Norm Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor at the Atlantic. He's also an active presence on Twitter — often critiquing the way in which the mainstream media covers the 2016 presidential election campaign. I came under Ornstein's critical eye when I tweeted a passage of a story documenting the back and forth over Donald Trump's appearance on the Dr. Oz show. "Pathetic," he replied (in part). I reached out to Ornstein to see if we could have a more substantive conversation — more substantive than 140 characters on Twitter — and he agreed. That conversation, conducted via email over the last few days and lightly edited, is below.
FIX: You seem very dismissive of me and my journalism. Why don’t we have an email conversation to try to figure out what you think I — and those like me — are doing wrong. And I can try to explain how I see things, too. Then I’ll publish it. I think it would be a good, honest and civil way to discuss this — and way better than just exchanging tweets!
Ornstein: I agree, but Chris, I was not criticizing you and your journalism — as I also tweeted, the WaPo has been the model this year, and I read you regularly — so much as the entire class of political reporters and especially editors and even more cable news. It was prompted by your tweet, to be sure. I could see what was coming — the Trump campaign manipulations would be the story, because so much of the focus on the Trump campaign has been its tactics, or whether it is now, finally professional and he is acting like a "normal" party nominee. It is a constant search for signs that he is now "disciplined," and therefore "presidential."
That means, given the bandwidth allotted to coverage, that the stories about his Foundation and about his foreign dealings would be downplayed or given short shrift. And of course, that is just what happened. All three nets led [Wednesday] night with what? Trump's Oz performance and Hillary's health report letter, the cable discussion was all about Oz and Clinton health. I found Kurt Eichenwald's Newsweek piece to be powerful and deeply troubling. And that story more broadly — that Trump early on said he would not put his holdings in a blind trust, but would turn them over to the family — has been largely ignored, while the Clinton Foundation and demands to close it down have been covered heavily, including on the front page of the Times.
[David] Fahrenthold's great reporting has been covered nicely in The Post, but largely ignored elsewhere; the Times did its second story [Wednesday], only prompted by the statement of the attorney general of New York. Trump, as president, would have conflicts every day between his economic interests and the national interest, and his history, as David has brilliantly pointed out, does not suggest he would opt for the nation. That ought to be a huge focal point, and it is not.
I think the coverage of Clinton has been stupid — an obsessive focus on press conferences, on the Clinton Foundation, on emails, the latter legitimate stories but way overdone, with almost nothing on her major policy proposals. There, it is the Times and AP, who are the serious actors. But I am complaining less about the coverage of Clinton and more about the type of coverage given to Trump. I do not believe he has been treated as a serious candidate, or held to serious standards. That includes the people around him, like [Stephen] Bannon and [Roger] Ailes. [Wednesday] was a prime example of Pavlovian behavior by journalists, jumping at his health reporting machinations, and taking too seriously a snake oil salesman like Oz (see Chris Wallace's comments, as an example).
FIX: Okay, we’re off to a good start!
Let me take on your Clinton point first. You argue that the coverage has been “stupid” because it has focused more on her emails and the Clinton Foundation than on policy proposals. But isn’t that your own view of what people care about when they vote? That they necessarily prize policy and issue positions over resume and what each of the candidates have said and done in the past?
I’m a big believer that the key to covering the presidential campaign is to have a goal of showing voters who the people running for the highest office in the country actually are — beyond the talking points, beyond the prepackaged policy proposals. (I’m of the Richard Ben Cramer school on that one.) To me, how a candidate has acted in the past — particularly when fewer people were looking at them — or how they think on their feet when questioned by the media are essential to understanding who these people really are. Therefore, covering some of the things you describe as stupid strikes me as far more important as a window into how she thinks, how she acts and who she is.
On Trump, it feels to me that the criticism that “you hold him to a different standard” is really not about the media but about how people react to the media. I can’t tell you the number of times people have emailed, tweeted or told me on the street that “we” need to do more accountability journalism and fact checking of Trump. When I point out the fact that we have fact-checked Trump more than other candidates, have written deeply about everything from Trump University to the Trump Foundation to his pledges about building a wall, they sort of don’t get it. I think what a lot of people want to know is why our fact checks or our deep dives into Trump U. etc. aren’t changing people's minds about him. That always strikes me as odd. On the one hand, the media is less powerful than ever before. On the other, people want to know why we can’t change hearts and minds about Trump.
Does that strike any chord with you? Or are we two ships passing in the night?
Ornstein: I fear we may be talking past one another a bit.
On the first point, a few observations. You are suggesting that your coverage — and I use "your" to mean more than Cillizza and more than the WaPo — is driven by what people care about when they vote. I am not sure at all that that should be the standard for press coverage of a presidential campaign, but how do you measure that? Does [WaPo editor] Marty Baron or [NYT editor] Dean Baquet do a survey of what people care about, and assign reporters based on that? I doubt it, and I don't think anybody would accept that.
You and your colleagues make value judgments about what you want to cover, based often on the stories' importance (see "Spotlight") but also what brings readers and eyeballs and clicks, and what brings recognition and prizes, and on gut judgments. The coverage of Clinton emails and the Foundation, measured not just in number of stories but in placement, allocation of resources and column inches (again, not WaPo) and in lead stories, minutes on air, is in my view over the top. And the fact that many stories have been wrong, in some cases because of a reliance on leaks from Republican staffers and members of the Benghazi Committee, or a rip and read of a Judicial Watch press release, makes it much worse.
There is, I would suggest, something circular in your defense — this is what people want, she is viewed as untrustworthy, but could it be that a significant part of the reason she is viewed so negatively is the overwhelming ratio and prominence of the email and Foundation coverage relative to everything else — and the fact that many stories that have been front page above the fold with pages inside have as their conclusion "questions are raised." That is not to whitewash or defend Clinton's secrecy, parsing of language, hostility to the press. But imagine if there had been comparable coverage of George W. Bush's White House using a private server and erasing hundreds of thousands of emails including sensitive ones about the Justice Department and voter suppression. What would be the relative standing of Bush in its aftermath? And keep in mind that Clinton had a high approval rating when she was in office, and has seen it drop sharply when she is a candidate. The coverage is a part of that. Of course, these are stories to cover. But the question is how much and how much emphasis relative to other things, given the finite and limited bandwidth given to each candidate and campaign. All send signals to voters, and I see the balance seriously off here. Your obligation as the fourth estate, I believe, is to report the facts and explore stories that can shed light on how the two presidential candidates would govern.
On Trump, The Post is a model. I have no doubt that the fact that other outlets, from the Times and AP to the TV channels, network and cable, have largely ignored what Fahrenthold has done is the usual professional jealousy. But it is bad and unprofessional. When stories have been done about Trump's behavior as a businessman, or in cutting off the health coverage out of spite for his grand nephew with cerebral palsy, they tend to be one-offs, no follow up and no other outlets picking up on the story. Trump has gotten plenty of negative coverage, but it is different in nature and tone from that of Clinton. And so much of the coverage, including especially the nattering on cable news chat shows, has been about his campaign and its tactics. Now we have Kurt Eichenwald's deep and chilling piece about Trump's relations with Russia, China and others in his business empire, and the implications for his governance — and the nets, cable and most print people did nothing and focused on Dr. Oz and Clinton's health.
On your last point, are you in the media weaker than before? Of course. And the financial pressures and lack of business models for all but the tribal media play a role here. But you are still critical for the future of our system. And what you report and don't report, what you emphasize heavily and relentlessly and what you brush off, shape mindsets and viewpoints in a big way. Even if that does not change a lot of votes in a tribal and partisan environment, it could be enough to make the difference in a close contest. In any case, it will shape how much Americans accept election outcomes.
