Weary Press Corps Can Celebrate Election's End, Then Survey Wreckage

Nov 8, 2016
Originally published on November 8, 2016 5:08 pm

From pretty much the very start of this election season, Donald Trump grabbed the media by the press pass. He didn't even wait. As Trump, a former reality show host, once said in a slightly different context, "When you're a star, they let you do it."

This week, a wave of assessments of the media's performance during this presidential race has encouraged reporters and news outlets to take a bow, like award winners on Graduation Day.

There's been a fair amount to admire — but I think many journalists will reflect on this race and want to take a shower instead.

Let's count the ways.

It's been decades since the press has been so owned by a major candidate

Hillary Clinton, though famous and popular worldwide, has emerged as a seriously flawed candidate for domestic consumption. She was tainted by her husband's previous seedy personal behavior, and her stature was clouded by a series of second-tier scandals that never succeeded in knocking her out. She was otherwise a highly qualified, conventional candidate.

She limited her exposure to the press and granted few interviews. Those that occurred were often extremely short and largely conducted by sympathetic interviewers. Twists in the Clinton private email server scandal and revelations from the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee have received widespread coverage; her historic standing as potentially the first female American president, less so.

Clinton, it's fair to say, has not owned the press.

Trump, a man who feeds off media, this time devoured it — and various outlets abetted him, contorting, corrupting and even contradicting their own reporting. This was perhaps most true of the three major cable networks, but not limited to them.

In the first Republican debate in August 2015, Trump turned a competition with nine opponents into a conflict with the media, complaining about the Fox News moderators. He attacked Fox News' Megyn Kelly repeatedly, even as Fox News personalities vied to land him for their shows.

Publicly, then-Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes issued statements that fluctuated in their measure of support for Kelly; privately, Ailes soothed Trump's ego and offered him direct campaign advice, even while sitting in his office at Fox News headquarters. Once Kelly joined other women at Fox News in accusing Ailes of sexual harassment, he was forced out and advised Trump even more routinely. Meanwhile, Fox News' Sean Hannity served as a lead singer for the Trump choir, both on and off the air.

Trump's opening salvo against Kelly foreshadowed a race waged against the media as a central, not incidental, part of the elites he promised to destroy. In no specific order:

  • Trump blacklisted news outlets that offered critical coverage from events.
  • He demanded money for appearing at debates because of the ratings jump his presence provided (not that he followed through).
  • He advocated making it easier to sue for libel.
  • Trump threatened to sue The New York Times twice, though he has not made good on those threats to date. His wife, Melania, did sue a British tabloid, the Daily Mail, and a Maryland blogger for libel.
  • Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite his government's record of repressing independent journalism.
  • He pointed out reporters by name and then denounced them while giving speeches at rallies. One recent attendee of a Trump rally in Minnesota wore a T-shirt that suggested lynching reporters: "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required." In most elections, such a supporter would be dismissed as a crank, but that's harder to do this year.
  • Trump went after NBC anchor Lester Holt for being a Democrat — despite New York state voting records that showed Holt has registered as a Republican far more consistently, and for far longer, than Trump. Trump also frequently has slurred women, Latinos, the disabled, African-Americans and Muslims. At what point might his supporters view any reporter who falls into one of those categories as inherently biased?
  • He ended the race as he began it: trashing another female journalist, in this case, the intrepid Katy Tur of NBC News. On Monday, Trump tagged the press corps again at a rally during his dash for the finish: "So dishonest. There they are. There they are. My group."

During the primary campaign, the cable networks featured Trump constantly, the other 16 candidates often seeming like afterthoughts. The networks were rewarded for their devotion to Trump with massive audiences — and an unexpected windfall from advertisers. Traffic online soared as well, tempting even established news organizations that often did break big stories about the candidates, such as The Washington Post (and NPR, per our ombudsman), to turn their sites into smorgasbords of Trump news.

CNN had projected a big lift in revenues for the election cycle — but not nearly as big as what it got. As NPR has reported, its television channel and digital platforms scored an additional $100 million above that projection, linked to the public obsession with all things Trump. Turner Broadcasting CEO John Martin, who oversees CNN and other cable networks, told Recode this would be CNN's "best year in history."

