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Shame on Us, the American Media

The press blew this election, with potentially horrifying consequences.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Early this year, when it became clear Donald Trump would become the GOP presidential nominee, but before we knew how Republicans would respond to being overtaken by a racist authoritarian, I argued at length that while Trump was a symptom of deep rot within their party, our other democratic institutions were still strong enough to contain the threat he posed.

It was obvious by then that Trump’s reckless and illiberal candidacy would be damaging to America’s civic health, just by itself. But those very traits, it seemed, would also make it nearly impossible for him to win the presidency; and in the event of the unthinkable, he would be hemmed in by both the exigencies of governing and the conforming power of imperfect institutions like the legislature, the judiciary, the civil service, and the media, outside the presidency.

Almost eight months later, I am grateful we will likely never have to test my hypothesis, because I no longer think it’s a safe bet—and the failure of my own institution shook my faith the most.

There is no shortage of journalists and outlets in this industry with a lot to be proud of, but the larger system we are a part of did not convert those inputs into a correct portrayal of the choice voters face in today’s election. This has happened before. The way journalists who covered the 2000 election portrayed George W. Bush did a disservice to consumers, perhaps allowing the loser of the popular vote to keep the race close enough to “win” the electoral college.

No failure of that kind is excusable, but back then the stakes seemed relatively small. Obviously they turned out not to be. The difference today is that few people in the business are unaware of how enormous the stakes of this election are—and yet, conveying those stakes turned out not to be the media’s primary interest.

A key component of successful journalism is the unearthing and relaying of facts, and on this score the media—faced with a historically opaque candidate and one with an instinct for opacity but a long public record—did a good job. Despite Trump’s best efforts, we know much more about him today than we did before this election started. Through less laborious processes we also know more about Hillary Clinton.

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. The best illustration of this came just days ago, when a media monitor tallied the amount of time nightly news broadcasts devoted to stories about Clinton’s emails, and the amount of time they devoted to stories about all policy matters combined, and found that the former exceeded the latter. On any given Sunday morning, network news shows host panels of journalists, nearly all of whom are fluent in the esoteric details of Clinton’s email practices, but many of whom couldn’t tell you how Trump’s tax plan works. As a result, if Trump were to win, millions of people would expect him to enact a populist agenda, even as his own campaign promises to raise taxes on millions of middle-income workers, privatize roads, and deregulate Wall Street.

As it turns out, the legislation that Trump might enact, though radical, is only a medium-sized story compared to more basic facts like his disdain for democratic norms and his temperamental unfitness for public service—just how dangerous it would be for him to be the president. Here, the story isn’t much better. News outlets did make real, novel efforts to communicate Trump’s unique kind of political dishonesty and his erratic nature to news consumers, but this was offset by a parallel collective decision to hold him to the irresponsibly low bar that his campaign set for itself.

The final week of the campaign has been reminiscent of every relatively quiet stretch between Trump’s serial implosions (attacking Gonzalo Curiel, attacking the Khan family, attacking a former Miss Universe, or responding to the unearthing of the Access Hollywood video in which he boasted about committing sexual assault with impunity). When Trump wasn’t in the midst of a self-inflicted crisis, we were treated to breathless commentary about how he was once again “sticking to script,” as if this were a meaningful demonstration of competence for the hardest job in the world.

These past 10 days have been no different. On the rare occasion when Trump stories eclipsed the din of chatter about Clinton’s completely irrelevant emails, they were frequently about how Trump had shown “discipline” in the final stretch. In reality, on every single one of those days, he was saying outrageous and false things at a dizzying clip. Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel captured this phenomenon well on Sunday when he tweeted:

Many different incentives drove this phenomenon: the fact that campaign journalism abhors the absence of a horserace; the competition for audience share; the bias toward balance; the attendant stove-piping of news content into Republican and Democratic bundles—where Trump’s bundle was filled with so many outrages, no single one could define him, but Clinton’s was filled almost entirely with email-related stories, feeding the false impression of that she’d committed a disqualifying error.

These structural forces were greater than any specific failures like access-seeking or process obsession by individual journalists, though there were plenty of instances of both. In sum, they contributed to a ludicrous public perception that Trump is more honest and trustworthy than Clinton.

Defensive colleagues will point to Trump’s record-low approval ratings as evidence that the media scrutinized him effectively. But even if you attribute this to journalism, and not to the things Trump did with his free airtime, it doesn’t account for the fact that Clinton (a manifestly more fit candidate) is nearly as disliked as he is. Trump resembles the political leaders of the European far right, and his core supporters embrace him for that very reason; but this was generally not the way he was portrayed, and definitely not the way his supporters were portrayed.

The inability of political media to process and communicate asymmetry between the parties is a genuine crisis for the industry and our political culture. I believe both that if Trump were to become president, it would be a consequence of that crisis, and also that the media would do a much better job covering a Trump administration, outside the context of a horserace, than it did when he was running against a Democrat. But the way this campaign has been covered gives me incredible pause about the latter assumption. And even if it’s correct, 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.

An industry that bandies about terms like “fourth estate” to describe itself should constantly reckon with whether its lofty self-perception matches its output. Does the press serve merely as a guardian of the right to unearth facts? Or is it also a defender of hard-won democratic norms like pluralism and tolerance, and against racial hierarchies and authoritarianism?

This election cycle revealed a critical tension between the press’ self-perception and its failure to defend those norms when they were under frontal attack. Not only did many news outlets lower the bar for Trump and never raise it; by doing so, they subjected themselves to the same dismal standard. Whatever happens Tuesday night, we have to do better next time—assuming that by next time, it’s not too late.