Media coverage of the 2016 American presidential campaign has become so terrible that even tv “news” people are starting to question themselves. They worry that the relentless pursuit of ratings has led them to abandon journalistic principle, and maybe even enabled one of the worst nominees ever emitted by a modern political party. Journalists from other media are chiming in with criticism and concern.
(Has tv “news” coverage improved over the intervening six months? The many ways one can answer “heck no” are best left as an exercise for the reader.)
Now it’s mid-September, the presidential race is in overdrive, and once again media types seem to have realized that tv “news” coverage is abominable. Maybe this is becoming a regular thing now, a cyclical breast-beating without a shred of meaningful action.
Why this current cycle of self-recrimination? Perhaps it was the release of this Gallup poll, showing American trust in journalists to have dropped to the “lowest level in Gallup polling history”.
Note that 8 point drop just over the past election year.
It’s more likely that this week’s round of public flagellation responds to two other triggering incidents, Matt Lauer‘s recent interviews with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and Friday’s semi-birther press conference. In both cases tv “news” critters shamelessly admired Trump, or just gave him a free pass.
As Greg Sargent delightfully put it,
Greg Sargent: “Donald Trump once again urinates on the cable nets, and once again they hold out cups to catch the precious fluids.”
One Washington Post columnist called out the tv networks., this time in response to that especially idiotic Trump press conference. “Donald Trump said ‘Jump,’ and TV news said ‘How high?'” Margaret Sullivan goes on to cite Dan Gillmor, who
on Twitter called this episode “universal sewer dwelling” for cable news. By phone afterward, he said that “no journalist with a shred of integrity would have covered it.”
Saying the press got played, he said, is an understatement.
Chris Cillizza offers similar broodings:
It was a low moment for politics and political coverage. A nothing-burger filled with falsehoods covered as though it was the Super Bowl. But for Trump, it might have been his crowning achievement…
One observer thinks Trump rickrolled the media. Even some tv “news” veterans are expressing embarrassment and horror.
“We got played again,” CNN’s John King said on the air…
“CNN and others were pulled into the whole three-ring circus — I’ve never seen anything as crass and disingenuous,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief…
Not everyone’s on board. One CNN minion insists that the network didn’t deliberately cover Trump more than any other candidate, which does raise the question of just how much programming they do by accident. “Whoops, forgot to cover Bernie Sanders!” “Huh, how did we ever manage to whip the public into a frenzy over a nonexistent crime wave?” “Gosh, we just keep slipping into celebrity infotainment. However does that happen?”
So what will happen next? Will CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and friends continue along their well-plowed furrow, or has this week popped the bubble, as we passed what Cillizza dubbed “peak Trump”? Sullivan, a New York Times veteran, hopes for the latter, and uses her Washington Post perch to call for a change:
With public trust in the media at an abysmal low, it’s time — long past time — for TV news outlets to stop playing the stooge for Trump…
Even if the turning point comes far too late, when billions of dollars of free media have promoted a candidacy like never before, it must come now.
Such a transformation is conceivable. Too many professional identities – or, if you like, too many egos – have been trampled. It must grate for journalists who see Edward R. Murrow as a hero to consider themselves now in their Trump-slathering mode. Perhaps, too, at some point that plummeting public faith in tv “news” will translate into fewer eyeballs glued to the fearscreen.
On the other hand, it’s less than two months until the election. This is prime time for tv enterprises to soak up ad revenue and internet eyeballs. After November 8, who will remember these acts of shame? Public attention will move on. Perhaps the networks can come up with some spectacular forms of self-analysis, or at least new epics of distraction, to further bury 2016’s shame. In the meantime, they’ve got their cherished and well practiced horse race.
There are other reasons for tv “news” outfits to stay the course. If you return to that Gallup poll, you can see that there’s a clear difference in trust by age group:
We know that tv “news” audiences tend to be senior citizens, not the middle aged nor the young:
More than one half of tv “news” audience is over 54. So while the under-50 or under-54 crowd is especially distrustful, the over-50s retain some extra measure of faith. The core audience isn’t as unhappy as the total population. (Interestingly, the age of journalists is also rising, hitting a median age of 47 a couple of years ago. So there might be some additional identification between content producers and consumers.)
Gallup also points out a massive disparity between political parties:
The Republicans really, really hate the media, while the Democrats are nowhere near that mindset. Just over half of that population keeps the tv “news” faith. Most reporters don’t identify as Democrats, but a not inconsiderable 28.1% did in this study, as compared with only 7.1% proclaiming themselves of the GOP. So there might be a degree of newsroom sympathy with that tv audience, perhaps. That’s important for left-leaning MSNBC, of course, and perhaps for reporters at large.
Moreover, the tv “news” enterprises are giant entities that cannot turn on a dime. They are largely creatures of inertia. Recall that CNN regularly updates a Fear and Greed Index, that its leading reporters can’t distinguish between Edward Snowden and Edward Scissorhands, and also ask us to consider supernatural intervention in the acts of airlines. Remember than all of the tv networks massively overstate the reality of crime, and also did a great job of providing Trump free advertising. Remember that CBS’s CEO openly claimed that Trump was bad for America, but great for his network’s bottom line:
Speaking about the expected flood of campaign advertising dollars, which he described as “phenomenal,” Moonves said that he is glad to have so many Republicans competing for the nomination.
“The more they spend, the better it is for us and: Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” Moonves said. “And, you know, this is fun, watching this, let them spend money on us, and we love having them in there. We’re looking forward to a very exciting political year in ’16.”
Consider, for example, what headlines CNN.com published this morning:
Remember that that’s the mainstream, less ideological cable outfit. Compare with Fox:
Which is actually pretty similar.
Does that kind of gleeful, Gothic fear-mongering look like it comes from organizations capable of sober self-reflection, and costly transformation for the public good?
My previous posts on the horror of tv “news” can be found here.