This morning, Frank Bruni, columnist at the New York Times, asks Will the Media Be Trump’s Accomplice Again in 2020?, adding We have a second chance. Let’s not blow it. Bruni reports on some of the media’s biases and failures during the 2016 election thus becoming complicit in the election of Trump. It’s fairly lengthy. Here are some highlights.
"The shadow of what we did last time looms over this next time,” the former CBS newsman Dan Rather, who has covered more than half a century of presidential elections, told me. And what we did last time was emphasize the sound and the fury, because Trump provided both in lavish measure.
“When you cover this as spectacle,” Rather said, “what’s lost is context, perspective and depth. And when you cover this as spectacle, he is the star.” Spectacle is his métier. He’s indisputably spectacular. And even if it’s a ghastly spectacle and presented that way, it still lets him control the narrative. …
… I asked Rather what he was most struck by in the 2016 campaign, and he instantly mentioned Trump’s horrific implication, in public remarks that August, that gun enthusiasts could rid themselves of a Clinton presidency by assassinating her.
I’d almost forgotten it. So many lesser shocks so quickly overwrote it. Rather wasn’t surprised. “It got to the point where it was one outrage after another, and we just moved on each time,” he said. Instead, we should hold on to the most outrageous, unconscionable moments. We should pause there awhile. We can’t privilege the incremental over what should be the enduring. It lets Trump off the hook.
The real story of Trump isn’t his amorality and outrageousness. It’s Americans’ receptiveness to that. It’s the fact that, according to polls, most voters in November 2016 deemed him dishonest and indecent, yet plenty of them cast their ballots for him anyway.
You might recognize this as one of the themes I’ve blogged about - the real story of 2016 being Trump’s followers. Another is the false equivalence sought by the media when it came to reporting on Trump’s habitual lying.
Through the first half of 2016, as Trump racked up victories in the Republican primaries, he commanded much more coverage than any other candidate from either party, and it was evenly balanced between positive and negative appraisals — unlike the coverage of Clinton, which remained mostly negative.
Only during their general-election face-off in the latter half of 2016 did Trump and Clinton confront equivalent tides of naysaying. “On topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone,” Patterson wrote.
Regarding their fitness for office, they were treated identically? In retrospect, that’s madness. It should have been in real time, too. But we fell prey to a habit that can’t be repeated when we compare the new crop of Democratic challengers to Trump and to one another. We interpreted fairness as a similarly apportioned mix of complimentary and derogatory stories about each contender, no matter how different one contender’s qualifications, accomplishments and liabilities were from another’s. If we were going to pile on Trump, we had to pile on Clinton — or, rather, keep piling on her.
That would be the “false equivalence” I mentioned above. In spite of a lopsided percentage of false claims (70% false for Trump, 70% true for Clinton), for each false claim by Trump, the media sought a false claim made by Clinton thereby implying a 50–50 equivalence.
During the election I took issue with such reporting. For example, on Friday, September 23, 2016, I posted Journalism in the age of Trumpiness: A tale of two narcissists. Think of my post as a listing of lots of things the media must not repeat in this new election cycle. The full text of the post is reprinted in full below (sans links to cited sources, with some added emphases).
Edward R. Murrow? Walter Cronkite? Dan Rather? Bill Moyers? Two are dead and the others are not exactly competing in the same arena as CNN, Fox, and the other main networks. I know, there are good people doing solid investigative reporting, for example, Rachel Maddow, and our own John Dougherty. But, with apologies, they are not playing in the same league of audience share as the big networks mentioned above. That means that truth gets transformed into truthiness and ultimately replaced by Trumpiness. This state of affairs has not escaped notice among media critics.
So, you listen to me. Listen to me: Television is not the truth! Television is a God-damned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, side-show freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business! So if you want the truth… Go to God! Go to your gurus! Go to yourselves! Because that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch).
You’re television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You’re madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. -Max Shumacher (played by William Holden).
Those are harsh words from the 1976 academy award winning movie, Network.
The great journalist Edward R. Murrow put it more succinctly but no less critically. He predicted accurately how the media is complicit in spreading misinformation: “The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.” That rapid distribution likely amplifies the conference of referential validity. Hasher, Goldstein, and Toppino (1977) showed that “repetition of a plausible statement increases a person’s belief in the referential validity or truth of that statement.” The media’s 24x7 barrage of untruths, partial truths, and lack of context thus distorts the informational environment of the audience.
