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Post-election, the media will have to examine its own role in the 2016 presidential campaign

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The late-in-the-game but welcome turn in coverage by The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post on Donald Trump should become the standard for all news outlets in campaigns to come.

The 2016 election season, the presidential campaign in particular, can’t end soon enough for most of us. The “Trump Effect” of shameless disregard for facts and accuracy, topped off by a level of creepy, licentious vulgarity that would give Howard Stern pause, suggests the post-mortems on this episode should be long and deeply reflective. Not that there’s any guarantee of that, of course.

Political professionals, particularly shell-shocked “traditional” Republicans, will take each others’ pulse and examine their collective brain scans to see how something like this could have happened. But the establishment media should also examine its behavior in what has been a profound national embarrassment.

The late-in-the-game but welcome turn in coverage by The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post on Trump should become the standard for all news outlets in campaigns to come, especially if the so-called “Trump base” conjures up a reason to reject the results of next month’s voting and begins to search for “Trump redux” 2020. 

As acknowledged leaders of traditional journalism, the Times (in particular) and the Post (and the Los Angeles Times) have essentially dispensed with the customary, which is to say anachronistic, courtesies routinely extended to anyone standing for public office. After well over a year of describing “misstatements,” “falsehoods” and “misrepresentations,” Trump’s post-convention behavior pushed those organizations to redefine his preposterous rhetoric for what it is, and what every adequately educated adult recognizes it to be: namely, “lies,” often absurd ones.

It will be fascinating to check in on New York Times Editor Dean Baquet at his first post-election journalism seminar for more thinking on how his paper and others in the media, network television in particular, covered the Trump campaign and to see what they do in the future. Thankfully, Baquet who came to the Times from the Los Angeles Times, has already been quite candid about decisions he and his editors made in order to deal fully and accurately with a national candidate with barely a carny huckster’s regard for truthfulness.

Talking to Ken Doctor of the Nieman Lab last month, Baquet responded to a question about the challenges Trump presented to journalism: 

“I think that everybody went in a little bit shell-shocked in the beginning, about how you cover a guy who makes news constantly. It’s not just his outrageous stuff … he says things that are just demonstrably false.

“I think that he’s challenged our language. He will have changed journalism, he really will have. I was either editor or managing editor of the L.A. Times during the Swift Boat incident. Newspapers did not know — we did not quite know how to do it. I remember struggling with the reporter, Jim Rainey, who covers the media now, trying to get him to write the paragraph that laid out why the Swift Boat allegation was false. … We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.’ … I think that Trump has ended that struggle. I think we now say stuff. We fact-check him. We write it more powerfully that it’s false.”

In the same interview Baquet also said: “The dirty secret of news organizations — and I think this is part of a story of what happened with Bush and the Iraq war — [is that] newspaper reporters and newspapers describe the world we live in. We really can be a little bit patriotic without knowing it. We actually tend to believe what politicians tell us — which is a flaw, by the way. I’m not saying that with pride. The lesson of the Iraq war, which I think started us down this track, was that I don’t think people really believed that the administration would actually lie about the WMDs, or that they would say the stuff so forcefully.”

In the post-mortem phase that will follow Nov. 8, the question of whether and when to apply Trump-level fact-checking and “impolite” descriptors to all politicians from here on out needs to be asked. The assumption is that there will be a consensus view that we’ll never see anything as irresistibly egregious as Trump ever again, so the civil thing to do will be to modulate back to reporting as we’ve known it, where politicians only make “misstatements” and journalists “leave it to the reader/viewer to figure it out for themselves.”

More skeptical news professionals will take a more gimlet-eyed look at the post-Trump landscape. They will acknowledge the astonishing outpouring of support he got early and sustained from an enormous subset of the population through countless ludicrous assertions and frat-boy obscenities and recognize a reality unlikely to dissipate on Nov. 9. 

Trump’s base is one informed largely by a toxic mix of pop culture and echo-chamber demagoguery, and Trump will not be the last of his kind to make a run for high national office. Who, for example, would rule out someone like Glenn Beck or some other right-wing radio star, or a younger version of Clint Eastwood, someone with vast “star appeal,” from rallying the same base with pretty much the same Breitbart News and Drudge Report talking points?

If they stayed on message and somehow managed to avoid insulting women and Latinos, they’d have to be considered to have at least as good a chance as Trump.

The direction the Times and the L.A. Times — and to a lesser extent The Washington Post — have taken regarding Trump should absolutely be applied to every election any reporter covers, from county commissioner to president. (Most of us will be content if they apply it to the latter.) 

Politics, as Trump has demonstrated, is not a profession with static standards and practices. Unorthodoxy has substantial appeal in 2016. The profession of journalism needs to adapt to the era we are living in, and replace the classical chummy courtesies with a more acute standard befitting a time when competing (nakedly partisan) media has accumulated enough influence to create what is for all intents and purposes a separate reality for tens of millions of Americans.

Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/17/2016 - 10:56 am.

    The liberal media narative continues…

    WOW – an entire article about the media and the 2016 election and not one mention of Hilary Clinton, corruption, foundation, emails, pay to play, obstruction, lies and deceit.

    This article is just further proof of the media corruption and now Mr. lambert want the media examine itself.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/17/2016 - 11:57 am.

      The facts…

      Are often illusive for all politicians. Take a careful look at any of the fact checking organizations and it is easy to see they all “trim the truth” to their benefit. Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Barack Obama all share amazing similar levels of this. This is a matter of proven fact: check it out.

      Donald Trump, on the other hand, has taken this to a new level, departing from the truth at twice the rate that has ever been seen in the past. Trying to place Hillary and Trump on the same level of dishonesty is simply not born out by the facts; and instead, her transgressions are amplified to measure up with his.

      And I know this will only outrage those on the right who are certain she is the devil. Here is a practical example of how the devil gets built and sustained:

      SOS Clinton allegedly tried to spin post Benghazi media coverage to deflect blame for why it occurred and who was responsible. Four American lives were lost.

      SOS Powell got up in front of the UN and presented known untruths to justify going into a war that did cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars.

      And which event have we spent orders of magnitude more on investigating? And which SOS took the biggest hit to their reputation?

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/17/2016 - 12:03 pm.


      …what is it, exactly, about the Clinton Foundation that you object to?

      “Pay to play” is, indeed, sleazy, but it is also neither Clinton-specific nor party-specific. To some degree, big donors for both sides get favors that neither you nor I should even dream about, and – brief history lesson here – it’s been going on since the 19th century. The emails were a mistake, both ethically and politically, but, at least as far as I’m aware at present, did no damage to national security, which may be why a Republican head of the FBI didn’t think the issue merited prosecution. And, of course, the response from right-leaning commentary has been hysterical enough to illustrate just why Ms. Clinton is often not as forthcoming as many of us would like her to be.

      What does the term “obstruction” mean in your comment? Surely, you’re not talking about the do-nothing, Republican-controlled House, or the Mitch McConnell-led Republicans in the Senate? Or do you mean Ms. Clinton’s reluctance to release several thousand emails from her private server? Please be more specific.

      Lies and deceit? We could (and should) start with right-wing radio, a lá Mr. Limbaugh, going back at least a decade, and proceed from there through a variety of print and other media sources from the right. Fudging the truth is apparently a genetic condition inherited by all who seek higher office, but as several studies and authors have pointed out in the past couple of years, it’s been far more widely and frequently practiced by the right than the center or the left.

      Those living in the proverbial glass houses should not be among the first to pick up stones and start throwing them at someone else…

      Or, if media bias is a genuine concern, you might actually read Brian’s piece, and in addition, I recommend the latest issue of “Harper’s,” wherein Thomas Frank takes to task some of the same media outlets (New York Times, etc.) over their considerably-less-than-fair treatment of the Sanders candidacy. Mr. Sanders, of course, could not hope for anything like fairness from the right, but the media outlets that like to consider themselves the sources “of record” are hardly spotless in this regard, and it’s not just the boorish Mr. Trump who has benefited.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 10/17/2016 - 11:29 am.

    Another WOW!!!

    “Trump’s base is one informed by a toxic mix of pop culture and echo-chamber demagoguery “. Really, so there are no folks backing Trump that feel the system is totally rigged against them as regular Americans and totally tilted towards Wall Street, DC elites and the very wealthy. I can’t stand Trump (Hillary either) but at least try to be accurate in why Trump has 40% of America following him. His message is 100% correct public schools are failing (we are 35th in the world in education), the tax code is too complicated, corporate tax at 35% is ridiculous, loopholes for the connected big businesses that can afford lobbyists corrupt the system!, Hillary is status quo, DC elites don’t care about you, too much power and money in DC, 8 years of Top Down Big Govt has gotten us the worse recovery since WWII, part time jobs are not full time jobs, manufacturing has left in droves….. He just happens to be the worse messenger EVER!!! With 70 % of Americans feeling that their lives and country are on the wrong track I am sure not ALL of his followers are just uninformed.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/17/2016 - 08:13 pm.

      “‘Trump’s base is one informed by a toxic mix of pop culture and echo-chamber demagoguery ‘. … I am sure not ALL of his followers are just uninformed.”

      Your comments about the followers make sense only if you think the piece says Trump’s base is the totality of Trumps supporters. But that’s not what a “base” is, and it’s not what the piece says.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/17/2016 - 11:48 am.

    The central issue is Trump’s lies

    It’s good for Lambert to predict the post-election media self-examination on how late it came to the realization that Donald Trump was winning over a significant portion of angry Americans with a message full of lies and fear-ridden bluster, and that they were too delicate in calling his lies out until way late.

    The “new thing” in our election system is this guy who doesn’t know or respect the rule of law that underlies our democracy. He did catch us all off guard, as most dictatorial personalities do in democracies.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 10/17/2016 - 12:23 pm.

    Media Reality

    Selling what they prefer to be bought, with respect to their “implicit bias”? More subtly insidious is the media belief in publishing what they believe the public really wants to know. Now, that’s a thread for weaving the post-election narrative. Perhaps Brian Lambert begins that series today.

  5. Submitted by Lynn Gitelis on 10/17/2016 - 12:34 pm.

    The business of politics

    Might I suggest that the examination of what went wrong should include a comprehensive look at the role of political consultants in the campaign world. It’s pretty much invisible to the public, but it is at the heart of how campaigns are run, and why this year was so different.

    There are indeed many people who feel the system is rigged, and therefore (erroneously) conclude that electing an outsider will fix the problem. They don’t know how all these factors fit together, and they don’t understand how power works, so they latch onto “solutions” that fit nicely into the consultants’ plans to manipulate “spin” to their candidate’s advantage. Until that factor is dealt with more effectively, the “system” will not improve.

    As for the media … we need to devalue the entertainment/profit factor and go back to valuing and supporting “news”. As Leslie Moonves said earlier this year, “”It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Moonves said at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco, according to The Hollywood Reporter — perfectly distilling what media critics have long suspected was motivating the round-the-clock coverage of Trump’s presidential bid.

    “Most of the ads are not about issues. They’re sort of like the debates,” Moonves said, noting, “[t]here’s a lot of money in the marketplace.”

    The 2016 campaign is a “circus,” he remarked, but “Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.”

    That’s a problem. That is the root of the issue with media coverage of any election.


  6. Submitted by joe smith on 10/17/2016 - 01:21 pm.

    When a regular blue collared worker sees his

    Wages and hours going down, his healthcare going up, not keeping his Doctor, his kids ages 19-28 not being able to get a full time good paying job no matter how hard they try, his property taxes going up and his grand children’s public education becoming worse and worse and DC elites doing better than ever how is he supposed to feel??? To tell him he is fine and only feels bad because of lies and fear-ridden bluster is beyond condescending and why so many folks are tired of anybody telling them how to feel…. It really is sad!!

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/17/2016 - 09:46 pm.


      Everything was so much better in 2008-9? Its called perspective.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/17/2016 - 11:33 pm.

      I would

      But telling them that they are misinformed at best, woefully ignorant at worst seems harsh. Telling them that all the “solutions”, that they think will alleviate their woes, are naught but misguided flailing at problems they haven’t the interest to research properly, seems counter-productive. Telling them that their understanding of terms such as “fact” and “truth” is utterly incorrect seems likely to only further cement their commitment to being on the wrong side of virtually every issue. They are incapable of improving their position in life, as all your statistics reinforce. If they are unwilling to accept aid, in stubborn deference to the twin evils of destructive pride and susceptiblility to the erroneous messaging of conservatism, what ARE we to do? Simply leave them to their own failing devices? Seems heartless to me.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/18/2016 - 08:04 am.

      Well, not exactly…

      Anyone in this state who works in or understands manufacturing knows that almost every tech school machine trades or welding student has a job lined up before they graduate: your jobless scenario is just plain wrong. The jobs are there, the training is there. Your negativity is best summarized by this great American’s words:

      “But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!”

      Dr. Eric “Otter” Stratton, OBGYN, Beverly Hills CA (likely retired)

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/19/2016 - 08:48 pm.

        Please respond to the piece about manufacturing

        “Anyone in this state who works in or understands manufacturing knows that almost every tech school machine trades or welding student has a job lined up before they graduate: your jobless scenario is just plain wrong. The jobs are there, the training is there.”

        There is a commenter who wants to hear your opinion, especially about wages.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/18/2016 - 08:21 am.

      I remember when the proper Republican response to people who felt they didn’t have enough was to “work harder”, and “you only get what you deserve”.

      I also remember the short while ago when the Trump response to lack of jobs was that “Americans are paid too much.”

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/18/2016 - 11:35 am.

        And let’s remember a few years back when questions about health care costs were met with the Republican response of “health care is a privilege, not a right”.

  7. Submitted by jim hughes on 10/17/2016 - 02:45 pm.

    a large elephant in the room

    Good article. But I think one big factor is left out: money.

    Trump has been hugely profitable for the big media companies, and this fact is going to outweigh all those thoughtful lists of suggestions that will be written up by soul-searching panels of experts on politics and journalism. These companies now realize they can essentially develop and run their own candidates, who don’t need party approval, and with enough free media coverage can raise their own money outside of party channels. These candidates can simply be celebrities, from any point on the political spectrum. And everyone will make a ton more money than they would have had the nominee been someone as unexciting as, say, Jeb Bush.

  8. Submitted by robinsonrevisions Robinson on 10/17/2016 - 03:54 pm.

    Objectivity and Reporting

    People point fingers. It happens every election. In journalism classes I was taught to own my bias–something I see happening on a professional level within the media only about 50 percent of the time. This election cycle there is an obvious media bias towards Hillary, even though Trump receives so much of the hyped attention. It is likely that on a basic human level Trump leaves a wake of insults everywhere he goes, and not many are spared. Journalists are also human and feel the sting. He even insults his base with his rhetoric which has left many in total shock and awe.

    From a reporting standpoint it seems simple enough to me. Page 2 and 3, of Section A is split down the middle between both canidates. Keep us up to date equally on both for the entire election year. Create a destination page as opposed to articles sprinkled haphazardly which are often reactionary. Fact checking is not difficult either. I’ve often wondered why it’s become such a monumental task. It is what we, as consumers of the mass media, have always expected. It’s what we deserve: just the facts. And as much of the truth that’s possibe to verify. Most of us can think for ourselves.

    But even as I write that we can think for ourselves. I find it laughable that we won’t always vote in our best interests. As Trump argues that it’s Hillary’s fault for not amending tax codes that benefit the wealthier percentage of our population, neither has he lamented these inequalities, and even boasts of taking advantage of the tax code! It really isn’t Trump’s or Hillary’s fault. We, as voters, also share the blame. We elect officials repetedly who are disconnected or easily swayed, sometimes to chicken to take a stand, or are self-protective when taking a stand because they can be rewarded with losing their seat in the next election cycle.

    We often vote against our economic interests as middle class Americans anyway. Then we complain no one is good enough and pout like a child- refusing to vote at all. And we forget, continuously, in our cynicism, that the President is only one of so many Americans in the various branches of our government. That these government workers need a reliable leader. That the people who are working despite the president at hand get it done for us every day. They are the real glue that holds the country together. We owe it to each other to vote. And we certainly owe it to them.

    Maybe, covering those at the front lines, might be helpful to the general public as well. Knowledge is power. But repetitive information is just that. Stagnant.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 10/20/2016 - 09:41 am.

      Thank you for clarity.

      I very much appreciate your academic foundation for owning one’s bias. I wonder these days how typical journalists recognize such bias, let alone own it. When opinion becomes news…or when congenital bias becomes old news?

  9. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 10/18/2016 - 10:38 am.

    Mr Lambert is proving the bias

    Over 90% of those in mainstream media are card carrying Democrats. Why is this focus on Trump and the fact checking when no politician is 100% correct. There is zero mention of the collusion that HRC and her campaign has with all the news outlets to help affect the election, including ones he praises in this piece. Yes, Trump makes some pretty bad statements – to put mildly. But NBC had the latest information long before when they released it.
    What these experts don’t realize is that much of the electorate is tired of the same old tired Democrat pandering. It’s not the words Trump uses, but the anger at the lack of transparency and lack of trust in our government as it currently is made up with…both sides of the aisle. This group is the energized voters and they are tired of being insulted by the media, which certainly has a bias.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/19/2016 - 07:00 am.

      Citation needed

      “Over 90% of those in mainstream media are card carrying Democrats.”

      Now THERE’S a claim that requires supporting evidence.

      Please provide citations to support your statement.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/19/2016 - 09:03 pm.

        Will this do?

        As the Center for Public Integrity revealed this week, a whopping 96 percent of the nearly $400,000 in presidential campaign donations from “people identified in federal campaign finance filings as journalists, reporters, news editors, or television news anchors — as well as other donors known to be working in journalism” has gone to Hillary Clinton.

        Read more at:

        • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/20/2016 - 12:21 pm.


          The claim was “Over 90% of those in mainstream media are card carrying Democrats.”

          Proving that requires some fairly specific identifiers and numerical calculations. None of which exist in the cite you provided.

          Of course, because of what would be required to actually prove the original claim, it’s probably not provable when you get right down to it.

          • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/20/2016 - 07:42 pm.

            Thank you

            It will never be “provable” to deny that what the author said was untrue, either. The figure is most likely around 80-85% but why quibble? Perhaps we could ask the entire MinnPost staff the party they identify with (not their gender) for a sample.

            • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 10/21/2016 - 07:02 am.

              The point is . . . .

              to draw attention to and challenge truthiness when it occurs so as to help to keep it from becoming entrenched as apparent “fact”.

              • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 10/23/2016 - 11:03 am.

                The broader point

                Is that the proportion of grunts in the establishment media who identify as Democrats (“card-carrying” – really?) is irrelevant to the role the media play. The role of the establishment media has been to preserve elite prerogatives, not to effectuate the conventional political preferences of their employees. The methods the media have used to do this since the establishment retrenchment in the late 1960’s – maintaining the Republican-Democratic kabuki as the only game in town; keeping the citizenry ignorant, distracted and passive; and vigilantly keeping the only cogent establishment critique — from the left – out of the public realm; have created the base that Trump has captured. Without this systematic media effort, Trump could never have become a “legitimate” candidate.

                Very recently, the media have realized that Trump is too much of a threat to the establishment – not because he would do anything to shift economic or political power in a democratic direction, but because he would be unstable and unpredictable – and so they have mounted a rearguard action in Clinton’s behalf. There is no doubt that she is the establishment’s preferred candidate. But this rearguard action hasn’t consisted of tipping the scales in Clinton’s direction, it has consisted of tipping the scales less in Trump’s direction than they spent the previous year doing.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/19/2016 - 02:05 pm.

      Thanks for the laugh

      Unfiltered (and free advertisement for) Trump for the entire primary season and a vast majority of the general election season would say otherwise. That is, it’s less likely that the media, a whole, are card carrying ANYTHING. Instead, they’ve traded their journalistic ethics for ratings. And now, JUST now, are they starting to ask whether they’re doing anything better than peddling the Enquirer. By the way, Minnpost isn’t immune. Sadly, journalistic ethics aren’t the standard any more.

  10. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 10/18/2016 - 12:18 pm.

    Post election

    A big post election question mark is what does the Donald do next?

    The folks who book high end vacations at exclusive resorts are not on the Trump train: women in general and specifically, educated men and women.

    The same could be said for those looking for high end condos in downtown landmark buildings.

    And premium office space in those same buildings.

    There may be a real backlash against Trump by people who just don’t want any association with him after the 2016 election fiasco. What successful 35 year old women would like to have Trump Tower as her address?

    That leaves the Trump ditto heads as his remaining best constituency to extract money from. Assuming he has about run his string out on schools to be Donald, clothes, steaks, etc… We get to the alleged, potential Trump network as his last and best hope. Fail that and we finally get to see him fade into the dust as more bankruptcies pile up: he has destroyed his brand and alienated his best customers.

  11. Submitted by Bart Bevins on 10/18/2016 - 07:35 pm.

    Objectivity and reporting

    So what are journalists taught to do when reporting? I could imagine the profession is in for another round of discussion about that. It might help to let the public in – least to watch.

    What does Mr. Trump do post defeat – let’s imagine? He doesn’t strike me as the kind of personality that just goes away?

    What do his supporters do? And by the way are the states where these disconnected white guys doing anything to assist them? Are they just sitting on their hands?

    What does President Clinton do – let’s imagine? Apparently nothing with the Supreme Court if Sen. McCaine has his way. How well do you thing the court systems will be working with 5 or 6 Supremes by the end of 4 years, plus a slew of lower court vacancies?

    Will the parties ever recover? Are we just going to leave them to the mercies of their “activitists” and/or officials? And don’t these people have real lives to live? There should be some kind of recovery program for them.

    The questions are endless.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/19/2016 - 09:30 am.

    My experience…

    I’ve been watching this stuff for decades now and I’ve never seen a truly productive attempt by the media to examine itself. Typically they raise a question only to make excuses for the status quo and then move on without changing anything. Media introspection rarely if ever produces more than a self serving illusion of attempted insight and discipline. If you want real media analysis you have to look elsewhere. I would expect nothing different after this election. Does anyone really think this is the first and only election the media has helped mess up or that the media’s done something different this time than its done before when it’s helped mess stuff up? Seriously. All we can do is produce the same list of usual suspects from the pretense of “balance” to elite subservience and then step back and watch the media continue on it’s merry way as if they’ve given themselves a good talking to.

    If I had to pick one big failure in this election cycle it was the fact the media by and large ignored Sanders campaign and ruled it out as any kind of real alternative. All the other cards fall into place one that decision is made. We can unpack the reasons that the media was literally unable to ignore Trump the same way, like a moth to a flame… but we’ve seen all this before and the we can expect to see it again.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/20/2016 - 08:23 am.

    I think it will be interesting…

    To see what happens when Trump loses the election. Will the media drop him like a bad habit (which is what they should do) or will they keep him in the limelight because of his outrageous accusations. Will he hit the talk show circuit or will hosts with integrity treat him like the toxic personality he is and move on?

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