By Doug Porter
It’s mid-morning on November 8, 2016, and I have a solid gut feeling about how this election will turn out. Nobody will get everything they want, but the forces of light will stave off darkness, at least for another few years.
I am reminded of Unitarian reformer and abolitionist Theodore Parker’s quote, later modified by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
A Few Words About Our Sponsor
It’s been a great year for us at the San Diego Free Press. A complicated ballot and a sense of urgency fueled by the rise of Cheeto Jesus has more than quadrupled the traffic we’ve seen in past elections.
Progressive and grassroots groups have turned to us to help spread the word about the electoral issues they advocate for. And we did it for free, as volunteers whose mandate is to keep it honest about all.
We don’t do fundraising drives. We don’t sell our emailing list. And we certainly don’t share the bits of code left behind as people visit us. There is a donation button on our front page and enough people feel good about us to fund our modest expenses.
This isn’t a model that can be scaled up. But it does give us a seat at the table, both in terms of influence and future media models. Our brand–like it or not–, along with the fact we have done this for years on end will help to shape what lies ahead.
No Easy Answers
Before I launch into this essay, let me say there are many things the media did right over the past year.
Some of the things, like the expanded use of Fact Checking, were too little too late. We now live in a world where facts don’t matter to a significant portion of the population.
There were individual reporters, like David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post, who did an amazing job of digging for the truth. There were columnists who agonized over finding the words to explain the significance of this particular election.
I saw and appreciated the many local media efforts to explain a confusing array of ballot measures.
But let’s face it, the alternate reality inhabited by too many Americans wasn’t part of their audience.
A Day of Reckoning
False equivalency, faux outrage, and a lack of backbone are characterizations of how much of the traditional media have covered this election. Four reports published today attempt to analyze what went wrong.
The New York Times focused on the impending financial collapse of the traditional news media.
No doubt about it: Campaign 2016 has been a smash hit.
And to the news media have gone the spoils. With Mr. Trump providing must-see TV theatrics, cable news has drawn record audiences. Newspapers have reached online readership highs that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
On Wednesday comes the reckoning.
The election news bubble that’s about to pop has blocked from plain view the expanding financial sinkhole at the center of the paper-and-ink branch of the news industry, which has recently seen a print advertising plunge that was “much more precipitous, to be honest with you, than anybody expected a year or so ago,” as The Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerard Baker told me on Friday.
While the UT/LA Times/Tribune mediaplex has prevented a brutal downsizing by fending off Gannett’s advances, they are not immune to the fiscal realities of a 20th-century business model in the 21st century.
It’s a shame. Some of this country’s newspapers did terrific reporting on the Presidential contest. The Union-Tribune introduced a modicum of reality into their editorial positions, i.e., I wasn’t wondering what planet they lived on as I disagreed with (some of) what they had to say.
Newspapers also weren’t immune to the vagaries of the BREAKING NEWS mentality. Nor were they immune to the injections of fake news sourced from doubtful entities, some of which may have been financed by foreign powers.
Take Out the Garbage
None-the-less, the slow but steady process of traditional dissemination was one of the few bulwarks against the anarchy of the internet.
Back to the Times:
It couldn’t be happening at a worse moment in American public life. The internet-borne forces that are eating away at print advertising are enabling a host of faux-journalistic players to pollute the democracy with dangerously fake news items.
In the last couple of weeks, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets have exposed millions of Americans to false stories asserting that: the Clinton campaign’s pollster, Joel Benenson, wrote a secret memo detailing plans to “salvage” Hillary Clinton’s candidacy by launching a radiological attack to halt voting (merrily shared on Twitter by Roger Stone, an informal adviser to the Trump campaign); the Clinton campaign senior strategist John Podesta practiced an occult ritual involving various bodily fluids; Mrs. Clinton is paying public pollsters to skew results (shared on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr.); there is a trail of supposedly suspicious deaths of myriad Clinton foes (which The Times’s Frank Bruni heard repeated in a hotel lobby in Ohio).
Corrosive Structural Changes
Now, it didn’t take this campaign to show that much of the media is broken, or that we need more watchdogs, rather than lap dogs, to challenge powerful interests across the political spectrum. There have been other times when the suspension of skepticism and scrutiny put the nation at risk, such as when reporters became cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq.
