It’s time for the media in this country to admit what the rest of us have known for more than a year: They are addicted to Donald Trump.
Not a day goes by that the orange face of the Republican presidential nominee isn’t featured at the top of the webpage of every news service at least once during the day. He leads nearly every cable news show. It doesn’t matter if what he says makes sense (it doesn’t). It doesn’t matter if he’s telling the truth (he’s not). It doesn’t matter who he’s insulting (just about everyone). All that matters is that when Trump opens his mouth, the media jump, focus the cameras, and aim the microphones.
Look at the examples from this week. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivered a substantive plan about mental health, with plenty of details. She gave a foreign policy speech to the American Legion and talked about American exceptionalism. Yet all the media could do was talk about Trump’s will-he-or-won’t-he fuzzy and flip-flopping approach to immigration. The media veered from “he appeared presidential” alongside Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on the whirlwind trip south of the border to “he’s taking a hard line again” when Trump repeated every immigration threat he’s made for 16 months.
It’s no secret, but this pattern of the Trumpeting of the news has been obvious for the entire campaign season. A report from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy detailed the over-reliance on Trump stories across the media (this particular study left out cable news, which was even worse). The Harvard study said Trump had won the “invisible primary” with a preponderance of coverage, most of it positive or neutral. And Trump received $2 billion in free media coverage, according to the tracking firm mediaQuant.
Don’t forget the money factor. Les Moonves, chief executive officer of CBS, told an investors’ conference in February that the all-Trump, all-the-time approach to campaign coverage was selling ads. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” CNN’s Jeff Zucker bragged about how Trump is a ratings bonanza for the cable news station.
In an ironic moment (as if Morning Joe on MSNBC hasn’t been as bad as the rest with its over-the-top Trump coverage), Mika Brzezinski this week called out her co-host Joe Scarborough and the media in general for the Trump obsession, especially as it applied to speculation about immigration policy:
Look at this conversation! We’re talking about nothing! We’re talking about a guy who means nothing, who says nothing, who has no opinions. We’re talking about a speech, that will probably end up being something that he doesn’t mean. And we’re pretending to try and “translate strategy” out of it. … I don’t know what we’ve talked about, honestly. Nothing!
As the Republican presidential nominee, of course Trump deserves coverage, but not complete dominance of a 24-hour news cycle. It’s time for the media to join Trump-a-holics Anonymous. TA is for all members of the media who have forgotten what they learned in journalism school on how to cover an election fairly—which seems to cover everyone from Andrea Mitchell to Wolf Blitzer.
So with apologies to Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups that perform an important service for addicts with the 12-step approach, here is a reimagining of the organization’s program, tweaked to apply to the nation’s political journalists. Here’s a 12-step program for the media to come clean.
1. We admit we are powerless over our own decisions to run constant Trump coverage—that our news feeds have become unmanageable and our headlines have become nothing but clickbait. It’s not “breaking news” just because Donald Trump makes an announcement, even if it’s the outrage du jour. Why treat it that way daily, on top of a news web page or on the bottom of a TV screen?
2. We have come to believe that restoring good news judgment also could restore us and the nation to sanity. An interesting post from a former journalist and current journalism professor and blogger, Jeff Jarvis, takes journalists to task for this:
Imagine if even a fraction of the time we see wasted on cable news were devoted to educating the public about the issues and realities of immigration, refugees, criminal justice, the economy, infrastructure, education, health care costs, entitlement costs, security, the environment, taxes, jobs. … When was the last time you saw TV news do that? How much of any news organization’s work is devoted to doing this, to informing the electorate? Shouldn’t we ask before assigning every story and booking every TV discussion: How will this help the public better decide how to vote?
3. We have made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of honest journalism. From the Harvard study on how the media blew it and fed the beast:
[Journalists] are not in the business of sifting out candidates on the basis of their competency and platforms. They are in the business of finding good stories. Donald Trump was the mother lode. During the invisible primary, the press gave him what every candidate seeks — reams of coverage.
