Molly Ball: Democracy - What it takes

March 9, 2022 1:01:00
Kaltura Video

TIME National Political Correspondent Molly Ball discusses with Craig Gilbert the 2020 election and what we learned and how can we strengthen democracy going forward. March, 2022.



0:00:24.5 Speaker 1: I'm Lynette Clemetson, Director of Wallace House. It's my pleasure to welcome you all here today. Those of you joining us on campus and also those of you joining us virtually. This series Democracy in Crisis view from the press, is hosted by the University of Michigan, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy in partnership with Wallace House, the UM democracy and debate. And with additional support from the Gerald R. Ford librarian Museum and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. We'd like to give a special thank you to our partners at Detroit Public Television and the Detroit Free Press for their support of this series. So about the series, Americans basic confidence in democratic institutions in elections and in the peaceful transfer of power are under threat by forces both seen and unseen. Today, we kick off the Democracy in Crisis series with two Knight Wallace fellowship alumni, discussing what we learned from the weaknesses in our systems exposed in the 2020 elections and what efforts are underway to protect or obstruct the next national election. So I'm going to introduce our guest today and then walk through how we're going to incorporate both those of you in the room and those joining us virtually.

0:01:53.5 Speaker 1: Our guest today, as I mentioned, are former Knight Wallace Fellows, I should also mention that they are my fellow fellows, we were all fellows together in the 2009, '10 academic year. Molly Ball is national political correspondent for Time Magazine. She was a Knight Wallace fellow here in 2009, '10. She is the author of Pelosi, the first biography written with the House Speaker's cooperation. She previously reported for Politico, The Los Angeles review journal, sorry the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Sun. She's recognized as a prominent voice in US politics. Her journalism has been honored with the Robin Toner prize for excellence in political reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency, given by one of the series sponsors and the Sandy Humoral Award for excellence in political journalism. Leading our conversation with Molly today is her fellow Knight Wallace classmate, Craig Gilbert. Craig is the recently retired Washington Bureau Chief and national political reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where he's covered every presidential campaign since 1988. Craig has written extensively about the battle for the swing States of the industrial Midwest, the region shifting political map, it's increasingly polarized political culture and the deepening urban-rural divide.

0:03:22.5 S1: His work has been recognized by numerous Journalism Awards and associations. The Columbia Journalism Review called Craig the "most political science-friendly reporter in America." He's currently a writer in residence at the University of Wisconsin, and is currently a lumbar Fellow at the market law school. So after Molly and Craig's conversation, we are going to open up the floor to have questions, I hope many of you will join the conversation, those of you in the room can simply raise your hand once we get to the Q and A, someone will come around with a microphone. We have people on either side of the room. Our virtual viewers can use the raise hand function in Zoom or type your question into the chatbox, we'll be monitoring that throughout the conversation, and we'll be able to unmute your mic so you can ask your question directly to our speakers. They will be able to see our virtual audience on the screen in the back of our space. With that, I'll turn the program over to Craig Gilbert and Molly Ball.

0:04:27.9 Speaker 2: Thanks for that.


0:04:27.9 Speaker 2: Well, thanks everybody for joining us for a discussion about Democracy in Crisis. It's a pretty depressing subject, but a pretty essential one. Many of us who've been doing what we've been doing for a long time have seen things that we never thought we'd see, and so it is an alarming subject, and there is a lot of alarm just to sort of set up the discussion. When we talk about threats to democracy, I think people have different things in mind. Are we talking about violence edition? Are we talking about subversion of elections and overturning of elections, are we talking about fights over voting rights and restrictions of voting rights, are we just talking about the state of our political culture and the deepening divides? And are we talking about political radicalism? So I guess my question I wanna lead it off with Molly is which of these problems are existential in your mind, and how do we separate the existential threats from the more conventional and in some cases, long-standing problems of democracy and elections.

0:05:45.7 Speaker 3: Thanks, Craig, and thanks for having me. It's so great to be here with so many friends. And it's a great question, sort of an overwhelming one, and I do think that all of the things that you mentioned are very important, some of them are new, some of them are not. It is not new that there is a highly partisan and charged fight over who gets to vote in America and how. This is something you and I have been covering for decades, it's something that ironically, it seems for all of the heat expended over it, probably doesn't matter that much in terms of... I think a lot of people think that the parties are fighting over these election rules because it's the way they're going to win, but in fact, Democrats aren't going to win every election going forward, if they manage to pass campaign finance reform, for example, and Republicans aren't gonna win every election going forward, if they manage to outlaw drop boxes and early voting. So in a lot of ways, it's easier to vote in America, that never has been. That being said, one thing I think you and I never thought we would see...

0:06:58.4 Speaker 3: And something that happened, arguably for the first time in history, two years ago, one year ago, what year is it? One year ago, [chuckle] in January 2021, was that there was not a peaceful transfer of power in America, and that is of course a hallmark of our democratic system, and it was violently interrupted by a sitting president who urged his followers to subvert the result of a legitimate presidential election and ultimately install him in power. That's not how democracies work, and it did not succeed, and we saw that of our many institutional safeguards, one of them was this very bulky and untested electoral count act. So one of the reforms that is being talked about going forward, hopefully on a bipartisan basis is a clarification and potential elaboration on the electoral count act to clarify that Mike Pence did the right thing when he said, "My only job up here is to take the box of electoral votes and hand them off and potentially even put some teeth in it, and make sure that the people overseeing elections are responsible actors who are not going to lie, cheat and steal to overturn an election that's already happened." So all of those are really important. And yeah, maybe I'll leave it there.

0:08:30.3 S2: So do you think is the bigger lesson from 2020 that the system held and that the effort to subvert the election failed or is it that it came a lot closer than many of us could have imagined, and it creates a very scary scenario for 2024?

0:08:52.1 S3: Yes. [chuckle] Yes, both of those things I think are the lessons of 2020. And in a larger sense, sort of the whole Trump era, in this era of our politics, a lot of things that we previously took for granted, the so-called norms of our institutions were tested. The assumption that say, the government doesn't makeup statistics, doesn't just makeup numbers and then publish them and say, this is official. Well, we had an administration that did that, and it turns out there's not a law against it, because nobody ever thought we would have a government that would just make stuff up.

0:09:31.9 S3: So there's things like that, where things that were norms or assumptions, the Justice Department is not supposed to be the President's personal legal team. And literally, in February 2017, you have the president calling the Justice Department, or the White House calling the Justice Department and saying, "Hey, can you knock this stuff off?" And then a couple of months later, the president fires the FBI director who's investigating him, those are the kind of things that we assume you just don't do, but it turns out there's not a lot of mechanisms in the system to make sure you can't do it. But a lot of this stuff was the subject of lawsuits, was the subject of congressional reform, was the subject of other institutional actors, because that's how the system supposed to work, it's checks and balances, it's...

0:10:27.3 S3: When one branch of government acts out, the others are there to hold it in check or prevent it from doing things that are wrong or excessive, and in a lot of ways, that did work. You look at the election specifically, which I've done a lot of reporting on, there was an attempt to use the courts to subvert the 2020 election, there was this blizzard of lawsuits, and there's always lawsuits around an election, especially a presidential election, but these were sort of different not just in number, but in kind from your typical postelection lawsuit, in that they really were not based on legal theories or evidence at all, it was just the equivalent of sort of a press release just trying to send a message through the courts.

0:11:10.4 S3: And so they were all thrown out of court, almost all, but the message was sent, and now you have a very large number of people in America who believe that the election was stolen in part because of that kind of messaging. But I feel like the biggest thing we learned, at least the biggest thing I learned is that you can't take democracy for granted, you can't take institutions for granted, and institutions aren't buildings or refrigerators or stationary objects, they're made of people. And so you have to have people in them who are acting in good faith and who are being held accountable by other systems and other individuals.

0:11:53.0 S2: So I guess the concerning thing about that thought is that it's really, in many respects, a cultural problem. If we think democracy is threatened, are we talking about idiosyncrasies of our political structure and political system, are we talking about having the right laws in place? Are we talking about a political culture that's so damaged and distressed that we have issues of... We have questions, widespread questions of legitimacy, we can't expect people to sort of follow norms and follow the rule of law and all the other problems that come with our current partisan landscape. So how do you begin to talk about and think about addressing the broader cultural problems we face in our politics?

0:12:45.9 S3: Well, if I knew the answer to that, I would be running for president. [chuckle] So if you do, I welcome you to try it. No, this is something that I've done a lot of thinking and talking about, and I don't know the answer, but it is a really important question. Because look, there's a democratic recession happening across the world. The number of democracies has declined precipitously, you have these populist quasi-authoritarian governments that have installed themselves through quasi-democratic means and then proceeded to erode democratic systems all over the globe, everywhere from Hungary to arguably the UK to here, and many other places, Brazil. So there's obviously something in the water, so to speak, that's bigger than anything to do with our constitution or even our population. At the same time, a lot of these weaknesses that we've become more cognizant of because of the attempts to mess with our system are things that have been there for a long time. So a lot of people may be waking up now to the fact that we have this election infrastructure that's really, really fragile, that's dependent on the good faith of the thousands of poorly paid and poorly understood and local elected officials across the country, partisan boards staffed by people no one's ever heard of.

0:14:11.2 S3: Electors who are the actual ones who we get to vote on who becomes president, the various undemocratic mechanisms that are built into the constitution. Electoral College, on down. And then even just the fact that what we call a democracy really has always been much more of an aspiration than reality, that within a lot of our lifetimes, African-Americans could not meaningfully exercise the franchise of this country, and just about as... Until about century ago, women couldn't vote either. And so a lot of this stuff is not unprecedented in terms of who gets to vote and how. And I think it's inspired a lot of people to want to improve our democracy and make it more democratic and improve those mechanisms, but let's not pretend that we were some glorious democracy until five years ago.

