Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Sunday, July 16th, 2017.


Are Our News Media Learning?

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News Media, Trump Maladministration

A righteously frustrated Colbert King writes,

The vaudeville show that’s running at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t book itself into the White House. Nearly 63 million Americans sent that burlesque comedy with headliner Donald Trump to Washington. That 66 million other voters thought otherwise is beside the point. Trump didn’t anoint himself president. Millions put him in office.

What does that tell us about the country?

I would ask, what does that tell us about U.S. elections and how people make voting decisions? Many mistakes were made last election by both parties; little went according to plan. But I think a lot of the blame has to go to news media and how elections are covered.

The single biggest source of information most voters go by is cable and television news. The chart is from Pew Research Center, from February 2016.

Notice that only 2 percent of people get information from national newspapers; 1 percent actually check out the candidates’ websites.

If you check out the article, you see that older people in particular lean on cable and television news, whereas younger people lean more heavily on notoriously unreliable social media. Among millennials, 6 percent name “late night comedy” as a source, way ahead of any sort of newspaper, local or national.

But going back to cable and television news, what exactly did people learn about the candidates last year from those sources?

Recently Warren Olney wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Trump owed his election victory to the current head of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker.

Zucker helped create “The Apprentice” as a vehicle for Trump when he was head of NBC Entertainment, Olney wrote. And “As president and chief executive of CNN 10 years later, Zucker became the giver who kept on giving.”

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has described his contribution this way: “It was Zucker who gave Trump astonishing amounts of free exposure in the Republican presidential primary on the cable network, continually blasting out his speeches and rallies — often unfiltered and without critical fact-checking.”

During the election season, I saw entire Trump rallies carried live by CNN, interrupted only for mandatory commercials. Not only was there no critical fact-checking, there was no serious effort to provide context for viewers. Never raised, let alone answered, was the question: Why should a developer with a shaky reputation and no relevant experience be seriously considered for the most powerful job in the world?

It wasn’t just CNN, of course. I was never to frustrated with television news as I was on March 15, 2016, when three cable networks ignored a speech being given by Bernie Sanders in favor of covering Trump’s empty podium. Ryan Grim wrote at the time,

Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all declined to carry Sanders’ speech, instead offering punditry about the evening, with the chyrons promising, “AWAITING TRUMP” and “STANDING BY FOR TRUMP.”

Hillary Clinton last week got similarly dissed by the networks in favor of Trump.

Earlier Tuesday, The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported that the media have collectively given Trump some $2 billion worth of free air time. 

Thanks to Trump’s ability to drive ratings and generate controversy, as well as his unmatched accessibility — notably by phone — TV networks have covered the candidate nonstop since he entered the race last summer. Numerous rallies and press conferences have been aired live, while sexist and bigoted remarks typically result in a flurry of TV interviews. After canceling a rally Friday night, Trump dominated cable news by calling into CNN, MSNBC and Fox News for a total of 48 minutes in under an hour.

“Trump’s ability to drive ratings” is key here. He was entertaining. People tuned in to see what he was up to.

Colbert King is wondering why so many Americans couldn’t see his flaws:

Trump the candidate showed himself to be an ignorant, undisciplined, ranting bully who exaggerated and lied without shame. A man who wore a tough-guy masculinity but was actually a coward, who picked on women, demeaned minorities and was thoroughly lacking in human decency. …

… Trump’s ties and affinities to Russia were no secret, either.

Two months before Election Day, reports appeared in The Post, including in this column, that there was strong evidence that Trump’s businesses had received significant funding from Russian investors — thus adding to a growing sense that the Russians may have had their hooks in him and his associates.

Plus, there were the stories about how Trump stiffed his vendors, about how Trump apparently cheated on his taxes, about Trump’s old ties to the New York mob, about his “Trump University” being nothing but a scam, about his many business failures, etc.

But was any of that on cable or television news? The Washington Post and New York Times were both doing a dandy job of digging up the dirt on Trump’s past. But if you don’t read those newspapers — and clearly, most voters don’t — would you have known about those stories? Would you have even been dimly aware those stories were even out there somewhere? I don’t think so. The only dirt on Trump that gained any traction on cable or television news, as I remember, was the “grab ’em by the pussy” remark.

One of the things that must be done, before we go through another presidential election campaign, is to put pressure on television and cable news to present the candidates responsibly and honestly. We need massive media reform. We’ve needed massive media reform since the 1980s, at least. Some of us have been complaining about that for years. The Democrats, at least, ought to be pushing that agenda, because they’re the ones most hurt by the way politics is covered. But they don’t.

Social media, alas, is a cesspool of misinformation, and I’m not sure there’s much that can be done about that. Being able to ban or block fake news sites would help, but there’s a reluctance to do that for fear of shutting off legitimate news.

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