Right-wing commentator and thorn in my side Erick Erickson coined a phrase a while back that I can’t help but admire. “You will be made to care.” I kick myself for not coming up with it first, because while he uses the phrase to talk about culture war issues, it is such a perfect way to describe the way media can influence voters’ priorities through coverage.
In March 2015, The New York Times reported on the existence of a private server that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton used during her tenure as secretary of State. For the next 20 months, the public was told over and over about what a huge deal it was that Clinton used a private server. In mid-March 2015, a CNN poll found that just 46% of respondents thought the way Clinton handled her emails as secretary of State were relevant to her ability to serve as president compared to 52% who said emails were irrelevant to her qualifications. By October 2016, 64% of respondents said emails were relevant compared to just 35% who said the opposite. With each time CNN polled the question, the public found the topic of emails to be increasingly important, even after then-FBI Director James Comey’s July 2016 announcement that Clinton had not committed a crime.
From October 29 to November 3, 2016, just days before the presidential election, The New York Times published 10 front-page stories about the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s private email server. During that same six days, the Times ran zero front page stories about the public policy positions of either Clinton or her Republican opponent, Donald Trump. We know how that story ended. Clinton’s campaign faltered in those final days, Trump got elected, and mainstream media’s obsession with information security faded away almost entirely.
To borrow Erickson’s line, we were “made to care.” The American public didn’t just naturally develop an interest in email server security as a top issue of the 2016 election; it was built in the press.
It’s time for journalists to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth about their role in shaping electoral priorities through agenda-setting.
The agenda-setting theory explores the role the news media plays in influencing how the public prioritizes various topics. By giving Clinton’s email scandal such outsized coverage, publishers and broadcasters signaled to audiences that this was an issue they should be concerned about. Following the 2016 campaign, a common criticism of Clinton was that she didn’t have enough of an economic message and instead focused too much on so-called identity politics.
A study published by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University found that between May 1, 2015 and November 7, 2016, the number of sentences in mainstream media dedicated to Clinton’s emails outnumbered the number of sentences dedicated to her policy positions combined. A post-election analysis by The New York Times found a similar trend about the lack of policy coverage. Conventional wisdom seems to be that this is because Clinton didn’t try to make 2016 an issues-based election, but as it turns out, a Vox analysis of her campaign speeches found that she focused on jobs and the economy more than anything else.
Journalists cultivated public interest in esoteric scandals while leaving policy analysis on the sidelines. We’re seeing something similar happen this year, but with a twist.
In a recap of the second night of the Republican National Convention, The New York Times provided a perfect example of what’s wrong with modern American news media.
“Trump Leverages Powers of Office as He Seeks to Broaden Appeal,” read the headline, and the article delved into all the ways Trump and his reelection campaign used “the resources of his office and the powers of the presidency” for political gain.
The “grab-bag of gauzy events and personal testimonials” included a surprise presidential pardon and footage of Trump attending a naturalization ceremony for new American citizens. First lady Melania Trump “enlisted the trappings of the presidency” for her evening address, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech from Jerusalem, “flouting a norm that State Department officials abstain from electoral politics.” Pompeo’s appearance “raised eyebrows but was in keeping with Mr. Trump’s penchant for eliminating the lines between the political and the official.”
Aside from a single line about early concern from some Republican lawmakers that there may be ethical concerns regarding the White House’s use as a prop, the Times stuck to treating these deviations from norms as examples of Trump’s unorthodox style as opposed to, as some ethics experts and Democrats have warned, potential violations of law.
As my colleague Matt Gertz pointed out in a rundown of some of the potential Hatch Act violations that happened at the RNC, one major reason this didn’t become a major scandal is that journalists simply chose not to treat it that way. Politico Playbook went so far as to acknowledge the illegality (or at very least impropriety) of many of that week’s events, but then brushed the issue off, asking, “But do you think a single person outside the Beltway gives a hoot about the president politicking from the White House or using the federal government to his political advantage?”
This is a big part of the problem. Rather than providing the public with information it needs, journalists are busy trying to figure out what information it wants, making all sorts of flawed assumptions along the way. The decision to shrug off the Trump administration’s ethical and legal violations would have been more acceptable had it been as part of a commitment to focus on policy this time around. Instead, it’s clear journalists downplay it for its lack of entertainment value. Rather than acknowledge that the problem with election coverage is that it’s treated like a sporting event or a reality TV show instead of a source of public information essential for an informed democracy, journalists ignored the Hatch Act violations, signaling a belief that it was simply the wrong kind of reality TV show.
The reality TV mindset needs to change -- and quickly.
Journalists should not be programming entertainment for their audiences, they should be functioning as the fourth estate in our republic. Here’s how they do that in the home stretch.
To borrow a bit from the 1989 film Field of Dreams, if you report, they will care. I don’t want to look back on 2020 election coverage with the same sort of dismay I feel when I think about 2016, and the American press shouldn’t want that, either. There will no doubt be a juicy, salacious story journalists are tempted to obsess over in the final weeks of the campaign. Maybe the Trump Justice Department will open up a frivolous investigation into someone connected to Joe Biden’s campaign, or perhaps Trump’s efforts to pin violence in cities on Biden will start to stick. Whatever it may be, the press will be faced with a difficult decision about whether it’s important to plaster the faux scandal du jour across front pages of newspapers in the campaign’s final days or whether it’s more important that people understand the substantive differences between Trump and Biden when it comes to policy positions.
In September 2016, a Pew Research Center poll found that less than half of voters said they knew “a lot” about either candidate’s policy positions. Had the press put more emphasis on what candidates would actually do as president and spent less time turning Clinton’s information security practices into the defining topic of the election, perhaps those numbers wouldn’t be so bleak.
An informed electorate is crucial to the health of our democracy, and that’s why I’m challenging publishers and broadcasters to devote at least as much attention to where Trump and Biden stand on immigration, health care, climate change, gun control, national security, immigration, abortion, LGBTQ issues, race, police reform, and more. Imagine the public service these newspapers could provide if instead of plastering front pages with the latest palace intrigue story, they set aside that space for analysis of what a Biden presidency would mean compared to a Trump reelection.
Journalists may think they know what the American public cares about, and they may think that policy doesn’t matter as much as Trump’s latest nickname for a political rival, but they have the ability to change that.