‘Hillary’s emails’ defined our 2016 coverage. How might we remember 2020?

Release the anti-Kraken! Yesterday, the press heard from a couple of Trump enablers who have been quiet for a while, and they didn’t bring good news for the president’s election denialism. At a news conference, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, referred to “the new administration.” And in an interview with the Associated Press, William Barr, the attorney general, said that his Justice Department has been looking into allegations of election irregularities (in contravention of longstanding department policy) but has so far “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” These were minimal concessions to the obvious; Barr’s, in particular, was an understatement (we have not seen the sky turn green on a scale that could have effected a different sky) and was offset by his revelation that he has appointed a special counsel to continue investigating the Trump-Russia investigators. Still, it was hyped as A Big Deal across the mediasphere. Trump propagandists slammed Barr—Lou Dobbs, of Fox Business, said that he is “a liar or a fool or both”—while members of the reality-based press cast his intervention as another sharpblow” to Trump, whose “quest” to overturn the election is still being framed, in some quarters, as if it has more in common with Lord of the Rings than an attempted coup.

As was true of the many prior setbacks to Trump’s subversion plan, the election is over, even if the fallout isn’t. Before moving on, we in the press would do well to take a beat and review our election coverage. In 2016, such assessments were uncomfortable—we erred in our obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails, in giving Trump’s rallies unfettered airtime, and in missing a swath of pro-Trump sentiment in the country, with the former mistake, in particular, taking on a defining role in the collective memory of media failure. What about this year? As the results started to roll in, media leaders introspected, again, about missing the national mood. In other areas, though, we’ve given ourselves a pat on the back: mainstream outlets didn’t legitimize Trump allies’ efforts to hijack the news cycle with weird junk about Hunter Biden, and we learned, for the most part, to tune out the rallies. As CJR has written, these were not unalloyed successes—the Hunter Biden story still hijacked our attention, which was its point, and Trump continued to be an effective assignment editor, especially on TV—but there’s no question this coverage was more critical than in 2016. And we were vigilant across an array of election threats—Justice Department chicanery, dirty tricks at the postal service, foreign meddling, violence at the polls, Trump’s subversion tactics—that were very real but never entered worst-case-scenario territory.

From the magazine: Skin in the Game

In recent days, overlapping debates about coverage of the latter threat, in particular, have taken shape. Some critics have argued that many in the press overhyped the coup narrative; others have countered that the hype was appropriate. Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, took a middle position, arguing that while vigilance shouldn’t be criticized, “there’s a fine line between vigilance and panic”; he added that subversion fears were often “a bit Underwear Gnomes-ish” in that pundits “didn’t explain the mechanisms by which the election would be stolen.” A number of commentators have argued that America’s democratic institutions held up “remarkably” well; others think that they creaked under the strain, and have instead emphasized the valor of actors—Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, a Republican member of Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers, various judges—who stood firm against Trump’s threats. “That’s just a handful of people that could have altered the trajectory,” Chris Hayes said on MSNBC last week. “It didn’t happen, but that’s a flashing red warning sign.” Voters, of course, played the primary role here. Hayes noted that Trump’s plot failed because he lost by too many votes in too many states to have a convincing case. Pushing back on Silver’s Underwear-Gnomes critique, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, the podcast host and MSNBC contributor, stressed that Trump and his allies worked visibly to suppress voters of color, and only failed “because Black, Indigenous & marginalized people BUSTED OUR TAILS to beat back our own suppression. PERIOD.”

Actors and institutions cannot be analyzed separately, and we should be careful not to overstate the case here—even if the actors mentioned above had buckled, those populating other institutional layers could still have stood in Trump’s path. Still, Hayes, Cunningham, and others are right to stress that there was nothing inevitable about any of this. Relatively low-level Republican functionaries may have pushed back on Trump, but higher-level GOP officials still have not; many are cheering him on. And Trump’s discrediting of the result will surely continue to have alarmingly real, corrosive consequences for public trust in American democracy and the reality-based media that is a part of it. Millions of voters not only believe that the election was stolen, but want to believe it, and are ignoring the easy availability of good information to the contrary. As Nate Cohn, data maven at the New York Times, tweeted last week, “the case for ‘fraud’ is so bad that it’s quite clear it only exists for one reason: they don’t like the result.”

