Five ways the media bungled the election

January 24, 2017

It didn’t take more than a few hours for President Trump to attack the press, and scarcely longer for his advisor, Kellyanne Conway, to introduce a novel concept: “alternative facts” in response to reporting that the crowd at the Trump inauguration fell below its predecessors. Thus has the battle between the media and the president been ignited.

While news organizations in these early days have been aggressive about pointing out the new administration’s factual errors, it’s impossible to predict whether this sudden media vigilance is going to be their position going forward, especially given how they performed during the campaign. That was a performance that brought them little glory. Whether you think the election of Donald Trump is the nadir of modern American politics and the end of America as we know it, or a revolt of the masses that was long overdue, just about everyone agrees that the media’s election coverage failed staggeringly. You already know the litany of media neglect, disproportion, one-sidedness, and other transgressions–a kind of greatest hits of malfeasance: emails, FBI director James Comey, Russian hackers, WikiLeaks, insults, threats, tax returns, mystery illnesses, and on and on, etc., etc.

Trump saw the weakness. He played to the press’s desire for controversy and its disdain for substance.

While such micro-failings are particular to this bizarre election campaign, they are subsumed by the same old macro-failings that have been bruited about and lamented over from election to election for 40 years now. Read Thomas E. Patterson’s brilliant and path-breaking book, Out of Order, which examines presidential campaign coverage from the 1970s through 1992, and you find the same criticisms: the overwhelming negativity, the rush to impose narrative configurations on the race, the gaming schema, the focus on the trivial, the bias to punish losing candidates and elevate ascending ones. Or read Kiki Adatto’s Harvard critique of the 1988 election coverage, and you’ll find familiar complaints: election coverage as theater criticism. Or read a post-election study conducted by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center of the 1992 election, which includes a discussion of journalistic elitism we know all too well: “Rely more on human nature and conflict, and less on bloodless things as horse-race polls,” reporter Curtis Wilkie of The Boston Globe says, anticipating this year’s post-election mea culpas. In that same study, you will also find that when asked the “defining moment of the campaign,” a panel of correspondents concurred it was the Gennifer Flowers news conference in which she announced she had had an affair with Bill Clinton.

No matter what we critics say, no matter what the public says, no matter what journalists themselves say about their own shortcomings, nothing ever seems to change in our election coverage, and I suspect nothing ever will. There is something endemic in this kind of coverage–negative and cynical, nitpicky, gaffe-centric, narratively formulaic, non-content coverage, sensationalistic coverage, equivocating coverage.

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Because these are endemic, I am not particularly sanguine about prospects that the media will reform themselves come the next presidential election, and it is probably futile to suggest ways in which they could. But that shouldn’t necessarily deter us from trying. Reform begins by examining some of the major transgressions the media committed. And, futile or not, there are some potential correctives should they be so inclined to perform more responsibly in 2020.


1) They turned the election into a sporting event.

Every election cycle, we hear condemnations of the “horse-race” aspect of coverage. I have always loved James Fallows’s analogy that if science reporters treated medical discoveries the way political reporters treated elections, great breakthroughs would matter less than the prospect of a scientist winning the Nobel Prize. According to a report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, 42 percent of the general election coverage in a survey of 10 major media organs was devoted to polling and the horse-race–more than four times the number devoted to policy, which is, theoretically at least, the reason there is a race to begin with. This really is a case of putting the cart before the horse.


2) They blew the numbers.

It is bad enough that the winning/losing issue dominates coverage. But the focus on polling in this election was especially troubling for a very good reason: Many of the polls were simply wrong. I call it “Political Moneyball.” For years now, analytical savants like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight and Nate Cohn of The New York Times’s Upshot have been crunching numbers the way the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane used data to build his baseball team, as chronicled by the writer Michael Lewis, who turned the experience into a best-seller. Beane’s idea was that old-timers who used their eyeballs rather than their computers were missing essentials. They were anachronisms in a high-tech, numbers-driven world. And so, by analogy, are old-fashioned reporters who have their ears to the ground and their fingers searching for the national pulse.

Almost nothing good has come out of this year’s political coverage, but this may be the exception: No one will ever believe Nate Silver or Nate Cohn or The Huffington Post aggregator or any other polling data ever again. Political Moneyball failed spectacularly. Even the number crunchers seemed to sense they were in trouble. Nate Silver kept trying to nudge the figures Trump’s way because, I assume, he sensed something. But the real antidote to horse-race coverage is to vanquish public, media-financed, pre-election polling altogether. This would leave a lot of reporters twiddling their thumbs, thinking of something to write about–which would, frankly, not be a bad thing–forcing them out from behind their desks or their seats on the campaign planes to tour the country and listen to citizens and interpret their grievances. For a model, look at Jenna Johnson of The Washington Post, who turned in some of the best reporting of the campaign by actually talking to voters. Her pieces read like scouting reports. Imagine.


