The 2016 presidential campaign is handing journalism an extraordinary challenge: How to deal with so many remarkable developments — a mold-breaking Republican front-runner, a former first lady in the lead for the Democrats, an extremely volatile electorate — all at a time of disruption for news organizations.
Given the importance of this election, trying to figure out what is happening in time for some mid-course correction feels critical. Toward that goal, here are a few thoughts about some of the factors at play:
1. All Trump, much of the time.
The catnip of Donald Trump’s candidacy has been irresistible to the media, resulting in coverage that is unprecedentedly cockeyed. As a recent New York Times article put it, “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in.”
This chart, from the Times article, shows how utterly out-of-whack Trump’s “free-media” coverage has been:
This constant coverage – even of the outrages (maybe especially of the outrages, in Trump’s case) — has undeniably served to elevate him above all others.
2. Normalizing the out-of-the-ordinary
The question of how to cover a candidate as unusual as Donald Trump is a tough one — particularly considering how unusual several of this election’s other candidates are. Ted Cruz must be the first senator to run for the presidency while being universally reviled by his colleagues (even as a few have begun endorsing him). Then there is Bernie Sanders, who would be not only the first Jewish president, as well as its oldest, but a self-described “democratic socialist” as well. Then there is the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, prospectively the nation’s first woman president, with a lot of complicated baggage herself. But, however complex the coverage question, the answer is not to “normalize” Trump with the kind of false equivalencies richly illustrated in a recent story by Michael Barbaro in the New York Times. Here’s one quote from the article:
“Even those who vote for Mrs. Clinton harbor reservations. Renee White, 31, a Democrat in Youngstown, Ohio, is not entirely convinced that Mrs. Clinton, her choice in Tuesday’s primary, cares about people like her, she said. ‘A lot of people,’ she said, ‘just don’t trust her at all.’
“The views of Mr. Trump from Republicans are almost equally uncharitable and unwavering [my emphasis].”
Trump is sui generis — a candidate whose party is desperately trying to halt his momentum. Coverage that treats him as if nothing unusual is going on is misguided. Or, as Paul Krugman tweeted about this piece, “Can media really claim that Clinton, who has very strong favorability among Democrats, and Trump are similarly ‘divisive’? Yes they can.”
3. Back at the horse race
The longest running critique of political coverage may be that far too much of it is about the horse race – who’s ahead, who’s behind — with little that is substantially informative. Some observers have hoped that emerging media, with their new tools and reach, would help correct this. And indeed, some of the strongest coverage on the political scene these days is coming from sources that didn’t exist a couple of elections ago, such as Politico, The Upshot and 538. But if anything, these sources –with their dedication to mining data — are placing an even greater emphasis on the horse race. New media like Buzzfeed, Vice, Vox and Fusion have done some good issues reporting. Yet all in all, the focus on numbers rather than on context, explanatory reporting, investigation or enterprise seems only to have increased.
This may feel justifiable because, as one New York Times editor put it, this is a
“horse race for the ages.” This same New York Times editor predicted that attention would turn more toward substance as the candidate field is narrowed. But that is lamentably late.
4. Social media’s moment-by-moment claim on news attention
With so many of us getting our news through social media (second only to cable television), the hope for a deeper look, a continuous story, a helpful context, is overwhelmed by our fragmented, in-the-moment notion of what’s going on. When it comes to going viral, the latest outrage will beat the latest issue story any time. And the legacy news organizations, which have traditionally provided the in-depth stories, are themselves compelled to be in the social-media mix – placing additional demands on fast-depleting newsrooms.
5. Legacy media fighting for survival
Those newsrooms are not only losing staff; many are facing fundamental doubts about their very survival. With economic health no longer assured by the advertising that once guaranteed editorial independence, a journalism enterprise now is obliged to pay attention to the choices that consumers are making. Newspapers used to do in-depth profiles, lengthy investigations of candidates’ past positions or deep dives into the issues facing the nation without thinking about how many people would read them. Now they know exactly how big an audience there is for any particular piece of content – and they no longer have the luxury to ignore that knowledge.
6. So long, Walter Cronkite
On some previous occasions when the nation seemed to be moving in a particularly perilous direction, authoritative media figures have stepped forward and changed the national conversation. Consider Walter Cronkite’s
remarkable Vietnam commentary in 1968. Or the 1954 Edward R. Murrow exposure of Joseph McCarthy.
NBC’s Tom Brokaw may have had such examples in mind in his moving December 2015 response to Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims. But there are no figures in today’s media world with the kind of standing or reach to enable them to affect the nation’s mood that Cronkite and Murrow had.
7. Objectivity: a shifting standard
For good and for ill, the time-honored notion of objectivity is being questioned – and variously interpreted — today. A public preference for “voice” in media, the rise of news organizations with a clear viewpoint (Fox, MSNBC) and the fractionalization of the audience – all of these mean that media are finding their way on new ethical terrain. And they are doing so in a time when many in the public are clearer than ever about what they want: news that affirms their views, not news that brings new information and different viewpoints.
There is no question that these and other issues affecting the election are complicated and most of them deeply rooted. And there’s no denying that many news organizations are fighting for survival. Still, there are some things that journalists can do. And, with the nation’s future in the balance, they ought to do them now. Enough with the free media for Trump; let serious news judgment determine the coverage. Cut the normalization of what is truly out-of-the-ordinary; false equivalency misinforms voters. And, as for all that horse-race coverage, the field is wide open for the kind of desperately needed journalism that would truly inform public understanding.