While this was not the inspiration for this article, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up the recent news coverage of Hillary Clinton’s new book “What Happened,” presented as an autopsy of the 2016 election and a look at the forces that elevated Donald Trump to the White House. That is because this coverage has not only been flawed and biased, but has served the interests of ratings and self-preservation rather than the dissemination of information. As Hillary Clinton began making public statements about the causes of the surprising outcome of the 2016 election, reputable publications like Vanity Fair and The Washington Post ran headlines like “Can Hillary Clinton Please Go Quietly Into the Night?” (Vanity Fair, 06.09.2017) and “Hillary Clinton Still Doesn’t Get ‘What Happened’ in the 2016 Election” (Washington Post, 09.13.2017). They are not alone; almost every major publication has blasted Clinton for speaking out about the election outcome.
While these articles played to the sentiment of many—Clinton has an approval rating lower than Trump’s with a vast majority of voters believing her time in the political spotlight has come to an end—ultimately, ratings are not their primary motivation. Rather, publications wish to shield themselves from the reality that Hillary Clinton wishes to hammer into the American conscience; the cowardice and flawed reporting of the media played as large a role in Donald Trump’s upset victory as Hillary Clinton’s electoral strategy, if not more so.
To be clear, this column is not meant to be a defense of Hillary Clinton as a candidate or as a person. I too believe that Hillary Clinton should step up and begin to answer the curtain call and make way for a new generation of leaders in American politics. I think, in many ways, she is already doing this. That said, there are many issues with the way Hillary Clinton’s post-election statements and book are being reported that must be addressed if our media and political institutions wish to truly be prepared to handle what the Trump era throws at them.
For one thing, it is very normal for major political candidates—yes, even losing ones—to write books following elections. Mitt Romney did it with “No Apology.” Bob Dole did it with “Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House.” Hell, Al Gore wrote one—“An Inconvenient Truth”—that was adapted into an Oscar-winning documentary! None of them received criticism nearly as harsh, either before or after their releases, that Hillary Clinton’s book has.
Why is this? There is no doubt that the sexism that is ubiquitous in our society plays a role in the unusually poorly reception of Clinton’s account. Ultimately, however, the reason is that the media is unable to face the effects of its many missteps in the 2016 election—missteps that Hillary Clinton strives to point out.
This is indicative of a much larger problem: The media has trouble adapting to new realities and putting aside things like ratings, website hits and easy shots for the greater good. I wish to use this column to discuss issues that the current state of news coverage has created within our national political discourse, as well as their deficits in the coverage of the 2016 election which ultimately contributed to Donald Trump’s rise to power.
First, there is the issue of an increasing amount of bias and partisanship in the news. As the United States grows more partisan, the demand for more partisan and biased news coverage grows, too. For a time, many outlets strove to resist the urge to become more openly partisan in their coverage. Then came outlets like Fox News and MSNBC, which unabashedly and freely editorialized their presentation of the news. As these cable news stations quickly garnered huge viewership numbers, wildly biased publications like Drudge Report and Breitbart began to take in of millions of right-wing and far-right news consumers. Soon, most major publications had at least a little partisan twinge in everything they wrote.
So how did this radicalization of the news media impact society? Well, besides the lack of political nuance helping to facilitate more straight-ticket voters, leading to a more polarized electorate and Congress, it also pushed people into the arms of fake news. What purveyors of fake news saw in the American electorate was a group that was so saturated with editorial think pieces and biased news reporting that it could be easily manipulated into believing mistruths if they supported each individual’s own opinions. Thus, fake news was born. Millions of people began to share disreputable and false news articles online in order to spread their ideologies, and many unsuspecting readers believed the sensationalist headlines to be true. Factuality is no longer the priority for the majority of consumers. Only the angle matters.
Yet, beyond just creating a more polarized society vulnerable to manipulation by liars and frauds, the media also helped to more directly influence the election, so that voting tipped in favor of Donald Trump. This was perhaps unintentional, for the most part. I’m not just talking about Fox News and Breitbart either, but most publications ranging from the CNN to the Wall Street Journal. Everyone is, to some extent, to blame.
In her book, Hillary Clinton writes that journalists “can’t bear to face their own role in helping elect Trump” (FiveThirtyEight, “Is Hillary Clinton Right About Why She Lost?” 09.13.2017). She explains that they helped Trump in a wide variety of ways, “from providing him free airtime to giving my emails three times more coverage than all the issues affecting people’s lives combined” (FiveThirtyEight). This should be a glaring revelation into the motivations of the media to criticize Hillary Clinton’s book. Political guru and FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver put it best when he succinctly asserted that “the media doesn’t want to debate the reasons for Clinton losing because it potentially makes them look really bad” (FiveThirtyEight).
To understand the scale of the media’s impact on the election, look no further than the ubiquitous coverage of the dreaded email scandal. Without a doubt, the email issue was a huge misstep by Hillary Clinton. Her failure to adhere to government protocol is one of several unfortunate examples of her arrogance getting in the way of her judgement. That said, there is no evidence that anything illegal or illicit was done using her private email. Despite this, it received Watergate-level coverage.
According to a study done by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, between May 1, 2015, and Nov. 7, 2016, there were approximately 70,000 sentences written in the news media about Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. To put that in context, the next most covered political topic was Trump’s statements on immigration, a topic which was written about in just 40,000 sentences. In terms of policy, Clinton received the most coverage on her proposals for creating jobs, which got just 15,000 sentences of coverage. That is nearly twice as much writing devoted to a Clinton scandal as any issue, and nearly five times as much writing than that devoted to Clinton’s issue statements. In the study, the attached graph further demonstrates the disparity between coverage of Clinton scandals and her issue statements, as well as between Trump scandals. In the graph, we see a clear bias towards covering Hillary Clinton’s flaws, while covering Donald Trump’s “substance” (Berkman Klein Center, “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election,” 08.16.2017).
Why did news organizations make this colossal mistake? One word: ratings. Covering hot topics such as Clinton scandals and Trump issue statements garnered the most viewership, the most social media shares and the most money in their pockets. Some, like CNN’s CEO Jeff Zucker, took this a step further. Zucker stated, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way” (New York Times, “CNN Had a Problem.
Donald Trump Solved It,” 04.04.2017). He and his contemporaries pitted political pundits against each other in ridiculously lowbrow roundtable discussions, had his reporters talking nonstop about the most attention-grabbing stories of the day—as opposed to ones we needed to know—and treated politics like it was a game. But the winner of this game wasn’t the Republican Party and the loser the Democratic Party. The winners were media CEOs like Jeff Zucker, and the losers were the American people.