The Washington Post’s departing media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in her final column on Sunday that journalists need to deploy “fearless straight talk,” such as making clear the stakes of re-electing former President Donald Trump.
“Journalists certainly shouldn’t shill for Trump’s 2024 rivals — whoever they may be — but they have to be willing to show their readers, viewers and listeners that electing him again would be dangerous,” Sullivan wrote. “That’s a tricky tightrope to walk.”
Sullivan, who announced earlier this month she was leaving the paper to become a professor at Duke University and write fiction, has served as the post’s media columnist since May 2016. She told Vanity Fair that her departure was a “self-imposed term limit” after roughly 500 published columns.
She previously worked as The New York Times’ public editor and an editor at The Buffalo News.
In her final column, Sullivan praised the media industry as coming a “long, long way” in covering Trump’s norm-shattering presidency. She had regularly used the now-retired column to criticize coverage of the former president and related threats to democracy.
“It is now common to see headlines and stories that plainly refer to some politicians as ‘election deniers,’ and journalists are far less hesitant to use the blunt and clarifying word ‘lie’ to describe Trump’s false statements,” Sullivan wrote, referencing his unfounded claims of election fraud in 2020.
She also highlighted efforts by the Post and other news outlets to create beats dedicated to democracy-focused issues like voting access and the politicization of the election process.
“And yet, I worry that it’s not nearly enough,” she wrote. “I don’t mean to suggest that journalists can address the threats to democracy all by themselves — but they must do more.”
Sullivan called on the industry to rely less on “knee-jerk” live coverage and instead do more to bring in meaningful context and thoughtful framing to better inform their audiences. She also encouraged outlets to explain why they are making certain coverage decisions, like if they aren’t airing a speech live to avoid airing lies.
“The deeper question is whether news organizations can break free of their hidebound practices — the love of political conflict, the addiction to elections as a horse race — to address those concerns effectively,” Sullivan wrote. “For the sake of democracy, they must.”