Pretty much everyone agrees the media failed to adequately cover the most contentious presidential election in recent memory — but what exactly did they get wrong?
Donald Trump would tell you the media provided unfair coverage of him and his campaign, and he’s right — though not quite in the way he thinks. The team at Data Face examined nearly 22,000 articles written about the election between July 2015 and August 2016 by eight major media outlets, including the New York Times and Fox News. They set up an algorithm to evaluate whether coverage was positive or negative toward either candidate, and whether that tone shifted during the campaign. The researchers were astonished by the sheer number of headlines — 14,924 — featuring Trump’s name. The tone of that coverage varied at times, but according to one analysis, the constant barrage of Trump news amounted to $3 billion in free airtime before he’d even won the nomination. Even when the coverage was negative, Trump agreed that “all press is good press.” Trump, who essentially tricked reporters into promoting his hotel in Washington, D.C., admitted the media fascination with his campaign offered a huge advantage. “I just don’t think I need nearly as much money as other people need because I get so much publicity,” Trump said in June.
The media compensated for their Trump obsession with “false balance” hyping Hillary Clinton’s alleged or perceived misdeeds as equivalent to her Republican rival’s conspicuous blunders. The Tyndall Report analyzed nightly network news coverage of the election through Oct. 24 and found they had devoted 100 minutes to reporting on Clinton’s emails. The networks spent 333 minutes on Donald Trump during that same period, but just 32 minutes total on all issues coverage — compared to 220 minutes in 2008. “No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits,” the report’s authors lamented. Even when campaign issues such as terrorism, LGBT rights and foreign policy were mentioned, the reporting was largely on the candidates’ terms. That could have benefitted Clinton — whose website offered 38 detailed policy proposals, compared to Trump’s seven lightly sketched outlines — but those discussions were usually drowned out by debates over whether her opponent’s plans were constitutional, realistic or contradicted his previous statements.
“False balance” allowed the media to normalize an abnormal candidate running an abnormal campaign. Trump opened his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists, proposed unconstitutional bans on Muslim immigrants, personally insulted women who challenged him, accused his GOP rival’s father of conspiring to kill John F. Kennedy, refused to release his tax returns and threatened to trigger a constitutional crisis if he lost the election. His primary opponents denounced Trump as a “pathological liar,” “cancer,” “menace” and “delusional narcissist” — language far outside the traditional bounds of political discourse. But many journalists felt uncomfortable communicating those abnormalities. “Covering Mr. Trump as an abnormal and potentially dangerous candidate is more than just a shock to the journalistic system,” wrote Jim Rutenberg, a media columnist for the New York Times. “It upsets balance, that idealistic form of journalism with a capital ‘J’ we’ve been trained to always strive for.” Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” shared an anecdote, months after it allegedly happened, about Trump asking a “foreign policy expert” why the U.S. maintains a nuclear arsenal if the weapons can’t be used. Scarborough later said the private revelation had terrified him, but he didn’t share it with his audience until the topic came up during an on-air conversation. Then there was the grim spectacle of “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon tousling Trump’s hair.
Coverage of Trump’s obvious personality flaws outweighed coverage of his potential conflicts of interest, which remained underreported until after his election. It’s easy to see why: Daily examples of his outrageous behavior are easily digestible and certainly newsworthy, while his business entanglements require a commitment from both reporters and their audience. That’s not unusual — a lot of important stories suffer from the same problem. Some of the campaign’s best reporting dug deep into Trump’s shady charitable foundation and his potentially treacherous business involvement in other countries — including Russia, whose election meddling also went underreported during the campaign — but the mainstream media failed to explain how those associations might prove problematic if he won. Let’s take the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits elected officials from accepting compensation from “any king, prince or foreign state” without congressional approval. Trump and his family-run business would run afoul of that constitutional requirement immediately upon inauguration, according to a former Bush ethics lawyer, and the formerly obscure clause has been cited since the election as a possible basis for impeachment. Before the election, the long-slumbering emoluments clause was hardly ever awoken — except to whack Clinton over her family’s charitable foundation.
Cable networks paraded hapless and dishonest Trump surrogates onscreen in the name of balance, and CNN was the biggest offender. The network even hired Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, over the objections of other employees and kept him on even after it was revealed he was still being paid to coordinate with the GOP candidate. CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, worked with Trump at NBC, and the “Apprentice” star believes his recommendation got him the top job at the news network. CNN’s ratings skyrocketed during the campaign, and Zucker credits Trump. “We recognized … there was a little bit of a phenomenon to Donald Trump,” Zucker said. “We did give him quite a bit of coverage.” The network also hired Trump surrogates Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Nell Hughes, Jeffrey Lord and the aforementioned Lewandowski — who each found no rhetorical bar too low to stoop beneath to defend their boss. “These aren’t normal political commentators,” said Carlos Maza of Media Matters. “They are professional bullsh*t artists. They argue in circles, they change the subject (and) bring the segment to a screeching, unwatchable halt.”
News consumers share some of the blame for incentivizing bad behavior by media organizations, because they have more power to shape coverage than ever before. There was plenty of great reporting on important issues, but many readers and viewers skipped over that content in favor of less weighty topics. In a click-based media environment, there’s a clear incentive to deliver what consumers want. Social media gives even greater influence to consumers, because the content they share will be seen by a larger audience and generate more clicky ad revenue. This distorts coverage by elevating the noisiest voices and most attention-grabbing headlines, rather than the most important stories as determined by experienced editors and weighed against the other events of any given day. “Media consumers voting with their eyeballs for ever-dumber political coverage creates the biggest imbalance in reality,” wrote Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi. That’s how “fake news” corrupted the final weeks of the presidential campaign. A Buzzfeed analysis found the top-performing bogus stories on Facebook generated more engagement in the campaign’s final three months than the top stories from major U.S. news outlets. That’s prompted a lot of journalistic hand-wringing, and mainstream media outlets have all-too-eagerly led the charge against fake news for their own branding purposes. Many proposed solutions to the scourge of phony or willfully misleading stories risk stifling independent media or opening the door to partisan gamesmanship — so let’s all start being better news consumers. Click on (or better yet, read) investigative reporting from credible sources, subscribe to outlets you appreciate, pay for premium content sometimes and — most important — take a moment to check the credibility of your sources before sharing stories on social media. Why not? You’re already on the internet.