People will be parsing this election for years to come. Here’s one thing I know: Journalism failed us badly. Since we are going to need good journalism more than ever in the days ahead, I offer some thoughts about what went wrong:
- The bottomless well of Trump coverage early on. This is mostly attributable to cable, but it was true of television more broadly, and it influenced print and online media as well.
I included this chart from the New York Times in my March 28 blogpost: A tough test for Journalism and the Midterm Grades Aren’t Good.
As the Times story said, “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.”
Of this development, CBS Chairman Les Moonves famously said: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Here’s what else he said: “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
He did. So did they.
- Near abandonment of issues coverage.
A Harvard study by Tom Patterson, released in late September, looked at 10 major news outlets, including the New York Times. It concluded that “substantive policy issues have received only a small amount of attention so far in the 2016 election coverage.”
Another study, released in late October, looked at the networks’ news coverage to determine how much of it concerned issues:
Total ABC CBS NBC
1988 117 36 40 42
1992 210 112 38 60
1996 98 29 53 17
2000 130 45 39 46
2004 203 40 119 44
2008 220 41 119 66
2012 114 13 70 32
2016 (YTD) 32 8 16 8
(Andrew Tyndall 10/25/16)
“With just two weeks to go, issues coverage this year has been virtually non-existent. Of the 32 minutes total, terrorism (17 mins) and foreign policy (7 mins) towards the Middle East (Israel-ISIS-Syria-Iraq) have attracted some attention. Gay rights, immigration and policing have been mentioned in passing.
“No trade, no healthcare, no climate change, no drugs, no poverty, no guns, no infrastructure, no deficits. To the extent that these issues have been mentioned, it has been on the candidates’ terms, not on the networks’ initiative.”
- Data journalism gone haywire.
The Times’s Nate Cohn may have no regrets, as per this tweet:
But something surely went wrong, since virtually everyone else in the world was in shock, no matter where they stood politically.
As Nick Bilton put it: “Every big-data, number-crunching Web site, from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight to The New York Times’ Upshot; every poll, from Fox to Bloomberg to Rasmussen, had predictions that were so off that it now seems surreal. And while we now all have to swallow the noxious potion that is President Trump, the chaser is that polling is completely and utterly broken.”
4. False equivalence. And more false equivalence. And more…
As in: They’re both unpopular. They both tell lies — no matter how vastly different the proportions:
Ethan Coen’s sarcasm in his “thank you notes” in the Times rang painfully close to how the stories read:
“You balanced Donald Trump’s proposal that the military execute the innocent families of terrorists, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced pot-stirring racist lies about President Obama’s birth, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced a religious test at our borders, torture by our military, jokes about assassination, unfounded claims of a rigged election, boasts about groping and paradoxical threats to sue anyone who confirmed the boasts, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced endorsement of nuclear proliferation, against Hillary’s emails. You balanced tirelessly, indefatigably; you balanced, you balanced, and then you balanced some more.”
The Times’s columnists tried to tell ‘em so:
“I know some (many) journalists are busy denying responsibility, but this is absurd, and I think they know it,” said Paul Krugman in “The Falsity of False Equivalence.”
And Nick Kristof: “Of course we should cover Clinton’s sins, but when the public believes that a mythomaniac like Trump is the straight shooter, we owe it to ourselves and the country to wrestle with knotty questions of false equivalence.”
The primary response came from the then fairly new public editor, Liz Spayd, in an exceptionally weak column, urging Times journalists not to be intimidated by the false balance charge.
Does this kind of flawed journalism happen because a news organization wants to avoid driving away the right? Did it make for more interesting stories? Did it seem harmless, because Clinton was sure to win?
The New York Times — this newspaper on which I depend (as is evident in this post), and which leads much of the other news coverage in America — is deeply implicated here. It is perhaps the most important news outlet in the country, one of the most important in the world, and it must be better than this. A statement from its publisher and executive editor, after the election said this:
“As we reflect on the momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.”
Rededication? Yes. “Same level?” Please, no.
- My fifth point moves beyond traditional, legacy news operations, which are no longer the gatekeepers that they were (though I believe firmly that their power continues to matter sufficiently to worry deeply about how they conduct themselves).
Organizations like Google and Facebook make decisions that have enormous power over what Americans know and believe. Outrage over the fake stories that proliferated during this campaign is finally being recognized by these reluctant corporations.
It’s a step, albeit a belated and limited one. And one reason it’s belated and limited is this, as one employee told Gizmodo about Facebook: “They absolutely have the tools to shut down fake news,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous citing fear of retribution from the company. The source added, “there was a lot of fear about upsetting conservatives after Trending Topics,” and that “a lot of product decisions got caught up in that.” (Some things, new and old media share.)
After every election, we agonize about journalism’s coverage. But this one feels bigger, the stakes higher. Legacy media still matter. The choices they make will affect our future, just as they affected this election. They are searching for economic survival in a Wild West of media change. My conviction is that, if they distinguish themselves by being trustworthy and fair-minded, dedicated to the truth as close as they can determine it, committed to purveying news that is proportional and comprehensive — well, that will be their best chance of survival.