The history-making 2016 presidential campaign has been handicapped like a horse race, play-by-played like a boxing match, and has the international appeal of a World Cup soccer tournament. With all that running, punching and kicking, it’s no wonder the U.S. electorate is exhausted as the campaign nears the finish.
This politics-as-sports mentality has been reflected in headlines too numerous to count, essentially turning one of democracy’s most sacred rights into a gaming event. When the postmortem on the presidential election begins Nov. 9, the media’s failure to adequately live up to their reputation as the Fourth Estate, the watchdogs of government, should take up substantial space in the pathology report.
From the moment GOP candidate Donald Trump announced his run for the White House, media coverage lacked the usual scrutiny, treating the tycoon-turned reality TV star as entertainment rather than a serious contender for the most powerful office on earth. Trump was less a candidate than clickbait, whose every utterance delivered coveted page views, hits and a ratings bonanza.
Trump controlled the news cycle and news agenda, with journalists flicking from one Trump controversy to another like lapdogs after toy bones. As a result, voters were left in the dark on most issues, and the other primary candidates left in the dust.
Only during the general election did coverage become watchdog-worthy. A few indefatigable reporters produced exemplary journalism uncovering Trump’s questionable business and charitable dealings. But the intense vetting occurred late in the process, giving the false impression of a media vendetta or pile on.
Coverage of Democrat Hillary Clinton consisted of her questionable charitable dealings, as well, but it was focused mainly on the potentially embarrassing and damaging contents of hacked private emails that were leaked to the media, instead of the additional serious issues of espionage and cybersecurity beyond politics. When FBI Director James B. Comey informed Congress on Oct. 28 that an unrelated investigation had uncovered more Clinton emails, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, GOP chairman of the House Oversight Committee, dangled the enticing tweet “Case reopened” in front of the press.
Technically, the case was never closed, and Comey admitted he hadn’t seen the contents of the new emails, which could be duplicates of the ones already released. But before you could say “Whoa, pardner,” the press took Chaffetz’s bait and went frantically off to the races with “breaking news” before putting the new discovery in perspective.
With only 10 percent of Americans thinking the primary election coverage was accurate, according to findings in the Newseum Institute’s 2016 State of the First Amendment survey, deep introspection and soul-searching should be in order for the media when the elections are over to gain the trust of the other 90 percent. That’s a pretty tall order, considering the SOFA report also found that 74 percent of Americans don’t think the news media attempt to report without bias. In other words, a majority of Americans think the media push their own agendas without any pretense of objectivity.
Recent tweets about Trump by journalists covering his campaign — “#LetItEnd” and “#scampaign” — only reinforce that perception.
Criticized in non-election years for being too critical and adversarial, the media now find themselves in an unenviable no-win situation that should offer painful but valuable lessons for future political coverage.
This article was published by the Newseum Institute.