The media’s consistent search for “balance” is another way in which the media distorts the truth. For example, the reporting in 2016 has been portraying the political world as 50–50 when in fact is it 70–30 (70% truth from Clinton and 70% lies from Trump). Regardless of the base frequency of true and false statements, the media, finding one falsehood for one candidate, will seek evidence for another falsehood spoken by the other candidate. That leads to the illusion that both candidates are similar in their treatment of truth.
At least from my limited vista, some in the media are finally waking up to the fact that the media has been a willing partner with Donald Trump. Eric Alterman exposes the media’s attempt to make Trump appear “normal.”
Harry Enten of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com titled a recent post “The More ‘Normal’ Trump Can Make This Race, the Better His Chances.” This is obviously true, and hence every effort by the media to treat Donald Trump as a “normal” presidential candidate brings us closer to the potential destruction of our democracy. And yet we can see it taking place at virtually every level of our media.
Silver recently estimated Trump’s chances of victory at about one in three. Remember, we are talking about a psychopathic narcissist whose alt-right agenda offers so many threats to the well-being of our country and the world, they defy simple enumeration or categorization. Even Republican political professionals are amazed. Scott Reed, chief strategist for the US Chamber of Commerce — who also managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, among others — finds it “really quite amazing that after the Trump adventure this is still a competitive race.”
The media deserve a good deal of blame here, not only because of the billions of dollars’ worth of free airtime television networks have given to Trump but also because of their insistence — against all evidence — that he is someone other than the person he clearly presents himself to be.
Paul Waldman at the Washington Post charges the media with “journalistic malpractice” and predicts “History will not be kind to the mainstream media.”
And just this morning the Daily Star ran an editorial by Harvard Professor Thomas Patterson, If Clinton loses, blame the media.
If Hillary Clinton loses the presidential election in November, we will know the reason. The email controversy did her candidacy in. But it needed a helping hand — and the news media readily supplied that.
Patterson provides evidence for the media’s drumbeat negative slant on Clinton from his analyses of media content. For example,
Few presidential candidates have been more fully prepared to assume the duties of the presidency than is Clinton. Yet, her many accomplishments as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state barely surfaced in the news coverage of her candidacy at any point in the campaign. She may as well as have spent those years baking cookies.
How about her foreign, defense, social or economic policies? Don’t bother looking. Not one of Clinton’s policy proposals accounted for even 1 percent of her convention-period coverage; collectively, her policy stands accounted for a mere 4 percent of it. But she might be thankful for that: News reports about her stances were 71 percent negative to 29 percent positive in tone. Trump was quoted more often about her policies than she was. Trump’s claim that Clinton “created ISIS,” for example, got more news attention than her announcement of how she would handle the Islamic State.
Patterson then concludes:
Decades ago, the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press concluded that reporters routinely fail to provide a “comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in the context that gives them some meaning.” Whatever else might be concluded about the coverage of Clinton’s emails, context has been largely missing. Some stories spelled out how the merging of private and official emails by government officials was common practice. There were also some, though fewer, who tried to assess the harm, if any, that resulted from her use of a private server. As for Clinton’s policy proposals and presidential qualifications, they’ve been completely lost in the glare of damaging headlines and sound bites.
Perhaps most seriously is Brian Beutler’s conclusion that the “false balance” coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is all about the press’s self-interest. And that pairs one narcissist (the press) with another (Trump). Changing the mores of an institution the size of the conglomeration of modern news networks would be a monumental effort.
Judging from the recent polls, we seem to be a country on the verge of making a horrible mistake, aided and abetted by the mainstream media - electing a man characterized by his connections to the mob, Moscow, and madness. Will the press forgive his violation of campaign finance laws if he does assume the presidency? Will they finally expose his alleged tax evasion? If not, then what?
Has America come to this, a welcoming of a narcissistic bully as the representative of our national ideals? If so, the blame will fall heavily on the modern media. I’ll then end with another quote by Edward R. Murrow because it too is an apt message to America. Good night, and good luck.