On election night 2016, I described the news media’s campaign performance as “an epic fail.”
You might remember what happened: the sense of inevitability about Hillary Clinton’s rise, the damaging false equivalency that resulted, the free advertising provided in live coverage of Donald Trump’s rallies and speeches, the crazily swinging “needle” on the New York Times website.
And so much more that we’d like to forget, but really shouldn’t.
So now, with the midterm elections upon us, it’s fair to ask how much improvement has there been.
The short answer: not enough.
Granted, mainstream journalists aren’t making all of the same mistakes they made two years ago.
We’re more careful about tossing around predictions based on our none-too-savvy interpretations of public opinion polls. We better understand (and better convey, as my colleague Philip Bump cleverly did in a graphic) the concept of probability.
We’ve made fact-checking President Trump into a necessary cottage industry. And we’ve gotten over our hesitance to use the L-word — lie — about his escalating falsehoods. Or even, when warranted, the R-word — racist — as CNN did in its initial news coverage of a recent and now-infamous Trump ad that falsely accuses Democrats of helping Central American criminals invade America.
But there’s still one overarching problem: Too many journalists allow Trump to lead them around by the nose, which is why you’ve heard so very much about that migrant caravan in recent weeks.
With the president as their de facto assignment editor, too many seem to respond “how high?” when Trump says jump.
Wide-eyed coverage of his politically driven pet issues — primarily the supposed horrors of immigration — has dominated the past few weeks of news, with a fixation on the refugees coming north through Mexico.
Skepticism and context make an appearance in media reports, but it’s often too little and too late. And, even when smart and nuanced, the sheer volume of immigration coverage plays into Trump’s hands.
Journalists too often parrot what the president says and giddily follow his shiny-object distractions du jour.
Here’s some of what’s been happening on network and cable TV, and in national news outlets.
When Trump sat down with reporter Jonathan Swan of the digital news site Axios last week, he cannily floated the idea of eliminating birthright citizenship by executive order — knowing it would make big news.
Swan was “excited to share,” he tweeted, his scoop, described as follows: “Exclusive: Trump to terminate birthright citizenship.” Thus he (initially, at least) allowed the president to air this constitutionally dubious notion as if it were almost enshrined at the National Archives.
Then, news organizations from the Associated Press to Bloomberg News went along for the ride, in news alerts and headlines and tweets that gave the false impression that this was something that could quite easily come to pass. (In fact, it might well require a constitutional amendment.)
In many cases, the stories took a more measured approach, but many news consumers don’t get beyond a misleading headline.
As Mathew Ingram wrote in Columbia Journalism Review, getting scoops is great but not if, like this one, “they perpetuate a Trump lie.”
And as Trumpian falsehoods have wildly escalated in recent weeks, the media have not figured out how to deal with them, other than to point them out after the fact.
Take a recent headline in the Hill: “Trump: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised’ if Soros were paying for migrant caravan.”
As Daniel Dale, who does exemplary, tough-minded work as Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, analyzed it, this is “how the Trump-clickbait complex works.”
A reporter had asked Trump if he thought philanthropist George Soros might be financing the movement of migrants through Mexico, and though Trump hadn’t even brought up Soros, he was happy to swing at the fat pitch. “I don’t know who, but I wouldn’t be surprised.” A truncated quote in the headline and a thin-as-gruel story beneath it made the whole cycle irresponsible.
It happens all the time.
Similarly, the talking heads format on cable news, doomed to endlessly fill the 24/7 news hole, takes its lead from whatever silliness is happening in the moment, often dictated by Trump.
CNN chief Jeff Zucker admitted recently that whenever his network pivots away from Trump — the self-described “ratings machine” — viewership plummets.
The reality-based world went into a tizzy of appreciation last week when anchor Shep Smith took some on-air time to voice the obvious about the migrant caravan: “There is no invasion. No one’s coming to get you.”
The reassurance landed like an asteroid of truth on the vast planet of hyperbolic fearmongering that is Fox News. It was so weird in its context that it provoked a spate of news stories from other outlets.
Refreshing as it might have been in the moment, Smith’s Earth-is-round pronouncements — this wasn’t the first — probably do more harm than good. They amount to a mirage: that Fox indeed is fair and balanced, when in fact it’s descended even further into pro-Trump propaganda and, at times, conspiracy-peddling.
Far more typical is Sean Hannity, frothing at the mouth about the caravan: “A very serious, dangerous situation is about to boil over at our southern border.” Or Tucker Carlson on how illegal immigration has made the United States “a fallen country.”
It is appalling and damaging that the president describes the nation’s journalists as the “enemy of the people.” But we do harm by overreacting to it and to the familiar charges of liberal bias.
This works beautifully for Trump, who gets to point to the collective media freakout as clear proof of their leaning left. (As Sarah Sanders scolded last month in a press briefing, 90 percent of the stories about Trump are negative, as if there should be some expectation that 50 percent of all stories should be positive, no matter what’s going on.)
The energy spent fuming about Trump’s anti-press jabs would be far better used on bringing a more skeptical, context-heavy approach to everyday coverage.
More insidiously, taking Trump’s “enemy” bait has another, less obvious effect. As the media try desperately to seem evenhanded — unbiased, not left-leaning — they end up overcompensating. As Media Matters for America documented recently, conservative guests often dominate the Sunday TV news shows, across all networks.
With an enemy like this, Trump and his cohort don’t need friends.
Michael Barbaro of the New York Times set a good tone when he tweeted that his popular news-oriented podcast would take a pass on the president’s impromptu pronouncements regarding immigration: “Can’t speak for rest of media, but the Daily is deliberately playing down these events because they are clearly not policy remarks or policy announcements. They are deliberate attempts to inflame the electorate before the midterms. Just happens to be from the White House.”
Nicolle Wallace of MSNBC said she wouldn’t air Trump’s immigration remarks live, holding off until they could be fact-checked and summarized first.
I also appreciated the BuzzFeed News headline on the birthright-citizenship story: “Now Trump Is Saying He’ll Stop Babies Born In The US From Becoming Citizens, Though He Probably Can’t.”
We need a lot more of this in every bit of the reporting, framing and promotion of national political news. We need a lot less “excited to share,” a lot less wound-licking, a lot less “How high, Mr. President?”
It’s probably unreasonable to assign a grade that considers national media organizations including ProPublica and Fox News.
But, having observed the coverage for months, while holding my temples in dismay, I’ll take a stab at it anyway.
Midterm grade: C-minus.
The best thing you can say about that? It’s not an epic fail.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan