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It’s Not Too Late for the Media to Fix Its Election Coverage

A final plea for sanity in how we report on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

In defending their recent coverage of this year’s presidential race, reporters and representatives of major media organizations have frequently suggested—in various ways, implicitly, and explicitly—that their liberal critics are motivated by crude partisanship rather than any neutral or high-minded concerns.

The most irony-rich example came earlier this week from New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel, who compared growing alarm among liberal critics about the normalization of Donald Trump to a much-mocked form of conservative media criticism: that polls sponsored by mainstream outlets are skewed in favor of Democratic candidates.

It didn’t go unnoticed that Gabriel had used false equivalence against a critique of false equivalence. But as insight into how reporters and editors interpret their critics, it was a valuable observation because it suggested that perhaps the current crop of critics, including myself, aren’t hitting the right points of emphasis. Perhaps there has been too much focus on individual cases, like the Timesdud on a Clinton Foundation non-scandal. There has been plenty of flawed reporting this election cycle, just as there is flawed reporting every cycle, but the deeper, more troubling failure is collective. Any singleQ story can only underline the broader phenomenon.

Gabriel’s comparison is misleading in almost every particular. The current line of criticism—that major media outlets like the Times are failing to portray the stakes of this election, and each candidates’ respective shortcomings, in proper proportion—did gain purchase when liberals started worrying that campaign coverage had fallen out of whack. Beyond that, there are no similarities.

The unskewed polls movement in 2012 was born of delusion and propaganda. It was a direct outgrowth of a decades-long conservative project to discredit mainstream sources of information as populated by liberal partisans. The idea that the polls were skewed was corollary to the refrain that the mass media is liberal—biased by design against conservatives, built to help liberals maintain dominance over the culture at large. Some poll-unskewers surely believed the polls were skewed; others were simply desperate to give dispirited Republicans something to hold on to. The great irony of the poll-unskewers is that they posited the existence of a liberal misinformation bubble from the safe confines of a conservative one.

Today’s liberal critics generally do not say that the political media is a house organ for the Republican Party. We are not in denial about polls, and do not hold Hillary Clinton blameless for the difficulties she’s faced on the campaign trail. But perhaps we’ve erred by framing our complaints around the zero-sum conflict between Trump and Clinton. To argue that Clinton controversies pale in comparison to Trump controversies invariably gives the complaints a partisan sheen, and that makes them easily dismissed as mirror-images of conservative media bias allegations.

I say erred because at bottom the proportionality critique isn’t ideological or partisan or even necessarily about the relative merits of democracy and authoritarianism—though those may be the stakes. The critique actually emerges from the best traditions of journalism, which is why some of its most convincing exponents—including, most recently, Times columnist Nick Kristof—are journalists.

Two years ago, James Fallows of The Atlantic—whom I interviewed more recently for a podcast on this very topic—described the “one thing” that unites everyone who reports the news for a living: “It is the fundamental drive that makes us stick with this odd line of work, the usually unspoken but immensely powerful source of pride in what we do. It is summed up by three words: I saw this.

Every day for over a year now, political journalists have fanned out across the country to report on what we’ve seen, and what we’ve discovered is shocking. We’ve seen that Trump is racist, ignorant, and temperamentally unfit for the presidency—but we haven’t just reported that as our impression of the man, because those are the words of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and other leaders of the Republican Party, which Trump now leads. We’ve seen that.

At a fact-witness level, we’ve seen Trump incite violence at campaign events and seen his supporters assault protesters with near-impunity. We’ve seen him identify individual reporters as specific targets of his ire such that they’ve had to be escorted to safety from his rallies. We’ve seen him attack entire ethnicities and faiths (Latinos, Muslims) along with individual members of those denominations (Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Ghazala Khan) for the crimes of others, or for no crime at all. This only scratches the surface of what we’ve seen.

We’ve also seen Trump campaign staffers and surrogates say he would “pivot” and “soften” over the course of the general election. And we rightly reported as much. But it was a collective choice to stop reporting what we’ve seen and continue to see, and start reporting our impressions of how ably or poorly Trump is clearing the insanely low bar he set for himself. The people who assemble the raw material of this mass reporting project into headlines and front pages and news broadcasts—who see what we see—have rendered the most salient finding largely unrecognizable.

This week, Trump unveiled a (very flawed, incomplete, but nonetheless real) child care proposal. Meanwhile, Clinton had to leave the campaign trail to fight off a case of pneumonia. These are both important stories. They needed to be reported out thoroughly, and in general they were. Also this week, in the course of a single interview, Trump:

  • referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas”—a racist form of condescension he’s repeated throughout the course of this campaign, inviting some degree of consternation in the press, until we became desensitized to it.
  • accused the Federal Reserve, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations of being corrupt agencies that are rigging the economy and the justice system to help Barack Obama and Clinton.
  • claimed the presidential debates will be rigged against him.
  • offhandedly lied about his finances, claiming “I don’t even invest in the stock market,” when his own financial disclosures show that he holds millions of dollars worth of stock.

It’s not that these comments don’t get reported. They do. What has been lost is the sense of proportion that only reporters, editors, broadcasters, and producers working together can provide through the sum total of our output.

Most prominent political reporters have covered more than one election. This is my third election as a professional political writer; James Fallows has been doing this since the 1970s. Whether you have a short or long view, you’ve seen enough to say authoritatively that Trump is different from all major party nominees in living memory. It is not normal in modern times for a major party nominee to be an erratic, racist demagogue; and it is almost definitionally abnormal for a major party nominee to be described as such by leading members of his own party.

These are the cardinal facts of this election. They should be the dominant upshot of any significant increment of news coverage and analysis—the thing that reaches and sticks with casual news consumers, in the same way that even musical dilettantes can hum the leitmotif of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

That is a journalistic judgment, just as sending hundreds of reporters to Louisiana to cover Hurricane Katrina was a journalistic judgment. It is not a Democratic or liberal judgment. It is not the equivalent of saying that unflattering revelations about Clinton should be suppressed or that any particular new revelation about Trump should be overhyped. It’s simply to say, through the many means we have to indicate what is important, what is breaking news, what is worthy of discussion, “we have seen this, it is ongoing, and it is extraordinary.” And then let the chips fall where they may.

For several weeks now—including since Labor Day, when most Americans truly began paying attention to the campaigns—these truths, which we all took for granted six months ago, have not been communicated to glancing news consumers. They’ve receded from most article leads, headlines, front pages, and A-block TV segments.

That development is the product of many collective choices and thousands of individual ones. It is an institutional failure, and as such, a major and abrupt course correction seems highly unlikely. But that doesn’t absolve reporters, editors, producers or anyone else who is part of the system. There’s still time to alter our focus, however incrementally, so that it better captures what’s new and alarming, and all journalists have some degree of power to nudge it in that direction. The goal is not to swing an election, or call Trump mean names, or render partisan judgment about whether electing him would be a world-historical mistake. It’s simply so that after this is all over, however it shakes out, we can say we bore witness faithfully.