Monday, November 07, 2016

Politix Update: The Balanced-Treatment Lie & The News Media's Epic Election Fail

It is appropriate that my last Politix Update column before Election Day focuses on the news media, which so completely chucked its responsibility to be a truth-imparting watchdog in covering a presidential race that has been even more important than the 2008 watershed.  This, if you hadn't noticed, is because the very foundations of American democracy have been at stake.  As has the credibility of the media itself in an era of subterranean expectations, hyper-intense partisanship and seismic changes as technology has hastened the transition from print to digital and video and unfiltered social media grabs an ever large share of our already short attention spans.  
Having grappled long and hard with why the coverage over the past year and a half has been so awful, I keep coming back to the simplest of conclusions: The hoary media model of giving balanced treatment to major party candidates that has been hammered into generations of reporters and editors as the holy grail of their profession collapses under the weight of sheer ludicrousness when one candidate is a virulent racist and nationalist who repeatedly and unashamedly lies when not trying to play the media like a cheap violin, and succeeds at that a lot more often than not.   
Put even more simply, as one pundit noted, if Donald Trump had insisted that the earth was flat, the headlines the next day would read: 
Yes, it's been that bad. 
I do not ignore how tough this campaign has been to cover, especially for reporters embedded with Trump who have been herded into pens at Make America Great rallies where the crowds shout abuse and spit on them, and press briefings consist of spokespeople routinely lying through their teeth when not dissembling.   
There also is the despair and rage of voters to take into account.  The environment has been so toxic and the candidates such caricatures of themselves that the marvelous satirical website The Onion has had trouble putting into words how horribly funny the race has been because it has been a whole lot more horrible than funny.  Which nevertheless did not prevent The Onion from coming up with the best headline of the campaign:
It's not that the media was unable to adapt to the new normal of the Cheeto Jesus, this even though some of the outlets were by turns less credulous and more skeptical of Trump as the campaign went on.  But with the conspicuous exceptions of The Washington Post and The New York Times with their fusillades of high-level investigative stories, truth telling by websites including Vox, The Atlantic, Daily Beast and Huffington Post, as well as fits of fact checking by some larger outlets, the media as a whole didn't ever really try to adapt.   
Says veteran journalist and educator Micheline Maynard:
"Yes, there has been terrific reporting by The Washington Post and others, but it's like one of those beautiful houses that survives in a blighted neighborhood.  The big picture is that the neighborhood is blighted.  And I don't know how we're going to get people to move back in."
The media usually swallowed whole the bloviations of the right-wing noise machine that Hillary Clinton was corrupt.  By the perverse calculus of this election season that somehow canceled out the media being obligated to note that Trump was not only profoundly unqualified to be president, he was dangerous.  Meanwhile the truth of a Trump attack was subordinated to whether or not it worked.   
National Public Radio campaign coverage was especially dysfunctional and after a few months had become deeply offensive to my ears.  The thinking at NPR seemed to be that if it did not play the false equivalence game to the hilt, no matter how disingenuous or outright wrong Trump's assertions and actions were, the conservative Republican bogeyman would scream Liberal Media Bias! and yank its funding.      
Trump is the first media-created candidate, and he took full advantage of billions of dollars of free publicity early on ("It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," chirped network CEO Leslie Moonves) until the spigot was turned off much too late in the game. 
Yet although the media had gilded Trump's celebrity credentials for years, it never really had the power to stop him once he slithered to the nomination.  Only those Vichy Republicans could have done that, and they never tried.   But this should not be conflated with absolving the media of its responsibility to get real about a man who came into the campaign a known scam artist and bully, especially after the media had been hoodwinked for the better part of eight years by George W. Bush and his helpmates.   
Both Trump and Bush, after all, were on collision courses with reality, but the media just didn't seem to notice then and doesn't now.  
There also was a truth that few dare speak: Another reason for the awful coverage is that politicians and the news media have become extraordinarily reliant on each other. 
As friend and veteran journalist David Holmberg, a veteran of many campaigns, put it to me: 
"It's not the boys on the bus developing sources anymore; it's the boys and the girls with their gadgets on the plane, feeding the voracious digital beast." 
Politicians rely on the media to grease the skids of the primary campaign-nominating convention-general election cycle and the media relies on politicians to justify their existence, indirectly remunerating them for their coverage and rewarding them with celebrity and stature.  (Can you say Megyn Kelly?)  The consequence is that the relationship between pols and the media -- what I have called the Political-Media Industrial Complex -- is so incestuous that they have have become intolerant of the people who sustain them.  
That's voters.       
For the Political-Media Industrial Complex, Trump will have just been a horrible dream from which it will awake as the 2016 campaign begets the 2018 mid-terms and then the next big dance in 2020.  Joan Didion, that diminutive woman of letters, covered several presidential campaigns and concluded that:  
"It came to my attention that there was to writing about politics a certain Sisyphean aspect.  Broad patterns could be defined, specific inconsistencies documented, but no amount of definition or documentation seemed sufficient to stop the stone that was our apprehension of politics from hurtling back downhill." 
The media was once considered the Fourth Estate, the watchdog over the power elite.  But the watchdog became the lapdog in 2016 by doing so little to close the Trumpian gap between truth and fiction.

© 2015-2016 SHAUN D. MULLEN 

1 comment:

Forrest Cavalier said...

Thank you for continuing to blog, Shaun. It is good to read your summary of this failure.

Two quibbles, and they are only quibbles:

I think you are too easy on the media for failures to cover Clinton. Your main point is that the alt-right noise machine tried too hard. Agreed. It was truly awful. I say the others tried too hard to ignore the bloody obvious.

My second quibble: The transition to lapdog happened before 2016. Drudge broke the Lewinsky scandal.

Journalism that is worthy of the name has to be about truth, not balance. Slanting and ignoring stories increases distrust and drives market share to the alt-right noise machine.

Consumers will do whatever they want, but the fact is that no community exists without shared media, and polarizing divisions got way worse this cycle, not better.