0:15:09.4 S2: You sort of alluded to this, but obviously one of the very distinctive features of our system is how federalized it is, how decentralized it is of our federal system, elections are state-based, they're county-based, and in some states, I think Michigan is one. I know Wisconsin is one, they're actually administered at the local level. So you have, for example, in Wisconsin, 1800 election clerks, not 72 of which there are 72 counties. One question is whether we should think about that as a strength or a weakness when it comes to the threats to democracy that we've been discussing. If you think about what happened in 2000, in 2020, we had a problem with an election where maybe six states decided by 20 or 30,000 votes left us in peril in terms of a disputed outcome. 20 years ago, we had Florida where one state decided by 500 votes determined the outcome. Obviously, if we had another Florida situation in 2024, it's just hard to imagine how nightmares that would be. Should we take some confidence from the fact that our elections are not centralized, or does it also mean a lot of mischief can be done in a lot of different places?

0:16:35.6 S3: Yeah, again, I think the answer is both, but I think it is sort of both a feature and a bug of our system, that it is dependent on so many different individuals and so many different jurisdictions, and it does mean that there's that many other ways for things to go wrong, it does mean that they're that many... There's that large pool of people to potentially be bad actors. You have this county clerk in Colorado who was stealing election computers and giving them to Mike Lindell and giving away the passwords on live streams, and she's just been indicted. And these are generally... This is the part of your ballot when you're voting that you just like, you look right on past or you look at a cheat sheet you brought with you or something.

0:17:24.5 S3: People don't pay a huge amount of attention to who they're electing county clerk, and maybe now they will, but it also means that it's that much harder to steal an election when there are that many different localities all working on it. The larger, the conspiracy, the harder it is to hold together. And so I think it is a big part of the reason that even though you did have a president who I think it's fair to say was trying to sabotage the election since from before day one, it was not possible for him to do that because more than any law or policy or particular institution, it was civil society.

0:18:10.4 S3: It was people, it was the fact that we have a nonpartisan civil service in this country, the so-called deep state, that's a really important thing in a democracy. To the extent that it can be nurtured and preserved. And then the fact that you had a lot of people watching the store and watching all of the different choke points. Watching all those different county clerks and looking at what they were saying, talking to people in all of these jurisdictions and helping them understand, here's how the voting rules have changed in your area, here's how you should vote, here's what's true and what's not about the information that you're getting.

0:18:52.8 S3: People trust the most according to polls, people place the highest trust in the information that's closest to them. And so the information about elections that people trust the most comes from their local election officials, the information about their local... About their lives that people trust the most comes from their local media. And this is where I think the crisis of local news is a huge part of this story, and it was part of the COVID story as well. So much of COVID was about local conditions, and yet so many people did not have a local place to get that information from the mayor or the county commission or something that would have been specific to their area instead of whatever crap they're hearing on cable news.

0:19:37.0 S3: No offense to cable news. So I think when you don't have those local sources of information, when you don't have vibrant local institutions, when you don't have a vibrant local press, it's that much harder for people to feel like they have information they can trust and a system they can trust.

0:19:54.8 S2: One small safeguard against rigging an election, which didn't really exist in the same degree 30 or 40 years ago is just sort of, if somebody wants to manipulate the results, it's kind of impossible to do that without it being noticed in the results. There are so many people, whether they're political scientists or just election geeks or journalists out there analyzing and pouring over election trends and patterns that it's kind of a small matter to detect anomalies in election results. And so, in past elections where there have been theories about... I remember there was a theory in 2004 about the election being rigged, they were theories in 2016 about the elections being rigged, and these kind of fell apart on pretty quick inspection for that reason. So I guess that's a positive. Molly, you wrote a piece for Time Magazine about what it takes, which is the title of this discussion about the efforts by political actors and groups and civic groups to safeguard the election in the pandemic. Talk a little bit about what you learned for this purpose of this discussion from doing that piece.

0:21:12.2 S3: Yeah, so this was a piece about precisely that effort that I was describing of civil society. Crucially, it was a non-partisan and a bipartisan effort in a lot of ways, there were participants as diverse as the US Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, a lot of liberal groups obviously, but focused on protecting the ability to have an election, not electing one party or the other, and you can't have credible elections when the side that doesn't win assumes that they lost because the other side cheated. And that's the problem we're facing now, and I think that's the biggest threat to our elections going forward, is just people's refusal to believe the true results of the election.

0:22:06.1 S3: It was clear long before the 2020 election that there was a potential for things to go awry, but then when COVID hit it really sort of brought it all into focus. You remember those early primaries was the tail end of the presidential primary season, Joe Biden struggling to wrap up the nomination, but it was also a state and local primary season in a lot of states and you had these... In Wisconsin was the big one. Where they didn't wanna move the primary, there wasn't much of an ability to vote by mail, and 95% of the poll workers in Milwaukee called in sick because they're all elderly volunteers. Why would they put their lives on the line for an election with 10% turn out or any election really? No one should have to risk their life to vote.

