The Media Today

Have we seen this movie before?

September 16, 2020

It’s rare for President Trump to appear on networks that aren’t Fox, and even rarer for him to engage with Americans who aren’t already aboard the Trump train, but last night he did both, traveling to Philadelphia to participate in an ABC News town hall with undecided voters. Their questions, at times, were much blunter than those Trump typically allows himself to face. Paul Tubiana, a health researcher who supported Trump in 2016 and is diabetic, asked the president why he has “thrown vulnerable people like me under the bus.” Carl Day, a pastor who voted for the Green candidate Jill Stein last time, brought up Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and asked, “Are you aware of how tone deaf that comes off to the African-American community?” The visual of the audience, members of which sat masked and far apart in an otherwise empty auditorium, was itself a jarring, sobering reminder that nothing is normal right now.

Still, the event raised familiar complaints. The anchor, George Stephanopoulos, pushed back on some of what Trump said—a nonsense answer about his supposed healthcare plan, most aggressively—and won some plaudits for doing so. (He certainly did a better job than his colleague David Muir mustered when ABC got a shot at the president in May.) Several journalists and media critics, however, felt that Stephanopoulos wasn’t nearly assertive enough. “We spend all our time rightly getting exercised by mad stuff Trump says or does,” Mehdi Hasan, of The Intercept, argued, “yet at the same time we set the bar so low that when he gets a mild question or two suddenly we’re celebrating that he somehow was held to account. He wasn’t.” At the very least, the town hall felt like the latest iteration of a perennial problem: Trump tells lies at such velocity that his interlocutors can’t challenge them all. Some of the postgame reviews, too, felt familiarly lacking. ABC’s Jon Karl judged that the town hall was “pretty good” for Trump because he got to show his “empathetic side.” (After a voter told Trump about her mother’s death from cancer, Trump referred repeatedly to her mother’s death from covid-19. One can imagine what the pundits would have said if Joe Biden had done that.)

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The criticisms of the town hall were further grist for those who believe that major news outlets have learned nothing from the mistakes they made in 2016. Earlier yesterday, James Fallows, of The Atlantic, made precisely that argument in an essay that was widely quoted on media Twitter. Fallows compares the media’s present performance to that of Robert Mueller, in the sense that we observe naive “proprieties” that Trump and his allies know how to exploit, and to Groundhog Day, albeit so far “without Bill Murray’s eventual, hard-earned understanding that he could learn new skills as time went on.” (Murray isn’t the worst suggestion to play Mueller in the inevitable biopic, depending on which direction you want to take it, but I digress.) Fallows names three specific mistakes that news organizations keep making—falsely equating the conduct of Trump and his opponents, obsessing over the horse race, and chasing ratings—and argues that we’re running out of time to fix them. “Soon the clock will show 6:00 a.m. once more; the alarm will start blaring ‘I Got You Babe’ another time,” he writes. “This day, we can do better.”

The problems that Fallows identifies are of deep concern and have been discussed and written about repeatedly, at CJR and elsewhere. They undoubtedly played a malign role in 2016. But, as Fallows acknowledges, their roots go much deeper than the errors of one election cycle, and some of his more specific 2016 parallels—comparing the “egregiousness” of the New York Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails to the way it’s covered Bob Woodward’s new book, for instance—aren’t especially convincing. From my perch, at least, this year’s election news cycle, while depressingly familiar in many respects, doesn’t exactly feel like 2016 redux.

In large part, that’s due to the presence of massive new challenges to our election-coverage model that simply weren’t at issue last time. In recent weeks, one potential danger spot, in particular, has preoccupied election experts and media columnists: what newsrooms in general, and TV shows in particular, will do if there isn’t a result on election night. (The pandemic will lead to a surge in mail-in votes; counting them will take a long time, and many states—including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which will likely be crucial—don’t allow election officials to make an early start.) Last month, Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, asked news executives and TV hosts about their contingency plans; many of them responded with “blithe confidence,” leading Smith to conclude that at the highest levels of our industry, “it simply hasn’t sunk in how different this year is going to be.” No one Smith spoke to “had any real idea how cable talkers or Twitter take-mongers would fill hours, days and, possibly, weeks of counting or how to apply a sober, careful lens” to Trump’s likely, bogus allegations of massive fraud.