4. We have made a searching and fearless moral inventory of our shoddy reporting, and find it to be overwhelming. The Harvard study again:
Journalists seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump’s first audience. Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories. He didn’t have any other option. He had no constituency base and no claim to presidential credentials.
5. We will admit to ourselves, our viewers, and our readers the exact nature of our wrongs. We’re talkin’ to YOU, Associated Press. And The New York Times. And theWashington Post.
6. We are entirely ready to cover issues and not just horse-race polling. Members of the media know readers say they’re interested in candidates’ positions. But it’s so much easier just to keep reporting polls. Besides, the closer the race looks, the more relevant the publication or news channel—otherwise, why watch? Even more important: The closer the race, the more candidates need to advertise, and this has notbeen a profitable year for campaign ads on TV. According to industry figures, ad spending at this point in the presidential race is 60 percent lower than the comparable amount spent in 2012—$146 million this year compared with $373 million four years ago. And the Trump campaign is just now starting its general election ad buys.
7. We humbly ask the public to help remove all these defects of our news judgment. Again, from the Harvard study:
When critics have accused journalists of fueling the Trump bandwagon, members of the media have offered two denials. One is that they were in watchdog mode, that Trump’s coverage was largely negative, that the “bad news” outpaced the “good news.” The second rebuttal is that the media’s role in Trump’s ascent was the work of the cable networks—that cable was “all Trump, all the time” whereas the traditional press held back.
Neither of these claims is supported by the evidence. … Across all the outlets, Trump’s coverage was roughly two-to-one favorable.
8. We will make a list of all readers and viewers we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. That’s basically the entire American public at this point.
9. We will make direct amends to such candidates who became victims of false equivalency wherever possible, even when to do so would injure our ratings.Wouldn’t it be nice if reporters, anchors, and columnists dropped the “both sides do it” nonsense? There’s plenty of evidence, from academic studies to real reporting, that the media’s attempts at “balance” is way off kilter. Jeff Jarvis again:
These faux scandals become tokens in journalists’ well-documented insistence on finding balance. Let’s spend one block of our show talking about how Donald Trump demonizes Mexicans and Muslims and — because we need something to “balance” that — let’s spend the next block repeating the same, year-old allegations about Hillary’s damned emails. The hunt for balance is especially cynical this year, as any attempt to give balanced coverage to an unbalanced candidate can only mislead.
10. We will continue to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong, promptly admit it, run corrections when we screw up, and delete inaccurate tweets. Man, is this needed. Corrections need to be displayed prominently, not buried in a one-paragraph posting on an inside page. If an online story is corrected, not only does that correction need to be made, but the readers also must be told that there was a correction from an earlier version.
11. We will seek through good reporting to improve our conscious contact with our readers and viewers. The same Jarvis post referenced above criticizes coverage of and engagement with all voter groups.
Because of this election, we now know that the media has done a terrible job of reflecting the concerns and goals of underemployed, angry white men in the heartland. If media had done a better job of reporting — and then informing — their world views, would there have been an opening for them to be recruited by Trump and the forces of the so-called alt right?
Far more important than either of those examples, of course, is the experience of minorities in this country: African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, too often women, and too many others who are unseen in media.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we will try to carry this message to other journalists, and to practice these principles in all our reporting. Jarvis one last time:
We must create a journalism that mirrors the many and diverse communities and concerns in societies and convenes these communities in dialog so they can foster empathy and understanding. We must create a journalism that educates the public about the issues that matter to each other (so we must start by asking them what matters, not assuming we know). We must create a journalism that does not reduce people to numbers and colors but instead invites them into a substantive, intelligent, fruitful, and civil discussion as individuals and members of communities, not a mass.
Think anyone in the media will follow this advice? Nah, me neither.
And what will become of the news business if and when Trump loses the election in November? CNN must be hoping for another missing plane.
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