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'The Washington Post' takes new approach to national coverage with a 'Democracy Desk'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to a new media initiative taken by the editors of one of the country's leading news organizations, The Washington Post. You might be familiar with the post's motto these days, democracy dies in darkness. Well, the editors at The Washington Post have come up with a new way to shed light on the challenges facing American democracy in various places around the country. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is with us now to tell us more about it. David, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure, as always.

MARTIN: So get us up to speed. What is The Post doing?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, easiest way to think about it is to go back to 2020. Think of the political races, particularly the presidential race, where new voting laws were triggered by the pandemic. They went pretty smoothly. But then The Post and other outlets were confronted by a much bigger story. And let me have you - have the table set by The Post's new national editor, Matea Gold, and have her define what she encountered. She and I recently spoke in an interview.

MATEA GOLD: An effort by the sitting president and his allies to overturn the results of the election, and that campaign tested all the pressure points of our democratic system. Local canvassing boards, state lawmakers, federal officials and Congress itself, as we saw on January 6, when Congress came under violent assault. And it soon became clear that the January 6 attack was not the end of something, but rather the beginning.

FOLKENFLIK: So what Gold did, along with her new deputy, Phil Brooker, was create a democracy desk. And that is, they wanted to have people whose day-to-day job was to figure out these tests of democracy. They would have two new editors. They're going to have six reporters, and that's just to start. And they're having people both at the home office in Washington and people scattered in Georgia, Arizona, the upper-Midwest - places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania. Why those states? Well, of course, those states were the most contested when it came to the results in the 2020 race.

MARTIN: Does this sound like a new approach?

FOLKENFLIK: It feels new to me, it feels like a shift, like - the best way or analogy I can think of is thinking about the way in which coverage has shifted on climate change over the years. Climate change coverage no longer covers the debate about whether it's happening or not happening, extent it's happening. It's covering the consensus and defining what we know and what we don't know, and how the fact of change will reconfigure life across journalistic beats and geographic borders and already is doing so. And I think it's also a recognition when it comes to climate that it's existential. And that is - and here's the analogy, the stakes are enormous and something fundamental to all Americans, regardless of their beliefs.

MARTIN: But could you just help me understand a bit more about how this is different than covering the arguments that crop up in other election cycles over very contentious issues around, say, abortion or affirmative action, you know, or other things that are extremely contentious and sensitive.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, that's totally fair. It is, and it isn't. It is because it's part of these debates. You're seeing candidates for governor, even in the Republican primary. The sitting governor, a Republican who affirmed the fact that Joe Biden won and a former senator who's taking on the governor saying he doesn't believe it, it can't possibly be true. And of course, it was true. That is a political debate, but it's also an existential debate to the functioning of democracy.

It's, you know, if you think about how people have over the decades covered politics, it's covered in some ways as a sport, a horse race, someone wins, someone loses, someone has an upset. Coverage can be admiring of a perhaps a slightly rascally trick. Somebody can focus on how much money they raised, but theoretically, you're agnostic because you're covering as a journalist what happened. In this case, you're covering whether or not candidates and whether or not laws will affirm the functioning democracy. Just take what former President Donald Trump says in things like this recent interview he gave last month to NPR's Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DONALD TRUMP: If you look at the numbers, if you look at the findings in Arizona, if you look at what's going on in Georgia and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by the way, and take a look at Wisconsin, they're finding things that nobody thought possible. This was a corrupt election.

FOLKENFLIK: And as Steve Inskeep said at the time, and will reaffirm today, again, oh, that's totally untrue. It was not corrupt, and yet by the fact of claiming it's corrupt, people are seeking to impose laws or outcomes that may not reflect actual votes.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, David, obviously this is something we need to talk more about. The same forces that caused a lot of people to mistrust public officials also suggest that they don't trust the media, especially people who are inclined to believe the story that the former president put out. So how is The Post dealing with the idea that this same approach that some people are going to look at this and say, you're just putting your finger on the scale, that you're just favoring one side over another?

FOLKENFLIK: It's a fundamental problem for the media. You know, at The Post, they say our January 6 coverage, for example, was authoritative. We didn't mince words. We made it clear this was an attack intended to overturn the election results. She says, you know, if we can be authoritative, show the results that we marshal, we can convince people that this is journalism with integrity. I think that's in the sense, a leap of faith. But what else can journalists do but present knowledge so people can be good citizens and make choices for themselves?

MARTIN: That is NPR's David Folkenflik. David, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.