If there has been a worse year for media — mainstream, liberal, conservative — than 2016, it is hard to recall. (Perhaps 1798, the year the Alien Sedition Act was passed.) The president-elect berated, threatened and bullied the media throughout the year. The public’s trust in the media is at an all-time low. In September, a Gallup poll reported: “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.”
Meanwhile, “fake news” became a term of art initially used to describe intentionally falsified stories, and then used as an epithet by right and left to complain about unfavorable reporting (or good-faith errors in reporting). About the only one who had a worse year were the “analysts” who said Hillary Clinton had a 94.35 (or whatever) chance of winning. (Then again, the media covered such fanciful crystal-balling.) The vast majority of the media (including yours truly) never believed America could elect such a person as Donald Trump — one who regularly engaged in ethnic stereotyping, spouted misogynistic language, evidenced contempt for democratic values, repeatedly displayed abject ignorance about major policy issues and regularly lied to voters. We surely got that wrong — in part by underestimating how (irrationally, in my view) voters hated Clinton.
Media excellence (e.g. The Post’s David Farenthold‘s reporting on the Trump Foundation, Chris Wallace’s moderation in the last debate, just about every Jake Tapper interview) too easily gets forgotten. But let’s say there is a whole lot of room for improvement. (Interviewers should study how Tapper and Wallace press interviewees — carefully listening to responses, following up aggressively and refusing to let go until an answer is forthcoming.)
Here are some resolutions both for the news media and news consumers:
1. Do not assume ill intent of public officials or other individuals working in large organizations. The most likely explanation for stupid, wrongheaded utterances and actions is ignorance and/or incompetence.
2. Do not confuse causation with correlation. Expiration of a sliver of the Bush tax cuts coincided with a weak recovery; it doesn’t mean the former caused the latter.
3. News consumers should stop complaining that a story they learned about in the media is not being reported.
4. Ban the “But Clinton did …” or “But Obama did …” This kind of argument is juvenile and irrelevant, especially because many of us have criticized Clinton and Trump for the same things (e.g. obliviousness to the appearance of corruption), and have nailed President Obama and Trump for the same errors (e.g. opposing action in Syria, fiscal irresponsibility). In any event, the election is over so Trump no longer gets graded on a curve.
5. Be clear about what is journalism and what is not. Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity are not journalists; the major newspaper reporters and the Fox News reporters are, even though both can make errors and evidence partisan blind spots. The difference is that the latter try to get it right, employ journalistic standards and correct errors. Fox’s non-news evening show hosts do not.
6. Politics, like most human endeavors, is far less predictable than we would like to imagine. Resist the urge to predict. Instead focus on explaining what happened or is happening. (Even that is subject to error and bias.)
7. News consumers need to separate opinion writers/columnists from straight news reporters. Critics on the right often play the game of using the former to demonstrate that one or another outlet is “biased.” Opinion writers are supposed to have, well, opinions and a worldview.
8. Whether it is “Morning Joe” or “Hannity,” cable TV shows need to set some boundaries for campaign conduct. Boosterism practiced under the banner of a news division casts a pall over the entire news operation. (The members of the news division, by the way, should not hesitate to point out their entertainment-ish colleagues’ errors and failure to adhere to journalistic standards.)
9. TV cable news producers need to be held responsible for their choices. CNN put on hours of uncritical, live coverage of Trump rallies, giving him a huge advantage in the primaries. CNN also put on air dishonest partisans like Corey Lewandowski who regularly dissembled. This was inexcusable. Fox News allows Hannity, O’Reilly and Tucker Carlson to carry the Fox logo, which should be reserved for real news shows.
10. News outlets do not “fail” when voters refuse to act on the information provided or put less emphasis on the facts reported than do the media. It is not the media’s job to convince voters of a candidate’s unfitness or to save the country from Trump. News reporters’ job is to — as best as they are able — find and present the truth, in context. What voters choose to do with that information is up to them.