With relatively few exceptions, the national media failed us badly during the 2016 presidential election. As the inauguration of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States fast approaches, it’s far from clear that the press will be able to do a better job covering his presidency than it did his candidacy.
To be sure, there’s been some agonizing, self-reflection and calls to rethink their approach to covering a highly unconventional figure in an age when traditional media faces such significant competition. The ability of the press to inform the public about candidates, elected officials and the activities of government is one of the essential pillars of a democracy. As some observers already worry that under a Trump presidency our democracy is at risk, the question is of central importance.
How did the media fail in 2016? Let me count the ways.
For one, television gave Candidate Trump hours of unfiltered and unexamined coverage worth millions of dollars. The apparent motivation was that he was good for ratings.
An unfortunate corollary was the paucity of coverage of issues during the presidential campaign. Numerous studies of network television news have shown that policy issues–as opposed to political controversies, assertions by the candidates and personality stories–received almost no attention.
Similarly, until much too late in the General Election, media coverage failed to point out Trump’s lies, contradictions and inconsistencies. Some apologists for that practice argue that it’s up to the public to figure out whether a candidate is telling the truth and that the only job of the press is to report on what is said.
That begs the question of how the public is supposed to make such a judgment unless they are informed by the press. It also relates to one of the most troubling aspects of the election, that so many of his supporters knew but didn’t care that many of his assertions were false.
And if that weren’t bad enough, the press largely failed to pursue such important issues as the non-release of his tax returns, his business dealings with Russia and his stunning lack of knowledge about foreign affairs. The notable exception was David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, whose coverage of Trump’s foundation and “charitable donations” is likely to win him the Pulitzer Prize.
Moreover, the media comes out of the 2016 campaign structurally weakened. Trump used the press as a prop for his anti-establishment rants and succeeded in undercutting their credibility with a significant portion of the electorate. Alternative media, not just Fox News, offered a view of the world that many of those voters eagerly accepted.
The most dangerous development of all may have been the advent of what has been called “fake news.” For both partisan and commercial reasons, there were people out there in cyberspace inventing stories that some voters believed, reposted on social media and used to reinforce their views of the candidates and the “facts.”
If I had to pick a metaphor to describe how the press covered Donald Trump in 2016, the most apt would probably be a dog on a walk who keeps getting distracted by squirrels. Donald Trump’s tweets are the squirrels that keep the press chasing after much that is irrelevant.
The early 2017 signs are not encouraging. Trump keeps tweeting and the press keeps chasing. He keeps lying and the media keeps reporting on just what he says. He hasn’t held a press conference in months and may not during his presidency. If he does, it will likely again be to use reporters as a foil to stir up his angry supporters.
The president-elect has already stated that he didn’t really mean much of what he said during the campaign. He has appointed individuals to key positions in the new administration who have a much more ideological agenda than he ever suggested while a candidate.
Moreover, many of his promises, whether or not he meant them, are unachievable. Coal is not coming back. Manufacturing jobs in large numbers for people without significant education are not going to happen either. There’s no signs of any swamp being drained.
How will the press cover what he does and what he fails to do? Will reporters make the effort to put his actions into a broader context or will they just continue to react to his latest words and tweets? Will they finally escape the trap of false equivalency, of insisting on finding parallels between his actions and those of Democratic critics?
I have another concern as well. Trump’s supporters have gone after anyone who criticizes him, often threatening and engaging in personal attacks. There are early indications that some Congressional Republicans are hesitant to voice opposition because they fear the wrath of his backers.
Will the press also be vulnerable to intimidation by Trump? He certainly tried to do that during the campaign, including threatening to change the nation’s libel laws to make it easier to sue reporters. It’s clear that his version of “fair” coverage means only favorable reporting.
I actually don’t know the answer to the question I posed at the start of this blog. I do know, however, that maintaining some semblance of our traditional democratic norms and practices depends on the ability of the media to play its historic role as a watchdog and as the means by which the public is informed.
The political environment is unlike any that the media has ever seen before. How well it can adapt and respond may well be the single most important factor in whether American democracy survives the Trump years. Unfortunately, we are not going to know the answer to that question for some time.