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Over the past few weeks, media outlets have pointed out the potential impact of LGBT voters in both swing states and local races in the 2016 election, highlighting the “biggest and most sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort ever” organized by the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign, and noting that LGBT voters “might help tip the scale red or blue.” Journalists have also focused on the swing state of North Carolina, where anti-LGBT law House Bill 2 (HB 2) has the potential to be a “critical driver” of voter turnout.
Walking away from a long-standing tradition of covering issues and presidential policies during campaign season, the network evening newscasts have all but abandoned that type of reporting this year, according to recent tabulations from Tyndall Report, which for decades has tracked the flagship nightly news programs.
Since the beginning of 2016, ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News have devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage, according to Andrew Tyndall.
Differentiating issues coverage from daily campaign coverage where policy topics might be addressed, Tyndall defines issues coverage by a newscast this way: “It takes a public policy, outlines the societal problem that needs to be addressed, describes the candidates' platform positions and proposed solutions, and evaluates their efficacy.”
And here’s how that kind of in-depth coverage breaks down, year to date, by network:
ABC: 8 minutes, all of which covered terrorism.
NBC: 8 minutes for terrorism, LBGT issues, and foreign policy.
CBS: 16 minutes for foreign policy, terrorism, immigration, policing, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
And this remarkable finding from Tyndall [emphasis added]:
No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits. To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates' terms, not on the networks' initiative.
These numbers are staggering in terms of the complete retreat they represent from issues-orientated campaign coverage. Just eight years ago, the last time both parties nominated new candidates for the White House, the network newscasts devoted 220 minutes to issues coverage, compared to only 32 minutes so far this year. (CBS Evening News went from 119 minutes of issues coverage in 2008 to 16 this year.)
Note that during the Republican primary season alone, the networks spent 333 minutes focusing on Donald Trump. Yet for all of 2016, they have set aside just one-tenth of that for issue reporting.
And look at this: Combined, the three network newscasts have slotted 100 minutes so far this year for reporting on Hillary Clinton’s emails while she served as secretary of state, but just 32 minutes for all issues coverage. (NBC’s Nightly News has spent 31 minutes on the emails this year; just eight minutes on issues.)
Indeed, this approach used to be a hallmark of presidential campaign reporting; outline what candidates stand for, describe what their presidency might look like, and compare and contrast that platform with his or her opponents. i.e. What would the new president’s top priorities be on the first day of his or her new administration?
It seems clear that the media’s abandonment of issues coverage benefits Trump since his campaign has done very little to outline the candidate’s core beliefs. Clinton, by contrast, has done the opposite.
As the Associated Press reported, “Trump’s campaign has posted just seven policy proposals on his website, totaling just over 9,000 words. There are 38 on Clinton’s ‘issues’ page, ranging from efforts to cure Alzheimer’s disease to Wall Street and criminal justice reform, and her campaign boasts that it has now released 65 policy fact sheets, totaling 112,735 words.”
Tyndall’s findings echo what other media researchers have found this campaign season, and what commentators have been noting for months:
It is just stunning how completely and entirely absent policy is from this election except for immigration and (to a certain extent) trade.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) September 6, 2016
A study released last month from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy confirmed that during the time of both parties’ conventions this summer, just eight percent of news coverage centered on policy and issues.
“During the convention period, even though questions of policy and leadership were on the agenda within the halls of the national conventions, they were not on journalists’ agenda,” wrote Harvard University professor Thomas Patterson. “Polls, projections, strategy and the like constituted about a fifth of all coverage, whereas issues took up less than 1/12 and the candidates’ qualifications for the presidency accounted for less than 1/13.”
Part of the purpose of campaign coverage, including at the flagship network newscasts, is to help inform voters about key issues of public concern. It’s troubling that the networks have decided this year to walk away from that responsibility.
The campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump released a statement promising that a Trump presidential administration would “break up” media conglomerates that operate properties that have criticized Trump.