But even with historical perspective, this media moment is particularly dangerous and fraught. The coverage of this campaign is not a random event. It is the result of corrosive structural changes — the collapse of local daily newspapers, excessive conglomeration, the obliteration of lines between news and entertainment, the rise of right-wing “news” — that are making it harder for media to keep the public informed on the issues that demand our attention. And yet, despite these growing challenges, the media retain extraordinary power to set agendas, shape perceptions and decide what is and is not part of the national conversation. As long as we have a corporatized system that values clicks and ratings more than serious policy debates or the people and communities affected, the problems will only worsen.
When the nation wakes up Wednesday, the postmortems will begin. As part of that process, we should think hard about the reasons for the media malpractice throughout this campaign. We need structural reforms to revive an accountability-centered media that doesn’t value profits over the public interest. And we should act decisively to ensure that in future elections, the American people can rely on a free and open press to fulfill their indispensable role in our democracy.
Brian Beutler at the New Republic says the media blew it by failing to acknowledge the potentially horrifying consequences of this election.
But another key component of journalism is the framing and contextualizing of events and new information: How do you take that raw material and present it in ways that don’t just provide consumers with new data points, but help them suss out how critical those data points are and what they mean in the scheme of things?
Here, major media outlets failed abysmally. The best illustration of this came just days ago, when a media monitor tallied the amount of time nightly news broadcasts devoted to stories about Clinton’s emails, and the amount of time they devoted to stories about all policy matters combined, and found that the former exceeded the latter. On any given Sunday morning, network news shows host panels of journalists, nearly all of whom are fluent in the esoteric details of Clinton’s email practices, but many of whom couldn’t tell you how Trump’s tax plan works. As a result, if Trump were to win, millions of people would expect him to enact a populist agenda, even as his own campaign promises to raise taxes on millions of middle-income workers, privatize roads, and deregulate Wall Street.
As it turns out, the legislation that Trump might enact, though radical, is only a medium-sized story compared to more basic facts like his disdain for democratic norms and his temperamental unfitness for public service—just how dangerous it would be for him to be the president. Here, the story isn’t much better. News outlets did make real, novel efforts to communicate Trump’s unique kind of political dishonesty and his erratic nature to news consumers, but this was offset by a parallel collective decision to hold him to the irresponsibly low bar that his campaign set for itself.
At Poynter, which reports on and works to educate journalists in a changing world, they sought to discover the lessons learned over the course of the presidential campaign.
They surveyed 20 journalists and media observers who’ve paid close attention to coverage throughout this election cycle. While this sort of self-examination doesn’t address the deep structural and fiscal issues facing the media business (can it even be a business in the future?), one response especially stood out for me:
Another lesson: Journalists can’t ignore race, class or ethnicity. One of the media’s biggest mistakes is the reluctance to cover race as a factor in this election, said Tracie Powell, the founder of All Digitocracy.
“Journalists have failed us in providing the context of deep divisions that persist in this country, and the way they are being exploited and played out in this election,” she said. “Whether journalists are afraid to tackle such deeply-rooted conversations, or just ill-equipped, mainstream news media’s actions, or inaction, has been to our democracy’s detriment.”
Katherine Miller, political editor at BuzzFeed News, noted that lack of diversity in newsrooms has mattered in a year dominated by stories such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of Latino voters and the blue-collar vote.
This gets to what I think the ultimate failure: not being able to understand and report on events in a multidimensional way. Editors have a responsibility to understand the inherent limitations of one reporter’s perspective. Reporters have a responsibility to ask questions beyond the obvious. And the public has got to decide if all this is worth paying for.
AM Social Media Highlights
Journalism failed to tell our stories.
But we women found each other and told them amongst ourselves.
THAT’S the story of this election.
— (@leahmcelrath) November 8, 2016
— Margaret Cho (@margaretcho) November 8, 2016
For information on the November 2016 General Election, see our San Diego 2016 Progressive Voter Guide
On This Day: 1805 – The “Corps of Discovery” reached the Pacific Ocean. The expedition was led by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. The journey had begun on May 14, 1804, with the goal of exploring the Louisiana Purchase territory. 1923 – Adolf Hitler made his first attempt at seizing power in Germany with a failed coup in Munich that came to be known as the “Beer-Hall Putsch.” 1956 – In one of the U.S. auto industry’s more embarrassing missteps over the last half-century, the Ford Motor Co. decided to name its new model the Edsel, after Henry Ford’s only son. Ford executives rejected 18,000 other potential names.
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