How Trump has hacked the media

Sure, Trump has gotten plenty of negative coverage over various issues, but the simple truth is that the long-established norms of political journalism are entirely unprepared to properly report on a candidate like Trump.  The result is Hillary Clinton facing a much tougher go of things that, at this point, is clearly affecting the polls.  Great piece from Paul Waldman:

In the heat of a presidential campaign, you’d think that a story about one party’s nominee giving a large contribution to a state attorney general who promptly shut down an inquiry into that nominee’s scam “university” would be enormous news. But we continue to hear almost nothing about what happened between Donald Trump and Florida attorney general Pam Bondi…

At this point we should note that everything here may be completely innocent. Perhaps Bondi didn’t realize her office was looking into Trump University. Perhaps the fact that Trump’s foundation made the contribution (which, to repeat, is illegal) was just a mix-up. Perhaps when Trump reimbursed the foundation from his personal account, he didn’t realize that’s not how the law works (the foundation would have to get its money back from Bondi’s PAC; he could then make a personal donation if he wanted). Perhaps Bondi’s decision not to pursue the case against Trump was perfectly reasonable.

But here’s the thing: We don’t know the answers to those questions, because almost nobody seems to be pursuing them… [emphases mine]

Whenever we get some new development in any of those Clinton stories, you see blanket coverage — every cable network, every network news program, every newspaper investigates it at length. And even when the new information serves to exonerate Clinton rather than implicate her in wrongdoing, the coverage still emphasizes that the whole thing just “raises questions” about her integrity…

The big difference is that there are an enormous number of reporters who get assigned to write stories about those issues regarding Clinton. The story of something like the Clinton Foundation gets stretched out over months and months with repeated tellings, always with the insistence that questions are being raised and the implication that shady things are going on, even if there isn’t any evidence at a particular moment to support that idea.

When it comes to Trump, on the other hand, we’ve seen a very different pattern. Here’s what happens: A story about some kind of corrupt dealing emerges, usually from the dogged efforts of one or a few journalists; it gets discussed for a couple of days; and then it disappears. Someone might mention it now and again, but the news organizations don’t assign a squad of reporters to look into every aspect of it, so no new facts are brought to light and no new stories get written.

The end result of this process is that because of all that repeated examination of Clinton’s affairs, people become convinced that she must be corrupt to the core. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of negative coverage of Trump, because of course there is, but it’s focused mostly on the crazy things he says on any given day…

To repeat, the point is not that these stories have never been covered, because they have. The point is that they get covered briefly, then everyone in the media moves on. If any of these kinds of stories involved Clinton, news organizations would rush to assign multiple reporters to them, those reporters would start asking questions, and we’d learn more about all of them.

That’s important, because we may have reached a point where the frames around the candidates are locked in: Trump is supposedly the crazy/bigoted one, and Clinton is supposedly the corrupt one. Once we decide that those are the appropriate lenses through which the two candidates are to be viewed, it shapes the decisions the media make every day about which stories are important to pursue.

And it means that to a great extent, for all the controversy he has caused and all the unflattering stories in the press about him, Trump is still being let off the hook.

Such an important point on how journalists get locked in on frames of the candidates.  This so did in poor Al Gore in 2000.  Every single politician exaggerates all the time.  But when Al Gore did it, it was a character flaw. I swear I remember a story about John Kerry rolling his car window up and down in 2004 tied into the frame of Kerry as “flip-flopper.”

Also, a really, really good piece from Josh Marshall (both Marshall and Waldman have been terrific of late) that uses the truly execrable piece from the NYT Public Editor (I think people will be talking about this one for years) as a jumping off point.  I love how he gets into the history and economics of journalism to explain how we got to where we are now:

Now why is this? The key to understanding this phenomenon is to see that it is as much tied to publishing and business models as journalistic conventions. This is not meant in the sense that journalists strive for faux balance out of some hunt for clicks or dollars. It’s not nearly so direct or mercenary. The contemporary journalistic concept of objectivity is not only rooted in professional and ideological developments of the early 20th century. It is also rooted in changes in the newspaper publishing industry in the middle and late 20th century. As an increasing number of American cities became single newspaper or de facto single newspaper towns, their financial footing became increasingly based on monopoly ad pricing. This made well-known newspapers very lucrative and consistently profitable businesses since they had de facto monopolies over commercial advertising in specific geographic areas. But it also made their business model rest on being the default news source for all news consumers in their geographic domain. Obviously there were boutique publications and TV. But before the Internet, this major city and even regional newspaper dominance was a huge fact of the journalism profession and the news business – and one many assumed was the normal state of things.

This monopoly or near monopoly framework made reporters – and particularly political campaign reporters – into something more akin to moderators of debates between candidates rather than arbiters of fact, what was happening and what wasn’t. There are many roots of the phenomenon we’re discussing here. I don’t mean to say this is the only one. But a critical and under-appreciated factor is that need for publications to be relevant to all news consumers in a geographical region, whether a major city, a region or the country at large. Of course, that monopoly power – both financial and journalistic – made an institution like the LA Times in its heyday incredibly powerful. But its organizational premise and business model also made it vulnerable to opponents’ accusations of bias, valid or not. That leverage only grew as elements of the monopoly power slipped away. And this distorting prism only became more intense as the country became increasingly polarized along partisan lines.

Thus a complex set of contingent historical circumstances produced a certain concept of journalism and journalistic ‘balance’ or objectivity. But over time, as it became entrenched in news rooms and propagated out into journalism schools, it came to be seen as simply what proper journalism, particularly political journalism, was, ever had been or ever should be.

The upshot was that because of this interwoven mix of journalistic and publishing imperatives reporters were no longer able to treat one candidate as fundamentally different from the other, if that treatment was merited by what was actually happening. Not for ideological reasons. Not for moral reasons. But for factual reasons. Reasons of basic judgment and understanding of context. Trump’s campaign has been so different, so indifferent to clear factual claims, so unbridled that he has frequently put this whole edifice under strain to a breaking point…

What this debate all comes down to is that the imperative for balance and the imperative for accuracy and completeness, clarifying and explaining what’s true and what’s not are inevitably in tension. Precisely how it’s solved or how that tension is dealt with is a very good debate to be having. (I would suggest the goal is not balance but fairness, fundamental honesty with readers and a constant effort to interrogate one’s own biases.) But not to recognize the tension and not to see how some candidates push that tension to the point of crisis simply shows you’re in denial or have a monumental lack of self-awareness about the journalistic craft. That pretty much captures Spayd’s column.

Both columns deserve to be read in full.  Wish you could have a college class on this stuff?  Well for starters just read them– we’ll likely be discussing both in class on Tuesday.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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