Why media failed so badly in 2016 election, and why they’re still failing
The election was horrible, the coverage was worse, and the outcome was unbelievable. Yet here we are, soon after being served up an orange turkey on a Thanksgiving platter, and the traditional media still haven’t learned their lesson.
We waded through nonstop screaming coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails on every channel and every inch of print. Yet there was so little coverage of Donald Trump’s coming conflicts of interest, his fraudulent practices at Trump University, and his pay-to-play dealings with the Trump Foundation that the average voter would react with a shrug and a big, “Huh? Never heard of it.”
Media Matters has a rundown of how the news media avoided reporting on Trump’s conflicts of interest before the election. Even now, there are scant stories outside of left-leaning blogs and small mention in traditional media about the obvious ways Trump and the Trump offspring are already profiting off his new status as scammer-in-chief. Trump tweets that only the “crooked media” think there’s a problem with his set-up.
There is growing normalization of the extremist positions taken by those with possible appointments in a Trump administration and of his supporters. A Los Angeles Times story about a white nationalists’ meeting in Washington after the election referred to the group as a “think tank” (this used to be referred to as “propaganda,” but I guess now it’s a “think tank”). A video of these neo-Nazis giving a straight-arm Hitler salute was too dramatic to be ignored, so it got more coverage.
Trump summoned about 40 major television media players to Trump Tower for an off-the-record meeting (nothing wrong with that; Obama sometimes did the same thing), but they got played again. Leaks (no doubt from Trumpland to show what a “real man” he is) reported that he screamed that they were all liars, deceitful, and corrupt. Even worse, they run unflattering photos that made him look fat! (Do we need to point out that Trump has not had an actual press conference since July, which Hillary Clinton was excoriated for repeatedly during the election?) Now Trumpland is claiming that the meeting was “substantive.” There was also an on-again, off-again, on-again meeting with The New York Times.
This problem is about more than just corporate ownership of newspapers and television networks. We won’t soon forget that statement from CBS CEO Les Moonves about overplaying Donald Trump: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” We won’t forget the $2 billion in free media coverage, just to increase clicks and eyeballs.
No, what’s worse is that it’s lazy journalism that adheres to group-think. Media are still going out of their way to avoid being labeled “liberal.” Instead of election coverage worth reading or listening to, we got pablum and drivel, with constant updates about poll numbers and horserace coverage. And I fear it’s not going to get any better anytime soon.
A perfect example is the kerfuffle about Hamilton. Vice president-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the Broadway megahit and was booed by the audience. (I admit that was rude, but he and Trump better get used to such treatment. Talk about living in a bubble!) After the cast took their bows, Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor playing Vice President Aaron Burr, politely delivered a message to Pence asking that Pence include everyone in Trump’s America, without fear of discrimination. This was not “breaking the fourth wall,” as some have suggested; actors often address the audience after the performance, especially this time of year as they collect money for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fund.
President-to-be Thin-Skin started tweeting his outrage, demanding apologies from the Hamilton cast. There were lots of fun reactions, including #NameAPenceMusical with suggestions such as White Side Story, Deport Miss Saigon, and (of course) Springtime for Hitler. Others opined that if Trump is such a wimp that he can’t handle a bunch of musical theater kids, how’s he going to fight ISIS?
The problem, of course, is that Trump was able to change the subject from the settlement of the Trump University fraud suits. Instead of having him face trial, his lawyers convinced the other sides to settle, and the Orange Menace got off with paying $25 million, which (a) is only a fraction of the money lost by the Trump U. students and (b) is being written off on Trump’s taxes.
Trump U.’s fraudulent practices quickly dropped from media attention. They probably never penetrated public notice. Can you imagine the weeks’ worth of nonstop coverage if a Democrat had a similar fraud suit pending against him or her?
Trump tweets, and the traditional media are still his lapdogs. “Why do you care?” former Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway asked when CNN’s Chris Cuomo brought up the Hamilton tweets. They care because without the Trump tweets, they would have to do more actual reporting. NPR is starting to lead its newscasts with “Trump tweeted today …”
New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd, who is turning out to be one of the worst public editors the paper has ever had, wrote an apologetic column about how the paper was unfair to Trump voters by implying they were racist or homophobic, mirroring their candidate. She claimed that many of the letters and comments she gets (“not picked randomly,” she insisted) were from readers who wanted the Times to drop the “liberal” viewpoint in its news coverage, especially when it came to coverage of the Trump voter.