0:22:53.7 S3: And so that just added another layer of chaos and a need to both shore up these very inconsistent and poorly funded and troubled election systems, highly decentralized election systems in so many places. But also you had to change it, you had to make it possible for people to vote. And in a lot of places that meant having male voting or absentee voting, absentee voting where it hadn't been there before. So there weren't rules on how you could get a ballot if you needed one, or in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, if your ballot got stuck in the mail and didn't get to the clerk's office until a few days later, would it be counted or not, that was a big fight in the legislature and went to the courts. And so all of these systems didn't just need to be protected, they needed to be improved in a lot of ways, or they needed to be changed just because of the pandemic, regardless of any kind of other interference that might have been going on. So this was a massive effort before the election, but crucially, it continued afterwards because something that we've all learned since 2020 is that a lot of the trouble you can cause around elections is what happens afterwards, is that there's that prolonged process.

0:24:31.4 S3: I guess, getting back to the days when the electoral votes had to be taken on horseback across the country or whatever, but these months and months where you're going through the different canvassing boards, each one of those is a pressure point where bad actors could try to disrupt the results, and they did. Here in Michigan was the top example and the one that I used in my piece, because you had an attempt to disrupt the Wayne County Canvassing Board, an attempt to disrupt the State Canvassing Board, and then the president calling the leaders of the legislature down to the White House to try to put pressure on them. And I think exactly what you... It's the transparency that really prevented... This was really on a knife edge, and you could really have seen it go the other way, and this is before January 6th, but it was because there were so many eyes on this. When they were holding the Zoom meetings with the Canvassing Boards, thousands of people were dialing into these things, and not a lot of people normally show up to a Canvassing Board meeting, we've probably both covered them.

0:25:38.3 S3: But the fact that elected officials or even appointed officials in this case, behave differently when they know the world is watching. And so because there was that transparency, because so many people were watching, because so many people were monitoring all these pressure points and choke points, that made it harder for something to go wrong. But we saw that at every step along the way, even when the electoral count had been certified there was still that last ceremonial occasion on January 6th and I was working on this story about how the election was protected, and I was almost done with it at that point. But some of my sources said, "Don't publish this before January 6th, because that's the last thing we're watching. And not only do we wanna make sure that that doesn't go awry before we claim victory for protecting the election but we don't wanna draw attention to it and get anybody killed." And sadly, people did die. And I think that shows how high the stakes are for all of this and how unprecedented some of this stuff is.

0:26:55.6 S2: So part of the drama in all this has been watching what's going on internally in the Republican Party. January 6th happened... Obviously, there were Republicans in Congress that were very vocal about what happened and critical of President Trump's role in that. There was a lot of blow-back on those Republicans, so you see this... And you see this at the state level too, you see Republicans or members of the Republican establishment who don't believe the election was stolen and aren't necessarily big fans of Donald Trump, and then they're making decisions about how to manage the more militant members of their party, whether to throw them a bone or whether to push back vocally at the risk of getting that kind of blow back. So what's it gonna take within the Republican Party, do you think, to help get us out of this, what some people have called kind of a doom loop when it comes to trust and confidence and when it comes to where we're headed with our elections?

0:28:09.6 S3: Yeah, this is a hard one because in a democratic system we have to have full political participation. It's almost by definition, a democracy is a place where anyone can compete in elections and you don't outlaw political parties or political actors. Particularly, you don't have one party go after the other in either direction. And you do have elements of the Republican Party that have arguably become authoritarian in their outlook, and these are disputes that are so much more basic than any policy issue, anything that you debate within the parties, should we take part of this war or how much money should we spend on X, Y and Z, those are normal things that the parties can and should debate. But these fundamental aspects of our system ought to be things that everyone can agree on, and these days they're not. And I think that's really problematic. And I don't know how to solve it. But when you talk to these Republican officials, a lot of them will say, "I know the election wasn't stolen, but I can't say that out loud because I'll get death threats or it's the base of the party that want... And I have to represent them, that's my job as an elected official. I'm a representative, so if they believe this crazy stuff I have to be the voice for that".

0:29:28.0 S3: And I don't like the argument that in a democracy the problem is the people, because in a democracy the people are supposed to be the solution. That's what it's all about. And I think that the real problem is that people broadly, not just in the Republican base or anywhere else, don't feel like the system responds to them, don't feel like they have a voice. On some basic level, they believe the election's stolen because they don't feel like the government represents them, and they don't feel like their vote matters. So I don't make predictions and I don't make policy recommendations, so I don't know whether or how it gets better. And as a reporter, I'm certainly not in the hope business. But I do think that the bigger problem, not just with our democracy but with democracies worldwide, is this lack of responsiveness, the feeling that nothing can get done. The feeling that Congress just goes to Washington and takes a vacation... You and I know that that's not true, but if people don't feel like the political system is one that they have a role in, then in some way it isn't democratic.

0:30:39.8 S2: So I do wanna get into the hope business a little bit, but before we do that, just... What should be really... What's the scenario that should really be keeping us up at night? What's kind of the nightmare scenario we should be most afraid of let's say in 2024, the next presidential election?

