Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the Oct. 9, 2016, presidential debate. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
Media critic

People who have spent endless hours wading through the mainstream media’s coverage of the 2016 campaign are starting to agree: It stank.

An analysis by Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild in the Columbia Journalism Review drives at the scandal-leveling tendency of large media organizations in presidential campaign coverage. As this blog has noted before, investigative reporters at major media outlets did a crackerjack job of highlighting the excesses and scandals of Donald Trump’s history as a businessman. USA Today counted his thousands of lawsuits; the Associated Press dug deep into his connections with questionable figures, his unsavory business tactics and the Ukrainian ties of his campaign aide Paul Manafort; The Washington Post wrote an entire book on the guy, an investigative undertaking that included his bogus claims of charity, his impersonation of his own flack and a great deal of other things; the New York Times pounded away at his mistreatment of women. So many other outlets contributed to the impressive patdown.

And yet: “The various Clinton-related email scandals—her use of a private email server while secretary of state, as well as the DNC and John Podesta hacks—accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions,” write Watts and Rothschild.

The sentiment may sound familiar to readers of the Erik Wemple Blog. Back in December 2016, we cited a study by Thomas E. Patterson of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center covering the final stages of the 2016 campaign. On this very topic of investigative focus, Patterson wrote, “Clinton’s controversies got more attention than Trump’s (19 percent versus 15 percent) and were more focused. Trump wallowed in a cascade of separate controversies. Clinton’s badgering had a laser-like focus. She was alleged to be scandal-prone. Clinton’s alleged scandals accounted for 16 percent of her coverage—four times the amount of press attention paid to Trump’s treatment of women and sixteen times the amount of news coverage given to Clinton’s most heavily covered policy position.”

Did media organizations convene a bunch of meetings to orchestrate this frenzy of false equivalency? Surely not, though the model for campaign coverage certainly abets the parceling of negative coverage in equal proportions. Well-funded news organizations commonly assign separate teams of reporters to rival campaigns, with the result that they end up producing a comparable amount of material on each campaign. Hard-hitting stuff is the best stuff, and there was always a little thread or facet of the Clinton email story to chase, as Jack Shafer pointed out in Politico.

To accentuate their critique of overall 2016 coverage, the authors zoom in on the work of the New York Times. In a painstaking taxonomy of the newspaper’s coverage, they find an emphasis on what they term “campaign miscellaneous” coverage — or, “horse race” analysis and discussion of strategy and tactics. As this chart notes, there was less focus on policy:


(Columbia Journalism Review)

Along that vein, the study alighted on quite a finding: “In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election (and that does not include the three additional articles on October 18, and November 6 and 7, or the two articles on the emails taken from John Podesta).”

Italics in original!

It is now more than a year since the 2016 presidential election concluded. This was a race whose media coverage was being studied even as it was going on, and then studied some more in the months after it concluded. Now there’s another holiday helping. Bring it all! Somehow the country elected a man who had at least a half-dozen scandals in his own background more egregious than the one that dogged his opponent throughout a two-year presidential campaign. It bears inquiring as to the media’s role in that remarkable outcome.

The study’s authors argue that the New York Times’s coverage wasn’t “worse” than that of other mainstream news organizations. The industry’s transgressions, argue the authors, had a far greater impact than “fake news.” One explanation for the coverage, they note, was the widespread expectation that Clinton would prevail in the election — and that these institutions were preparing to play their watchdog role for the next White House occupant. Possible, but unlikely. As people on Twitter are fond of saying, life comes at you fast. The media wasn’t prepared for the way that Trump altered the newscape. From June 16, 2015, onward, it was a day-and-night scramble to cover the latest Trump outrage and to generate twin coverage of Clinton. Perhaps a year’s remove is just what outlets need to perform probing self-evaluations.

Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, told the Erik Wemple Blog that he hadn’t yet had time to digest the CJR report. “But in general I’d say that I don’t buy that people who read The Times — or the Post — did not get a sense of the differences between these two candidates. There were examinations of their foreign policy differences, and their views on a range of issues,” writes Baquet in an email.