The national desk of The Times has correspondents around the country, and they filed a steady stream of compelling stories from voters between coastal America. And yet between the horse race and the campaign drama, much of their work was simply drowned out.
Excuse me, but are we talking about the same newspaper? I saw plenty of stories in The New York Times and elsewhere about Trump voters that did not imply overt racism or homophobia. Yes, there were stories of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, especially their outrageous behavior at Trump rallies, but there also were stories about working-class voters with economic concerns. If those stories got drowned out, it was because of the over-reliance on horserace coverage and the fact that the Times and other outlets were devoting so many column inches and so much airtime to Clinton’s emails.
Of course Spayd has received letters and comment with complaints about the Times’ overplay of Clinton emails. But she doesn’t address that at all in this column. If anything, all of the media outlets are bending over backward right now to explain the poor, misunderstood Trump voter. But I guess the Times and the rest of the media are so hyper-sensitive about being labeled liberal that they’re all willing to give Trump a pass for the moment, except for the most egregious mistakes and statements from Trump and his transition team.
This is from Media Matter’s reaction to Spayd’s column:
Yet not a single reader whom Spayd chose to include in her post-campaign analysis expressed any concern about the daily’s Clinton coverage. Nor did she feature any complaints that the paper’s coverage of Trump may have been insufficiently rigorous. Instead, criticism from the left of the paper’s general election coverage was entirely absent.
The omission and complete lack of introspection is also strange simply because the Times’ treatment of Clinton has been the topic of an ongoing media debate, as a wide array of writers have detailed what they viewed as the paper’s patently unfair treatment of the Democratic nominee. Even the Times’ former executive editor, Jill Abramson, agreed that the newspaper gives Clinton “an unfair” level of scrutiny.
She was hardly alone this campaign, as numerous media observers and readers alike criticized the paper’s treatment of the Democratic nominee, calling the coverage a “biased train wreck” that indicated “a problem covering Hillary Clinton,” who was “always going to be presumed guilty of something.”
What about Trump’s conflicts of interest? They are many, but how are they being covered in the media? From a different Media Matters piece:
Between September 14 and Election Day, the networks only aired approximately seven minutes of stories about or at least mentioning a conflict of interest. In the week after the election, they aired approximately 14 minutes — but only half of that explicitly called the issues “conflicts.”
Trump has said throughout his campaign and following his election that he intends for his children to run his business empire while he is president. But on September 14, Newsweek reported that if Trump and his family don’t cut ties to the family’s business conglomerate, Trump would “be the most conflicted president in American history, one whose business interests will constantly jeopardize the security of the United States” due to the Trump Organization’s relationships and financial entanglements with foreign interests.” Responding to that story, Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told Media Matters that the only way to avoid serious conflicts of interest would be for Trump and his family to sell all of their holdings in the Trump Organization. Painter also stressed that the issue was a “serious problem” that warrants increased media attention.
There already have been instances of the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., catering to foreign diplomats. The Trump team denies anything untoward, but there were reports of Trump talking to government leaders in Argentina, India, and Japan while trying to beef up business on the side. He used talks with former UKIP leader and Trump fanboy Nigel Farage to renew complaints about how offshore wind farms are a “blight on the stunning landscape” at his Scottish golf course. But coverage has been scant.
We probably shouldn’t count on the younger generation to see through Trump’s lies, either. A new study by Stanford University says that students aren’t able to distinguish between real and fake news on websites. “Many students judged the credibility of newsy tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source. More than two out of three middle-schoolers couldn’t see any valid reason to mistrust a post written by a bank executive arguing that young adults need more financial-planning help,” said a story in The Wall Street Journal about the findings.
I know that Media Matters has a liberal viewpoint. But as they say, facts have a liberal bias. And speaking of facts, I wonder what Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular presidential vote is by now? It was past 2 million last I checked.
Originally posted on Daily Kos, Nov. 27, 2016.