Post-Mortem: How 2016 Broke Political Journalism

After a presidential campaign season that seemed unprecedented in its length and ferocity, on Election Day 2016 there were two contenders vying to become the most powerful person in the world.

One was a conventional politician who had spent decades in public service. Her positions, philosophy, and actions were well within the norm for an American presidential candidate.

The other was a racist misogynist who ran a campaign based on hatred and vitriol and was described by leading conservatives as a proto-fascist whose rise was “perilous to the republic.” He openly undermined press freedoms, threatened the nation’s decades-long alliances, lifted up white nationalist elements to new prominence, lied constantly and brazenly, mocked the disability of a reporter, attacked a Gold Star family, was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and was accused of doing so by several, showed a frightening lack of familiarity with public policy, promised to imprison his opponent, and drew support from Russian intelligence services. He represented a fundamental break with virtually every norm in American public life.

The press plays an essential agenda-setting role in American politics. Every day of the campaign, news executives, editors, TV newscasters and bookers, reporters, and pundits made thousands of independent decisions which, collectively, determined both the stories included in the nation’s papers, websites, and broadcasts, and how those stories were covered. Those journalists could, through the volume and tone of coverage, turn a story into a major scandal for a politician, treat it as a witch hunt against that politician, or let it languish and be forgotten as new stories replace it in the public consciousness. Over and over during the 2016 campaign, the political press chose wrong.

The campaign broke political journalism. Despite the vast differences between the two candidates, the message media consumers heard from journalists was that to an equal extent, both candidates were flawed.

In fact, according to Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, which reviewed an analysis of news reports in major newspapers and cable and broadcast networks from January 1, 2015, through November 7, 2016, the conventional candidate actually received a higher proportion of negative coverage over the course of the campaign.

The study also reveals that during the general election, “on topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone” -- 87 percent negative for both. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump?” asks the study’s author, Professor Thomas Patterson. “It’s a question that political reporters made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign.”

Yes, Clinton had personal flaws and ran an imperfect campaign. No, it was not the press’s responsibility to deliver Clinton a victory. But in such a close race, where it is impossible to disaggregate one ultimate “cause” of the results, it seems likely that the choices news outlets made over the course of the election played a role in her defeat.

The Overwhelming Focus On Hillary Clinton And Emails

In a prescient July 2015 essay, reporter and Clinton biographer Jonathan Allen explained that over the course of her career, “coverage of Hillary Clinton differs from coverage of other candidates for the presidency,” and warned that the “difference encourages distortions that will ultimately affect the presidential race.” He pointed out the reason public perception of Clinton is distorted: because “the media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith unless there’s hard evidence otherwise” and outlets are willing to serve as a vector for unhinged, unfair, or false attacks on her character.

Allen’s warning played out over the course of the 2016 election, as the press’s discussion of Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly focused on three stories that news outlets consistently depicted as major scandals for her campaign. And all related to emails: the private email server she used as secretary of state; emails regarding the Clinton Foundation’s operations that were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and dribbled out by conservative organizations; and emails that hackers reportedly linked to Russian intelligence agencies stole from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which were released through third parties.

Each story was worthy of press coverage -- measured coverage that put the facts in proper context. But context was washed away in a sea of often-inaccurate reporting that turned the stories into scandals. The evening network news broadcasts, for example, spent three times as much time on the Clinton email server story as on all in-depth campaign policy coverage combined. As the Gallup Working Group noted in reviewing polling data from July 11 through the election, what Americans reported they had read, seen, or heard about Hillary Clinton was “focused almost entirely on a single theme, email.” From its report:

Coverage of Clinton’s server frequently confused basic legal and factual issues regarding both the server’s creation and the information that flowed through it. Clinton Foundation stories, driven by deceptive presentation from partisan operatives, downplayed the organization’s effectiveness and the millions of lives it has saved in favor of concocting evidence of purported ethical conflicts. The gossipy tidbits journalists reported from the Podesta and DNC emails overshadowed the real concern the emails suggested -- that foreign actors were trying to sway the election.

In each case, as Allen had warned, journalists operated under the assumption that Clinton was acting in bad faith and had behaved unethically unless the allegations could be “proven completely and utterly false.”

As Gallup’s data show, the email coverage reached a crescendo when Comey announced on October 29 that the bureau planned to review additional emails that “appear to be pertinent to the investigation” of Clinton’s use of a private email server. Reporters rushed to trumpet Republican spin that the letter was a major development indicating that Comey had “reopened” his investigation, and they flooded newspaper front pages and broadcast and cable news programming with endless discussion that was frequently obsessed with optics and devoid of substance.

Two days before the election, Comey announced what had been obvious from the moment the story had broken -- that the review of additional emails would not change his conclusion that Clinton’s server had not violated the law (the emails reportedly turned out to be almost entirely duplicates of previously reviewed emails). But the damage was done: The email story garnered substantial negative media coverage over the last 10 days of the election while crowding out potential negative coverage of Trump.

Donald Trump’s Dominance Of The News Cycle

“Did journalists create Trump? Of course not — they don’t have that kind of power,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan in her election postmortem. “But they helped him tremendously, with huge amounts of early, unfiltered exposure in the months leading up to the Republican primary season. With ridiculous emphasis put on every development about Hillary Clinton’s email practices, including the waffling of FBI Director James B. Comey.”

As Sullivan suggests, the overwhelming, carnival-like coverage Trump received in the early days of the election gave him a huge advantage that played a key role in his rise to the Republican nomination. Trump received nearly $2 billion in media coverage through February, almost three times as much as Clinton and roughly six times as much as that of his closest Republican opponent.