Standards of fairness were stretched beyond recognition

Television programmers found that Trump's appeal was the uncertainty of what he would say or do next. It's the same magic formula of big reality shows and sporting events, where the outcome is not foreordained.

In this case, it meant viewers did not know if he was going to attack some new voting bloc, savage a critic, mock a disabled reporter, attack a war hero senator for being taken prisoner or rile up supporters to take action against protesters. Trump's events were carried live and at great length for a reason — conflict and uncertainty sold. It's more or less the business model for much of cable news.

As Trump granted fewer interviews through the summer, CNN simply loaded up with paid surrogates for both sides, embracing debate in a way that made the Crossfire combatants of an earlier era seem timid. The strategy succeeded commercially but failed as journalism.

Acting Democratic Party Chairwoman Donna Brazile was forced to leave CNN when hacked emails posted by WikiLeaks showed she had passed questions to the Clinton camp before CNN's primary debates. At the time of those debates, Brazile was vice chairwoman of the party and on the CNN payroll.

"Operators gotta operate," one former cable pundit told me a few days later. "What about CNN's choices?"

The hacked Democratic emails also revealed that Thomas Nides, the spouse of a CNN executive, shared good news for Clinton from unreleased CNN poll results with campaign Chairman John Podesta. It was another demonstration of coziness, or erosion of independence — or both.

CNN also chose to hire Corey Lewandowski immediately after he was fired as Trump's campaign manager in July. He stayed on the campaign's payroll for months. As a paid CNN commentator, Lewandowski has often held tight to positions that support his candidate even in the face of convincing evidence that his opinions are unsupported by objective reality. Lewandowski continues to be a close adviser to Trump and his campaign.

And even off the campaign, he keeps attacking the press: Lewandowski last week told Atlantic Contributing Editor Peter Beinart, a fellow CNN commentator, that as far as credibility goes, being "a journalist is worse than being paid by a campaign, believe me." This from someone on the CNN team.

News organizations struggled over how to translate basic journalistic values of fairness, balance and impartiality into coverage of Trump

For months, many journalists allowed Trump to get away with making blatantly untrue statements.

A few examples:

  • Trump routinely asserted he had opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His claims — contradicted by the scant record that does exist on the subject — for a time were allowed to sail without objection by such lesser-known news outlets as The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and NBC's Matt Lauer.
  • Trump positioned himself as a major philanthropist, someone who has given "tens of millions" to charity. This passed as accepted fact for months until The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold, prodded by his executive editor, Marty Baron, started to examine the actual record. As of last week, Fahrenthold had tracked down a single donation, valued at between $5,000 and $9,999 — which, as he noted, may be a bookkeeping error.
  • Trump claimed he could not release his taxes because the IRS was auditing them. The IRS would not comment on any audit but said an audit does not preclude taxpayers from releasing their returns.
  • Trump alleged that Hillary Clinton, as a young lawyer representing a man accused of raping a 12-year-old, had laughed at the victim. Roy Reed, a writer who recorded an interview with Clinton about the case, says Clinton never laughed at the victim. "She was laughing at the vagaries of the legal system that play out every day across America in one way or another," Reed told NPR.
  • Trump claimed he would self-finance his campaign. While he provided loans that he could expect to be repaid, he also raised tens of millions from small donors; only toward the end has he made meaningful contributions himself.

Some anchors and reporters sought to hold the line, such as Jake Tapper at CNN and the K-File crew over at BuzzFeed (hired in toto by CNN late in the campaign). They were not the only ones, as more journalists joined formal fact-checking squads in offering correctives over times.

But their attempts to set the record straight often were drowned out by a new cascade of contention and insult. Trump often appeared to be at once feasting on and serving up a diet of misinformation circulating from such alternative opinion sources as Breitbart.com and InfoWars. The campaign proved the virality and durability of untrue assertions and conspiracy theories that the mainstream media appeared ill-positioned to counter, given how badly damaged their credibility was in the eyes of Trump supporters.

This week, in reflecting on the campaign, Washington Post reporter Ben Terris wrote that the Trump campaign "gaslit" him on an incident he witnessed just feet in front of him — and kept doing so in matters large and small.

