Members of the media watch the third presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Pop quiz: What has been the defining issue of the 2016 presidential campaign?

In most previous election years, the answer to that question has been relatively simple. In 2008 and 2012, it was the economy. In 2004, it was national security and the Iraq War. But this year, it’s much less clear, because the most pressing issues confronting the American people have been overshadowed by outrageous headlines, fake scandals, fake news and shameful coverage of the one-man circus that is Donald Trump. More than in any other recent election, the role of the media itself has become a central, consuming issue of the campaign.

The media malpractice started in 2015, as ratings- and profit-obsessed networks abetted Trump’s rise by granting him free, uncritical and unfiltered access to the airwaves. For the year, the three major evening newscasts covered Trump more than twice as much as Hillary Clinton — and more than 16 times as much as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose insurgent candidacy they overwhelmingly marginalized or dismissed. By March of this year, according to one analysis, Trump had benefited from roughly $2 billion worth of free media attention. Subsequent election coverage hasn’t been much better. As of late October, the same evening newscasts had dedicated barely half an hour to every policy issue combined since the beginning of 2016. Climate change, trade and other important issues received no coverage at all.

It’s clearly true that other factors — such as the candidates’ basic fitness for office — are more relevant in this election than most. But that does not give the media license to ignore issues of vital importance to voters across the country. It doesn’t excuse the rampant false equivalence between Trump and Clinton or the parties that nominated them, nor does it justify the substance-free coverage of the candidates themselves.

Let’s start with Trump. It’s true that, in print media especially, some journalists such as David Fahrenthold at The Post have done remarkable reporting. But despite Trump’s pathological dishonesty, racial demagoguery and brazen disdain for the First Amendment, much of the media has portrayed him as a “normal” candidate for the presidency. And many of the exceptions to business as usual have actually worked to Trump’s advantage. Trump has gotten away with refusing to release his tax returns, a breach of transparency that would be considered unforgivable for any other candidate. Likewise, it’s not difficult to imagine how the media might cover another presidential nominee caught on tape bragging about sexual assault followed by a parade of women coming forward to say he groped them. Yet after the initial shock of Trump’s comments dissipated, the allegations against him have become — unbelievably — old news.

Cable news reporters and pundits had their share of memorable moments this election cycle. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is Clinton and the pseudo-scandal that will not die. Last month, after FBI Director James B. Comey publicly revealed the existence of new emails potentially relevant to the investigation of Clinton’s private server, the media worked themselves into a lather. It was apparent within hours that the FBI had not discovered anything incriminating — indeed, the real scandal was Comey’s improper interference with the election — but that didn’t stop much of the media from amplifying Trump’s calls to “lock her up” or speculating about the electoral fallout.

And while in 2008, the media were rightly focused on the historic implications of the first African American president, eight years later, the significance of potentially electing the country’s first female president has largely been discounted. It’s hard not to draw a connection between the normalization of Trump’s misogyny and the media’s overwhelming failure to recognize this profound moment for equality and the basic dignity of half our nation’s population.

Now, it didn’t take this campaign to show that much of the media is broken, or that we need more watchdogs, rather than lap dogs, to challenge powerful interests across the political spectrum. There have been other times when the suspension of skepticism and scrutiny put the nation at risk, such as when reporters became cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq.

But even with historical perspective, this media moment is particularly dangerous and fraught. The coverage of this campaign is not a random event. It is the result of corrosive structural changes — the collapse of local daily newspapers, excessive conglomeration, the obliteration of lines between news and entertainment, the rise of right-wing “news” — that are making it harder for media to keep the public informed on the issues that demand our attention. And yet, despite these growing challenges, the media retain extraordinary power to set agendas, shape perceptions and decide what is and is not part of the national conversation. As long as we have a corporatized system that values clicks and ratings more than serious policy debates or the people and communities affected, the problems will only worsen.

When the nation wakes up Wednesday, the postmortems will begin. As part of that process, we should think hard about the reasons for the media malpractice throughout this campaign. We need structural reforms to revive an accountability-centered media that doesn’t value profits over the public interest. And we should act decisively to ensure that in future elections, the American people can rely on a free and open press to fulfill their indispensable role in our democracy.

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