3) They cast a pall of negativity over the entire campaign.

Negative campaign coverage is hardly novel. It is virtually compulsory. The Shorenstein report found that the coverage was overwhelmingly negative in 2016, both in the tone with which subjects were approached (59 percent of the horse-race stories; 91 percent of the controversy stories; 84 percent of policy stories; 80 percent of personal qualities stories; and 73 percent of leadership/experience stories), and in the way the two candidates were treated. During the general election, Trump’s coverage veered between 65 percent negative to 91 percent negative (after highly positive pre-primary numbers that demonstrated the media’s swoon for sensation), Clinton’s from 47 percent to 79 percent, though every one of the 10 news organizations surveyed gave her more negative than positive coverage. Overall, 64 percent of her coverage was negative, versus 77 percent for Trump, but even that is misleading since most of Clinton’s positive press was generated by the momentum she allegedly had in the horse race. That is, she looked like a winner.

A value-neutral media may seem as if it is exercising objectivity, but it is really a cop-out, and it serves the nation no better than a fact-neutral media–and in this campaign season we have suffered grievously from both.

You can chalk this up to many things. The media might say they were simply following the public’s own negativity toward the candidates, which wouldn’t be a good excuse in any case. I chalk it up to the media’s deep-baked cynicism about politicians and the political process and to reporters’ own obsession with not wanting either to be or to seem to be gulled. Negativity is safe. It is the stance the cool kids take. Call it the “Maureen Dowd syndrome,” after the Times columnist who once made snark fashionable.

The problem with negativity is that it is self-reinforcing. It builds on itself until it supersedes everything, including positive coverage. It also corrodes belief in the system when that faith is essential to a healthy democracy. This is not to say reporters have to be Pollyannaish. It is to say that they have to be selectively negative because things are not always all bad. Disproportion is as much journalistic malfeasance as a rosy gloss. And that leads to another problem: Negativity is often just bad reporting. In his Shorenstein report, Patterson found that coverage of the economy during the 1992 election was highly negative, even as the economy was pulling out of a recession. Similarly, he found that economic coverage from 2010 to 2016 on NBC and CBS was highly negative–70 percent to 30 percent positive–even as the economy was steadily recovering from the worst decline since the Great Depression. Finally, negative reporting benefits the worst candidates. As Patterson puts it:

When everything and everybody is portrayed as deeply flawed, there’s no sense making distinctions on that score, which works to the advantage of those who are more deeply flawed. Civility and sound proposals are no longer the stuff of headlines, which instead give voice to those who are skilled in the art of destruction.

That should sound familiar.

There is, however, an antidote, even if it isn’t easily administered. Reporters and pundits have to get off their high horses. They have to start worrying less about their self-righteous sense of superiority over an “inferior” system with “flawed” candidates and more about the nation, the public, and the truth journalists supposedly serve. Instead of looking to Maureen Dowd as a model, how about instead emulating Jefferson Smith, the hero of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? He was not oblivious to the faults of the system. He discovered and fought them and suffered ridicule for having done so. But for all that, he remained an idealist rather than a cynic. If ever there were a time when we could use some journalistic idealism cum realism, this is it. Alas, I’m as guilty as anyone of cynicism; I doubt reporters and pundits are up to the challenge. But they might want to give it a shot.


4) They neglected policy.

We elect leaders to govern, but the press tells us next to nothing about how they would govern. According to a report from Andrew Tyndall, in the entirety of 2016, NBC, CBS, and ABC devoted only 32 minutes–combined–to policy issues in their election coverage. “No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits,” says Tyndall. “To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates’ terms, not on the networks’ initiative.” By comparison, the three networks spent 100 minutes on Hillary Clinton’s emails. In fact, nothing the press did may have worked more to Trump’s benefit than the fact that this was an issue-free election. (The press actually criticized Clinton for being too policy-oriented.) Trump saw the weakness. He played to the press’s desire for controversy and its disdain for substance.

The media must uphold what is best in us, often by showing what is worst in us.

This is beyond dereliction. It amounts to a high journalistic crime, but we all know why it happened. Journalists think policy is boring, and that no one is interested. Moreover, policy takes expertise to report. It is much easier to talk about electoral strategy, mistakes and polls, which almost anyone can do. The antidote to this is simple to state, nearly impossible to implement: You pull reporters off the stump, where they are basically stationed to see if a candidate makes a gaffe or is assassinated, and put them to work–tough, hard, grunt work–painstakingly examining policy positions and their potential effects on voters. In short, you redress the imbalance. This is what The Washington Post did with David Fahrenthold, who provided extraordinary investigative coverage. We could have used a lot more of it.