In an October 23 press release signed by senior Trump economics advisor Peter Navarro, the Trump campaign threatened presidential action against “NBC, and its Clinton megaphone MSNBC,” “the wildly anti-Trump CNN,” The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
The statement promised that as president Trump “will break up the new media conglomerate oligopolies that have gained enormous control over our information, intrude into our personal lives, and in this election, are attempting to unduly influence America’s political process.”
This is far from the first time the Trump campaign has attacked the press. Beyond attacks on specific journalists, Trump has said he would "open up" libel laws to make it easier to sue news outlets. From the Trump campaign statement:
"Over a hundred years ago, a pro-business Teddy Roosevelt busted up more than 40 oil, railroad, steel and other “trusts” that were wielding their rapacious monopoly power to gouge consumers and interfere with the efficient functioning of the American economy. Donald Trump will break up the new media conglomerate oligopolies that have gained enormous control over our information, intrude into our personal lives, and in this election, are attempting to unduly influence America’s political process.
"NBC, and its Clinton megaphone MSNBC, were once owned by General Electric, a leader in offshoring factories to China. Now NBC has been bought by Comcast, which is specifically targeting the Chinese market – even as Comcast’s anchors and reporters at MSNBC engage in their Never Trump tactics.
"AT&T, the original and abusive “Ma Bell” telephone monopoly, is now trying to buy Time Warner and thus the wildly anti-Trump CNN. Donald Trump would never approve such a deal because it concentrates too much power in the hands of the too and powerful few.
"The New York Times strings are being pulled by Mexico’s Carlos Slim, a billionaire who benefits from NAFTA and supports Hillary Clinton’s open border policies. Amazon, which controls the Washington Post, profits from the flow of illegally subsidized foreign products through its distribution channels. Lower costs mean higher margins -- no matter if bad trade deals lead to massive unemployment in America.
"This oligopolistic realignment of the American media along ideological and corporate lines is destroying an American democracy that depends on a free flow of information and freedom of thought. Donald Trump will drain the swamp of corruption and collusion, standing against this trend and standing for the American people."
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is claiming that the media is “rigging the election” in response to increased scrutiny and an influx of investigative reporting on Trump’s business dealings, his taxes, his rhetoric about sexual assault, and accusations of sexual assault against the nominee. But the media scrutiny of Trump is a drastic change from the overwhelming and positive coverage Trump received throughout the primaries, and his claims ignore the way the press, particularly television news, has often ignored -- or downplayed reporting on -- Trump’s improprieties. Veteran reporters have called this lack of initial vetting “bad journalism.”
Surrogates for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump doubled down on Trump’s claim that the media is biased against him and that the “election is being rigged by the national media” in favor of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in a series of interviews on the Sunday morning political talk shows.
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Since 1960, Moderator’s Questions About Abortion Have Almost Always Been Asked In Relation To Faith Or Judicial Appointment Litmus Tests
During the 2016 election, reproductive rights groups have consistently called on debate moderators to ask questions that would examine the candidates’ positions on abortion-related issues, but moderators have either ignored the call or centered their questions around judicial appointees or the candidates’ religious views.
Although faith and judicial appointments are important topics, limiting debate discussions of abortion to only these contexts deprives the public of an opportunity to understand the candidates’ positions on an essential issue: access to reproductive health care.
On October 12, the Commission on Presidential Debates released the topics for the third and final presidential debate. Although the list includes the Supreme Court, it notably excludes any explicit mention of reproductive health or abortion -- making the likelihood of a question about the topic on its own merits unlikely.
What is likely, however, is that if the topic comes up, the moderator will either frame it around the candidate’s religion or ask whether they would screen their judicial picks for pro- or anti-choice positions.
In a recent analysis, Media Matters analyzed all abortion questions asked in presidential or vice presidential debates from 1960 to 2012 and found that 56 percent were framed around religion or used abortion as a litmus test for judicial appointments. In both instances, questions were often asked in a way that stigmatized abortion -- suggesting that the common and legal medical procedure was morally wrong or socially unacceptable.
The pattern has been borne out in each of the debates this year.
