“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” -- CBS CEO Les Moonves discussing Donald Trump, February 2016.
While reporters and pundits sift through their harassing and sometimes anti-Semitic letters and emails from Trump supporters -- and contemplate what the future holds if radio show host Laura Ingraham becomes the next White House press secretary -- few seem to be in the mood to reflect on their just-concluded campaign effort. And even fewer scribes seem willing to accept that the media made serious missteps in their election coverage -- and that those mistakes helped elect Donald Trump president.
Any implications drawn from the media’s broken performance in 2016, a year when Trump’s former campaign manager was hired by CNN while still cashing Trump campaign paychecks, have been largely waved off. Much of the media's message today is that the press simply played no significant role in tipping the election to Trump.
Detailing “The Democratic Coalition’s Epic Fail,” The New York Times’ Thomas Edsall cataloged what he saw as the many shortcomings of the Hillary Clinton campaign. What was notably absent from the list of hurdles that Clinton and Democrats failed to clear? The press. It’s not even worth discussing, apparently.
There seems to be little interest in acknowledging that the press virtually extinguished policy and issue coverage this campaign cycle. That journalists were bullied by Trump yet often held him to a lower, softer standard than Clinton (see Clinton Foundation vs. Trump Foundation coverage). That the press somehow managed to help normalize a bigoted Republican nominee who openly embraces white nationalism, while showering him with nonstop attention. Or that the press’s relentlessly caustic Clinton coverage became a hallmark of the campaign.
Immediately following the election, New York Times Editor Dean Baquet and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. assured readers that “We believe we reported on both candidates fairly during the presidential campaign.” So no, journalists don’t seem interested in self-examination, and they certainly don’t seem open to admitting that their occasionally colossal blunders helped tip the scales in Trump’s favor.
In fact, quite the contrary. “The press succeeded in exposing Trump for what he was. Voters just decided they didn’t care,” Politico announced.
Question: How well did the press succeed in getting Trump to release his tax returns? In getting him to release relevant health information about himself? In getting him to hold a press conference during the final months of the campaign?
Answer: The press failed, categorically, in all those routine pursuits. But many journalists today remain certain everything was fine in 2016.
From CNN reporter Maeve Reston:
He was vetted. And voters chose him. It's so lazy for people to “blame the press” for an outcome they don't agree with.
— Maeve Reston (@MaeveReston) November 9, 2016
Reston claims it’s just “lazy” for people to blame the press in the wake of Trump’s victory, but there is solid data to back up a lot of complaints about lopsided election coverage.
As Media Matters pointed out, in the week after FBI Director James Comey announced that the bureau would be assessing newly discovered emails to find out if they were relevant to its investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server, five of the country’s top newspaper published a total of 100 (100!) stories about or mentioning the emails, 46 of them on the front page. Additionally, the three network evening newscasts devoted a total of 25 minutes to the FBI email story during two crucial weeks late in the campaign, compared to just three minutes of policy coverage.
Meanwhile, NBC’s Katy Tur also seemed to dismiss post-campaign press criticism:
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) November 11, 2016
Was the press, in fact, “hostile” to the Clinton campaign? Is Podesta’s point a legitimate one? The answer to that question actually isn’t even in doubt. Study after study demonstrated that Clinton was the recipient of overwhelmingly negative press coverage.
On Twitter, Patrick LaForge, senior editor at The New York Times, suggested it was the FBI that made the Clinton emails such a big issue late in the campaign, and that the paper simply followed the bureau’s lead. But it was Times newsroom bosses, not the FBI director, who decided to run seven front-page email stories in three days late last month while millions of Americans were casting early ballots.
It was Times editors who decided to publish 22 articles mentioning Clinton’s email server in the week after the FBI announcement -- over-the-top coverage that at times looked like man-landing-on-the-moon reporting. Just like it was cable news producers who cultivated a manic, hothouse environment in which the term “email” or “emails” was mentioned thousands of times on air in the days following the FBI’s email announcement.
All of this for a vague statement regarding, at the time, unseen emails that may or may not prove significant to any investigation. (They ended up not being significant.)
What are some of the consequences of the media’s failed campaign coverage? And specifically, its failure to hold Trump to the same transparency and disclosure standard as Clinton?
From The Guardian, November 12 (emphasis added):
When President-elect Donald Trump enters the White House next year he will bring with him potential conflicts of interest across all areas of government that are unprecedented in American history.
Trump, who manages a sprawling, international network of businesses, has thus far refused to put his businesses into a blind trust the way his predecessors in the nation’s highest office have traditionally done. Instead he has said his businesses will be run by his own adult children.
The prospect of the president of the United States becoming deeply entangled in business conflicts while trying to lead the world’s most powerful nation is stunning.
But here’s the thing: Journalists knew that many, many months ago. They all knew that if Trump won the presidency he would be wallowing in unprecedented conflicts of interest and that Americans likely wouldn’t be able to tell where Trump’s foreign policy priorities ended and his business goals began.
The looming conflicts were an open secret. So why did that unprecedented threat to transparency generate so little political press attention before the election?
Short answer: Media were too busy hyperventilating about Clinton’s emails. And that’s when they weren’t utterly devoted to undercutting the landmark Clinton charity by hyping supposed conflicts of interest.
Remember when editorial boards lectured Clinton about the need to banish the family’s charity in order to placate the always lurking optics police?
- “Even if they’ve done nothing illegal, the foundation will always look too much like a conflict of interest for comfort.” (The Boston Globe)
- “[T]he only way to eliminate the odor surrounding the foundation is to wind it down and put it in mothballs.” (USA Today)
- “Impressions such as these are corrosive to national institutions.” (The Washington Post)
By contrast, the press basically gave Trump a pass regarding the land mine of concrete, for-profit conflicts he’d have as president.
Looking back, large, ranging portions of the 2016 campaign coverage were wildly irresponsible. It’s equally negligent now for journalists to pretend they played no role in Trump’s victory.