That is why I am focusing on these issues so much. The stakes are really, really high. The relentless search for the pivot that will show [Trump] is presidential, behaving "normally," is classic horse-race nonsense and takes up much of the bandwidth of his coverage. The real traditional stories about his campaign, including bringing in Bannon — a celebrant and megaphone for the alt-right, including its anti-Semitism and white nationalism — and Ailes, his continued reliance on Roger Stone, get short shrift.
FIX: I take your point. I guess I would argue that writing and reporting about what Clinton did as secretary of state and since she left office IS a good indicator — perhaps the best indicator — of how she would govern. At the heart of governance is judgment. At the end of the day, your judgment going into office matters a whole heck of a lot more than what your policy proposals are. Why? Because so much of being president is having to make calls on things that you had no idea might be put on your plate when you were running for the office. Policy proposals are great. But they aren’t terribly instructive — at least to me — on how and what a candidate will do as president.
I fundamentally disagree with the idea that Trump has received a different sort — and a better sort — of coverage. I actually think some elements of the media have been overly critical of Trump because they cannot believe that someone with Trump’s views — and approach — has become one of the two party nominees. There is a disdain and a dismissiveness bordering on elitism in some parts of the media directed toward Trump.
And, again, when it comes to your references to Bannon and others: We wrote all about Bannon’s background and his controversial statements. That it didn’t change people’s minds about Trump isn’t really the media’s responsibility. We just don’t have that power.
Ornstein: Chris, I hate to say it, but I find your response incredibly weak. Yes, her performance as secretary of state is a good, perhaps the best, indicator of how she would govern. And somehow, you and your colleagues in the media have decided that the emails and the Clinton Foundation are the be-all and end-all of her judgment and the indication of how she would govern. Not how she ran the State Department, how she structured and dealt with the team of people around her, how she interacted with the president, the secretar(ies) of defense, the national security advisers, the DNI, etc. Not what she accomplished and did not accomplish. Not her judgments on policy or other leaders. I should add, not all of those stories would be flattering or laudatory. I don't have the time or resources to count up the column inches since the nominations were decided that have been devoted to email and the Foundation, compared to the other issues above, but I would wager the ratio is, as they say, huge. The Post has been better than its competitors, but as I recall, even you, for example, bit on the ridiculous AP story making something sinister out of the meeting with Mohammed Yunus. The need to go on the Web immediately, the new world of traditional print journalism, has its own pathologies built into it.
On Trump, we started this dialogue with my comment that "you guys," meaning the print and television world, were being played like a Stradivarius by Trump and his people, drawn like moths to the flame (excuse the mixed metaphors, I could add in Pavlovian dogs) to the back-and-forth machinations and pronouncements of Trumpland, using most of the bandwidth of coverage of Trump instead of covering two major stories about his fitness to be president: the corruption of the Trump Foundation, and even more, the insidious foreign dealings reported in Kurt Eichenwald's deep piece in Newsweek. Again, I give kudos to David Fahrenthold, the role model of this campaign, and leave out The Post from criticism on the Foundation story. But there has been almost nothing on Trump's deep conflicts of interest — and the reporting by Fahrenthold strongly suggests that if Trump were faced with a choice between pursuing America's national interest or protecting his family assets, he would go with the latter.
Today provided an even more cringeworthy example of, as Jake Tapper to his credit called it, "rickrolling" and being played. A few days of Kellyanne Conway saying Trump did not any longer believe Obama was not born in the United States, to Robert Costa (a model reporter, by the way) getting Trump to dance away from Conway, to another spokesman saying no, he really isn't a birther anymore, to the "news" played big-time on cable news and a lot of news websites that Trump would be making a "major announcement" on the birther issue today. It totally dominated campaign coverage on cable news. Then, MSNBC, to choose a prominent example, devoted the morning to talking about it almost to the exclusion of everything else — and gave Trump an hour of free and uninterrupted advertising that started with a commercial for the new Trump hotel in D.C. and went to endorsements from a variety of military veterans, ending with Trump's 30 seconds or so on the birther issue. He lied that Hillary had started the issue, lied that he had ended it, said he was now satisfied, and left. I give credit to Tapper and many of the MSNBC commentators after the extended Trump infomercial that they called out his lies and provided a little history. But that did not erase the larger problems of the coverage.
