As the republic teeters, will the news media get serious?

May 7, 2019
Thomas Cole, "Desolation" (1836).

No sooner had newsrooms shaken their election night astonishment and called the 2016 election for Donald Trump than a journalistic consensus crystallized on where campaign coverage had gone wrong: a collective failure of prophecy. In the run-up, after all, “everyone” had agreed that the race was Hillary Clinton’s to lose. The polls said so loud, clear, and rather consistently, so it was egg on our faces. Since polls are the assurance rituals of campaign coverage, filling in the potholes of human judgment, when the results defy the odds, mortification follows. And so, during the awkward post-election hours and days, consensus quickly settled on the mortification story.

Evidently that consensus persists. In their considerable reluctance to treat this thwarted tyrant as “presidential”–despite occasional backsliding–they have withstood myriad Trump lies and exposed myriad depredations. Their refusal to crumple in the face of bullying and fraud–their willingness to serve truth, decency, and the Constitution against a president with zero knowledge or respect for any of the above–overrode memory of how they failed to rise to the challenge of covering Trump in the first place. Relief that some light still shines on this broken democracy retroactively pretties up a negligent past.

Still, when more than 200 political journalists convened in Chicago April 11 and 12 at the invitation of David Axelrod, veteran democratic strategist, and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, New York Times correspondent Michael M. Grynbaum described their purpose as “talk[ing] about how to cover the presidential race in a way that won’t leave anybody dumbfounded on election night.” As if campaign coverage were like event planning: make sure the bride doesn’t trip on her gown; make sure the divorced parents aren’t seated next to each other.

The prevailing takeaway from the Chicago confab, according to Grynbaum, was: “Travel the country. Talk to people. Assume nothing.” Dwell less on polls (Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report) and Twitter (CNN’s Sam Feist). “Steer clear of prognostication”(CNN’s Jeff Zeleny). When you knock on doors, listen for nuance. Don’t jump to conclusions about what voters think. What ailed the profession in 2016, in Grynbaum’s view, was “the inability of the media class to imagine the success of Donald J. Trump —and its underappreciation of the grievances that drove his supporters.”

So, presumably, in 2020, once every last diner in every last Rust Belt town has been canvassed, reporters will be properly prepared for that democratic moment when the people (or at least the electoral college) weigh in on the nation’s destiny, right?

During one presidential campaign, I met an NBC News producer and started itemizing—OK, ranting about—everything wrong with campaign news coverage: the horse-race obsession, the sound-bite fetishes, the gotchas that pass for tough reporting, the ephemera, the shallow excuses for news conferences, the shortage of background reporting on the candidates. My theme was a collective obsession with what is trivial and evanescent in the treatment of what is, after all, the most important act the republic regularly undertakes.

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The producer nodded. He freely granted that NBC had overplayed the state of the horse race. “We talk about it all the time,” he said. “But we can’t figure out how to do anything better.”

That conversation took place in June of 1980—ten presidential campaigns ago. During the primaries that year, two-thirds of all CBS’s stories concerned the state of the horse race: who was ahead, who was gaining, what candidate X thought of candidate Y’s momentum. One-sixth concerned “issues”—a euphemism for what the candidates propose to do should they take command of the White House.  And even those stories were flawed: many times, “reporting on issues” amounted to checking off a list of “positions” rather than exploring their themes, looking at why the candidates think what they think and how they address contrary arguments and evidence. As longtime ABC reporter Sam Donaldson —long heralded for his fortitude and gravitas—opined off-camera in 1980, “the issues are caca.”

Where do we stand ten presidential campaigns later? During the general election campaign of 2016, according to the political scientist Thomas E. Patterson, policy issues ranked even lower, accounting “for 10 percent of the news coverage—less than a fourth the space given to the horse race.” (Patterson’s sample, collected by the Media Tenor organization, included the Los Angeles TimesThe New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post, and USA Today, along with the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC.)

In the sheer mass of email coverage, Hillary Clinton was made to look like corruption incarnate. Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild, in CJR’s deep dive into the Times’s front-page coverage, found the same 10 percent devoted to policy–most of them failing to compare Clinton proposals with Trump’s. Watts and Rothschild added:

the various Clinton-related email scandals—her use of a private email server while secretary of state, as well as the DNC and John Podesta hacks—accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions.