“The media greatly enabled Trump, embracing the spectacle to give him vast swaths of real estate on air, online and in print,” NPR’s David Folkenflik wrote at the conclusion of the primary season.

While Trump dominated news coverage across the board, the problem was particularly apparent on the cable news channels. “Producers at several networks said they initially treated his candidacy as a joke, albeit a highly entertaining one,” BuzzFeed reported in March. “Trump's rallies became must-see daytime and primetime television on cable, pre-empting regularly scheduled newscasts and driving day-to-day news cycle.”

In a particularly noxious example, CNN ran a live shot of Trump’s empty podium for 30 minutes when the candidate was late for a March event. This “illustrated the vacuity of the celebrity-driven frenzy that defined Trump’s early campaign,” according to Politico’s Glenn Thrush. Trump “was so much more important than any of his rivals that even his absence was more newsworthy than their presence, and the networks did nothing to dispel that view, airing his speeches in their entirety when no other candidate or even President Obama was afforded that privilege.”

Trump’s dominance on cable and broadcast news shows also came about because those programs allowed him to make regular appearances by phone, rather than appearing in person or by satellite. Media ethicists panned this unprecedented practice because it granted Trump a number of unusual benefits -- he could steamroll through tough questions while tightly controlling his own image, and doing the interviews by phone allowed him to easily flood the airwaves in the morning and thus dictate what reporters covered for the rest of the day.

It’s no secret why cable and broadcast networks were so eager to highlight every aspect of Trump’s campaign, newsworthy or not: An unfiltered Trump provided great ratings and, subsequently, ad revenue. As CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves put it, Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”

“The money's rolling in and this is fun," he said in February. “I've never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Too often, these incentives resulted in softer interviews and coverage than was justified. Frequent false statements were allowed to sail by. At CNN, executives hired a series of Trump surrogates -- including the candidate’s just-fired campaign manager, who was likely under a nondisparagement agreement and remained on Trump’s payroll for months -- to derail campaign segments with wild, implausible, and offensive spin. Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin fawned over the candidate on Trump’s plane and helicopter and even on a Zamboni. At MSNBC, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski’s cozy sitdowns with the candidate drew criticism from aghast media critics. And Fox News gorged itself on softball Trump interviews from its opinion hosts, including a soft-focus sitdown with Megyn Kelly.

Rather than deeming him a unique threat to democracy who was engaged in racist demagoguery, for much of the campaign, journalists all too frequently simply termed Trump “controversial.”

Political Journalists Failed To Hold Trump Accountable

As Harvard’s study shows, the tone of Trump’s coverage grew increasingly negative during the general election. But at the same time, political reporters and pundits were frequently giving Trump outs, holding him to the low bar his campaign preferred and repeatedly imagining potential “pivots” and moves to campaign “discipline” in spite of the outrageous, extreme, and false things he was saying on a daily basis. Trump surrogates ran wild, distorting and outright lying about the candidate’s commentary in often-absurd ways that undermined the possibility of a reasoned debate. Reporters returned again and again to Trump advisers with long records of bigotry, giving them space to explain what the candidate really meant without calling them on their histories of misogyny and racism.

Many of the best investigative reports into Trump never got the attention they deserved, even as reporters mulled over, at length, every possible news hook about purported Clinton scandals. Political journalists can’t say enough about the brilliance of Washington Post reporter David Farenthold’s deep dives into Trump’s foundation, but his stories frequently failed to get the sort of full-spectrum attention granted to what seemed like every possible suggestion of an ethical scandal surrounding the Clinton Foundation. If reporters had provided fairer reporting on the Clinton Foundation, the contrast with the corruption of the Trump Foundation -- which actually was a slush fund for Trump’s personal interests and really did break the law -- would have been more clear to the public. And it was only after Trump was already elected that the press followed his lead and finally turned its attention to the billionaire’s business empire in depth; at that point, reporters discovered endless conflicts of interest that the president-elect shows little interest in trying to resolve.

Election coverage was not all dark. Many reporters did provide diligent and hard-hitting reviews of Trump’s extremism, shady business dealings, bigotry, and lies. In addition to Fahrenthold, Media Matters praised NBC News reporter Katy Tur for her brave and insightful reporting from the Trump campaign trail; BuzzFeed/CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski for his decimation of Trump’s repeated lie that he had opposed the Iraq War since its inception; and Guardian columnist Lucia Graves for her early, prescient, and careful stories on Jill Harth, who was one of several women to accuse Trump of sexual harassment.

Overall, however, editors and executives at major media outlets failed in their responsibility to present to their audience the full picture of the election in proper context, instead providing disproportionate scrutiny to relatively minor Clinton “scandals” in a way that ultimately resulted in a skewed picture of the election.

And that's because the political press was unable to adapt its methods and practices to a dramatically different election season. In typical elections, news outlets often treat both major presidential candidates as relatively similar -- comparing their flaws, scrutinizing their respective scandals, and framing the vote as a choice between two comparable options.

But this was not a normal election between two comparable choices. That sort of equivalency could not hope to provide viewers and readers with an accurate picture of this unusual race. And on balance, the press did not rise to this unique challenge. 

Even after 16 months on the campaign trail, political journalists never figured out how to accurately depict the unprecedented nature of Trump's candidacy. Now they must find a way to reckon with and report on a president who has no regard for the freedom of the press or the norms of his office.