Here are two snapshots from this year's campaign coverage. Both captured common media themes at the time and were likely seen as savvy insider takes within the D.C. pundit class.
When news broke on March 2 that Hillary Clinton had used a private email account and server while secretary of state, National Journal's Ron Fournier sprang into action. Churning out five Clinton doomsday columns in nine days, he immediately suggested the email revelation meant that, “maybe Hillary Clinton should retire her White House dreams” because “she doesn't seem ready for 2016.”
According to Fournier, Clinton's emails had possibly derailed her entire campaign. Her White House dreams might have been dashed.
Fast forward to August 2. As Donald Trump's campaign continued to gain momentum while Jeb Bush's campaign slid backwards week after week, The New York Times' Jonathan Martin filed an upbeat piece on how Trump's rise actually represented good news for Bush. In fact, according to the Times, some Bush supporters were “all but giddy” over Trump's surge in the polls because his run was bound to unravel, leaving the Florida Republican as the beneficiary.
Let's agree that Clinton and Trump were the two biggest political stories of 2015. And these were the two tales the Beltway press wanted to tell for large chunks of the year:
- Hillary Clinton is stumbling badly because she's inauthentic, calculating and cannot connect with voters.
- Donald Trump isn't a serious candidate because his bluster and extreme rhetoric don't accurately reflect today's Republican Party.
Wrong and wrong.
Clinton's campaign was never in the dire state that the press claimed it was. And Trump, it turns out, appears to be a perfect messenger for today's increasingly radical and intolerant Republican Party. He's the Fox News id, which is why he's winning over the demagoguery wing of the GOP.
With Clinton, the press missed the mark because journalists seemed to be blinded by a personal dislike of the candidate and let that seep into the coverage. Determined to oversee a competitive primary campaign, the press went all in on a far-fetched narrative that the wheels were falling off Clinton's campaign and that she was an awful candidate.
With Trump, the press missed the mark because journalists appeared unwilling to tell the truth about today's GOP. Clinging to the idea that Republicans are simply center-right mirror images of Democrats, the timid press danced around the radical, fact-free revolution underway within the GOP; a radical-right revolution that was clearly fueling Trump's success.
I understand that campaign seasons take unexpected turns and I'm not claiming that in January I knew Donald Trump would be the GOP frontrunner at end of 2015. (Did anybody?) What I am saying is the campaign press, for the most part, lost its way because it wed itself to tired narratives and refused to acknowledge changing facts on the ground.
And that's why the avalanche of doom-and-gloom Clinton coverage this year seems almost comical in retrospect given her current standing.
Obviously, scrutiny is a part of any campaign equation and no candidate should be immune from it. But the media's Clinton analysis this year was so often oddly personal and wrapped in a doomsday tone that it simply didn't mirror reality. “The national media has never been more primed to take down Hillary Clinton,” Dylan Byers observed in Politico in May.
The media's collective resentment erupted into plain view with the arrival of email story, which was packaged as part of a larger narrative about Hillary: She operates with a maniacal drive for power and will stop at nothing to achieve it. And the private emails proved it.
So was it a maniacal drive for power that prompted Colin Powell to use a private email account while secretary of state and to then fail to retain them? Was that the reason Jeb Bush during his tenure as governor of Florida used a private email account, a private server, and then self-selected which of his emails would be released to the public? Was it maniacal power that fueled the Bush White House to skirt federal law and allow 22 staffers, including then-Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, to use Republican Party-issued email accounts to conduct government business? (The emails soon went missing.)
We don't know because the press didn't much care about Powell and Bush and Rove and their private emails. For the press, the only private email story that mattered was Clinton's because it offered us a window into her allegedly crooked soul.
At times, it just seemed the press was incapable of covering Clinton with any amount of common sense. Remember the media insanity over Clinton's campaign trail lunch stop at a Chipotle in Ohio, and how the press reviewed the video of Clinton's fast food order like it was the Zapruder film, mining every morsel of information for a deeper Clinton meaning? (Hint: Sometimes a meal is just a meal.)
Politico confirmed Clinton first ordered “a blackberry Izze, which she decided she didn't want after she read the ingredients, so [the server] replaced it with an iced tea.” And yes, according to Bloomberg, “The change from the meal totaled less than a dollar, but it was pocketed rather than deposited in the tip jar as many customers at the restaurant do.”
The Clinton press hysteria peaked several different times (see the Clinton Foundation witch hunt in May), including late September and early October. In September, the Washington Post averaged more than two Clinton email missives every day of the month. The coverage and commentary became so bonkers that Democratic strategist, and Fox News contributor, Joe Trippi was moved to ask, “Has the political punditry class lost its collective mind?”
Here's a memorable passage from that era, via a Post piece on “Clinton's struggling presidential campaign”:
October began with sobering news for her supporters. Clinton raised barely more in political donations over the summer than Sanders, her stronger-than-expected challenger, despite a formidable campaign organization and the mantle of Democratic front-runner.
The Post was quite clear: Recently released fundraising figures that showed Clinton had taken in $28 million during the months of July, August and September represented “somber news” for the Democratic frontrunner.
What did the Post leave out of its story? The fact that Clinton's $28 million set a new fundraising record for a non-incumbent candidate “before his or her third quarter of campaigning.”
Meanwhile, busy trying to bury Clinton's run last summer, the press completely sleepwalked past the story of Jeb Bush's imploding campaign, even though all the telltale signs were there. Fast forward to today and Clinton's polling at 56 percent in the primaries and Bush is polling at five percent. But boy last summer, there's no question who the Beltway press tagged as the Biggest Loser: Clinton.
My guess is the press originally walked past the Bush train wreck because so many journalists were convinced Trump's rise was a passing fad and that Bush, the so-called “establishment candidate” would soon rebound in the polls while Trump slid downward.
Time after time, reporters and pundits, still using old, sensible rules of campaign conduct, assumed Trump had reached a tipping point via his outrageous rhetoric. And time after time Republican voters showed there was nothing Trump could say or do that would dent his appeal.
At least twice last month The New York Times stressed GOP voters might soon turn away from Trump in favor of “more sober-minded candidates”; that they'd potentially take “a more sober measure of who is prepared to serve as commander in chief.”
Wrong and wrong.
Confession: I have no idea what's going to unfold on the campaign trail in 2016. But I do know the press would be better off reporting the facts, rather than being tied to outdated narratives that don't reflect reality.