It is Stradivarius again! This story will dominate coverage, again to the exclusion of the real troubling issues about Trump's own integrity and insensitivity to fundamental ethics. That includes another new story — Donald Trump Jr. admitting his father lied over and over again about the reason he would not release his tax returns — it is not about an audit, real or imagined. It is about the embarrassment that could ensue.
Many of the problems with coverage that trouble me are centered in cable news. But they are also evident in print, and in the extension of print coverage to Web pages, Twitter announcements (see especially the AP scandalous behavior). And I come back to another point. What I see from Liz Spayd, the new New York Times public editor, and from the broader defensive reaction to many of the things I have written, along with those of other critics from Fallows to Marshall to Krugman, is a continued unwillingness to self-examine or to change. I would not be spending so much time on all of this if it were not so important right now.
FIX: Okay, one last pushback. I disagree with the idea that the fact that the majority of private individuals that Clinton met with at the State Department were donors to the Clinton Foundation — the AP story you reference — was “ridiculous.” Of course some of those people were entirely noncontroversial. But are you comfortable asserting that all of them were? If so, how?
As to the Trump point, I think we can do both. David does his great work. Bob Costa does an interview with Trump. I analyze them both. It’s a "both/and" not an "either/or." As it should be. In a world in which people can pick whatever news they want whenever they want, I am not sure this idea that what cable TV covers dictates the race is as salient.
Okay, I am done. Will give you the last word. And thanks for taking the time to chat with me.
Ornstein: The AP story did have reporters do a lot of legwork. That is the only good thing to say about it. The story, which cherry-picked a tiny proportion of all Clinton State Department meetings, falsely hyped the story in a completely misleading tweet, highlighted as a prime example Mohammed Yunus, and as another, the crown prince of Bahrain, a leader of a key U.S. ally with a strategic naval base, as scoring a meeting with Clinton because of his donation to the foundation, and refused to back off an inch, including leaving the awful tweet up for two weeks, was a total embarrassment to journalism. Period. Good journalism is careful about the facts, does not rely on shock headlines or misleading hype, uses as examples, if there is evidence of wrongdoing, the ones that show wrongdoing. If I were teaching a journalism class, I would use this example as a case study in awful behavior.
On the latter point, cable news, which features a lot of print reporters (including The Post's) and which is on in many newsrooms around the clock, which is a major source of news and cues for our opinion leaders, does matter. It can skew news in a fashion that has lots of Americans believing something that is simply false — a good example, Fox News regulars believe that unemployment is up and the stock market is down since Obama became president. And the other cable networks can leave lots of viewers believing, for example, that scientists are evenly split on whether climate change is real, because most discussions pit a climate change believer against a denier.
But I don't want to leave this as just a problem of cable news. There are major prestigious newspapers and other news sources that matter enormously. And they matter not just in what stories they run, but how much they cover more than one story, where the story is placed, how much emphasis they give, how careful they are at getting facts straight, how sensitive they are to where leaks are coming from and whether they are accurate or slanted. Here, by the way, I wish you and the Times, as examples, would announce that any anonymous source who gives you false or misleading information will be outed — the privilege of anonymity extends only to provision of accurate information.
The real forces here are the editors, at the top and all the way down, deciding what to cover, what goes on the front page, what goes above the fold, what the headlines are, how to allocate scarce resources, how to respond to errors, how to deal with rumors. And I see increasing and troubling evidence, less in The Post than in others, of a rush to get stories out there because of the demand for eyeballs and clicks, fewer safeguards at the managing editor and below, less tolerance of criticism. The Post, the Times, the AP matter more than a slew of local papers, because they both set the standard and provide the feeds used across the country and abroad.