Norm Ornstein Takes On The Media’s Election Coverage Failures

American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein pointed to the flawed news judgment of political editors and cable news producers when it comes to election coverage in a series of email exchanges with The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, stating that coverage of Hillary Clinton stories related to the Clinton Foundation and her private email server have been “way overdone” while too much of the coverage of Donald Trump has focused on “his campaign and its tactics” rather than following up on the GOP nominee’s “deep conflicts of interest.”

Ornstein, long a prominent centrist intellectual, has since 2012 been a leading voice calling out the increasing radicalism of the Republican Party. He has been a harsh critic of the media’s coverage during this election cycle.

Several Media Matters studies and reports support Ornstein’s contention that the press has devoted substantial resources to flawed but negative stories about Clinton while failing to follow through on investigations into Trump.

In a series of exchanges with Cillizza, Ornstein criticized what he termed the “stupid” coverage of Clinton, which he said has focused too much on the Foundation and email stories to the exclusion of reporting on her tenure in government:

I think the coverage of Clinton has been stupid — an obsessive focus on press conferences, on the Clinton Foundation, on emails, the latter legitimate stories but way overdone, with almost nothing on her major policy proposals. There, it is the Times and AP, who are the serious actors.


You and your colleagues make value judgments about what you want to cover, based often on the stories' importance (see “Spotlight”) but also what brings readers and eyeballs and clicks, and what brings recognition and prizes, and on gut judgments. The coverage of Clinton emails and the Foundation, measured not just in number of stories but in placement, allocation of resources and column inches (again, not WaPo) and in lead stories, minutes on air, is in my view over the top. And the fact that many stories have been wrong, in some cases because of a reliance on leaks from Republican staffers and members of the Benghazi Committee, or a rip and read of a Judicial Watch press release, makes it much worse.


Yes, her performance as secretary of state is a good, perhaps the best, indicator of how she would govern. And somehow, you and your colleagues in the media have decided that the emails and the Clinton Foundation are the be-all and end-all of her judgment and the indication of how she would govern. Not how she ran the State Department, how she structured and dealt with the team of people around her, how she interacted with the president, the secretar(ies) of defense, the national security advisers, the DNI, etc. Not what she accomplished and did not accomplish. Not her judgments on policy or other leaders. I should add, not all of those stories would be flattering or laudatory. I don't have the time or resources to count up the column inches since the nominations were decided that have been devoted to email and the Foundation, compared to the other issues above, but I would wager the ratio is, as they say, huge. The Post has been better than its competitors, but as I recall, even you, for example, bit on the ridiculous AP story making something sinister out of the meeting with Mohammed Yunus. The need to go on the Web immediately, the new world of traditional print journalism, has its own pathologies built into it.

He wrote that by contrast, coverage of Trump has disproportionately focused on his campaign’s strategy and tactics, to the exclusion of sustained reporting on his conflicts of interest and other important stories that would more directly speak to what his presidency would look like:

On Trump, The Post is a model. I have no doubt that the fact that other outlets, from the Times and AP to the TV channels, network and cable, have largely ignored what Fahrenthold has done is the usual professional jealousy. But it is bad and unprofessional. When stories have been done about Trump's behavior as a businessman, or in cutting off the health coverage out of spite for his grand nephew with cerebral palsy, they tend to be one-offs, no follow up and no other outlets picking up on the story. Trump has gotten plenty of negative coverage, but it is different in nature and tone from that of Clinton. And so much of the coverage, including especially the nattering on cable news chat shows, has been about his campaign and its tactics. Now we have Kurt Eichenwald's deep and chilling piece about Trump's relations with Russia, China and others in his business empire, and the implications for his governance — and the nets, cable and most print people did nothing and focused on Dr. Oz and Clinton's health.


The stakes are really, really high. The relentless search for the pivot that will show [Trump] is presidential, behaving “normally,” is classic horse-race nonsense and takes up much of the bandwidth of his coverage. The real traditional stories about his campaign, including bringing in Bannon — a celebrant and megaphone for the alt-right, including its anti-Semitism and white nationalism— and Ailes, his continued reliance on Roger Stone, get short shrift.


On Trump, we started this dialogue with my comment that “you guys,” meaning the print and television world, were being played like a Stradivarius by Trump and his people, drawn like moths to the flame (excuse the mixed metaphors, I could add in Pavlovian dogs) to the back-and-forth machinations and pronouncements of Trumpland, using most of the bandwidth of coverage of Trump instead of covering two major stories about his fitness to be president: the corruption of the Trump Foundation, and even more, the insidious foreign dealings reported in Kurt Eichenwald's deep piece in Newsweek. Again, I give kudos to David Fahrenthold, the role model of this campaign, and leave out The Post from criticism on the Foundation story. But there has been almost nothing on Trump's deep conflicts of interest — and the reporting by Fahrenthold strongly suggests that if Trump were faced with a choice between pursuing America's national interest or protecting his family assets, he would go with the latter.

Ornstein concludes that cable news and print editorial story selection and emphasis has been poor throughout the election and has led to readers and viewers receiving coverage that lacks proper context:

On the latter point, cable news, which features a lot of print reporters (including The Post's) and which is on in many newsrooms around the clock, which is a major source of news and cues for our opinion leaders, does matter. It can skew news in a fashion that has lots of Americans believing something that is simply false — a good example, Fox News regulars believe that unemployment is up and the stock market is down since Obama became president. And the other cable networks can leave lots of viewers believing, for example, that scientists are evenly split on whether climate change is real, because most discussions pit a climate change believer against a denier.

But I don't want to leave this as just a problem of cable news. There are major prestigious newspapers and other news sources that matter enormously. And they matter not just in what stories they run, but how much they cover more than one story, where the story is placed, how much emphasis they give, how careful they are at getting facts straight, how sensitive they are to where leaks are coming from and whether they are accurate or slanted. Here, by the way, I wish you and the Times, as examples, would announce that any anonymous source who gives you false or misleading information will be outed — the privilege of anonymity extends only to provision of accurate information.

The real forces here are the editors, at the top and all the way down, deciding what to cover, what goes on the front page, what goes above the fold, what the headlines are, how to allocate scarce resources, how to respond to errors, how to deal with rumors. And I see increasing and troubling evidence, less in The Post than in others, of a rush to get stories out there because of the demand for eyeballs and clicks, fewer safeguards at the managing editor and below, less tolerance of criticism. The Post, the Times, the AP matter more than a slew of local papers, because they both set the standard and provide the feeds used across the country and abroad.