The best and worst journalism of September 2016

September 30, 2016
Illustration by Jeff Drew Pictures

Another month of the presidential race consuming the media’s collective brainpower has whizzed by—time flies when you’re having an existential crisis! Campaign coverage rubbed CJR both the right and wrong ways in September, headlining a simultaneously standout and depressing month for journalism. Hear ye, hear ye:

The Best Journalism of September 2016

Digging in on the trail

The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has earned paladin-like status for his valiant attempts to prove Donald Trump is telling the truth about his charitable giving. The reporting is chipping ever-larger chunks off the uber-generous image Trump has long cultivated. Sad! Sitting next to Fahrenthold at the round table of breakout 2016 reporters is Sopan Deb, who chases Trump for CBS News and transcribes the GOP candidate’s verbal firehose in real time. Deb has become an engine for much of the political media’s Trump coverage—your Twitter feed is not complete without him. 

Don’t blink, meanwhile, because this is fact-checking’s moment. The typical fly-swatters of falsehoods like PolitiFact have been joined by in-house outfits at NPR and elsewhere in thrashing ever more vigorously to police truth-suspect debates. These efforts are refreshing, if palliative. In related news: Huffington Post Highline produced perhaps the defining analysis to date on Hillary Clinton’s policy agenda. And Frontline presented biographical dives on both candidates in its latest feature-length documentary, The Choice 2016, for a high-contrast side-by-side comparison. They are much-needed vegetables in this fast-food election. 

Fade route

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ESPN’s decision to shutter Grantland last year struck a blow to sophisticated feature writing on sports and culture. But The Ringer has quickly proven it can do that genre justice, including with its beautifully crafted profile of college football star-turned NFL dropout Justin Blackmon. The wide receiver was everything we hope to be on the field, everything we fear we are off of it. And author Jordan Ritter Conn illustrates in sad detail how stardom often exposes such human contradictions, chronicling Blackmon’s disappearance from the gridiron and our imaginations.

Tracing America’s stolen guns

Much of the national reporting around firearms focuses on broad trends in carnage—the rise of mass shootings or the general drop in violent crime—and far-reaching political questions. The Trace combined both narrow thematic focus and wide geographic scope in its investigation on the rise in gun thefts from cars. The digital upstart, which focuses solely on firearms, made public records requests with 100 big-city police departments to catalog thousands of such incidents nationwide in recent years, illustrating the trend from its epicenter, Atlanta. The story, which shows how hard it is for law enforcement to trace these guns, lives up to the nascent news organization’s name.

Indianapolis’ deadly streets

For all the great fare startups have added to the menu of media options in 2016, it’s hard to imagine even the most ambitious entrants counting streetlights in Indianapolis. The hometown Indianapolis Star still does that legwork. Its powerful analysis of the causes and effects of the city’s chronically underlit streets, which often lack sidewalks, is the sort of meat-and-potatoes coverage that addresses crucial public safety concerns. This is the type of essential work that’s at risk as local media continues to atrophy.

In The Dark

American Public Media’s multi-part retelling of the investigation into a 1989 child abduction exhibits the very best of audio storytelling: detailed reporting, slick production, and a suspenseful narrative. Perhaps more impressively, the podcast didn’t miss a beat when Jacob Wetterling’s kidnapper and killer confessed just before the program’s first episode aired in early September. Reporter Madeleine Baran deserves plaudits for this pivot—the program is no less enthralling with the suspect finally in custody.

The Worst Journalism of September 2016

A Trump infomercial

The apparent glee with which cable outlets tune in for all-too-common Trump sightings defies parody. And the channels’ live broadcast of Trump’s half-disavowal of birther conspiracies—which morphed into a long-form commercial for his new hotel and campaign—was particularly cringeworthy. The high-ups at cable outlets who decide what to air, and when, are hanging out their journalists to dry on live television. 

Matt Lauer’s whiff, and the media pile-on afterward

The Today show anchor was facing Trump one-on-one—there was no other candidate on stage to fact-check the truth-challenged GOP candidate—and Trump lied to his face. Lauer’s failure to point out reality to the millions watching at home was sad on multiple counts. First, Trump’s false claim that he initially opposed the Iraq War is among his main foreign policy distinctions from his hawkish Democratic opponent. What’s more, this particular assertion has been fact-checked into oblivion for months, starting way back in February with the truth-squadders at BuzzFeed News. Other interviewers before Lauer have similarly been skewered for their inability to challenge Trump on a black-white matter of fact. The lack of awareness was stunning. 

We all cried out when Lauer watched that easy pitch to hit sail right over the heart of the plate—we were projecting collective frustration with ourselves this election season. The high-profile anchor seemed to have a chance to win a symbolic victory for journalism after its countless embarrassments at the hands of the anti-journalism Trump. Lauer did let everybody down, but he’s not the only one. Momentary triumphs—take Lester Holt’s fact-check of Trump during the first general election debate—won’t wash away the bad taste in our mouths.

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.