Six rules for the media on how to cover the 2020 election
With the entrance of multiple Democrats into the 2020 presidential contest, and with several others either waiting in the wings or still pondering, the nation’s political reporters have a chance to do a better job than they did in 2016.
The question is: Will they?
Other journalists are offering advice and warnings. Many acknowledge that the media blew it in 2016, giving Donald Trump all the airtime he wanted and not taking him seriously — or looking at him critically — until it was too late.
Once media stopped giving Trump superficial treatment (especially after the election), pointing out his failures, never-ending lies, and actions of questionable legality (most of them aren’t so questionable), it was too late. Too many voters believed his taunts about the media being “fake news” and the “enemy of the people,” so they’re not likely to give the media the benefit of the doubt now. (A recent Poynter study showed that trust in the media is heavily polarized.) And because he is the president, the media have to cover him, even though they sometimes take the wrong approach in that coverage.
So the cycle begins anew. Democratic candidates announce, and women candidates are judged on their “moralizing tone” (Elizabeth Warren), their “hysteria” (Kamala Harris), or their “likability” (Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren). Sometimes candidates are dismissed immediately because they’re too old or too young, they’re no longer relevant, or their time has passed.
It’s true that most Americans — nearly seven in 10 people, according to Pew Research — feel exhausted and overwhelmed by the news. But that’s no reason to give short shrift to substantive issues for the 2020 election. If anything, news consumers want substance, not just coverage of the latest Trump tweet.
So what should the media do this time around? Here are six tips, compiled from advice by several journalists, along with some well-rounded common sense.
Don’t let Trump continually set the agenda. Trump is a master at saying, doing, or tweeting something outrageous to distract everyone from the government shutdown, the seesawing stock market, the effects of his tariffs, and the Robert Mueller investigation. He might have looked like a buffoon for serving cold fast food to the Clemson Tigers championship football team, but the whole time he was being trolled or Photoshopped on Twitter, coverage of the shutdown got moved to a back burner.
Frank Bruni offered his take in a New York Times column, wondering if the media would once again be Trump’s “accomplice.”
That’s a specific question but also an overarching one — about the degree to which we’ll let him set the terms of the 2020 presidential campaign, about our appetite for antics versus substance, and about whether we’ll repeat the mistakes that we made in 2016 and continued to make during the first stages of his presidency. There were plenty.
Trump tortures us. Deliberately, yes, but I’m referring to the ways in which he keeps yanking our gaze his way. I mean the tough choices that he, more than his predecessors in the White House, forces us to make. …
Our success or failure will affect our stature at a time of rickety public trust in us. It will raise or lower the temperature of civic discourse, which is perilously hot. Above all, it will have an impact on who takes the oath of office in January 2021. Democracies don’t just get the leaders they deserve. They get the leaders who make it through whatever obstacle course — and thrive in whatever atmosphere — their media has created.
Don’t cover Trump tweets like the Second Coming. The media asked themselves a serious question at the start of Trump’s term, namely, how should they cover his tweets? Since he wasn’t bothering with news conferences, and most interviews were on friendly Fox News turf, many a newscast leads with whatever spewed from his fingers in 280 characters or less.
In hindsight, the endless parroting was the wrong decision. It’s likely that many of his millions of Twitter followers are Russian bots (61 percent by some estimates), but a large number of them are in the media. Even when reporters don’t lead a story with a Trump tweet, they’ll often retweet whatever Trump said, often with a caustic comment. Guess what — he still gets his message out.
Stick to the substantive, not the superficial. Endless stories about who’s up and who’s down (while eventually necessary) rely more about name recognition than anything else. A story on how Democrats are polling in January of 2019 when no votes will be cast for a year is easy to write but meaningless.
Katrina vanden Heuvel pointed out the media’s “malpractice” in a Washington Post column and warned against a repeat:
As the 2020 presidential race gets underway, many journalists and pundits are already reverting to the personality-driven, horse-race-style coverage that plagued the 2016 campaign. During her first campaign stop in Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) talked passionately about taking on corporate power and tackling inequality in front of overflow crowds. In the corporate media, however, much of the coverage of Warren’s campaign rollout focused on her decision to take a DNA test and on implicitly sexist questions about her “likability.” …
Mainstream media coverage is frequently motivated by an insatiable desire for conflict — in war zones, on the campaign trail and in the nation’s capital. Too often, however, that coverage fails to inform people about conflicting ideas or alternatives to endless war, discredited economic policies and a downsized politics of excluded possibilities. As the new House majority rolls out its agenda and more presidential candidates enter the fray, outlets should reevaluate how they cover politics and policy. We can’t afford more media malpractice that degrades our democracy and drowns out real debate.