Patterson found, in his research, that Clinton’s controversies—from her time as First Lady, Secretary of State, and as a candidate—got more attention than Trump’s (19 percent versus 15 percent). Her coverage was more negative (62 percent to 38 percent) than Trump’s (56 to 44). During the last week of the campaign, scandal allegations against Clinton accounted for 37 percent of the total coverage she received. Editors were enthralled by the WikiLeaks dump of Podesta and Democratic National Committee emails, and colluded with Julian Assange (who was likely colluding with Russian intelligence) in releasing them in neat weekly installments–”a load every week going forward,” as Roger Stone exultantly emailed Steve Bannon—beginning just in time to distract from Trump’s pussy-grabbing video. Nice of the papers to keep to WikiLeaks’s timeline.

Meanwhile, many New York City reporters knew that Trump was a career dissembler, a money launderer, and a borderline racketeer; that he routinely stiffed creditors, workers, and bankers, and bludgeoned naysayers into court. As early as July 10, 2015, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter David Cay Johnston, who covered Trump for more than two decades, published on the nationalmemo.com website a list of “21 questions for Donald Trump.” These questions concerned not only false claims but his decision to build Trump Tower (and subsequent buildings) using mafia-controlled concrete rather than steel girders; his skirting of New Jersey law in the course of acquiring a casino license; and his tax evasions. Only the latter out of David Cay Johnston’s 21 items inspired interest among campaign reporters.

The Washington Post’s David Farenthold did expose the flagrant deceptions of that  black hole of self-dealing, the Trump Foundation, later shut down by New York State attorney general Barbara Underwood for “functioning as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.” But dubious equivalencies were all the rage. Overall, during the campaign, America’s journalists found Trump’s business depredations no more significant than flimsy allegations against the Clinton Foundation.

As for the Clinton Foundation, according to Justin Peters in Slate, the New York Times ran at least seven hard news pieces, in which possible improprieties loomed large. The Times front-paged a cloud of insinuation that Russia-connected oligarchs had donated huge sums to the Clinton Foundation in exchange for Secretary of State Clinton’s approval of a deal to tender American uranium rights to a Russian company. FBI investigations never supplied enough evidence to prosecute such a case.

Much of this has been noted since the election, but it’s easy to forget how skewed the coverage was—how journalists bent over backwards to show they weren’t unfair to Trump. Nicholas Confessore and Karen Yourish, two of Michael M. Grynbaum’s Times colleagues, noted on March 15, 2016, that through February alone, Trump had already “earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention”–free, because he attracted eyeballs and news organizations, particular television, love eyeballs more than they love robust, citizenly debate. Grynbaum himself, on May 30, reported on Trump’s ability to shape  coverage, noting that the cable networks had failed to cover Clinton rallies while lavishing attention on Trump’s, even when his stage was empty.

The Times has been rightly and roundly excoriated for its October 31, 2016, headline, “Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” As the Times itself noted two years later, the news that “the FBI had opened a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign” was buried in the tenth paragraph. (“The headline was off,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet later conceded.)

In no small part thanks to two years of Congressional hearings beginning in 2014, the charges against Clinton were focused: Benghazi! Emails! Clinton fell afoul of the old saw: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Many of Trump’s offenses against truth, law, and common decency had been described in solidly researched books by Wayne Barrett, Gwenda Blair, and Timothy O’Brien. They and other reporters had amply established that Trump’s repute as a businessman was a fabricated performance, promoted in no small part by the mystique of his reality show, The Apprentice. The con man had his confederates in the upper reaches of journalism, who confused data dumping with whistle-blowing.

Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump?” Patterson asked at the time. “It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign.” I would say they answered the question thumpingly—in the affirmative.

It behooves journalists everywhere to ask why it wasn’t until after the election that the Times investigators David Barstow, Susanne Craig, and Russ Buettner went to work, eventually establishing in lurid detail, after 18 months of work, that Trump’s story of his business prowess was a protracted lie—“Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father,” in the words of the headline on the story that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. This 15,000-word piece goes long and deep. It goes to the magnitude of a long-running fraud that may well rise to the legal description of racketeering. It should have come sooner.

Learning trivial lessons will not do for 2020. The dishonor and depredations of the Trump presidency expose every single one of the institutions that enabled his rise from tabloid celebrity to apprentice celebrity to full-blown commander of recklessness and untruth—journalism included. Journalists cannot be faulted for the idiocy of the electoral college, but they have not swallowed hard enough and stared long enough at the ruins. Will they be ready to deal with the con man’s next tricks?

Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.