0:31:00.4 S3: I think the thing we should be afraid of is something we haven't thought of yet, frankly, because what led to January 6th and a lot of the other undemocratic things that we've seen happen was the collective failure of imagination. And we've responded to that in retrospect by more robustly imagining the thing that's already happened over and over again, and making sure that can't happen again. Well, January 6th isn't gonna happen again. It happened because Trump told a bunch of people to come to Washington and he's not gonna do that again and they're not gonna do it again, but something else could happen that we haven't yet imagined. And so I think rather than continuing to plug all the holes in the wall after the floods come through, we do need to be looking forward at things that haven't already happened, things we haven't thought of yet, things we haven't imagined yet, someone is imagining them and those are the warnings we need to take seriously. On a concrete level, I do think these post-hoc efforts to interfere with elections on the part of supposedly non-partisan officials are very, very troubling and that's the most immediate problem for 2022, 2024 is partisan officials not accepting results and seeking to lie, cheat and steal to overturn a vote that's already happened. But bigger than that, I worry about something we just haven't thought of yet.

0:32:28.6 S2: Yeah, one of those disturbing trends is the effort to criminalize election administration, we've seen election officials who are making decisions about how to handle the pandemic accused of committing felonies, and we've seen efforts to legislate new criminal penalties when it comes to how elections are administered. So that's a disturbing trend, are there... Let's talk a little bit... Let's get into the hope business briefly, are there signs in the aftermath of 2020, are there positive signs, hopeful signs in terms of how people have responded to it, and reasons to think the system still has some kind of resilience?

0:33:16.5 S3: Well, I'd like to know what you think, either specific to Wisconsin or nationally, as someone who's also covering this definitely closely?

0:33:23.8 S2: One interesting... I alluded to this before, but there's this dance going on within the Republican party, we don't know entirely how it's gonna come out. But there are Republicans who are pushing back, some of them are pushing back frontally, and some of them are kind of pushing back quietly. And one thing that happen in Wisconsin was the legislature and the leaders of the legislature accepted the outcome of the election, but there was a ground swell of sentiment on that side for more and more election audits and election reviews. And so I think that the strategy was to let that happen and then kind of let it play out and run its course. And then the question becomes, does that burn the fire out and quench it or is that a thirst that can never be quenched. And I think in Wisconsin, it's not entirely clear, but we've seen some... A lot of crazy claims being made about the election that... And people have had a chance to try to back them up, and they failed to back them up, really to the satisfaction of anybody... Of anyone other than the true believers. And so there is something potentially positive in that that.

0:34:50.0 S2: Maybe it exhausts itself, but there's a very fine line between that and just a group of people that's never gonna be satisfied, and is never gonna trust in the outcome of the election. And then on the flip side, you can imagine the legitimacy crisis. It's one thing to have a group of people that think the election was rigged, but imagine if an election is overturned, what kind of legitimacy crisis that would create. Not just on the other side, but I think across a lot of political lines, and that would be a really nightmare legitimacy crisis.

0:35:32.9 S3: Yeah, absolutely. One of the reasons that we didn't see that happen in 2020 that we haven't talked about is just that in a democracy, the people in charge of this stuff themselves have to get elected. So the legislators who are, in some cases, trying to pass these new rules around voting or elections, what have you, they also need there to be clean, legitimate, fair elections in order for them to get elected, because they can clearly see how the tables could be turned on them in a situation where they're not the ones with their hands on the levers of power. So they have an incentive not to cheat, they have an incentive to make the system resilient and responsive, and I think most of them do take that seriously and while some of them are placating or appeasing some of the more fringe elements. Deep down, I think they realize how important it is to have the self-perpetuating democratic system because they too, their jobs also depend on it, and our whole system depends on it, so that is...

0:36:50.3 S3: John McCain used to like to say, "It's always darkest before it's totally black." But that's where I think the hope lies. Is just that democracy is not self-executing, but it does require everyone's participation, and ultimately it is the voters who are the mechanism of accountability in the system, it's the voters who are the ones who can throw out officials who do things that they disagree with, or make laws they disagree with, or run elections in ways they disagree with. And so it's an engaged public that takes these things seriously that ultimately... That we all rely on.

0:37:33.5 S2: We got some questions ahead of time. One of them was, what have you seen that is preserving of our democratic structure? And we've been touching on this, one thing we should add to that is that the courts, actually perform their job by and large. There were all kinds of election disputes at the state level that came before the courts, all kinds of lawsuits, and I think that part of the system held up pretty well.

0:38:05.0 S3: Yeah. And to Trump's to degree... And I don't know if you remember when he nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court, literally said out loud, "She's gonna give me the vote I need to get the election on my side." Which... Okay, but that didn't happen. And for all the problems that the liberals have with this court, it has not gotten into the business of overturning elections, and the courts at large, pretty consistently upheld democratic norms. Another accountability check and balance that's in the system is congressional oversight. And that was another thing where.

0:38:46.1 S3: We never thought to expect that a president would just say to Congress, "No, you don't get to have oversight over me. I don't care what it says in the law or the Constitution, I'm just not gonna do it." Well, it turns out there's no way to make him except for drag him to court for years and years by which time is out of office. So those are... In the wake of Watergate, there were a lot of reforms passed to try to prevent that kind of a situation from happening again. In the wake of the 2020 election and the Trump era, there has not been much in the way of reforms to those kinds of things, and I think they have to be bipartisan in order to inspire confidence, in order to have legitimacy. So I do think that this electoral count Act reform that seems to be moving forward is a very important and hopeful step.

