This is the first in a four-part series, beginning today and running for four consecutive days, deconstructing how the United States political press hastened the movement towards a post-truth America by disregarding the importance of accuracy and elevating the focus on false equivalence. We begin with The Death of Accuracy.
A State of Denial
Susan Glasser, an editor at Politico, recently wrote an article about the media, “Covering Politics in a Post-Truth America,” that was published by the Brookings Institute. Much of Glasser’s article discusses some of her own interesting history as a journalist and how the mainstream media in Washington, D.C., has evolved over the last 2-3 decades. The gist of Glasser’s article, however, rests on two key assertions: The first assertion is that the media has “never been better” in its coverage of politics. The second one is that despite the media being so much “better,” especially with hard-hitting “journalism,” it seems to have mattered little in influencing the 2016 election results.
In this 4-part series, I am going to delve deeper into several factors tied to those assertions and show you why Glasser is wrong.
It is unfortunate, but not at all surprising, that an editor of a well-known media outlet for politics believes these assertions. What makes her article remarkable is the absence of any meaningful discussion about the many justifiable, fact-based critiques of the political media that have been published. In contrast, we find many self-congratulatory sentiments and an extreme state of denial about the media’s egregious mistakes during Election 2016.
In saying that, I am not dismissing a lot of good journalism we saw during the election. Rather, I want to shine light on the dominance of poor journalism and its direct enabling of the “post-truth” America about which Glasser is so concerned. It is hard to do this topic full justice here, so consider this a starting point for discussion.
Does Accuracy Matter?
The core problem with Glasser’s article starts with the text accompanying the header (highlights/emphasis in all quoted text is my own, unless otherwise specified):
Journalism has never been better, thanks to these last few decades of disruption. So why does it seem to matter so little? Reflections on the media in the age of Trump.
In what way has political journalism become “better”? Glasser says:
The truth is that coverage of American politics, and the capital that revolves around it, is in many ways much better now than ever before—faster, sharper, and far more sophisticated.
How about the primary factor that matters in judging whether journalism has gotten “better?” Namely, the accuracy of what is reported by the press. If your product is information, should you not start by asking whether the accuracy of the information you are publishing has gotten much better over time?
In my view, accuracy must be the foremost measure of the quality of journalism — specifically, whether a news story correctly informs the audience without significantly misleading or deceiving them. For instance, a news story could be from a legitimate media outlet (i.e., “real” and not fake) but still seriously misinform audiences because of omissions of fact or relevant context, or the presence of errors in the story.
The fact that accuracy did not even figure in Glasser’s criteria for judging how well the media is doing is the first indication that something is seriously amiss. In fact, later in her article, Glasser laments the rise of partisan media sites, seemingly uninterested in a key reason for the rise of such sites: A deep loss of credibility of the mainstream media (MSM), usually because of problems with the accuracy of their news coverage.
Before we go further, it is worth distinguishing “bias” from accuracy. Hypothetically, a media outlet could be biased in favor of a particular party, ideology, or candidate, but still publish stories that are quite accurate. On the other side, you could have media outlets nominally claiming to be unbiased that publish stories that are not accurate. When there is a systematic pattern of inaccurate stories from a media outlet claiming to be nominally unbiased, it opens them up to charges of implicit bias.
The New York Times is a good example of the latter. Many Americans, including some liberals, believe that the New York Times has a liberal or pro-Democratic bias — largely because they assume that the views of the Editorial Board are reflected in the stories published by the Times news desks on politics. However, the reality is the opposite: The Times has a two-decade long history of publishing some of the worst false or misleading stories about Democrats — stories that were far more damaging than anything Fox News produced. This is a history that few Democrats are themselves aware of, thanks in large part to the gross incompetence (or unwillingness) of the Democratic party leadership in making this obvious to their supporters.