The mainstream press cannot singlehandedly dismantle the disinformation ecosystem propping up election denialism, nor can it force people to accept hard truths. This, though, is not to give our 2020 election coverage a clean bill of health—there is more that we could have done to fight back, if only because it was the right thing to do. As the Harvard professor Yochai Benkler reported for CJR in October, mainstream outlets—hamstrung by their traditional commitment to telling “both sides” of the story—were principal transmitters of Trump’s campaign to smear mail-in voting, especially in the early part of the year. As the campaign entered its final stretch, we more consistently and clearly called out the president’s lies—but the networks, in particular, routinely detached the threat Trump posed, and his allies’ ongoing voter-suppression tactics, from their coverage of the horserace, thus implying a level playing field. Heading into election week, we knew, due to partisan trends in mail-in voting (and rules set by Republican officials), that more Democratic votes would likely be counted later, and we knew that Trump would likely exploit the impression of Democrats “catching up” to claim fraud. Election-week coverage often pushed back explicitly on this illogic—but its basic, breathless rhythms nonetheless treated the count as dynamic (“Biden is in the faster car”) and not as a function of delayed data processing.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

These may seem like trivial criticisms compared to Emailsgate. They undoubtedly involve subtler, more fundamental media dynamics, fixing which will require more effort than simply saying “no, thanks” to a dubiously-sourced cache of emails. But there’s no guarantee that these errors will still seem trivial by 2024, when American democracy may have reverted to some degree of normality, but which may just as well make 2020 look like a picnic.

In the meantime, there are concrete steps the media should take to learn from and improve upon our 2020 coverage. We must avoid normalizing new election frames—that following basic rules is heroism, that overturning the result is a winnable “quest,” that Republicans delegitimizing the process is just a thing Republicans do, and that Democrats need to win big to stop them. Shifting public expectations is in itself a victory for bad actors, regardless of the concrete outcome. We must continue to hold accountable the Republican senators and other officials who have abetted Trump, and not welcome them back to Meet the Press, sir, to cast Biden as a tyrant for passing some executive order or other. And we must continue to prioritize the voting beat, even in the absence of a hard news peg—closely scrutinizing racist voter-suppression efforts, state legislatures’ redistricting efforts, the health of the postal service, state and local offices with election-oversight powers, and more. Many good reporters, including at the local level, will have their eyes on these dynamics. National agenda-setters should make a conscious effort to amplify their work.

Last week, Ed Yong, a science writer at The Atlantic, shared a lesson for political reporters from his coverage of the coronavirus pandemic: that “people often mistakenly equate an averted disaster with an overreaction.” That’s not to say that every averted disaster merits our time and attention; alarmism is cheap and proportion matters. It’s to note, rather, that wise preemptive action often seems less rational than reactive action, because the former can appear to lack empirical justification. Journalism, too often, is a reactive enterprise. Outcomes can obscure problems: if Trump had won this year, media critics would doubtless be scouring election coverage for the new Hillary’s emails; just because he lost doesn’t mean we didn’t mess some things up. Yong—who warned that America wasn’t ready to handle a pandemic in a prescient, yet still rigorously-reported, 2018 piece—has shown us that a different path is possible.

Below, more on the election:

  • Pardon me?: Yesterday, a federal court released documents showing that the Justice Department is investigating a possible crime involving the making of political contributions in exchange for a presidential pardon. The documents were significantly redacted, so we don’t yet know who is being investigated or on what timeline; nonetheless, the story drove the political news cycle last night. CNN’s Katelyn Polantz has more details while we watch this space.
  • The Kraken, unleashed: Last week, Trump’s legal team cut ties with Sidney Powell, an attorney who previously played a leading role in his election litigation and appeared alongside Rudy Giuliani at an unhinged press conference two weeks ago. Powell’s ouster from Trumpworld, however, hasn’t stopped her from being invited onto Fox: Dobbs had her on his Fox Business show on Monday, and Sean Hannity interviewed her on Fox News as well. The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr has more.
  • “Someone is going to get hurt”: Officials who stood up to Trump’s denialism—including Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, and Christopher Krebs, a federal election-security official who Trump recently fired—have reported receiving threats. On Monday, Joe diGenova, a Trump attorney, said on a radio show that Krebs should be “taken out at dawn and shot”; yesterday, Krebs, who has been on a media tour, told the Today show that he might take legal action, and diGenova called his prior remarks “sarcastic” and “hyperbole in a political discourse.” Also yesterday, Gabriel Sterling, a Republican official in Georgia, held a press conference and grew visibly angry. “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” Sterling demanded of Trump. “Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed, and it’s not right. It’s not right.”
  • Donald who?: David A. Graham, of The Atlantic, makes the case that people have already started ignoring Trump “to a remarkable degree.” The president “can still command the affection of millions—and raise millions of dollars from them—but the balance of the country has already moved on and tuned out,” Graham writes. “Trump’s ability to command the news cycle has been eclipsed by the virus he couldn’t be bothered to stop and the rival candidate he couldn’t beat.”


Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s magazine on this transitional moment for journalism, Alex Norcia profiles Enrique Abeyta, a former hedge fund manager who bought the “metalhead media” sites The Hard Times, Revolver, and Inked. In Abeyta’s view, “the problem with Wall Street plundering the press hasn’t been the downfall of journalistic rigor and civic engagement, but that nobody’s earned enough money to make the effort worthwhile”; the logical move “is to ‘own’ an audience, feeding them material they like to read along with stuff they want to buy.” Also for the magazine, Michael Rosenwald writes that the pandemic has “accelerated the breakup between the journalism industry and its buildings.”
  • Tyler Pager and Ryan Lizza, of Politico, lay out why Biden picked Jen Psaki, a former White House communications director and State Department spokesperson, to be his press secretary; Psaki said that she had no plans to serve Biden and did not work on his campaign, which is the typical breeding ground for press secretaries, but Biden valued her experience and policy expertise. Per Pager and Lizza, Psaki “sees her role as preparing her successor,” and may spend months, rather than years, behind the podium. (On Monday, I explored how Biden’s team may treat the press in this newsletter.)
  • According to GroupM, a unit of WPP that is the world’s largest ad buyer, digital ads are set to account for more than half of all US ad spending this year—a first. The trend, accelerated by the pandemic, has boosted Facebook, Google, and Amazon, which dominate the digital ad market; by contrast, the combined ad-market share of radio, local TV, newspapers, and magazines has shrunk to just 21 percent, and GroupM expects print ad spending to decline further next year. The Journal’s Suzanne Vranica has more.
  • Digiday’s Kayleigh Barber explores how media companies are experimenting with their events businesses to combat “Zoom fatigue” amid a growing consensus that “virtual events are boring.” PopSugar hosted a drive-in event to mark the premiere of The Bachelorette, Atlas Obscura has been working on road-trip events with a shared drive-in component, and Pop-Up Magazine hosted a coordinated walk and podcast discussion.
  • In recent weeks, Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, who write Politico’s Playbook newsletter, and John Bresnahan, the site’s longtime Congressional bureau chief, have announced plans to move on. According to Sara Fischer, of Axios, the trio plan to launch an independent daily newsletter focused largely on Congressional reporting. The new venture will not be a “carbon copy” of Playbook, but will effectively compete against it.
  • The Times is launching Headway, an editorial project backed by funding from the Ford, Stavros Niarchos, and William and Flora Hewlett foundations. Headway will employ journalists to produce ambitious stories on “large-scale global and national problems”; it will also build “an online public square” to “support and encourage debate, education, and research,” and create a reporting fellowship in partnership with local news outlets.
  • Cuts at Gannett have taken their toll on the company’s titles in the Boston area, Boston Business Journal’s Don Seiffert reports; more than a dozen journalists across four dailies have taken buyouts, and Gannett is selling off the newsroom shared by the Taunton Gazette and the Brockton Enterprise. Per Seiffert, the Enterprise now has only three reporters, even though the paper’s union contract stipulates a minimum of six.
  • Stuff, a media company in New Zealand, spent months reviewing its titles’ past coverage of the country’s indigenous Māori people; it found that their copy ranged “from racist to blinkered,” was seldom “fair or balanced in terms of representing Māori,” and often used the language of “two separate groups, us and them.” In an editorial published in both English and the Māori language, Stuff management apologized and vowed to do better.
  • And Biden unveiled his economic team yesterday. On the Times’s podcast The Daily, Jeanna Smialek, an economics reporter at the paper, profiled Janet Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chair who is Biden’s pick for treasury secretary, and resurfaced a media-themed anecdote: the time Yellen interviewed herself for her high-school paper because the top editor always interviewed the class valedictorian—and she was both.

ICYMI: Unfinished business in Belarus

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.