect Democracy’s The Authoritarian Playbook, which lays out the signposts for how to identify, contextualize, and cover authoritarian threats. That ought to become the filter through which all other campaign stories flow — lest media coverage normalize such anti-American extremism.
I’ve spoken to numerous journalists who have been put in campaign event holding areas, turned away from public events, surveilled, or otherwise harassed by Mastriano aides. Mastriano only gives interviews to Christian Nationalist or similarly right wing outlets, and, earlier this week, there was a report, buried in stories in both the Inquirer and the New York Times, of a reporter being shoved out of the way by a state trooper, no less, while trying to ask the candidate if he’d accept the results of the election.
No journalist on the frontlines that I’ve spoken to about Mastriano’s vitriol for the news media has wanted to be quoted. “I don’t want to make us the story,” one said. But that’s precisely the point: When freedom is so fully on the ballot for the first time since the Civil War, you are the story. The quaint era of journalistic neutrality is over. Calling out burgeoning autocracy is neither left nor right; it is what passes for objective journalism when freedoms are under assault.
The Mastriano campaign is not normal, folks. Sure, running against the press is a tried and true political strategy, going back at least to Spiro Agnew’s poetic “nattering nabobs of negativism” critiques in the 70s or Newt Gingrich’s sneering broadsides in the ‘90s. But those, and other anti-press screeds, have always been strategic — attempts to garner more votes by ginning up the base. Mastriano deviates from all prior models. After all, he’s long had the far right base locked up. It’s as if, American Taliban-style, there’s some grander crusade at stake — something above and beyond serving the machinery of self-government.
So it is. In a deeply reported piece in the Bucks County Beacon, Jennifer Cohn gets to the heart of the matter. She documents Mastriano’s ties (which he nonetheless denies) to the New Apostolic Reformation, “a rapidly accelerating and dangerously under-reported worldwide Christian authoritarian movement, [that] practices faith healing and exorcism and promotes dominionism, a belief that Christians must take control of government, business and culture in order for Jesus to return to earth.”
Naturally, it’s a movement with ties to Trumpist wackos Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. And what’s the game plan for establishing such control? “The specific pillars of society over which the NAR plans to ‘rule as kings’ are seven-fold: 1. business, 2. government, 3. family, 4. religion, 5. media, 6. education, and 7. entertainment. NAR leaders call this the ‘Seven Mountains’ mandate.”
There it is — pounding the media into submission isn’t just campaign strategy; it’s part of a road map for some Dr. Evil-like world domination fantasies. And If Mastriano isn’t a NAR adherent, he’s certainly NAR adjacent, as Cohn illustrates.
Back here on planet earth, we ignore this wackadoodle shit at our peril, because it is the harbinger of autocracy. Every newsroom should be guided by Protect Democracy’s The Authoritarian Playbook, which lays out the signposts for how to identify, contextualize, and cover authoritarian threats. When a candidate meets most or all of their signposts — from “working to corrupt elections” to “quashing criticism and dissent” and “spreading disinformation” — a pivot in coverage has to be made. That ought to become the filter through which all other campaign stories flow — lest media coverage normalize such anti-American extremism.
We know this from our history.
Yeah, let’s go there. Did you watch Ken Burns’ latest, The U.S. and the Holocaust? What’s stunning is how much was known so well in advance of American involvement in World War II. “Information about the ‘Final Solution’ and the systematic destruction of the Jews, was available from 1942, long before the end of the war,” writes Paul Wieser in a 1995 piece on what the American press knew, and when it knew it, when it came to the Holocaust.
The treatment accorded by the American press to the destruction of the Jews during World War II can be best described as a ‘sidebar,’ the name given by journalists to a story that is ancillary to the main story. The press coverage of the Nazi persecution of the Jews paralleled U.S. government policy on refugee rescue, which was not treated as an issue of primary importance. The behavior of the press reflected the United States’ attitude of ‘rescue through victory.’ It was relatively rare for more than the isolated paper to call for action to assist Jews.
That’s how you get a New York Times report on June 16, 1942 on page six that, oh, by the way, 60,000 Jews had been murdered in Vilnius. Reporting that carries no moral outrage plays handmaiden to injustice. To be clear, I’m not saying Doug Mastriano is Adolf Hitler. But the guy seems to have aspirations, and they tend toward a too-familiar hostility to pluralism, tolerance and justice for all.
That means it’s fair to ask: Where’s our Dorothy Thompson, the American columnist Burns holds up as the free world’s moral beacon? While others in the American press hemmed and hawed, Thompson — as early as 1932 — knew what Nazism really was: “A repudiation of the history of western man, of Reason, Humanism, and the Christian ethic.” Hitler kicked her out of Germany in 1934, but history records her stand. Who, Thompson-like, will stand for us now?
MORE ON THE ELECTION AND THREATS TO DEMOCRACYMastriano at a September 24th Rally with Rebecca Mastriano, left, and Lt. Governor candidate Carrie Lewis DelRosso, right. Photo via campaign Facebook