Trump's personality-driven campaign ran headlong into the industry's movement toward a more personality-driven form of reporting

A younger squad of embedded reporters for legacy news outlets often felt free to express themselves with voice. NBC's Hallie Jackson, CBS's Sopan Deb, CNN's Noah Gray and others throw occasional shade through their Twitter accounts at the candidates. It's a way of sharing with audiences, colleagues and the people they cover what it's like to experience these races — and also signaling that they are not merely stenographers.

My NPR colleague Robert Siegel once asked me if that reflected bias on the part of the reporters.

I think many reporters, young and old, were offended by Trump, not biased against him. Many reporters pursue journalism in significant part because they see civic value in delivering relevant facts and information to people acting as citizens, not consumers. For them, Trump's persistent manipulation of the press and denunciation of the system offend their sense of who they are.

I believe that influenced the decision by New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet to allow a highly voiced story on the front page to accuse Trump of lying. The lie wasn't a minor one: It involved the unfounded, untrue and offensive claim that Barack Obama had not been born in this country. But using such stark terms could repel those readers who need to understand that fact most. Baquet decided to embrace the term — and a caustic vernacular his readers might most want to read about Trump.

Clinton, of course, has been investigated by the national press and Congress since 1992. Trump by contrast got the bends as he experienced decades' worth of scrutiny this summer, with a drumbeat of stories about lawsuits, bankruptcies, his taxes, his behavior as a boss, his efforts to win concessions from powerful government officials, his marriages and family life, and especially about his behavior toward women.

The intensity grew, negative stories wildly outweighing positive ones, with the focus on Trump utterly overshadowing Clinton's record, policies and strategy — at least until FBI Director James Comey informed members of Congress who are leading investigations of Clinton that more emails that might be pertinent to the inquiry had been discovered.

Exposés kept emerging in the final days of the campaign. For example, an Associated Press piece reported that Trump's wife, Melania, an immigrant who later became a citizen, had worked illegally in this country before having a green card (an especially sore point given Trump's stance on noncitizens taking jobs in this country). In the past such stories have been held back this close to Election Day because there's so little time for countervailing information to be absorbed by voters.

"Donald Trump is an affront to American democracy and common decency, and if this is the price to pay for keeping him out of the White House, so be it," author Ken Stern, a former NPR CEO writing a book about Republicans and the media, wrote on Vanity Fair's website. "But there is most certainly a price to pay. The next time Fox News or Breitbart caterwaul about media bias, the claim will have substantially more bite to it."

Perhaps as a result, it was at once a typically Foxian form of counterbalance — and deeply unfair — when Fox News' Bret Baier reported, wrongly, that Clinton's email server was hacked by at least five foreign intelligence agencies and that indictments were likely to ensue from the Clinton Foundation case. He had to take back both allegations — reckless ones to get so wrong with so few days left.

The media's final barrage has felt like the end of a July 4 celebration, with all the remaining firecrackers set off at once.

Trump presented the media with a problem for which it had no playbook to consult

It seemed all the rules of engagement changed unilaterally. Stories that would have sunk previous candidates bounced off his armor-plated hull. Statements he made, and the morally and factually indefensible positions he took, failed to sink him — both because the media aren't the monolith they once were, and because the industry has been diminished and has diminished itself.

There is no unifying voice of authority, no Walter Cronkite anymore to tell us what to believe. The New York Times' credibility with Trump's America trends toward nil. Frank Bruni, Paul Krugman, Gail Collins, Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman can write a million columns, but will change few minds among hardcore Trump voters. Kelly's skepticism may well have hurt him as much as Fahrenthold's digging for The Washington Post.

It took months for old-fashioned media to figure out how and where to pierce Trump's armor. Even then, it seemed clear their firepower is not what it once was.

Republican primary voters deserved a fuller accounting of Trump's business record — his failure and successes, and his attempts to depress the levers of power at every level of government. They deserved to understand how he handled himself as a person. They needed to be equipped to make decisions; instead, they were treated as a captive audience to keep entertained.

During the general election season, coverage lurched from lurid headline to lurid headline, with gaffe, exposé and context speeding past like so many cars on a bullet train. Readers and viewers needed time to take stock and assess, but instead watched, clicked and read it all — almost as absorbed with Trump as the candidate himself.

The press corps may have administered a rough justice to Trump — too easy on him in the early going, unremitting in the final stages.

News outlets may learn once again to have a steadier hand on the throttle. Or this race may set the terms of engagement between the media and political figures for the foreseeable future.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.