Don’t treat Trump like he’ll last forever. He won’t, even though sometimes it feels that way. While he certainly dominates news coverage and will always try to shout the loudest, he’s only as effective as his ratings.
Ted Koppel, a longtime veteran of “Nightline” at ABC News who now contributes to CBS News’ “Sunday Morning,” wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that Trump won’t “go quietly.” Koppel described Trump’s media mastery as “a multipurpose device, one he used adroitly in tandem with the endlessly adaptable political vehicle provided by social media during the election campaign and now during his presidency.”
Is there any reason to believe that what worked for Trump before he was elected and while in the White House won’t be equally effective after he leaves office? …
It is all but inevitable that whoever succeeds Trump in the White House will be perceived by 30 to 40 percent of the voting public as illegitimate — and that the former president will enthusiastically encourage them in this perception. Whatever his failings, Trump is a brilliant self-promoter and provocateur. He showed no embarrassment, either as candidate or president, about using his high visibility to benefit his business interests. Untethered from any political responsibility whatsoever, he can be expected to capitalize fully on his new status as political martyr and leader of a new “resistance” that will make today’s look supine.
I’m not so sure about that. As many of today’s rising political stars (think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke) are showing, they can master social media as well as Trump, thank you very much. And they offer a fresher and more relatable image for younger voters. Plus, they’re more fun, and they’re not jerks.
Keep horse-race stories to a minimum, and make sure to offer perspective. Look, we all click on FiveThirtyEight.com regularly to check out poll numbers; otherwise, our political junkie credentials would be revoked. Every news organization runs polls now, just to keep up. (This is true even as there are reports of bribery to rig polls and Trump manipulating poll coverage.) Horse-race numbers end up dominating news coverage, throughout primary season, during the political conventions, and as Election Day approaches.
Politico ran a piece in defense of horse-race journalism, calling it “awesome.”
Horseracism might be scary if the campaign press corps produced nothing but who’s up/who’s down stories. But that’s never been the case. American newspapers overflow with detailed stories about the issues and the candidates’ positions.
“Overflow”? Since when?
At the end of the 2008 campaign, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell sorted Post political coverage over the previous year and found 1,295 horse-race stories compared with 594 stories about the issues.
Those numbers are pretty lopsided; I rest my case. Still, Politico makes some important points. Voters want to back a winner and don’t want to waste campaign contributions on a losing candidate.
It’s not antidemocratic for journalists to measure support by checking polls, campaign donations, audience size and endorsements. In fact, such signaling makes democracy possible. Especially in the opening days of a candidacy, a politician must alert potential supporters of his existing supporters. Not many voters will join a bandwagon that doesn’t have followers or wheels.
Horse-race coverage also helps clarify the voters’ minds when candidates converge on the issues, as happens regularly in the Democratic presidential derbies. If there’s little difference between the views of the candidate you favor and the leader’s, horse-race coverage helps optimize your vote by steering you toward the politician most likely to implement your views. Pundits aren’t the only ones who worry about a candidate’s electability.
Finally, the most important piece of advice:
Lay off the both-siderism. Of all the things that make reading or watching political coverage maddening, it is the false equivalency of reporting on one candidate’s shortcomings and then feeling the need to “balance” the story with something damning about the other candidate. Probably no one suffered the effects of this more than Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Here’s just one example: The Clinton Foundation gets a four-star rating from Charity Navigator and has spent millions fighting AIDS in Africa, and no one in the Clinton family draws a salary for foundation work. The Trump Foundation gave money to a political candidate, used funds to pay Trump legal bills, and is being closed down. Yet you would have had to dig for such differences in 2016, when the media were all too eager to quote some Republican calling the Clinton Foundation corrupt.
Washington Monthly offered some perspective:
We’ve also seen that some people in the media are finally recognizing that the polarization we’re experiencing in politics these days is asymmetrical, with Republicans doing things to deepen, rather than heal the divide. And yet, the kind of both-siderism that gave us Donald Trump in the first place continues to find a home in too many places. …
The reason [NBC’s Chuck] Todd and [Cook Political Report’s Amy] Walter don’t accuse Democrats of bad behavior in the current process is because there hasn’t been any on display. That isn’t a partisan assessment, it is a fact. Accurate reporting would confirm the facts rather than go in search of a way to claim that both sides do it. Todd and Walter engaged in a distortion that gives Republicans a pass for what they are doing, which makes reporters like them complicit.
Welcome to the 2020 race. As Bette Davis said in All About Eve, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Originally posted on Daily Kos on Jan. 20, 2019.