Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Editor’s notebook: Democracy requires the media to hold candidates, officials accountable

Even as three of Nashville’s major cities — Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville — have either recently elected or will soon elect mayors, I’m already looking ahead to the next election cycle. 

Today is International Day of Democracy, established in 2007 by the United Nations to promote and uphold principles of democracy, and there’s no better time to discuss the role of the media in upholding democracy and holding candidates and elected officials accountable. 

The 2024 presidential election is critical, as at present, former President Donald Trump — the twice impeached and criminally-indicted titular head of the Republican Party — is likely to be the GOP nominee. Trump has done massive damage to democratic institutions in the U.S., chiefly by claiming election fraud where none has been proven and sowing seeds of distrust and conspiracy.

But I am more focused on Tennessee. We will likely, and sadly, have few competitive races and even in the races that are competitive, I fear we will see the continuing pattern of Republicans refusing to debate their Democratic opponents. 

It’s up to the media to hold candidates’ feet to the fire. The mission of the media is to convey reliable information to the public, but how reliable can the information be if only one side is willing to talk? 

As an example, Gov. Bill Lee refused to meet his Democratic opponent in the 2022 gubernatorial election, Dr. Jason Martin, at a forum hosted by the Tennessean, Nashville’s Gannett newspaper. It’s shameful Lee didn’t give voters the opportunity to how he would have responded to challenging questions from Martin but it’s equally shameful Gannett let him get by without doing so. 

Instead of holding Lee accountable, the Tennessean gave Lee the opportunity to answer softball questions from Michael Anastasi, then vice-President and editor, and David Plazas, opinion and engagement editor for the USA Today network in Tennessee in a streamed interview. 

This is not how running for office — or journalism — should work.

But politicians have learned there are no consequences for them ignoring their opponents and refusing to address the public. With fewer local reporters and dwindling local news outlets combined with the proliferation of national news sources sucking viewers and readers into the Trump vortex, there are few media outlets to publicize voter-avoidant behavior. 

So I’m  throwing down the gauntlet to all major Tennessee media outlets that plan on hosting forums in the 2024 U.S. Senate race. 

Schedule the event. Make it a real debate; no more of this wishy-washy, non-confrontational “forum” stuff. Let’s see candidates challenge each other and make incumbents defend their actions.

If a Republican candidate or official refuses to participate, hold the debate anyway, even if it’s only with the Democratic candidates — and, my colleagues in the Tennessee media business, it is not your job to make apologies or excuses for no shows.

The opposite is the case: as you, my media friends, promote your one-person “debate,” you should note in every promotion which candidate refused to attend. Let voters know who isn’t willing to be face-to-face not only with a competitor, but even more importantly, with their potential constituents — because how a candidate behaves on the campaign trail sets the tone for how they will govern. 

Witness Lee, who rarely holds press conferences. Fifth District U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles, a Maury County Republican, refused to meet his opponent, Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Nashville Democrat, during their 2022 race. Who can be surprised that Ogles continues to be inaccessible to constituents but surrounds himself with a security detail to keep a barrier between himself and the public. 

Marsha Blackburn
U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn is up for reelection in 2024. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In 2024, Tennessee will have few competitive races and the one big show will be the U.S. Senate race between senior Sen. Marsha Blackburn and the winner of the Democratic nomination. 

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, entered the race on Sept. 5 and is the presumptive favorite in the Democratic primary, in which Marquita Bradshaw has also declared. Bradshaw was the 2020 nominee in the U.S. Senate race with Republican Bill Hagerty.

Blackburn has shown a stubborn unwillingness to appear before Tennesseans in even moderately unfiltered settings. The last time she held a public town hall meeting was in February of 2017, when she was still the U.S. Representative for the 7th District. 

That meeting was memorable because of her follow up appearance on CNN during which she alleged fewer than half of the attendees were constituents, a claim disproven by attendees — including journalists. 

Blackburn and Tennessee Republicans have a big burr under their collective saddles about Johnson and judging from their social media attacks on Johnson, feel threatened. I’m not making an unrealistic assumption that Blackburn will refuse to debate Johnson or Bradshaw. 

Journalists, we must do better. We cannot claim to be the protectors of democracy, to be the light that shines in dark places, if we are unwilling to shine the brightest light on those who want to lead without publicly addressing tough questions. 

We cannot tout the power of the free press while we bend to the will of politicians. 

The Tennessee Lookout will be holding not only politicians accountable in 2024 but other media outlets, and we ask everyone — readers, viewers, reporters — to join us.

This article in this post was originally published on Tennessee Lookout and parts of it are included here under a Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 4.0

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