For example, the first presidential debate on September 26 did not include a single question about abortion or reproductive health care despite efforts by a coalition of reproductive rights advocacy groups. They encouraged NBC’s Lester Holt to ask the candidates how they would “address the crisis in abortion care in our country.”
In the second presidential debate, on October 9, the only mention of reproductive rights came during a question about the nomination of Supreme Court justices -- when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton mentioned that her ideal nominee would support upholding Roe v. Wade. If history is a guide, this line of questioning will be repeated for the last presidential debate, as one of the topics is the Supreme Court.
During the October 4 vice presidential debate, CBS’ Elaine Quijano asked Republican candidate Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine an open-ended question about how they “struggled to balance [their] personal faith and a public policy decision.” As ThinkProgress’ Tara Culp-Resser explained, Pence “quickly pivoted to abortion” in his answer, while Kaine, “followed up by saying he trusts women to make this moral choice for themselves.” Although the candidates addressed abortion, as Culp-Resser pointed out, “ the exchange was ultimately situated in a religious and moral context that does a disservice to the bigger issue.”
In an October 5 article for The New York Times, Katha Pollitt explained why having candidates discuss their abortion positions only in relation to their faith was problematic. She wrote:
“I wish we didn’t so often discuss abortion rights in the context of religion. We’re not a Christian nation, much less a Catholic or evangelical one. Why should women’s rights have to pass through the eye of a theological needle? Given that the next president will nominate at least one and probably two or three more justices to the Supreme Court, it’s discouraging that we are still talking about abortion as a matter for biblical exegesis.”
Given the escalating assault on reproductive health care access, it's high time that debate moderators ask substantive questions about abortion that do not focus exclusively on religion or the court and that do not stigmatize the issue. There is a crisis currently underway, and it is likely the presidential nominees have differing views on how to address it -- distinctions the viewing public deserve to hear, and distinctions that can’t be determined by rote questions about religion and litmus tests.
The final presidential debate will be held on October 19, and if the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, doesn’t ask about abortion, the 2016 election will be the first since 1976 to include no direct debate questions about reproductive rights.
The story of Jill Harth’s allegations of sexual assault against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has finally gained traction in the media after months of reticence. Reporter Lucia Graves, who wrote about the story for The Guardian in July, attributes this troubling phenomenon to a media tendency to fully acknowledge sexual assault stories only when it comes from the man being accused, not when the source is the female accuser.
Stories about Jill Harth’s lawsuit against Donald Trump began to surface as early as April 2016, but the mainstream media outlets CNN, Fox News, ABC, NBC, and CBS failed to examine the story at that time. Mainstream outlets only started to acknowledge the story in October, when a leaked video showed Trump bragging about sexual assault on a hot mic.
In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review's Pete Vernon, The Guardian's Graves explained that the problem with the media’s coverage of sexual assault stems from a “tendency to think of sexual assault as ‘he said, she said,’” pointing out that even when many women can corroborate the accusations, “we don’t hear it until the formula is ‘he said, he said.” In other words, media fail to actively report on the story until it the words come directly from the man’s mouth. Graves listed the onslaught of testimonies from other women who accused Trump of sexual assault and commented that “it’s so remarkable that Trump had to literally say every single one of those things to another man, and people had to hear it recorded before people believed the story that has been out there for months.” From the October 13 interview (emphasis original):
Were you frustrated your story didn’t receive more attention?
Extremely frustrated. I think that a lot of reporters, a lot of places in journalism, are maddeningly tone deaf on this issue. I think there’s a dismissiveness, generally, that is upsetting.
I was also upset that, when the story came out, I received zero media requests about it. Even the radio segment that I was booked on didn’t really want to spend too much with me on it because it “hadn’t gotten traction,” as the host put it.
Why do you think people are willing to listen now in a way that they weren’t during the summer?
Because a man said it. Because Trump came out in leaked video and said, in so many words, that sexual assault is something that he does regularly. He was bragging about it on the record. And that is what it took.