Of course, this would require an almost total reconfiguration of our coverage, which is entertainment-based rather than issue-based, and a retraining of our political journalists, most of whom know next to nothing about policy. And they would squeal over the change. So might readers, listeners, and viewers. Controversies are a lot more fun than issues, even though voters insist they want a more issue-driven journalism.


5) They failed to discriminate between the values of the candidates.

We warn constantly against media bias, and what greater bias could there be than comparing values, which seem mushy and amorphous to begin with and tilted to whatever side happens to be espousing them? And yet I suspect this has long been nothing more than a convenient excuse by the mainstream media to avoid getting bashed, especially from the right. The unignorable fact is that there are good values and bad values. We all realize that some policies advance good ones and some advance bad ones. We all realize that the person we elect does, among other things, set our national values. A value-neutral media may seem as if it is exercising objectivity, but it is really a cop-out, and it serves the nation no better than a fact-neutral media–and in this campaign season we have suffered grievously from both.

Let’s speak plainly here. You may love Donald Trump. You may think that blasting immigrants and Muslims and women is “telling it like it is.” You may think Trump is exactly the kind of bomb this country needs to blow its elites to smithereens. You may think his lies are inconsequential because all politicians lie or because the truth is slippery. But even if you think and feel those things, it’s harder to defend his values, which lack compassion, decency, tolerance and kindness. They are among the reasons he got elected. “He says what we are thinking,” even when, or especially when, what we are thinking is reprehensible.

Value neutrality and false equivalency are the twin banes of modern journalism. To pretend Trump’s values and Clinton’s values are equally valid is nonsense, contemptible nonsense, and the media must finally admit it. Going forward, reporters should subject Trump and his policies to a value “test.” (And not only Trump, but all politicians.) Does Trump represent the fundamental values of this country, at least as we have boasted of them? Does he believe in compassion, community, charitableness, economic and social equality, and fairness, to name just a few? No one much likes the press. Focusing on truth and focusing on values are the only ways the media can regain their legitimacy and their vitality. The media must uphold what is best in us, often by showing what is worst in us.

America is in existential crisis. It has elected a man whose own supporters believe he is unqualified for the office, and it is governed by two parties for which the public has little or no affection.

Equivalency isn’t objectivity. Sometimes you have to take a side. This was the case in the Civil Rights era when, after equivocating for far too long, the best reporters and best newspapers finally decided to grow a conscience and distinguish between those marching for their rights and the racists trying to prevent them from gaining those rights. In a campaign marked by unprecedented and ugly sallies, the media need to find their conscience again.

It won’t be easy and it won’t come naturally to a media accustomed to dodging attacks from partisans rather than braving them. Still, this is what I think a value-driven media might look like. It would probe candidates and office-holders relentlessly about the effects of their policies. It would ask Republicans, for example, what happens if they repeal Obamacare; who gets hurt; why the wealthiest nation in the world should not have national health care when every other industrialized nation does; what the purpose is of taking health insurance away from 20 million people who otherwise cannot afford it; how they can justify huge tax giveaways to the richest Americans while squeezing the neediest; and, last but by no means least, if Republicans’ reluctance to insure the poor is an example of rabid ideology over public welfare. The media spent weeks harping on the balky Obamacare rollout. Why can’t they spend a fraction of that time examining the values of those who support it and those who want to get rid of it? And that is just one issue.

This shouldn’t, however, be a left/right, Democratic/Republican divide. The press should demand answers of both parties. They should compel both parties to defend their policies and their values. They should subject both parties to withering scrutiny. I don’t mean the old Tim Russert Meet the Press “gotcha” stunt, where you catch a politician in contradiction. That’s show business. I mean challenging politicians’ fundamental values, forcing them to show the nexus between values and policy, which may also mean challenging their facts. For an example of this kind of reporting in action, see how NBC’s Katy Tur methodically corrected every Trump falsehood during the campaign and how she pressed him for answers, making him squirm and bluster.

This sort of journalism requires intelligence, feistiness, diligence, bravery, and morality, so I am not hopeful. Whether reporters attempt this or not, Trump will be on the offensive against them, caterwauling that they are out to get him. The press would have to demonstrate a heretofore seldom-seen capacity to take the hits and keep coming. But these are not times for the faint of heart. America is in existential crisis. It has elected a man whose own supporters believe he is unqualified for the office, and it is governed by two parties for which the public has little or no affection.

Most Americans, rightfully I think, feel the press has failed them. It can only make amends by reforming itself, and it can only reform itself by rethinking itself. Its survival may be at stake, but, to the extent that a vital press is essential to a vigorous society, so may be the survival of our democracy.

Neal Gabler is a Senior Fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society at USC and the author of five books. He is working on a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.