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Report on 2016 presidential election details how the media got played

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/Jim Urquhart
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received coverage that was overwhelmingly negative in tone and extremely light on policy.

Well, this isn’t flattering is it?

Harvard’s Shorenstein Center (on Media, Politics and Public Policy) has ​released its final report ​on the performance of the country’s major news organizations during the marathon and, I dare say, dispiriting 2016 presidential campaign. Authored by Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press and based on an analysis of news reports by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, the ​Los Angeles​ Times, NBC, ​The New York​ Times, ​USA Today, ​The Wall Street​ Journal, and ​The Washington Post, the summation reads like an indictment for mass negligence, of the blinkered herd variety.

Permit me to share and comment on several of the report’s key findings/assertions.

… both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received coverage that was overwhelmingly negative in tone and extremely light on policy.

This much everyone knows.

 The study found that, on topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that political reporters made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign.”

How often did you hear the phrase, “The two most unpopular candidates ever to run … ” without any attached attempt to ascertain the reality of the underlying reasons why?

… over the full course of the election, it was Clinton, not Trump, who was more often the target of negative coverage. Overall, the coverage of her candidacy was 62 percent negative to 38 percent positive, while his coverage was 56 percent negative to 44 percent positive. 

That, I guess, is what you call providing your audience with “balance.”

“… [In terms of] the tone of the nominees’ coverage on non-horserace topics, those that bear some relationship to the question of their fitness for office—their policy positions, personal qualities, leadership abilities, ethical standards, and the like. In Trump’s case, this coverage was 87 percent negative to 13 percent positive. Clinton’s ratio was identical — 87 percent negative to 13 percent positive.”

Which is to say,​ less than a dime’s worth of difference in the eyes of news consumers.

The real bias of the press is not that it’s liberal. Its bias is a decided preference for the negative. As scholar Michael Robinson noted, the news media seem to have taken some motherly advice and turned it upside down. “If you don’t have anything bad to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.” … It’s a version of politics that rewards a particular brand of politics. When everything and everybody is portrayed as deeply flawed, there’s no sense making distinctions on that score, which works to the advantage of those who are more deeply flawed. Civility and sound proposals are no longer the stuff of headlines, which instead give voice to those who are skilled in the art of destruction. The car wreck that was the 2016 election had many drivers. Journalists were not alone in the car, but their fingerprints were all over the wheel. 

Many have made the complaint about the inherent bias of journalism is not to what is liberal, but to what is negative. Within the press culture, especially during an intense campaign, there are few greater perils than the perception that you’ve been “played” by one camp or another. A story with a scent of positivity, such as analyzing a policy proposal and concluding that it has the discernable benefits the candidate claims, leaves the reporter and his or her employer with the appearance of being a toady, often a perception that needs to be corrected quickly with a negative story that restores something like equivalence. 

Trump’s dominant presence in the news stemmed from the fact that his words and actions were ideally suited to journalists’ story needs. The news is not about what’s ordinary or expected. It’s about what’s new and different, better yet when laced with conflict and outrage. Trump delivered that type of material by the cart load. Both nominees tweeted heavily during the campaign but journalists monitored his tweets more closely. Both nominees delivered speech after speech on the campaign trail but journalists followed his speeches more intently. Trump met journalists’ story needs as no other presidential nominee in modern times.

The “shiny object” metaphor is getting a serious workout these days. As in: “The media can’t resist chasing whatever shiny object Trump throws out [usually via Twitter].” The irony now, as during the campaign, is the inability of major, veteran press players to resist the impulse. As a fan and regular viewer of Bloomberg’s now-departed “With All Due Respect,” I lost track of the number of times Mark Halperin, provider of the show’s more establishment/status quo perspective and co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics, bemoaned “our” (meaning the press as a whole) inability to delve more deeply into policy issues … without ever actually doing it himself. As though he had no time, resources or choice in whether to compare and contrast Clinton and Trump positions on early childhood education, shoring up Social Security or fine-tuning Obamacare. As though the only path he could take was to devote yet another segment or entire hourlong show to pundit chatter on how the latest “trending” shiny object, poll or purported scandal was affecting the horserace. 

The horserace was the main focus of Clinton’s coverage, accounting for more than two-fifths of her coverage. Her policy positions received less attention than did Trump’s (9 percent versus 12 percent) and the coverage was less focused. Whereas his position on immigration received considerable attention, she did not have a single policy issue that accounted for more than 1 percent of her coverage. If she had a policy agenda, it was not apparent in the news. Her lengthy record of public service also received scant attention. 

In effect, she appeared to have no economic proposals​ or message for the country’s “left behind” blue collar workers.