It wasn’t any woman saying it; it was a powerful man running for president saying it that got people to take it seriously, which is remarkable. It’s the same thing that happened with Bill Cosby. When you had not just one woman accusing him of rape, you had many, many accusations out there. But it took a male comedian standing up on stage, and joking about it with other men, for people to get mad and take it seriously.
So what do we, as the media, need to do better to address these issues when they come up?
The first step is an awareness about what we’re doing. I think we have a tendency to think of sexual assault as “he said, she said,” and we throw up our hands. But, in fact, many times it’s not “he said, she said,” it’s “he said, and she said, and she said, and she said,” and we don’t hear it until the formula is “he said, he said.”
So just being aware that that is the formula for what our society needs to hear these stories is a good first step. I don’t have a prescription.
What should we learn from this?
I think we should be really clear that what it took for these stories to be heard was Trump, essentially, admitting to every single one of them. There are three main patterns that we see now. We have two accounts of sexual assault; both of them are very similar and involve a tour of Mar-a-Largo and pushing the woman involved up against a wall. We have the kissing women on the lips as a form of introduction, two different reports of that in The New York Times. We have the barging into beauty contestants when they’re naked, sometimes teens. Every single one of those things we now have audio of him admitting to doing. I think it’s so remarkable that Trump had to literally say every single one of those things to another man, and people had to hear it recorded before people believed the story that has been out there for months.
The broadcast networks' evening news programs did not address climate change in their coverage of Hurricane Matthew, even when they reported on an event where Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore explained the role that climate change played in worsening the storm's damage. USA Today also ignored the climate context of the storm, while other major newspapers covered it briefly in their print editions, and some published more extensive articles on their websites.
On September 9, inmates at prisons in at least 12 states began work stoppages and other protest actions to draw attention to unfair labor practices and living conditions in U.S. prisons. The actions have reportedly continued on a rolling basis in many prisons across the country for the last month, yet a Media Matters analysis found virtual media silence on the story.
According to inmate organizers at the Holman Prison in Alabama, who have been leading prison labor actions since 2012 as the Free Alabama Movement, inmates in prisons across the country launched strikes on September 9. The strikes, which were primarily work stoppages but also included hunger striking and other forms of peaceful protest, began on the anniversary of the deadly 1971 Attica prison uprising, which began as a means to call attention to prison conditions. The actions were primarily meant to protest extremely low-wage or forced labor in prisons, though inmate organizers in some facilities chose to focus their actions on living conditions and overcrowding instead of or in addition to labor practices.
Estimates from the organizers and allied groups suggest that more than 24,000 inmates in at least 12 states participated in strikes that day. Tracking mechanisms indicate that inmates in several prisons are still continuing acts of protest on a rolling basis, though activity is thought to be “apparently winding down.” These numbers -- if corroborated -- would make the September 9 actions the largest prison strike in U.S. history.
Though it is difficult to know for sure, actions in some facilities appear to be getting results. In Alabama, the epicenter of strike organizing, guards joined the effort, launching an informal labor strike to highlight prison overcrowding -- conditions that make prisons less safe for both inmates and guards. And the U.S. Department of Justice launched a “possibly unprecedented” statewide investigation into conditions in Alabama prisons last week.
Yet a search of Nexis transcripts from the major news networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC -- and National Public Radio for the last month has come up almost completely empty on coverage of the strikes, aside from a single 20-second mention during a run-through of headlines on NBC’s Today and a three-and-a-half-minute NPR Weekend Edition interview with the Marshall Project’s Beth Schwartzapfel.
Traditional print media outlets did not appear to fare much better, according to a search of the same parameters; Media Matters found one article at The Wall Street Journal reporting on the initial days of the strikes.
Media Matters found no mentions of prison strikes across the major media outlets available in Nexis from September 8 -- the day before the strikes began -- through October 10. Most coverage seemed to come from new media outlets, like BuzzFeed and Vice News, or left-leaning, sometimes niche outlets like The Marshall Project, Mother Jones, Democracy Now!, and The Intercept. Readers who do not rely on these specific types of sources for their news, instead turning to evening broadcasts or major print outlets like The New York Times, may not know the strikes happened at all.
