Published in The San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 14, 2016
The news media have assigned themselves a generous role in getting Donald J. Trump elected, which by my count would be the third time this century that press failure produced what many people, myself included, regard as a civic calamity. This isn’t like the first time, the 2003 Iraq war, where few journalists had the sources to challenge the false claim of national peril. And it’s not like the second, the 2008 financial collapse, where the extent of the system’s rickety dependency on reckless lending was hard to discern beforehand.
This time, there was nothing hidden about the realties. They couldn’t have been more public. Trump was thoroughly out there, brazen, outspoken, in your face. And the press—not just the legacy press, but tough-minded internet natives too—did their due diligence. They rummaged his flaky business past, exposed his frat-house squalor and his spectacular mendacity, put his cruelties on daily display, left his policy ignorance and lack of qualification for high office unmistakable.
And he did lose the electorate by a non-trivial 2.9 million votes. So a substantial audience was paying attention.
Still, the conclusion that the election represents a historic moment of press failure is warranted, and this is the right moment to reflect on the nature of that failure before the media lurch into covering Trump’s presidency in the same flawed ways that they covered his candidacy.
First, exposure trumps substance. Donald Trump was the most charismatic and telegenic of the GOP primary candidates, and his on-air presence was a crowd-pleaser—for the debates, for cable news, for network news talk shows. Bookers may have thought of him as a clownish longshot, but he drew audiences, and the saturation exposure of his rallies conferred stature and credibility on him. Trump essentially applied his business model to the campaign: Instead of licensing his brand in return for cash royalties, with TV news, he offered his presence and collected his royalties in votes.
Second, evenhandedness has its limits. It became apparent, as the general campaign heated up, that the style of Trump’s electioneering—the sheer velocity of insults, falsehoods, fabrications and squirrelly accusations—demanded skeptical treatment and even real-time refutation. But the conventional standards of journalistic professionalism also required some measure of balance. That meant paying equivalent attention to Hillary Clinton’s wrongdoing, and giving outlandish play to partisan drama over an internet server she used during her tenure as secretary of state four years before, and which apparently caused no discernible harm to national security. Likewise, petty sniping among Democratic campaign workers exposed in hacked emails drew extravagant coverage—not because it mattered, but because it was unfavorable to Clinton and could be cited as evidence of balance.
Finally, covering politics isn’t just covering politicians. It’s reporting on the electorate and what voters see, fear, demand and long for. The most spectacular evidence of press failure was the universal astonishment over the outcome among the organizations that purport to be the best informed. Some of that cluelessness was attributable to the destruction of the regional press, the traditional conduits of authoritative reporting on the sentiments of the provinces. Even the best reporters from out-of-town news organizations cannot match the authority with which local reporters can speak. The extent of disgust with national political elites, with marginalization of the heartland, with trade and immigration policies, fueled a cultural insurgency of which Trump became the flag-bearer, and which was simmering, largely unnoticed, by elite media.
So what now? Trump’s enthusiastic use of Twitter to share hunches, thoughts, denunciations offers an early problem, as a smart story in the New York Times this week noted. Must his vaguely manic postings be treated as priceless insights into policy directions? Do the media have a duty to report them slavishly and spend precious resources decoding their veracity and significance?
I suppose so. But only a little, to keep the record straight. Perhaps with capsule entries in an inside-the-book TrumpWatch feature. He doesn’t mean most of what he says anyway. The alternative, covering Trump’s tweets thoroughly, the way his inflammatory scribblings were vivisected during the campaign, would continue the practice of handing him the power to set the news agenda, and worse, keep the media focused on him instead of the country he is supposed to lead. And that’s how we got here.