To journalists, the real issues of presidential politics are not the candidates’ policy commitments but instead the controversies that ensnare them. The 2016 campaign fit the pattern to a tee. Everything from Clinton’s emails to Trump’s taxes was grist for the media mill.

More to the point, the instinct for equivalence requires applying essentially the same weight of negative coverage to each candidate’s controversies, leaving the question of the underlying merit for some other place or time.

Like Trump, Clinton’s coverage during the general election was unfavorable in all the news outlets in our study. But the level of negativity varied more widely in her case. In the Los Angeles Times, she came close to ending up in positive territory. The breakdown was 53 percent negative to 47 percent positive. In all other outlets, negative coverage outpaced positive coverage by more than 60-40. Fox News was on the high end, allocating its coverage 81 percent negative to 19 percent positive. The other outlier was The Washington Post where her coverage was 77 percent negative to 23 percent positive.

Coverage by the LA Times is interesting if you’re one who believes news organizations tailor coverage to appeal to their primary audience. In a state where Clinton was projected to (and did) win by a 2-to-1 marginit would seem to make common business sense to dial back on the negative and dial up the positive. I’m not saying they did, just that any fool could see how it would make sense on the bottom line.

On the other hand, Clinton’s controversies got more attention than Trump’s (19 percent versus 15 percent) and were more focused. Trump wallowed in a cascade of separate controversies. Clinton’s badgering had a laser-like focus. She was alleged to be scandal-prone. Clinton’s alleged scandals accounted for 16 percent of her coverage — four times the amount of press attention paid to Trump’s treatment of women and sixteen times the amount of news coverage given to Clinton’s most heavily covered policy position.

Here may be the nut of Clinton’s dilemma. She could not shake the perception of a candidate overwhelming defined by a series of scandals, all, judging by the intensity of press coverage, equal to or worse than anything burbling up around Trump.

Once a practice gets embedded, it’s hard to root out. The incentives in journalism today, everything from getting a story to go viral to acquiring a reputation as a hard-hitting reporter, encourage journalists to engage in criticism and attack. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson put it, journalists have become conditioned to “find the wart [and] make it stand for the whole,” Hyper-criticism has now reached a point where many reporters have difficulty imagining what a constructive form of journalism would look like. As a veteran journalist said recently, “The biggest change I have seen in our business over the last 40 years has been that journalism has slid from skepticism, which should be our natural state, but we have slipped from there toward cynicism. It’s gotten to the point where the toughest story for a … reporter to write about a politician is a positive story.”

There are no “atta boys” and from colleagues and editors for a story that applies a positive glow to candidate or elected official, certainly not in the midst of a campaign. But there is career safety in consistently portraying all such people as equal scoundrels.

“​An irony of the press’s critical tendency is that it helps the right wing. Although conservatives claim that the press has a liberal bias, the media’s persistent criticism of government reinforces the right wing’s anti-government message. For years on end, journalists have told news audiences that political leaders are not to be trusted and that government is inept. And when journalists turn their eye to society, they highlight the problems and not the success stories. The news creates a seedbed of public anger, misperception, and anxiety — sitting there waiting to be tapped by those who have a stake in directing the public’s wrath at government.”

I could be wrong — and often am — but I think that’s pretty close to the definition of “getting played.”

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 12/14/2016 - 08:50 am.

    Blaming the media is delicious irony

    The New York Times, USA Today and Washington Post had teams of reporters assigned to dig up negative aspects of Trump’s life and they did. NBC veteran reporter Andrea Mitchell told viewers one evening Donald Trump was “exploiting” Clinton’s email situation. I certainly hope he would. ABC colleague Tom Llamas invariably told nightly newscast viewers what Trump “did not say” and then included previous comments to portray the Republican in a negative way. The examples can go on and on.

    The Trump election machine rolled over the establishment media and left it beaten and bloodied in the gutter. And those folks still cannot accept the fact they were embarrassed and humiliated by a TV huckster.

    The establishment media did everything it could to support Hillary Clinton. That Democrats wind up blaming the media for her loss is delicious irony.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/14/2016 - 04:38 pm.

      “Everything it could”

      If the “establishment media” really did “everything it could” to elect Hillary Clinton, why was their overall coverage of her more negative than its coverage of Trump?

  2. Submitted by Tom Regnier on 12/14/2016 - 09:23 am.

    Media got played?

    The media never learns. They are still being played…big time.

  3. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 12/15/2016 - 04:50 pm.


    Lots to chew on here, but my initial question is, why wasn’t NPR included in the news organizations studied. It’s one of my primary daily sources, and I’m curious whether it fared as well or badly as the rest.

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