The Press and the 2016 Election

This year, we have a divided electorate and two divisive candidates, each of whom seems to want to claim the populist mantle. One promises to “fight” for us, and the other to “make America great again.”

My sense is that most people are eager for the election to be over, especially members of the press, which seems to have lost its way in the two-year-long campaign season.

How We Got Here

Start with Donald Trump. At the beginning of the Republican primary season, the party had 17 potential candidates, but 16 of them struggled in the shadows while the “news” network, CNN, gave Donald Trump his own reality show. For CNN, the ratings were great — it was like the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370, all day every day. It went on for months.
Trump didn’t raise campaign funds until just before he got the Republican nomination because he didn’t need money. He got so much more coverage from CNN and other broadcast outlets that disapproved of him that no other Republican really had a chance. Trump is now the Republican candidate.
My impression is that CNN now has taken up the cudgel to slay the monster it created. Even so, it has much to answer for.

Continue with Hillary Clinton. She’s not a natural gasbag like Trump, but she is canny. Her path to the nomination was enabled by the raising of a $2 billion slush fund — er, charitable foundation — that scared all the credible challengers out of the Democratic primaries. Even at that, it took a heavy DNC thumb on the scale to help her defeat a 74-year-old socialist.

Hillary Clinton also has received many assists from the press.

–In exchange for the opportunity to interview her, reporters have agreed to submit their questions ahead of time. These interview opportunities were valuable because many of Clinton’s speeches were at fundraisers closed to the press and because she spent more than six months of her campaign without holding a single press conference.

–In one case, a reporter from an ostensibly serious publication exchanged emails with a Clinton campaign official to massage the wording of a story he was writing about the candidate.

–In another case, a DNC operative obtained and shared with Clinton the exact wording of a question to be asked in one of the three televised debates. Some reporter or editor gave out that question, allowing one candidate the opportunity to prepare for it but not the other candidate.

— In August, the New York Times ran a front-page story, written by a reporter, announcing that Donald Trump was so terrible that the traditional objectivity in coverage needed to be jettisoned in the more important effort to assure that he lost the election. Asked later, the paper’s executive editor said he shared the sentiment.

I used to be a reporter, and I sometimes covered elections, albeit smaller elections at local and state levels. If I had committed any of the acts above, I would have found myself looking for a new job in public relations. Or possibly shoe sales.

Downstream Effects

A Harvard study released this summer confirmed what people already sensed about press coverage of the primaries — that it paid little attention to candidates’ platforms and suitability and spent more attention on so-called “horse races” — who was ahead and who behind at any given point. This gave Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who had the greatest name familiarity, an early advantage that just kept growing.

It will be interesting to see what happens after the election.

If Trump wins, it is fair to expect that everything he does will be scrutinized closely and, even if he has a good idea, that it will be given a full scrubbing.

If Clinton wins, it seems fair to expect that news coverage will continue to support her — not to do so would discredit the press and its no-holds-barred promotion of her candidacy.

Institutional Confidence

Americans now lack faith in many national institutions. This is demonstrated in the chart below, released by Gallup following polling in June.

The press is not held in high regard. It has only itself to thank.


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