Media scholar and MIT professor Ethan Zuckerman explained why coverage of the strikes may be so difficult to find in a Medium post on September 10. Zuckerman, who studies “the distribution of attention in mainstream and new media” and how activists can leverage media coverage, wrote:
It’s hard to tell what’s going on inside US prisons. While prisoners can reach out to reporters using the same channels they can use to contact friends or family members, journalists have very limited rights of access to prisons, and it would be challenging for an intrepid reporter to identify and contact inmates in prisons across a state, for instance, to determine where protests took place. Wardens have a great deal of discretion about answering reporters’ inquiries and can choose not to comment citing security concerns. Reporters who want to know what’s going on inside a prison sometimes resort to extraordinary measures, like becoming a prison guard to gain access. (Shane Bauer’s article on private prison company CCA is excellent, but the technique he used was not a new one — Ted Conover’s 2000 book Newjack is a masterpiece of the genre.)
Because it’s so hard to report from prison — and, frankly, because news consumers haven’t demonstrated much demand for stories about prison conditions — very few media outlets have dedicated prison reporters. One expert estimates that there are fewer than half a dozen dedicated prisons reporters across the US, an insane number given that 2.4m Americans are incarcerated, roughly 1% of the nation’s population.
Coverage of the prison strikes from progressive outlets often acknowledges the problems of reporting accurately on events occurring in prisons as well; many that cited any data on the strikes noted that the numbers were estimates provided by organizers. As Azzurra Crispino from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (an activist group helping to coordinate inmate organizing efforts) explained in an interview with WNYC’s On The Media, some reporters are trying to learn more: “It is the case that we have not seen as much media coverage as we would like, but I am getting a lot of emails and phone calls from journalists who are telling me, ‘I’m not seeing this on the mainstream media, but it’s all over my Facebook and my Twitter feed.’” Crispino also noted that violent riots tend to garner more media attention than the peaceful protests and strikes happening in most facilities. “I would ask the mainstream media: To what extent are you complicit in future violence, if it were to arise, if the message you are sending to prisoners is: if nobody dies, we’re not going to cover it?” she said.
Another factor in the halted information flow is that state officials often declined to comment or offered competing narratives about what took place in individual facilities when reporters reached out. Officials in at least two states where inmates have recorded strike activity have publicly denied that any work stoppages occurred, and at least one inmate organizer says he is facing what The Intercept called “disciplinary action” for participating in a radio interview about the strikes.
MIT’s Zuckerman argued that the September strikes are an example of a situation “in which readers can have power by calling attention to events in the world,” and that reader demand could spur “large media organizations” to leverage their resources and existing contacts “to provide a more detailed view of events.” He concluded:
Perhaps the call for the nation’s largest prison strike has failed. Or perhaps we’re seeing the beginnings of a long action that will change incarceration as we know it. It’s a problem that we don’t — and can’t — know. A nation that imprisons 1% of its population has an obligation to know what’s happening to those 2.4 million people, and right now, we don’t know.
Media Matters searched Nexis for any mentions or variations of the term “prison” or “inmate” within 20 words of the term “strike” or “protest” from September 8, 2016, to October 10, 2016. The search included all available news transcripts for CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and National Public Radio; articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today; and abstracts in The Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal results were also checked in Factiva.
Image at top from Flickr user Alicia, using a Creative Commons license.
After scandalizing communications from the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton regarding publicly available information about a court hearing, NBC continues to engage in sloppy reporting on the matter. Citing hacked emails, an NBC News reporter first brought attention to a Clinton campaign email thread discussing litigation regarding the release of Clinton’s work emails. Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign subsequently seized upon the report to baselessly suggest “collusion” between the Department of Justice and top aides to Clinton. While other news outlets have explained that the emails present no evidence of impropriety and are merely discussions of a routine -- and public -- litigation update, NBC properties have continued to suggest otherwise.