When politicians, candidates and pundits berate media coverage of the 2016 campaign, we must ask, “Which media?” Blanket accusations from right-leaning media critics against the entire mainstream media presume that there is a singular standard for coverage. Our collective viewing and reading experiences over the past 18 months tell a different story.
The sheer volume and diversity of outlets should caution against generalization. One doesn’t condemn all movies because of, say, “Batman v. Superman.” There is good and bad, serious and farcical coverage even within the same outlet. The same cable TV network that slaps an “analyst” label on Corey Lewandowski and treats him like a fair commentator also employs some of the very best interviewers and TV journalists — Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper, Brianna Keilar and Dana Bash.
We have pointed out many times that “Fox News” is really two separate things mushed together, right-wing fake news and actual news. The travesty is in allowing Sean Hannity to carry the imprimatur of “Fox News” — just as Chris Wallace, one of the best debate moderators of the cycle, does. (Bret Baier generally hews to news standards, and his egregious error in reporting on an imminent Hillary Clinton “indictment” should have been caught before airing; surely someone at Fox knows that FBI officials do not “indict” anyone. Fox owes viewers an explanation and an improved vetting process.)
The biggest contrast exists between TV cable and print coverage. The latter, at its best, featured extraordinary, painstaking research into Donald Trump’s charitable giving (or lack thereof) and Clinton’s conflicts of interest and conflict-plagued foundation. Fine distinctions and precise language still matter in legacy media, which have the resources and professionalism needed to do deep dives into complicated issues.
For all the bellyaching from the Trump camp, the negative Clinton stories that it complained were not covered came to its attention via, you guessed it, the mainstream media. Reporters have no easy time of it when politicians and staffers mislead, lie or simply refuse to come clean on basic information about their candidates. Trump’s new, low standard for transparency did not, in the end, shield him from media scrutiny. If anything, it motivated more exploration of his financial affairs.
The exacting, constant fact-checking in print set a standard for debunking the most dishonest major-party nominee of our lifetimes. After a time, conscientious readers and viewers came to know the rebuttals (e.g., No, Trump said he was for the Iraq War in a radio interview with Howard Stern) as thoroughly as the Trump talking points. That insistence on fact-checking then became standard practice for most broadcast and cable TV news.
Where cable TV impressed — and we hope made a permanent change — was in finally putting a stop to unfiltered, unrebutted Trump propaganda. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has already admitted fault in running Trump’s rallies virtually unfiltered hour after hour in the primary. Without the symbiotic relationship between TV news and Trump, we find it hard to believe that he would have won the primary.
TV news finally did adopt fact-checking in real time. Once new anchors and reporters realized they had an obligation to point to flat-out lies, they regained credibility and stature. Kellyanne Conway or Jason Miller or Rudy Giuliani got airtime for months to spew nonsense that they and we knew to be false. But during the home stretch of the campaign, tough and appropriately skeptical interviews have been intensely satisfying and revealing.
There was Tapper vs. Rudy Giuliani:
The effort to constantly debunk, check and inform news consumers should continue.
The most egregious moments in media coverage this cycle arguably came from right-wing cheerleaders for Trump masquerading as news. Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Breitbart provided emotional succor for Trumpkins but demonstrated that they abide by no real standards of fairness and accuracy. For all but the devoted Trumpkins, much of this became unwatchable/unreadable, except for those looking for evidence of the far-right’s aversion to reality. For conservatives concerned about the GOP’s flight from reality and insularity, the improvement of conservative-leaning outlets should be a high priority. So long as Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and online outfits recycle fact-free nostrums, the right will find it difficult to elevate quality candidates.
Twitter has become a mosh pit of urban myths, anti-Semitic and misogynistic attacks and Trumpkin outbursts (including those from the candidate). Twitter will need to decide whether to provide refuge for vile language and racism; responsible media outlets need to decide whether and how to present themselves on this platform and whether they respond to unhinged voices.
If nothing else, the election demonstrated no shortage of responsible and essential journalism — or of ridiculous, phony news. The burden ultimately rests with news consumers to look for quality — and with media to police themselves. That’s the essence of a free, vibrant and, at times, infuriating press.