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There are reasons, beyond complacency, to hope that an election-night/-week/-month calamity can be avoided. We might know something definitive (the Florida result, for example) pretty quickly; in the meantime, we’ve seen much aggressive coverage of Trump’s efforts to disrupt the integrity of mail-in voting, and numerous outlets have published clear explainer content about how the election will work this year. Per Smith, CNN and CBS, at least, plan to ditch their typical use of physical voting precincts as a proxy for votes counted, and the Times is considering how to improve its infamous election-night “needle.” And, at present, most voters seem to be registering the uncertainty: more than 60 percent of respondents to a Fox News poll published Sunday said they’re “comfortable” with having to wait for the result. Still, this is just one poll (and when I was a kid, I was “comfortable” waiting for Santa till Christmas Eve arrived). And on the media front, past election cycles—2000, the 2018 midterms, this year’s Iowa caucuses—have proved that when things go wrong, pundits like to fill the air with inane babble and half-baked narratives.

In 2020, the challenge is not just to correct old errors but to anticipate new ones, and try and avert them ahead of time. That’s a tall order; as Smith wrote last month, “the media specializes in fighting the last war,” not the current one. When we come to look back on it, the media story of the 2020 election may well be that we didn’t learn the lessons of 2016—but I fear that fresh, as-yet-unrealized mistakes will loom larger than Hillary’s emails, round two. If we’re to avoid spending the 2024 cycle ruing the mistakes of 2020, we need to look forward as well as back. Escaping Groundhog Day isn’t the end of this movie.

Below, more on the election:

  • Threat modeling: To the latter point, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, has argued that major news organizations should appoint “threat modeling teams” that “would try to identify the most serious threats to a free and fair election and to American democracy over the next four months, so that their newsrooms can take appropriate action.” To inform his suggestion, Rosen spoke with threat modelers from other fields: Joshua Geltzer, a former counterterrorism official, and Alex Stamos, formerly Facebook’s chief security official.
  • The “no diner” rule: For the Associated Press, David Bauder assesses how journalists have changed their coverage plans due to the pandemic. ABC’s Martha Raddatz told him that she was still able to do a cross-country road trip, but decided to arrange interviews ahead of time, and has steered clear of diners. As well as being a health risk these days, diner journalism is a much-criticized campaign cliché. Peter Wallsten, a politics editor at the Washington Post, told Bauder that the pandemic has presented an “opportunity to reassess how we do things. It’s not clear whether how the media has been covering campaigns in the past has been the right way.”
  • Old habits: Before appearing on ABC yesterday, Trump called in to a more familiar setting, Fox & Friends, and rambled for forty-seven minutes. When he was done, host Brian Kilmeade asked Trump whether he would be coming on the show every week; when Trump replied that he would, another host, Steve Doocy, told him that Fox “is not committed to that.” (At that, Kilmeade made a face.) Fox later confirmed that there’s currently no agreement for Trump to make a weekly appearance on Fox & Friends. That Trump wants to, the Post’s Erik Wemple writes, reflects that he is “desperate.”
  • Endorsement watch: Yesterday, Scientific American backed Joe Biden for president—the first time in the magazine’s 175-year history that it has taken such a step. “We do not do this lightly,” editors wrote, but “the evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science.” Last week, the LA Times became the first major outlet of the fall election cycle to formally endorse Biden, who will do a town hall on CNN tomorrow.
  • Who Matt Gaetz thinks picks the president: Vanity Fair’s Abigail Tracy previews a forthcoming book by Matt Gaetz, a pro-Trump congressman, in which he outlines what he perceives as the importance of the media in swaying elections. “You are governed by the theater geeks from high school, who went on to make it big booking guests on the talk shows,” Gaetz writes. “Ignore them and they’ll ignore you, and you’ll go nowhere fast. The hairdressers and makeup ladies and cameramen pick our presidents. As well they should. They are closer to the viewers and therefore the voters.”
  • Who actually picks the president: All year, CJR has been running a project called “Year of Fear,” a series of dispatches focused on communities around the country that lack a strong local news presence. In her latest update from South Texas, Sandra Sanchez reports that “covid-19 has struck this region hard, and the energy that normally pulses through the political landscape––which should be especially stoked by the upcoming presidential election––has substantially diminished.”

Some news from the home front:
CJR and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism are convening a two-day (virtual) conference to explore where the media industry might go next, following this moment of crisis. The conference began yesterday; panelists including Maria Bustillos, of Popula (and CJR); Smith, of the New York Times; and Sewell Chan, of the LA Times, discussed industry failures, including around diversity and inclusion. Bustillos urged newsrooms to embrace transparency and accountability; Chan pledged that his paper will soon publish an accounting of its own diversity problems. Today, Emily Bell, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, will host a panel on rebuilding journalism, and Jelani Cobb, of The New Yorker and Columbia Journalism School, will moderate a discussion focused on holding the news accountable. Today’s program kicks off at 2pm Eastern; for more details, follow this link

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.