In their work on democratic erosion, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point to the importance of what they term as “gatekeepers” in keeping democratic backsliders from consolidating power . Parties, courts, institutional structures, and voters can all act as gatekeepers in different ways, whether it be by keeping a candidate off of the ballot or by not electing them. Another important organization that can act as a gatekeeper is the media. They can do so by reporting on the actions of democratic eroders and by providing news that helps voters make informed decisions. However, despite the potential of the media to act as an effective gatekeeper, it cannot be trusted to effectively keep democratic backsliders from pursuing harmful policy.
One reason not to be overly optimistic about the role of media as a gatekeeper is its potential for polarization. This is especially true in the United States where media has become some of the most polarized in the world. While polarization of media does not necessarily necessitate backsliding, it does logically nurture polarization of the masses that consume it. Polarized media such as Fox News and CNN are quick to throw barbs at each other and each other’s viewer base. For example, Fox News satirized a Jim Acosta quote, arguing he said anyone who didn’t agree with CNN wasn’t American. This sort of divisive reporting is common place on both sides of the aisle, and increases the wedge between voters. In Milan Svolik’s work in Venezuela, he finds that the more extreme ideological views a voter has, the more likely they are to tolerate backsliding policies of their parties candidate. While more work is required on the topic of polarization and democratic erosion, there appears to be a link between backsliding and the increasing extremism of parties. Polarized media tends to exacerbate this widening gap.
Another reason that we can’t solely rely on media as an effective gatekeeper against democratic erosion is that it can perpetuate what is known as “fake news.” This fake news has been found by many to impact the outcome of elections. In a study on the 2016 elections, it was found by Ohio State University researchers that fake news did impact the outcome. Furthermore, research has been done to show that fact checking fake news does not necessarily help correct voting behavior. In a study based on the French candidate Marie La Pen’s wide dissemination of fake news, researchers found that people exposed to fake news will indeed correct their factual information when they are later told the truth, but tend to continue to vote for the same politician sharing incorrect information . In fact, they found that sometimes after learning the truth people are even more likely to vote for that fake news-spreading politician. They argue this may be because the fact checking raises the salience of the issue, therefore increasing support for the backslider. While fact checking organizations such as Politico are helpful in general, their effectiveness should not be overstated.
Finally, media can be used by backsliders to consolidate their own support. In his work on Russia, Scott Gehlbach discusses how in the early 2000’s Putin quickly seized control over major TV networks that had previously been privately owned, reversing the more democratic practices under the prior administration . Furthermore, he tailored the propaganda message such that fact was mixed with fiction. It became hard to determine whether the news was indeed fact or fiction. While American media has not fallen under state control the same way Russia has, there are many ways that the current administration has used media to their advantage. Many have argued that Trump’s rhetoric has been used to confuse and distract the public from true crises. When Trump states something that is blatantly not true, he understands that it will be repeated over and over by news outlets, distracting them from commentating on other, more immediate matters. In this way, the media can be employed to a backslider to consolidate power.
While media, the courts, Constitutional institutions, and voters all have the potential to be gatekeepers, we should be cautious regarding the degree to which we place our trust in their abilities. Ultimately, all of these checks can actually be used by backsliders to support their own cause. In particular, the increasing polarization of media brings into question its ability to stop eroders. Furthermore, media may actually not be as effective at curbing fake news as we would like. Finally, media has the potential to become a tool of the backslider. While there is no silver bullet to keeping out backsliders, the media must fight to remain its autonomy from the state and to deliver high-quality journalism.
*Photo “P9280033” by Bruno Pin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How democracies die. London: Penguin.  Barrera Rodriguez, Oscar and Guriev, Sergei M. and Henry, Emeric and Zhuravskaya, Ekaterina, Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics (December 14, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3004631 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3004631  Scott Gehlbach (2010) Reflections on Putin and the Media, Post-Soviet Affairs, 26:1, 77-87, DOI: 10.2747/1060-586X.26.1.77