The Worship of False Equivalency
a) Clinton’s Honesty
During the course of Election 2016, Hillary Clinton was one of the most honest candidates according to independent, non-partisan fact-checking sites. In contrast, Trump was the diametric opposite — those same independent organizations found that he was pathologically dishonest. Yet, thanks specifically to how Clinton was covered by the media, most people perceived Clinton to be as dishonest as Trump or even worse.
Having created a completely false perception of Clinton, the media went further to cement this falsehood in the minds of the public. Rather than point out that Clinton was in fact far more honest than commonly believed, many reporters and pundits repeatedly used public polls to merely repeat the claim that most people did not think Clinton was honest. They did not bother to inform the public that, contrary to public perceptions about Clinton and other candidates, Clinton was actually as honest as, say, Bernie Sanders.
There is plenty of historical data on a range of issues which shows that just because the public believes something, that does not make it true. You would think that a media worried about “post-truth America” would care enough to point out the difference at every opportunity, but many “journalists” simply did not care. To them, their notion of “journalism” was to just report a narrative about Clinton, not to help people understand whether the narrative was accurate or not.
This is not entirely surprising given that mainstream, progressive, and conservative reporters have publicly admitted that the U.S. political press has long disliked Clinton and covers her in a much tougher way than other politicians.
b) Clinton’s Transparency
Clinton’s transparency on income, income sources, taxes, debt, fundraisers, work emails, meetings, Foundation donors, and more was unprecedentedly positive. Even some of her top critics have acknowledged this. Trump was the exact opposite — he disclosed virtually nothing that was material and he was an unprecedented enemy of press freedom. Yet, the media wrongly convinced most people that Clinton was worse than Trump on transparency and secrecy.
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) September 15, 2016
c) Breaking the Law
Clinton did nothing illegal and broke no laws with her private email system and there was no real evidence of any wrongdoing with the Clinton Foundation. On the other hand, Trump and his foundation had broken at least some laws with documented instances of obvious corruption. Not only did Trump’s foundation stories, corruption, and massive conflicts of interest get only a fraction of the coverage that Clinton’s stories received, the media wrongly led a lot more people to believe that Clinton was the one who did something illegal, as opposed to Trump.
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) November 5, 2016
These are just three examples illustrating systemic and catastrophic media failure during Election 2016. If the public were led to believe the opposite of what was true, largely because of your so-called “journalism,” then you just do not get to congratulate yourself for how well you did.
Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy studied the media coverage of the 2016 election campaign in depth and their findings were striking in this regard: Not only did Clinton get the worst media coverage during the campaign — noticeably worse than Trump — the media was awash in an ocean of absurd, deceptive, false equivalence. In discussing the results of the Shorenstein study, Prof. Thomas Patterson called out the unrelenting negativity that dominated press coverage of 2016 and observed the following:
Negative news has partisan consequences. Given that journalists bash both sides, it might be thought the impact would be neutral. It’s not. For one thing, indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it. Large numbers of voters concluded that the candidates’ indiscretions were equally disqualifying and made their choice, not on the candidates’ fitness for office, but on less tangible criteria—in some cases out of a belief that wildly unrealistic promises could actually be kept.
False equivalencies abound in today’s reporting. When journalists can’t, or won’t, distinguish between allegations directed at the Trump Foundation and those directed at the Clinton Foundation, there’s something seriously amiss. And false equivalencies are developing on a grand scale as a result of relentlessly negative news.
I do not quite agree with the “historical” assumption of Patterson in this next comment (see, for example, the history of the New York Times), but his overall point is correct because it describes the precise mechanism by which Trump was normalized and made to seem no worse than or even better than Clinton:
If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans. The press historically has helped citizens recognize the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.
Journalist Brian Beutler also took his profession to task in The New Republic in this context:
But another key component of journalism is the framing and contextualizing of events and new information: How do you take that raw material and present it in ways that don’t just provide consumers with new data points, but help them suss out how critical those data points are and what they mean in the scheme of things?
Here, major media outlets failed abysmally…
[…] In sum, they contributed to a ludicrous public perception that Trump is more honest and trustworthy than Clinton.
[…] The inability of political media to process and communicate asymmetry between the parties is a genuine crisis for the industry and our political culture. […] the double standard makes no sense. There’s no way to justify systemically misinforming people about the stakes of an election, and then clarifying the consequences after it’s over.
The Deceptive “We Were Tough on Trump” Defense
In light of all this, Glasser’s article is beyond inexcusable. This is why I have said before that people in the media who are trying to escape accountability by saying “we ran many tough stories on Trump” are deeply misleading you. They do not want to take any responsibility for falsely portraying Clinton as equal to or worse than Trump, based on how they covered Clinton. The media failed badly not because they did not run tough stories about Trump (although even there they are misleading you), but because they unjustifiably made many voters wrongly believe that Clinton was as bad as or worse than Trump.
37) “We were tough on Trump” is an answer to a DIFFERENT Q; it doesn't answer Q on WHY media WRONGLY portrayed Clinton as WORSE than Trump
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) November 29, 2016
This media malpractice — which, if history is a guide, is more likely to be rewarded with career promotions than anything else — had a material impact on both Democratic and Republican voters.
Young Democratic-leaning voters who voted for Bernie Sanders by large margins in the Democratic Primary were particularly susceptible to false, negative portrayals of Clinton as somehow being very dishonest, corrupt or having committed a crime. As I pointed out earlier, by the end of the primaries Clinton had unjustifiably gotten the worst media coverage of all the candidates including Trump. Therefore, even though her general election opponent was Trump, voters who said they would support third-party candidates or that they were undecided were very high compared to past elections. A large percentage of those voters were young people.
While Clinton recovered her support among this group meaningfully during the general election, it was not enough: Her loss margins in some closely contested states were less than the margins of votes for third-party candidates, who in turn were largely supported by younger voters. For instance, if Clinton had won just 25 percent of the voters who picked Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, she would have won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan and thus, the Electoral College. Instead, Clinton under-performed Obama among young voters by a few percentage points, enough to flip the electoral college to Trump.
33) If only ONE-QUARTER (25%) of Stein voters & Johnson voters had picked HRC, she would have won PA, MI, WI & the Electoral College pic.twitter.com/pb2Pq1jeR5
— T. R. Ramachandran (@yottapoint) December 8, 2016
To be clear, the impact of poor journalism in Election 2016 was not just about young, left-leaning voters. Given that most Trump voters picked him primarily because they opposed Clinton, the media’s false portrayals of Clinton obviously made it a lot easier for them to justify their vote for Trump, despite who he was.
As many conservatives publicly admitted this year, there has always been a cottage industry on the right to falsely demonize Clinton and distort who she is as a person. But, during this election, that industry got a massive amount of fuel through the media’s blatantly misleading and often false stories about Clinton, especially on topics like her emails and the Clinton Foundation.
It was the MSM that turned a largely honest, unprecedentedly transparent, experienced public servant who had committed no crimes into a caricature that seemed worse than Trump. Given that, it was a lot easier for the right to persuade even hesitant voters who did not approve of some of the things Trump did to vote for Trump.
So, when Glasser says:
So why does [media coverage] seem to matter so little?
…that is a statement completely divorced from reality. Media coverage mattered immensely in this election, more so than in most other elections in the last few decades. It was instrumental in enabling a post-truth America.
Up Next (Part 2): How did media coverage fail basic journalistic standards for accuracy and deceive the public? We will use the case of Clinton’s emails — the most prominent anti-Clinton story that the media feasted on during this election — to compare common public perceptions on the Clinton email story to the facts.
T.R. Ramachandran is a blogger on politics, policy and media, a longtime veteran of the tech industry and co-founder of Kanvz. You can follow his latest work on Twitter @yottapoint or on the web at electionado.com.