The failure of many news outlets to follow up on some of the most important investigative reports on Donald Trump, while repeatedly rehashing the same overblown stories about Hillary Clinton, is drawing scrutiny from veteran political reporters and other journalists following the race.
In interviews with Media Matters, many reporters and editors who have covered past races say the national press has not done enough to question Trump and follow up on major investigative pieces about the Republican nominee, including questions over his modeling agency’s alleged improper use of visas, his illegal campaign contribution to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, and his handling of $150,000 in 9/11 funds, among others.
Most recently, Newsweek published a lengthy investigation into many of Trump’s foreign dealings, noting they could cause serious conflicts if he is president. Also notably, The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has been doggedly reporting on the shady practices of the Trump Foundation, Trump’s charitable foundation. These stories, like many other Trump controversies, have been the subject of wider media attention this week.
But if the rest of the election is any indication, they are likely to quickly fade from view in favor of media focus on Trump’s outrageous comment du jour or endless relitigating of Clinton pseudo-scandals, like her use of email and her health.
Many experienced political reporters say this disconnect is a major failing of the political press so far this election.
“It’s bad journalism,” said Bill Kovach, former Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, who later added, “To keep bringing up the same story in order to achieve what you feel like you need to call balance is sloppy journalism, it’s lazy journalism and it’s wrong in an election of this sort, with the kinds of issues the country is facing.”
As for Trump stories, he agreed many news outlets engage in “one shot” reporting on Trump scandals. “I don’t get it,” Kovach added. “They disappear. If you were asking what the thing they remember most about Donald Trump, today it might be whatever today’s story is. Two days from now, that’s disappeared. But if you talk about Hillary Clinton, it’s the emails, the emails, the emails.”
Walter Shapiro, a veteran who has covered numerous presidential campaigns for Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post, has long complained about the press’ lack of challenge to Trump’s lies. He said this imbalance is almost as bad.
“I believe that the email scandal is badly overhyped and the Pam Bondi story is quite worthy of further scrutiny,” he said.
Former Meet the Press host Marvin Kalb, who covered presidential campaigns from 1980 to 1988 for NBC News, said many reporters have been “seduced” by Trump.
Asked if the press should do a better job following up on many Trump scandals, he said, “It absolutely should and it must, but it hasn’t and that to me is an illustration of the failure of the mainstream media in the United States, to treat him as they would any other candidate -- they treat him differently.”
Clark Hoyt, former Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder and past New York Times public editor, said Trump’s failure to release his tax returns is among the most important issues the press needs to focus on.
“To the degree that isn’t being done it is a problem,” said Hoyt. “There has to be a concerted effort to get those returns released and there should be an ongoing enterprise effort to find out more about his wealth, his finances, his associates, his charitable contributions.”
Veteran campaign scribes point to several reasons for the imbalance in follow-up stories. Some say that there are so many Trump transgressions and scandals that reporters do not know how to keep up, while others contend many in the press corps still do not believe Trump can win and therefore do not take such investigations seriously.
“I don’t think it’s deliberate, but it exists,” said Christopher Cooper, a former Wall Street Journal political reporter who covered the Obama campaign in 2008. “I don’t think in their hearts they think he’s going to win.”
Cooper added, “every morning you wake up and Trump has done something else and it kind of gets lost in the forest I think.”
David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register politics reporter, agreed.
He said reporters “still don’t think he’s going to be president. … There’s still an attitude, you see it in talk shows and things, that her path is easier than his so if I am a reporter and an expectation that someone is going to get the job and someone is the clown and has no chance at winning, you do treat them differently. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but that’s the way that is.”
Jill Abramson, former New York Times executive editor and a one-time Washington bureau chief, agreed there are so many Trump issues to investigate that some reporters may not know where to begin.
“I think some reporters are staying on them, but there’s just such a wide array of different controversies and ethical imbroglios that no particular one gets through,” Abramson said. “With Clinton, she’s been scrubbed many times and the controversies seem to have boiled down to the ones … that get repeat attention. My overall criticism of the coverage of any of these incidents is that they get disproportional coverage in the moment and then they don’t get much serious follow up; I think that that point is true. The stories lack the impact that they otherwise might get. … They get washed away by the speed of the news cycle”
She added, “Trump has a stunning array of unethical, really troubling different ventures. He hasn’t been in public life so the number of deals and such that he’s involved in is much broader.”
Tom Fiedler, former Miami Herald executive editor and political editor, said many in the press get caught up in the changing daily narrative and fail to research bigger investigations further.
“Despite the gravity of many of the transgressions reported about Trump, he invariably commits a still-newer outrage within a news cycle or two, thus driving the previous story from current discussion,” said Fiedler, who is currently dean of the College of Communication at Boston University. “The even older outrages -- perhaps committed just three or four news cycles earlier -- are buried even further under the newer ones.”
Fielder also said, “because the news media -- and particularly television -- remains locked in the culture of false balance, whenever Trump commits his latest outrage the media feels obligated to ‘balance’ that by repeating whatever may be conveniently available from Clinton.”
Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said all of these realities mix together to create the problematic difference in how Clinton and Trump are being investigated and reported upon.
“First and foremost, Trump is a master at changing the subject. Some news outlet unearths a nugget of scandal? No problem. Trump just says something outrageous (‘Hillary is a bigot!’ ‘Obama and Hillary are the founders of Isis!’) and recaptures the headlines,” Keller said via email. “The press (to be grossly generalistic...) can't resist the lure of a bright shiny new object. Second, the sheer volume of scandal-bombs … makes it difficult to focus on any one. Third, to some extent Trump gets away with stuff because much of it plays to his theme: I can fix the rigged system because I've been working that system my whole life.”
He later said of the coverage of Clinton: “Where Trump changes the subject -- or just flat lies -- Hillary hunkers down. She responds incrementally and defensively, which prolongs the misery.”
Finally, Keller said many in the press may seek to fight back against the claims of liberal bias by over-covering Clinton’s issues and not challenging Trump: “I think some media, aware that they are accused of being in the tank for Hillary, recycle the emails to prove they are not playing favorites.”