0:39:43.2 S2: And that seems to be at least one area of overlap where there's the possibility of getting some support across party lines. I don't know of too many others.

0:39:52.7 S3: No. It's the most important one.

0:39:55.0 S2: Yeah. No. It's a very...

0:39:56.0 S3: It does have... There is bipartisan working group working on this now, there's been quite a bit of Republican support voice by it, for it. And again, it's partly self-interested because if you are a Republican Senator... If you're a Democrat, you don't want Mike Pence saying, "I don't like these electoral votes, I'm gonna say that for Trump." But if you're a Republican, you don't want Kamala Harris getting up there and saying, "I don't like these electoral votes, I'm gonna pretend they're for Biden." So there should be a bipartisan interest in making sure that these norms are clarified and that the peaceful transfer of power occurs on a consistent basis.

0:40:42.5 S2: So we have an in-person audience and we have a virtual audience, and I think we're gonna start taking questions from them both. Katie.

0:40:52.8 Speaker 4: Yeah. We have a question from the Zoom audience from Thomas Ibeaho. [0:40:58.1] ____ to ask your question.

0:41:09.6 S3: Well, I just saw him on the previous screen.

0:41:21.7 S2: Sure. If anybody has a question, they can raise their hand... Yes, over here.

0:41:34.8 Speaker 5: Hi. Thank you so much for joining us today. I was wondering as journalist, what capability if any, do you think mainstream news and media institutions have in the current Democratic crisis facing the country? And what, if anything, do you think news institutions can do to better restore faith in elections and democratic institutions?

0:42:00.3 S3: None. Next question. No, look I think the main crisis in journalism is not any kind of bias or sensationalism, or the things that people have been complaining about since literally the dawn of the written word, it's the business model. It's the fact that it is not profitable to operate a local newspaper and therefore people don't have trusted sources... Local sources of information. And this isn't just, how can I find out about the candidates running for county commission in my town? It also is a part of this larger crisis of trust in government and in truth. I was in Clair, Wisconsin actually listening to a focus group of several voters, and one of the complaints was, "Well, we used to have our own TV station, but now we just get the stations out of Minneapolis." And that to him was a way that he did not feel heard or respected or he had stature as a community. So part of the reason that people don't... Feel the sense of disconnection and atomization, and that has allowed some of this populism to take hold, is because there's a feeling that the media is just this big, scary National thing that's far far away and elites coastal, what have you.

0:43:28.5 S3: It's not the local reporter that you see at the grocery store, which is how I started my career, and you would have to... If you reported something negative about someone, you might run into them at the bar. So if you have that level of trust with the community when you're a part of it, and so I do think it's a problem that people don't feel like the media is a part of their communities. And it also means that fake news can prosper in this environment, so something that I've started seeing in a number of local elections that's really weird and scary is campaigns starting fake news sites and... That are not disclosed as essentially campaign sites. They look like... It looks like a News site and it reports a bunch of stuff that's not true about the opposing candidate, and then that candidate uses that in their ads or puts it on their flyers, "According to the Ann Arbor Express News." That isn't a real news source, "My opponent has killed all these puppies." And voters are non the wiser because we're in this incredibly confusing information environment where new News sources are cropping up all the time, and how are you supposed to know which ones are legit and which ones aren't.

0:44:51.5 S3: And I think we have to have freedom of the press means... I don't think we should ever have any kind of government body saying, "You're a real journalist and you're not." Or saying, "This... " Or regulating the flow of information, I think that's antithetical to the First Amendment, but there is a real problem with "fake news" and the ways that the politicians in particular can instrumentalize that both to plant false information, which is another thing that politicians have been doing since the dawn of time, but also just to delegitimize and further erode people's trust in good information.

0:45:24.6 S2: Yeah, for better or for worse, we have this incredibly disparate spectrum of media that's all operating with different missions and by different rules, and that's gotta be real... That's confusing, I think, to people that are consuming media. We also got a question kind of related to this, about what will it take to launch entrepreneurial collaborative research efforts to replace the investigative reporting that has been lost by the demise of so many local newspapers? One, there's one positive development in that front, which is a lot of newspapers and media outlets are... There's a rise in non-profit journalist, Foundation-funded journalism, newspapers are getting funding from foundations and non-profit sources to cover subjects that they can't afford to cover any longer as they've shrunk and lost people over time. So there's some... I don't think that's replacing the jobs that have been lost, but there's some positive things going on in that front...

0:46:22.7 S3: Yeah, and it's increasingly local too, which is... Which I think is really important. You do have not only... ProPublica is like a decade or more old now, but they have started establishing headquarters in different communities. I know they've got one in Arizona, for example, that's doing a lot of really high quality local accountability journalism, and more and more... My publication is owned by a well-intentioned billionaire who doesn't tell us what to write, and that's the only sustainable business model for print journalism these days, and it's also one with a long and storied history.

