If recent history is any guide, the United States is less than a year away from a paralyzing national security crisis. Whether President Donald Trump or his Democratic challenger wins in November, revelations that Russia is once again interfering in the 2020 presidential election all but guarantee that the legitimacy of the electoral results will be called into question, potentially undermining the country’s very political stability. One way to guard against that looming threat is for media outlets, which frame how most Americans understand foreign meddling, to make a major course correction in how they cover and respond to Russia’s election interference.
Many newsrooms and journalists remain troublingly ill-equipped to deal with Russia’s information warfare, despite what happened in 2016. While many news outlets are giving their all to covering the unrelenting 2020 election news cycle fairly and rigorously, the news industry itself is woefully behind the curve on confronting the threat posed to a free press by these disinformation campaigns. Despite the preponderance of evidence that news organizations, along with social media platforms, are the central targets of Russia’s more sophisticated 21st-century efforts, many American news outlets continue to operate like they are stuck in the 20th century.
Take the response to the fallout from Trump’s recent appointment of loyalist Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany, to replace Joseph Maguire as acting head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Trump had apparently berated Maguire for arranging a classified briefing with members of the House Intelligence Committee that revealed that Russia was interfering in the 2020 presidential campaign to help Trump’s reelection. Maguire had only been in the job a few months, but his warning to Congress swiftly ended any hope that this retired Navy admiral and respected career official would take up the position permanently.