Mainstream media played a role in Trump’s victory, Clinton’s loss
By Dick Polman
Hillary Clinton’s new cri de coeur discomfits the many Democrats who yearn to put 2016 in the rear-view mirror. She dwells at length on all the factors that constituted the perfect storm – including her own weaknesses as a candidate – but I find myself nodding in agreement about one in particular.
She writes that many members of the mainstream media “can’t bear to face their own role in helping to elect Trump, from providing him with free air time to giving my emails three times more coverage than all the issues affecting people’s lives combined.”
She’s right. The mainstream media – most notably The New York Times and the cable networks – helped grease the skids for Trump, precisely in the ways that she describes.
Hillary cites the media’s obsession with her emails and its relative lack of interest in the Trump-Russia connection that was increasingly apparent as the summer of 2016 wore on. Her people tried in vain to steer journalists to the Russia story. She writes: “The media was accustomed to Trump peddling crazy conspiracy theories – like that Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill John F. Kennedy – and it acted as if the Russian hacking was ‘our’ conspiracy theory, a tidy false equivalency that let reporters and pundits sleep well at night.”
Right-wingers have long whined about “the liberal media,” but 2016 proved – yet again – that the term is an absurd canard. The so-called “liberal media” indulged the Bush administration’s fact-free spin about weapons of mass destruction during the prelude to the disastrous war in Iraq – just as, decades earlier, it indulged the LBJ administration’s fact-free spin about Vietnam until it was glaringly obvious that the war was a bloody mistake. And last year, the so-called “liberal” media got played again, bedazzled this time by Trump’s bright shiny objects.
Lest we forget, TV built up Trump with roughly $2 billion worth of free publicity. CNN boss Jeff Zucker said it all last fall: “If we made any mistake [during the primaries], it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run.” And CBS executive Les Moonves chortled that Trump and the GOP race “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in, and this is fun ... It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Meanwhile, in the spring of 2015, the New York Times declared in a headline that “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal.” Thanks to that story, lots of people believed the viral lie that Hillary, as secretary of state, personally sold uranium to the Russians in exchange for a donation to the Clinton Foundation.
In truth, Hillary had no personal involvement in the decision. The State Department was one of nine agencies that had to OK the deal, and the decision was made by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency group headed by Treasury. As for The Times’ alleged blockbuster, the key passage about the Clinton Foundation was buried in the 10th paragraph: “Whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown.”
A new study of the media coverage, released in August and conducted by scholars at Harvard and MIT, points out, “It was the clear insinuation of corruption in the headline, not the buried admission that no evidence of corruption was in fact uncovered, that made the April 2015 story one of the Times’ most tweeted stories during the summer [of 2016].”
And that was just one story among many. (I well recall an alleged Associated Press blockbuster, in the summer of 2016, which breathlessly concluded that the Clinton Foundation fuels “perceptions” of derring do.) More broadly, a media study released last December, crunched all the numbers and concluded:
“Donald Trump succeeded in shaping the election agenda. Coverage of Trump overwhelmingly outperformed coverage of Clinton. Clinton’s coverage was focused on scandals, while Trump’s coverage focused on his core issues. ... Coverage of Trump associated with immigration, jobs, and trade was greater than that on his personal scandals.”
Yeah, his personal scandals. How many stories did we read about Trump’s demonstrably longstanding ties to people in organized crime? Then ask yourself how many stories we likely would have seen if Hillary had dealt for decades with people in organized crime.
James Fallows, a commentator who’s no big fan of Hillary, points out: “No sane person can believe that the consequences of last fall’s election ... should have depended more than about 1 percent on what [she] did with her emails. The press is among the groups that messed this up, badly.” All told, Hillary “has gone a considerable distance toward facing her own responsibility for the current state of the country ... I’d like to see [the press] be as honest about their own responsibility.”
I have no problem with that.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania.