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The best (and worst) of the media in 2016

Donald Trump showing off the size of his hands as Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich during the Detroit debate.

Whatever the beat, any relevant year-end list must offer (or at least attempt to offer) a balance between examples of glory and the inglorious. In the sprawling world of media — which now runs the gamut from apps helping to locate the hottie of your dreams to, well, electing the next President of the United States — the tendency is to overweight examples in favor of moments that carry more existential weight.

That said, the list of media failures over the long, tragic-comic run of 2016 could (and will) fill books. It was ugly. Real ugly. Tripping over your own feet and planting yourself face-first in the hog pen ugly. So to begin with the bad news first and condense the blotter of offenses to a representative few, here is …


Donald Trump receives (at least) $5 billion in free advertising from American cable networks
Entire campaign rallies were broadcast coast-to-coast at no charge to the candidate, who ended up spending only $74 million on advertising, a third of what Hillary Clinton spent. In a related and unprecedented move, the cable world was so insatiably hungry for anything he might say that Trump was permitted to phone in to “the shows” as he referred to them rather than endure the inconvenience of presenting himself in person. ​Ratings and profits spiked ​for all who obliged.

Trump’s qualifications for office v. Clinton’s e-mails. Same difference 
To “balance” coverage, the hours of airtime and volumes of print devoted to Trump’s continuous stream of fallacies, out-right lies and disgraceful personal behavior were countered with a nearly equal volume of reporting on every glint of news related to Clinton’s e-mails — where no significant breach of security was ever found. Or at least so said the FBI Director.

The Fox News Republican candidate debate in Detroit, which spent more time discussing the size of Donald Trump’s hands than the water crisis in Flint, 70 miles away
The 21 Republican debates and forums were notable for a consistent focus on how the candidates would respond to terrorism. Responses were predictable. But at the gathering in Detroit only one question was asked about Flint’s water crisis (a rich example of government ineptitude and indifference on several levels). After one response from one candidate, the moderators moved on.

Matt Lauer interviews Trump and Clinton at the “Commander-in-Chief Forum”
Lauer, NBC’s highest paid on-air personality, and host of “The Today Show,” which regularly featured updates on developments on “The Apprentice,” Trump’s show (which airs on NBC), avoided challenging the candidate on a half dozen fact-challenged assertions, but grilled Clinton again on her e-mails, then admonished her to be brief in response to an audience question on national security. 

CNN hires a disgraced Trump campaign manager as an on-air contributor
Corey Lewandowski, relieved of his duties after an incident where he yanked a female reporter’s arm, was brought on by CNN to offer — insights, apparently — to better inform the viewing public about his former boss. Never mind that he has a non-disclosure agreement with Trump. Sample insight, on a Trump trade speech: “This is Mr. Trump’s best speech of the presidential cycle. This is right on message, his core message of putting Americans first. This is about bringing jobs back to America.”

The Associated Press tweet reporting, “More than half those who met Clinton as Cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation.” The story goes viral 
Missing from this Twitter alert was the not-insignificant detail that those who contributed were more than half of a very small number of private individuals, less than 20 by most accounts, listed in incomplete State Department records. But the story provides a negative counterweight to Trump’s missteps.

Roger Ailes, architect of Fox News, is sued for sexual harassment
Minnesota native Gretchen Carlson instigated a flood of disclosures about the cloddish behavior of Ailes and the network’s internal culture. When Ailes “steps down,” he is rewarded with a $40 million golden parachute and shifts over to advising Trump.

Nate Silver and pretty much every other science-driven prognosticator blows it
The guru of FiveThirtyEight, regarded as an infallible seer after his performance in 2012, predicted, on Nov. 8, that Hillary Clinton had a 71 percent chance of victory. He was not alone. Of analysts/polls of note, only the heretofore obscure​ USC/Los Angeles Times poll​ got the call right.

With the financial assistance of Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan wins a defamation lawsuit against Gawker Media, which forces the site to sell off and shut down
Gawker’s primary site wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea; it walked a fine edge between relevant snark and ad hominem attack. But the spectacle of Thiel, with his own personal grudge against Gawker big-footing the case and buying a conviction in a squalid matter involving a collection of hucksters was, um, ​disquieting.

“Fake news” floods Facebook and other social media
Unchecked by the world’s largest social media platform — with north of 1.8 billion users — was a steady stream of completely made-up news stories posted on sites with legitimate sounding names like and The vast majority were targeted at Trump supporters who shared them in volumes that were greater than actual news stories. Facebook initially called the idea it played any role in the election outcome as “crazy,” but then instituted new protocols to flag such content.


“O.J.: Made in America”
The word “epic” is constantly overused. But here it truly applies. No documentary I can remember ever collated so broad a landscape of cultural phobia, misplaced adulation and rage. Over nearly eight hours, viewers felt not just the weight of the so-called “Trial of the Century” but the essential qualities of American class discontent. The connection to the events of Nov. 8 was powerful and vivid.

David Fahrenthold’s stories in The Washington Post
While television reporters were embarrassing themselves in their attempt to cover the Trump phenomenon, Fahrenthold ignored the shiny object/story-of-the-hour and concentrated his efforts on reporting the candidate’s suspiciously murky financial history, his charitable dealings in particular. He’ll be first in line for a Pulitzer next year.

Drew Magary’s GQ rant
The Minnesota native and Deadspin writer got off ​one of the most cathartic and profane rants of the political season​. The few Trump supporters who read it were no doubt certain the guy was off his meds. Others laughed until they cried, and then exhaled deeply. If the established press is going to [bleep] up as badly as it did, let’s have more of this in primetime. Honorable mention:​ Charles P. Pierce at Esquire​.

Kurt Eichenwald at Newsweek
In much the same vein as Fahrenthold (with a touch of Magary), Eichenwald, author of a classic book on Enron, “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” pounded on ​Trump’s various financial conflicts of interest​. An intense and volatile character in the best of times, Eichenwald is not a guy you want to get into ​a Twitter brawl ​with. 

“Making a Murderer”
An end-of-2015 event that folded over into 2016. The tale of two low-income socially-snubbed men, one a mentally challenged teenager, convicted of a motivation-free, largely evidence-free murder by Wisconsin authorities who appeared more intent on closing a case or settling long running grudges than discerning the truth was riveting from start to finish. By late 2016, the teenager in question had been granted his release, though he remained in custody.

“I Spent 5 Years With Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans. Here’s What They Won’t Tell You,” by Arlie Russell Hochschild
A deeply reported piece​ published in Mother Jones on a subset of people, in this instance living in rural Louisiana, constantly described as “Trump’s base.” Why that might not be entirely true, Hochschild’s ability to ingratiate herself with these people, mostly white and out on the desperate fringes, induced feelings of both pity and high alarm.

Dogged by controversy while in production for both its enormous cost to HBO and its subject matter (a robot amusement park — who cares?), “Westworld” became not only a huge hit but a surprisingly intelligent commentary on consciousness, self-awareness and the criteria for being alive.

“The Night Of”
Another HBO series, this one scripted by the gifted novelist Richard Price, a man with an acute ear for the vernacular and cadence of cops and the subterranean characters they hunt and whose manner they so often assimilate. It turned out to be a fine mystery with excellent performances by John Turturro as the unlikely defense attorney, Jeannie Berlin as the prosecutor, and Michael K. Williams (“Omar” from “The Wire”).  

“The People Vs. O.J. Simpson”
While not in the same league in terms of conscience-rattling relevance as “OJ: Made in America,” this FX mini-series, driven by a superb, multi-leveled performance by Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, struck most of the same notes and proved again that television is an arguably better venue for storytelling than feature films. 

Charlie Sykes’ conscience
A certain body of thought sees in Trump’s victory the ultimate flowering of a generation of conservative talk radio. But over in Milwaukee, radio talker Charlie Sykes signed off the air after 25 lucrative, influential years by ​lamenting the fact that too many his listeners no longer cared​ what was verifiably true, and accepting some of the blame for his audience’s preferred ignorance of fact.

Other than all that it was just your average year. 2017 has to be uphill, right? Right?

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/23/2016 - 12:58 pm.


    “2017 has to be uphill, right? Right?”

    I’m sorry, but no.

    It’s just beginning.

    I’m afraid the worst is yet to come.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 12/23/2016 - 04:02 pm.

    Brian needs to sharpen his analytical skills

    Brian writes only the, ” obscure​ USC/Los Angeles Times poll​ got the call right.” Wrong. That “obscure poll” was not even close. It had The Donald winning the popular vote 46.8 to 43.6 percent. Reality is Clinton won the popular vote 48 to 46 percent. Bloomberg had her winning by three percent as did Reuters. Rasmussen said she would have two percent more votes, which she did. Interestingly, the Real Clear Politics average total was 2.1 in favor of Clinton, which is pretty darn close.

    Contrary to popular thought, opinion polls actually called this election very well as far as total voting is concerned. Unfortunately for them and Hillary, the election is decided by electoral votes, in case anyone has not heard.

    • Submitted by Rick Prescott on 12/24/2016 - 12:31 pm.

      538 did much better than most people think.

      It’s also worth nothing that, several weeks before the election, the staff of 538 (Nate Silver’s group) started recognizing the possibility of a split between the electoral and popular votes, ultimately giving Trump roughly the same chance of winning the electoral college as the Cubs had of winning the World Series while down three games to one.

      Having read that suggestion on their site, when the Cubs eventually won in seven games, a chill went down my spine. And setting aside the various probabilities given on their tote board (which many people misunderstood), their analysis was deep and ultimately included, as one of four possible scenarios, the exact scenario which happened.

      Turning to the larger subject of the post, I can’t remember the last time I saw TV as compelling as the OJ documentary and “Making a Murderer.” Unfortunately, both of those suggest that the way ahead for our country is considerably more difficult than we might like to imagine.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/27/2016 - 12:43 pm.

      Agree completely

      The bit on 538 and the LA Times poll only shows Brian’s complete lack of understanding of polling. There was a fair amount of that this year, and that (including Brian’s column here) is what should be written up as poor journalism.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/02/2017 - 06:19 pm.

        So all those “news” articles that I was reading

        With the word “landslide” following Clinton during the last month of the campaign were just Brian’s complete lack of understanding?

        Poor journalism is the continued printing of “what will happen under Trump?” as news. News is something that has actually happened. What happened is then reported. Analysis, possible reasons for events, what happens next?, etc. are not news and I’m not sure that I would even call it journalism. Perhaps it could be called “Opinion”.

  3. Submitted by John Edwards on 12/24/2016 - 11:10 am.

    A better Analysis

    The worst of the media in 2017 was clearly the entire mainstream media, who missed entirely
    the Donald Trump phenomenon. A rank outsider, Trump spent only a third of what Barack Obama did in 2012 and half of what Hillary Clinton spent. He piled up 306 electoral and 46 percent of the popular vote—dwarfing Bill Clinton’s 43 percent in 1992. Fifty-two percent of the electorate voted against Hillary Clinton and the continuation of Obama’s unpopular policies.

    Trump’s “free media” that Brian mentioned consisted of mostly virulent personal attacks against him—some of it on his physical appearance—by CNN, MSNBC and to a lesser degree NBC, ABC, PBS, and CBS in both morning shows and evening news. One only has to view the numerous Internet sites that captured the election-night glumness of George Stephanopoulos (a former Clinton political operative), Scott Pelley, Martha Raddatz, Charlie Rose, Gayle King and countless others to know which candidate they preferred. My personal favorite was the reaction of the women of The View, who had attacked Trump relentlessly. According to an Oct. 17 Public Integrity report, 96 percent of the media donated to Clinton. The Star Tribune disgracefully discarded journalistic ethics by letting left-wing cartoonist Gary Trudeau hatefully attack Trump regularly on the previously politics-free Sunday comics page. The New York Times (in Jim Rutenberg’s Aug. 8 column) declared it was dropping any pretext of journalistic objectivity to slant the news in order to defeat Trump. Politico reported Oct. 25 that only six newspapers in the country endorsed Trump.

    The mainstream media bias against Trump was horrific by any standard, contrary to Brian’s free media assertion.

    The best media of the year certainly has to be the influential fake news site that, according to Brian, must have been what swung the election despite all the aforementioned the anti-Trump reporting.

    In my opinion, Trump won simply because every time protest groups stopped traffic preventing workers from getting to their jobs or back to their families, he gained a percentage point.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/26/2016 - 01:54 pm.

      You’ve cited everything these folks would like us to forget

      ..Or better yet, deny in the first place.

      The role of the media as a whole in this election was harmful to the national interest. And NO, it’s not because they didn’t start villifying Trump early enough, and not because they didn’t ridicule and excoriate all the non-Clinton voters with enough vehemence, either. They certainly bet the farm on these tactics, as did the Clinton campaign.

      Rather, they completely abdicated their role of even-handedly and dispassionately informing the public – and instead, pursued every hair-raising, titillating entertainment they could find in the campaign. This hurts the country.

      It also denied all those “deplorables” the basic human respect they deserve, and foreclosed any sense of understanding and compassion for them. So they stopped listening. All the parties named above didn’t notice, with so much wind in their sail.

      I can see folks like Brian here moaning long into the future about Comey, the Russians, fake news, etc. etc. as their takeaway from this election – certainly not that they had a poor candidate, and the media simply failed in their responsibilities. THAT would be too painful.

      • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/26/2016 - 05:02 pm.


        And, the next time reporters moan, they will lead with a picture of Trump (see above) or whatever sells best.

        The error is to expect the press to be any different.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/27/2016 - 12:46 pm.


        There was plenty about Clinton being a poor candidate. The real failure was the media’s failure to expose what a fraudulent hypocrite her primary opponent was. The voters at least figured that one out.

        • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/28/2016 - 08:10 am.

          No, Clinton World (heavily populated with media types)

          …has said almost nothing about their own failures, including, of course, their candidate’s serious shortcomings. Their rants cycle through the vast right wing conspiracy, misogyny, Clinton Derangement Syndrome, the Russians, the FBI, fake news, and I almost forgot: your favorite, Bernie Sanders. Sorry I left him out, but with so many excuses afloat, it’s hard to keep them all straight.

          It goes without saying that Clinton World regards the issues presented by the email matter as without merit, doggedly insisting it was about national security alone, since admitting that it highlighted her lack of integrity and manifest deceptions would shine too bright a light.

          Likewise the Clinton’s vast wealth, accumulated entirely through peddling influence, but which left them with a thorough conviction of their entitlement, was pretty much off-limits.

          They have looked everywhere to explain why Hillary got cheated out of “Hillary’s Turn” – everywhere except the mirror, everywhere except their candidate.

          The one exception to all this avoidance might be Obama himself, who now admits the Democrats ran the wrong candidate – it should have been HIM, and he would have certainly won the farce, in his mind.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/28/2016 - 11:33 am.

            Same old

            Again, we heard plenty about that. But nothing about Sanders’ wealth (3 houses!) or his lack of integrity. Like Trump, the guy wouldn’t even release his tax returns.

    • Submitted by Ed Day on 01/02/2017 - 08:51 am.

      Last sentence is absolutely right

      Couldn’t agree more with John’s final point. Though Trump obviously did not gain an entire percentage point each time, coverage of these events have annoyed and motivated a segment of his supporters for years–something I noticed brewing even on a big college campus.

      Also, seemingly half of Clinton’s ads consisted solely of snippets Trump making politically incorrect statements — aka, speaking his mind and telling it like it is — which probably worked in his favor since they were lifted from his campaign rallies.

      Don’t know if that qualifies as free media, since Clinton paid for them.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/26/2016 - 06:04 pm.

    2016 is not over yet !!

    Obama keeps getting smaller and smaller as his term comes to a close.

    His parting shot at Israel is – let’s be generous and call it merely unkind. He didn’t throw a shoe in Netanyahu’s direction, did he ??

    But when he claimed HE would have won the election, it leaves you wondering who he was insulting – Trump ?? Or Clinton ??

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 12/27/2016 - 06:30 am.

    What I don’t hear much is how

    Citizens United ruling, which was supposed to ruin Federal elections with the input of dark money, was debunked when Trump spent 500M and Hillary spent 1.2B…. Money spent was going to be the determining factor according to the main stream media…. Wrong again!!

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/28/2016 - 02:45 pm.

    Swing and a miss

    The biggest media fail of 2016 the failure to cover Bernie Sanders and his campaign. The media decided that he was a side show and that Clinton was the presumptive nominee and by doing so completely missed one of the most compelling and remarkable campaigns in US history. A Socialist (actually just a New Deal Democrat) openly runs and get 48% of the primary vote and most days republican candidates who hadn’t won a single state and had NO delegates got MORE coverage.

    This decision to ignore the only liberal candidate in the field with a huge following, compelling agenda, and popular support (no candidate in the field on either side had higher popularity ratings among voters) helped guarantee Clinton’s nomination and hence Trump’s election.

    Beyond ignoring Sanders the media also ruled out the only liberal and most workable policies that any candidate was presenting. Medicare for All, $15 minimum, massive infrastructure, investment, properly balanced trade deals, and affordable if not completely free college tuition are all perfectly doable and superior solutions that the media ruled out as unrealistic, because yeah, the media that reckoned Hillary would win the election had such a firm grip on reality compared to those of us foresaw her defeat.

    Any media critique that ignores this massive fail is simply not a serious effort.

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/28/2016 - 05:03 pm.


      Which underscores the fact that there were no strong presidential candidates on either side, making it anyone’s game, and making any outcome unsurprising, including a Trump win.

  7. Submitted by Solly Johnson on 12/28/2016 - 06:30 pm.


    Paul, once again an excellent post.
    I worked and lived abroad for several years, and now in retirement live abroad for much of the year. I voted for Sanders in the Democrats Abroad primary, which Sanders won with approximately 75% of the vote. When talking with several of my expat friends, the main point that consistently was mentioned about Sanders was his consistency in principles and his voting record throughout his lifetime compared to the large majority of politicians. Improving social programs and infrastructure, while reducing military spending were frequently cited, also.
    Foreigners with whom I conversed, of course, were concerned mainly about the foreign relations positions of the two presidential candidates. They felt that Clinton has taken an aggressive foreign policy stance in the Middle East and elsewhere and were very concerned that there would be even more military operations if she were elected. Because Trump had not held elected office, they did not know much about his foreign policy positions, but they liked his position of talking with Putin and trying to improve relations with Russia.
    One of the best points of living abroad is getting away from the U.S. media, both nationally and locally. If not for the local weather report, I would not turn on my television when I am back in Minnesota.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/29/2016 - 08:44 am.

    Fake news?

    “Again, we heard plenty about that. But nothing about Sanders’ wealth (3 houses!) or his lack of integrity. Like Trump, the guy wouldn’t even release his tax returns.”

    I don’t think reporting fake news about Sanders would have been helpful.

    One of the most disappointing features of the democratic primary battle was the intellectual dishonesty that materialized among Clinton supporters. Saddled with a candidates that is, was, and probably shall always be consumed by controversy (right and wrong), and severely distrusted the a clear majority of Americans, they tried desperately to manufacture controversies and mistrust around Sanders. The efforts were blatantly facile.

    It takes less than a minute to discover that Sanders ranked something like 21st among all the candidates in terms of wealth with an annual income of $200k derived entirely from his 401K and Senate salary while Clinton raked in $10 million just in speaking fees alone. Clinton’s least valuable home in Chappaqua NY is worth more than all three of Sander’s home combined.

    That “third” home sanders bought turned out to be a trade between family members, not the $600k misappropriation of campaign funds that Clinton supporters claimed it was.

    As for integrity, HRC has decades long track record of making false claims about everything from being “progressive” to Nancy Reagan’s courageous stand against the AIDs epidemic. Sanders on the hand has a rock solid record of saying the same things and voting the same way for decades.

    I don’t usually do this but I’ll post a few links here that refute these false claims about Sanders:

    Bernie and HRC’s comparative wealth:

    Their houses:

    That “third” house of Sanders’s:

    Note, these are not links to obscure websites or twitter accounts.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/29/2016 - 09:41 am.

    And another thing…

    While writing a previous comment I think I realized another huge media fail that has gone unrecognized.

    While the media did cover the “Bernie Bro” phenomena to some extent, they completely ignored the vitriol and duplicity with which Clinton supporters attacked Sanders’s supporters. This turned a typical primary argument about candidates into a existential rift within the party that contributed to Clinton’s defeat. Clinton supporters obviously felt that they were actually entitled to personally attack and insult Sanders’s supporters as misogynists, delusional, immature, etc. etc. Clinton people came out the gate insulting an entire generation of young women and male feminist supporters based on the pseudo-feminist assumption that NOTHING could be more feminist than voting for Hillary Clinton and that anyone who didn’t want to vote for Clinton was sexist, immature, and politically naive. While the debate raged in the comment sections, twitter feeds, and Facebook accounts, the media never covered this as an actual story.

    Now I’m not whining about the way I was treated, I’m an adult and I can handle it. My point is that ironically Clinton supporters were manifesting classic patriarchal “silencing” behavior that feminists started describing back in the late 70s.

    The effect of this silencing was to make any rational discussion of the candidates literally impossible. I personally was NEVER able to have a rational conversation about the differences between the two candidate and their strengths and weaknesses because I couldn’t get past their silencing attempts, I couldn’t get past the insults and condescension. Again, my point isn’t to complain about the way “we” were treated, the point is this is obviously no way to select a candidate that can win an election, and democrats need to learn that lesson.

    I worry that democrats and complacent liberals won’t learn that lesson because I see them attacking Keith Ellison and Tulsi Gabbard the same way and they continue to pretend they were right about Sanders’s. The media could be helpful if they actually covered this as a legitimate story.

    In some ways this reaction of complacent liberals, party elite, and rank and file democrats to the Sanders candidacy may have been the single greatest factor that put Trump into the White House, and the media completely missed it because they ignored Sanders and hence the debate surrounding him.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/29/2016 - 11:58 am.

    And about Nate Silver

    The polls were actually accurate, it was his analysis that was wrong, so let’s not pretend Nate’s the “science” guy in a field of magicians. The polls always showed a very tight if not statistical dead heat between Clinton and Trump, with Clinton averaging around 3% lead, and it turns out, she did get around 3% more votes than Trump. The problem was 538’s analysis that gave Clinton an electoral college firewall that obviously didn’t exist. From that perspective the best one could have said was that it could go either way and Clinton actually appeared to be in trouble.

    Science is just about poll numbers, it’s about making reliable observations, if you weren’t worried about Trump winning, you weren’t paying attention.

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