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‘Slow moving coup’ — journalists need to do a better job than comedians

Former President Donald Trump smiles as Sen Chuck Grassley (R-IA) speaks during a rally
Getty Images

A grim phrase burst into the political conversation this past week: “slow-moving coup.” And it didn’t come from journalists — it was delivered by a late-night comedian.

That’s not a good sign for the news media.

The “coup” label drove an eight-minute monologue by HBO’s Bill Maher, laying out in detail efforts by Donald Trump’s allies to oust the GOP old guard and lower election guard-rails through a hundred small actions, from Capitol Hill to towns and counties beyond the Beltway.

Maher’s routine exploded on social media because it was a compelling story that gathered scattered pieces of reporting from around the country together into a cohesive narrative. That’s something the mainstream press has not been able to do.

Journalism today operates on constant deadlines, giving reporters little time to exhale and look at the bigger picture, especially one that is quietly “slow-moving.” That time crunch also means journalists are forced to take the shortest route to covering a story — dialing up Washington-based politicians, party leaders, and think-tank analysts. It’s tough for the national media to break that pattern and find out what’s going on outside the capital, at ground level in the country at large.

“Slow moving coup” may or may not fit what’s happening, but credit goes to local journalists who are covering clearly significant changes in their regional political architecture — whatever the label: 

  • In Michigan, a Republican party leader was forced to resign after he blamed Trump for the 2020 election loss.
  • In Hood County, Texas, MAGA supporters forced the elections administrator to resign, even-though Trump won the county in a landslide. She was accused by critics of “harboring a secret liberal agenda.”
  • A dozen GOP county leaders in Georgia have been replaced by activists more supportive of Trump.
  • Trump allies in Horry County, S.C., voted to censure the new state GOP leader after he defeated a Q-Anon follower and lawyer who had helped the former president litigate the 2020 election.
  • In nearby Greenville County, Republican party leaders resigned in the face of “continual lawsuits … intimidation, threats, bullying, disenfranchisement and character assassination” by the county’s Trump faction.

Outside of local journalism, some larger organizations, like ProPublica, are putting their resources into this story. And articles can be found in major national newspapers on legal changes and power plays in several states.

But national mainstream journalism needs to do more with this on a consistent basis in order to have real impact.

That effort starts with re-thinking continual coverage of Trump himself. Yes, he’s still good copy and is, no doubt, a prominent piece of the power puzzle. But precious resources are being spent on his every hint about 2024, every threat or pronouncement about the GOP.

The media spotlight now must move over to how his political agenda actually springs to life in scores of meetings, confrontations and resignations, in counties and congressional districts across the country.

The challenge for mainstream reporting comes in creating comprehensive and coordinated coverage of officials and apparatchiks at all levels who are working to push forward substantial change in the election system — from elections boards, local party chiefs and state legislators to governors and members of Congress.

Getting that story right requires the kind of intense, concentrated, long-term reporting that’s tough to pull off in the current media environment. And yet, news organizations have done just that for other issues. Over the past few years, several news outlets have responded to social concerns and civil unrest by establishing reporting teams on gender, race and justice. Those persistent efforts have produced important journalism.

Danger to the political system and the potential for serious trouble in 2022 and 2024 deserve at least the same attention. The news media need to create teams that focus solely on — and report often about — the groups, funders and machinery now driving attempts to alter the civic structure. 

It’s all well-and-good that comic observers like Bill Maher are calling attention to an urgent game plan and giving it a catchy name like “slow-moving coup.”

But that’s not enough. This is not a job just for TV hosts. This is a  journalistic responsibility.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags American journalism Bill Maher Donald Trump election laws Journalism Late night comedy National news media Republican Party Right-wing populism in the United States threats against election officials trumpism

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