In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the American news media was the subject of much well-deserved criticism. A report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy highlighted the “overwhelmingly negative” coverage of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and the almost total absence of issue-based discussion in the mainstream press. Media scholar Jeff Jarvis declared that “the mere fact of Donald Trump’s candidacy is evidence of the failure of journalism.” Just days after the election, the New York Times published a letter from the executive editor and publisher that tiptoed to the edge of an unthinkable acknowledgement: that the Gray Lady was fallible. “Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?”
It’s worth remembering that Trump’s victory was in many ways a tragic historical accident. After all, he received around 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton and prevailed only because he eked out narrow victories in the traditionally Democratic states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Out of 120 million votes cast, 107,000 people in those three states effectively handed Trump the presidency. As always in close elections, numerous factors were at play: an undemocratic Electoral College system weighted toward small rural states; James Comey’s decision, 12 days before the election, to reopen the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s email server; the release of hacked DNC emails by WikiLeaks; the Russian disinformation campaign; Clinton’s failure to adequately campaign in Michigan or Wisconsin. None of these things alone would have put Trump in the Oval Office. Together, they proved a perfect storm.
In their new book United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It), media scholars Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff acknowledge these facts but place the lion’s share of the blame for Trump’s election on the media. One analysis of 2016 election coverage found that mainstream news outlets devoted four times as much space to Clinton’s “scandals” (chiefly her private email server) as her policies, while devoting one and a half times more attention to Trump’s policies than his scandals. Beginning in the primaries and continuing through the general election, Trump received far more media coverage, positive and negative, than any other candidate. Cable news channels infamously ran many of his campaign speeches live, a favor they seldom bestowed on anyone else. In at least one case, CNN, MSNBC and Fox all bypassed a live Bernie Sanders rally in favor of showing the empty podium where Trump would later speak.
The reason for Trump’s disproportionate share of the coverage was obvious to everyone: He was a ratings monster. “It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald,” said Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, in the summer of 2016. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Trump, a perpetual motion machine for news generation, has proved a godsend for media outlets on both the left and the right, feeding their insatiable appetite for content and padding their dwindling bottom lines.
Of course, Trump didn’t create this environment; he just exploited it. Higdon and Huff are at their best analyzing how the former reality TV star manipulates the media with his constant stream of provocations, non-sequiturs and solecisms, ensuring the cameras stay on him and distract reporters from more substantive issues. Along the way, they reiterate the familiar lefty critique of corporate-owned media outlets more interested in profit than truth-telling, along with the familiar remedies of better media literacy education in public schools and more government funding of independent, nonprofit news sources. They also hit the expected historical touchstones: the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the launch of Fox News in 1996, the ongoing struggles of print media and the rise of Facebook and Twitter.
Yet familiar contradictions weaken Higdon and Huff’s argument in places. Like many liberal media critics, they fault news organizations for covering Trump both too much and not enough. “The corporate press discussed, analyzed, and explained everything Trump did with lavish detail,” they complain, just a few pages after claiming the media “failed to accurately investigate Trump or hold him accountable to voters in meaningful ways.” Although Trump’s scandals were myriad, no one can say the media ignored the Access Hollywood tape, Trump’s feud with Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, or his mocking of a disabled reporter. Anyone who voted for him picked him in spite of those scandals.
That is, unless they voted for Trump because of those scandals. Here we get to the central problem with Higdon and Huff’s account. Liberals tend to assume that, provided with better media coverage — less sensationalistic, less corrupted by the profit motive, more public-spirited — people will make better decisions, i.e., vote for liberal candidates. Sadly, there is little evidence for this belief. People regularly vote against their own interests for reasons having little to do with reason and much to do with emotion and tribalism.
Better media education and increased government funding of independent media are worthy goals, but they alone will not rid society of the trend toward authoritarianism that produced Trump. Indeed, scapegoating the media for Trump’s election may even be counterproductive to the extent that it lets Clinton and an incompetent Democratic Party off the hook. Rather than gnashing their teeth about 2016, Democrats need to rally around a genuinely populist candidate this time. The Fairness Doctrine isn’t coming back anytime soon, and, at least until Facebook and Twitter are regulated, there’s no putting the genie of social media back in the bottle. Whichever candidate emerges from the Democratic primaries will have to battle Trump in the existing media environment, with the existing weapons.
In other words: Stop whining and start fighting.