0:46:57.5 S3: It used to be that the newspaper was generally owned by some local pupa who was... Who wanted to be a pillar of the community, and sometimes that led to biased coverage in favor of that person, but it was local ownership, which meant that it was much more responsive to the community. So you do have more of these national outfits, Axios is doing it big, Local Push Now and... When I worked in the Nevada State House covering the legislature, and we had this little press room, that was nearly empty, that used to be packed to the gills and had an overflow, but fewer and fewer reporters were being sent to cover the legislature. And that's where the real high jinx happened. Is on the level where nobody's watching. So the more we can get those staffed up and just have more eyes on the institutions that need to be held accountable, the better.

0:47:55.5 S2: So I think.

0:47:56.2 Speaker 4: I think we're ready.

0:47:57.1 S2: We're ready for a question from our virtual audience.

0:48:05.1 Speaker 6: Thank you for [0:48:05.5] ____. My question is about freedom of speech, so we've seen that sophisticated gas lighting and misinformation campaigns can be extremely effective. The First Amendment is one of the great strengths of our democracy, but it's also been happen to attack it. Convincing people, for instance, that the election was stolen. So what are your thoughts about this? Are there ways to make criminal speech less of a liability and more of an asset to our democracy?

0:48:34.4 S3: So yeah, this is a great question and a really hard one. And as I said before, it is really important that we don't become over... Think we do already see a mission creep in these efforts against so-called disinformation, it's become just information that I don't like, or information I don't agree with. And so it is really important that we don't have any kind of government oversight of the flow of information, even if some of it is bad. Just because there's always going to be an incentive for officials to overreach and censor and stifle the free flow of information. But as the saying goes, the cure for bad speech is more speech. And that was something that we also saw in 2020. One of the things that I wrote about in the effort to prep the election was the civil society and effort to combat disinformation, and it was by groups who are monitoring these false narratives, seeing them take hold on social media, then going to the platforms, working with Facebook, working with Twitter. And these are private actors who have the power to do things like de-platform, the President of the United States when they feel it's necessary to prevent violence.

0:49:58.2 S3: And so this is all happening outside of the purview of government, this is not the government exerting... Doing censorship, or saying you can't say that, but it is citizens exercising their own voice in order to make sure that the good information is winning out over the bad information essentially.

0:50:20.1 S2: One of the classic dilemma is the journalist often face is somebody who's a news maker says something that's false, and then you notice false, do you report it in order to knock it down and risk giving it a bigger platform? Or do you ignore it and... At the risk of letting it go unchecked? And there's no one answer to that dilemma, but it comes up all the time increasingly, and it's... You make these decisions on a case-by-case basis.

0:50:50.9 S3: You do. It's changed a lot in the age of the internet and social media. We talk a lot about the downside of social media, but the upside is that everybody's a media critic these days, maybe that's not the upside for us, but everybody has visibility into the way the sausage gets made in journalism. And so that means that we incorporate a lot voices into our coverage that we used to ignore.

0:51:18.0 S2: Absolutely.

0:51:19.7 S3: You see a lot more women and people of color and people of various different identities who now have a voice in the coverage that used to be completely... If you weren't... Find someone who looks like you, you didn't get to be the newscast or you didn't get to decide what information people got. So we're now very much in a universe without gatekeepers, we used to be the gatekeepers, we used to be the ones who decided who gets a platform and who doesn't. We don't have a say in that anymore, people have a platform, whether we like it or not. And so it's much more our job to filter the information and give people a way to understand it.

0:51:54.7 S3: But I don't think it makes any sense to say, "Well, we're just gonna pretend this information doesn't exist and then people don't know about it." Because people will absolutely still know about it, they just won't know that here's the evidence that it isn't true, or here's some context to help you understand this thing that's being claimed. So I think the cat's out of the bag in terms of information having a platform, and it's delusional to think that just because journalists decide not to give something a voice, that it somehow isn't out there in the universe.

0:52:25.1 S2: I gotta change my bio to retire... Gatekeeper.

0:52:27.6 S3: Yes.

0:52:30.6 S2: Do we have another question from the audience?

0:52:32.1 S4: We have another virtual question from Nicole Dobro.

0:52:44.8 Speaker 7: Hi, Molly. Thanks for your time today. In your piece about the January 6th officer, it was this incredible thing where he had this disorienting experience where he lived through something that people were just denying almost that happened to him. And he seemed to have this hopefulness at first, "If only people knew and only if they... I just need to tell them and talk to more people and tell them what happened. They would really understand it." I feel like journalists... I am a journalist myself. Have that idea too in our heads, "If people just knew, if we just told them, they would understand bit more and more." As you've touched upon... That is more challenging than ever. What are things journalists and regular citizens can be doing to cut through the clutter?

0:53:39.1 S3: Well, thank you so much. Thank you for mentioning that piece... That's a personal favorite of mine. It was a story I wrote about Officer Mike Fanone, who was injured in the January 6th insurrection, and then testified at the first hearing of the January I committee, and who had been a Trump supporter who was violently attacked and nearly died by a crowd of people literally waving the thin blue line flag that says I support the police. So it was a very disorienting experience for him, and... I think it is important as journalists that our only loyalty is to the truth, and we're not trying to achieve any particular outcome.

0:54:21.6 S3: We're not activists, we're not trying to change the world, we're not... We're not... I at least I'm not even trying to make the world a better place, I'm just trying to tell the truth. Because once you decide that you want a certain outcome, even subconsciously you're biasing the information you choose to present toward that outcome. So I get a little annoyed when I hear people say that the 2016 or even the 2020 election happened because people didn't have access to the right information or journalist didn't do their jobs. People are allowed to vote however they want, that's what democracy is all about. And they might choose to make that choice in a way that you disagree with, doesn't mean that the journalism was wrong or the information didn't accomplish its goal.

0:55:10.1 S3: So I think that's all we can do is do the work. I think that's all we can do is continue to tell the truth, and operate in good faith, and maybe it will feel like we're struggling up hill and not getting anywhere most of the time. Kind of like it has felt for Officer Fanone, but that's all you can really do, is continue to do your job and present the facts, and... It is a harmful dynamic in journalism, frankly, because we perceive that people have less and less trust in the media, we've taken upon ourselves.

0:55:48.7 S3: "Well, we have to convince them to trust us, we have to do something about this." And so we're out there tugging on people's suppose going, "No, no, we're telling the truth, I promise." Trying to... So people correctly perceive that we are engaged in persuasion rather than reporting. And so I think it's really important that we don't do that, that we take a step back, we're not in the fight, we are covering the fight. [0:56:08.9] ____ famously said, after Trump took office, "We don't go to war, we go to work." And there have been a lot of efforts to conscript journalists into this war on the press, and I think it's really important that we are not combatants, we are reporters.

0:56:28.6 S2: Well, thanks Molly. Thanks everybody for tuning in. Lynette.

0:56:34.2 S1: I'd love for you both, Craig, to get you back into the business of hope and not prediction, to just hear closing thoughts from each of you.

0:56:43.2 S2: Well, I think part of the difficulty in wrestling with the subject is the difficulty of knowing how alarmed and how pessimistic to be, and I'm not pessimistic and alarm is my nature, and so I worry more about overlooking the threats instead of the opposite. Again, I think I said before, some things... I've seen things having done this, for more than 30 years that I never thought I would see that are very distressing, just from the point of view of how our system is working and Law and Order, and how the democratic process... I don't think it's without hope, I think a lot of institutions performed like they were supposed to perform after this election, and so... I choose to be not entirely pessimistic, but we've got some real issues... We still have some scary issues to deal with over the next couple of years, I don't know how helpful that sounded.

0:58:05.3 S1: You didn't need to sound helpful, just honest. Molly.

0:58:07.0 S3: Yeah. Well, so there's a book that's become all too relevant in the last few years how democracies die by Ziblatt and Levitsky, and they make the point that the Democratic erosion that we're seeing worldwide, democracies don't generally die in one fell swoop. It's a gradual erosion. It's bit by bit, it's little by little. First, somebody cheats in an election, next thing you know, they're making rules about what the press can report, next thing you know... Look at Putin's Russia for many, many, many years before he, last week, basically made it illegal to be a reporter. He was putting pressure on an eroding and undermining and eviscerating the democratic institutions in that country. And in far less extreme cases that that is how it happens, it's a gradual drip drip.

0:58:58.4 S3: But so what I would say is... The flip side of that, the whole flip side of that is that's also how democracy survive. It's not suddenly one day Congress passes a bill and everything is better, it's not suddenly one day we all wake up and this never happened, it's every individual citizen taking responsibility for their role in democracy, it's people being more aware of these things, because of the problems and the tragedies that we've had and deciding to get involved, deciding to be more careful about what they share on Facebook, deciding to take an active role and to make their voice heard in a responsible way. So I think it's always going to feel like you're too small to make a difference, and it's always going to feel like any little thing you do is insignificant, but it's only by millions of people doing those little things and making those little choices, the democracy gets better. And I think it will.

1:00:00.0 S1: That is great, and I think that that's the reason we're having these conversations, we want you to be that person who takes a step and decides that you can do something to move things forward. We hope you will join our next conversations. This is not a one-off conversation, it's something that we need to be engaged in, thinking about, engaging the people we know in these conversations. And so I wanna remind you of our other events in this series, on March 23rd we have pulled a surprise winning journalist, Bart Gelman here for a virtual conversation. On March 31st, we've got Sarah Kenzie the author of hiding and plain site, the invention of Donald Trump and the erosion of America. And then on April 4th we'll be back here for another in-person event with an Apple BOM Pulitzer Prize winning historian, journalist and commentator, you can find out the details of these events on the Wallace House website and on the Ford School website and following us on social media, and really...

1:01:09.2 S1: This was such a great conversation today. It was the perfect kick off, and as Molly and Craig talked about... I think we at Wallace House cannot leave without saying when they talk about supporting local journalism and this... The role of local journalism in all of this, I know you're a national correspondent, Molly, nothing against national correspondence, I was one too. But we have to engage locally, and that is where our trust in information starts, and so I encourage you all to be involved in your... In civics locally. And in journalism locally. And advocate for the information that you need. And we'll see you back here at the next event. Thank you very much.