For months, readers of the New York Times and other influential mainstream media have heard about how “fake news” soiled 2016’s election. But they haven’t heard how poorly the Times and its peers covered the election, especially in its pivotal final months.
Now a major report in the renowned Columbia Journalism Review has presented a detailed analysis showing the most influential mainstream media—with the New York Times as Exhibit A—was as superficial and scandal-obsessed as any online outlet trafficking in political gossip in the 2016 campaign.
“We agree that fake news and misinformation are real problems that deserve serious attention. We also agree that social media and other online technologies have contributed to deep-seated problems in democratic discourse such as increasing polarization and erosion of support for traditional sources of authority,” Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild write in a lengthy article, "Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media." “Nonetheless, we believe that the volume of reporting around fake news, and the role of tech companies in disseminating those falsehoods, is both disproportionate to its likely influence in the outcome of the election and diverts attention from the culpability of the mainstream media itself.”
Their investigation suggests mainstream media were far more influential than the most partisan and propagandistic social media, yet they make a larger and more important point. As any American who paid attention to the 2016 election can attest, mainstream media loved covering Trump like a never-ending Super Bowl of play-by-play idiocies and outrages. Crucially, they went overboard in covering Hillary Clinton’s flaws, starting with her dumb decision to use a private email server as secretary of state.
But Watts and Rothschild single out the Times for especially vacuous coverage.
“It seems incredible that only five out of 150 front-page articles that the New York Times ran over the last, most critical months of the election, attempted to compare the candidate’s policies, while only 10 described the policies of either candidate in any detail,” they noted. “In just six days, the New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.”
The not-advertised truth about mainstream outlets, including National Public Radio, is that much of their political coverage takes its cues from a handful of print outlets, either by rewriting their stories or quickly doing in-house versions. Here, the CJR authors found the trend-setting Times and its peers were favoring political gossip over substance and applying different editorial standards to their coverage of Clinton and Trump.
Their analysis compared the major focus of coverage of each campaign. Though the authors don’t put it quite this way, it’s clear the national political press was tired of a wonky candidate they knew, especially compared to the very novel newcomer who kept surprising them. An upside-down dynamic ensued. Trump was treated with kid gloves for lightweight policy and ugly personality traits. Meanwhile, Clinton was tarred for personal foibles, such her use of a private email server, while her detailed policy prescriptions were all but ignored.
“What did all these stories talk about?” they write, referring to the mainstream coverage in the 69 days before the election. “The research team investigated this question, counting sentences that appeared in mainstream media sources and classifying each as detailing one of several Clinton- or Trump-related issues. In particular, they classified each sentence as describing either a scandal (e.g., Clinton’s emails, Trump’s taxes) or a policy issue (Clinton and jobs, Trump and immigration). They found roughly four times as many Clinton-related sentences that described scandals as opposed to policies, whereas Trump-related sentences were one-and-a-half times as likely to be about policy as scandal.”
A year after the campaign ended, the daily fog of campaign coverage revealed some striking and deeply disturbing patterns, the authors reveal.
“Given the sheer number of scandals in which Trump was implicated—sexual assault; the Trump Foundation; Trump University; redlining in his real-estate developments; insulting a Gold Star family; numerous instances of racist, misogynist, and otherwise offensive speech—it is striking that the media devoted more attention to his policies than to his personal failings. Even more striking, the various Clinton-related email scandals—her use of a private email server while secretary of state, as well as the DNC and John Podesta hacks—accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions.”
The authors then take a harder look at the Times’ front page. Their report classifies stories in three ways: “miscellaneous” for horse-race coverage of who’s ahead; “personal/scandal;” and “policy,” noting whether policy details were given or not.
“Of the 150 front-page articles that discussed the campaign in some way, we classified slightly over half (80) as Campaign Miscellaneous,” they write. “Slightly over a third (54) were Personal/Scandal, with 29 focused on Trump and 25 on Clinton. Finally, just over 10 percent (16) of articles discussed Policy, of which six had no details, four provided details on Trump’s policy only, one on Clinton’s policy only, and five made some comparison between the two candidates’ policies.”
The authors do the same analysis for other leading mainstream media, including the Washington Post, and found the same pattern. “The results for the full corpus were similar: Of the 1,433 articles that mentioned Trump or Clinton, 291 were devoted to scandals or other personal matters while only 70 mentioned policy, and of these only 60 mentioned any details of either candidate’s positions,” they write.
Stepping backward, they conclude that mainstream media colossally failed to serve the public in a manner that cannot be blamed on the propaganda spread on social media.
“The problem is this,” they write, continuing:
“As has become clear since the election, there were profound differences between the two candidates’ policies, and these differences are already proving enormously consequential to the American people. Under President Trump, the Affordable Care Act is being actively dismantled, environmental and consumer protections are being rolled back, international alliances and treaties are being threatened, and immigration policy has been thrown into turmoil, among other dramatic changes. In light of the stark policy choices facing voters in the 2016 election, it seems incredible that only five out of 150 front-page articles that the New York Times ran over the last, most critical months of the election, attempted to compare the candidate’s policies, while only 10 described the policies of either candidate in any detail.”
The authors note this pattern was especially damaging between October 29 and Nov. 3, 2016, six days that followed then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision to announce that the FBI was revisiting its examination of Clinton’s email server use. (Comey later said there was nothing new, but the political damage was done.)
“To reiterate, in just six days, the New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election (and that does not include the three additional articles on October 18, and November 6 and 7, or the two articles on the emails taken from John Podesta),” the authors write. “This intense focus on the email scandal cannot be written off as inconsequential: The Comey incident and its subsequent impact on Clinton’s approval rating among undecided voters could very well have tipped the election.”
The Times’ obsession with scandal is not unique, they add, before speculating on what may have been reporters and editors’ motives.
“To be clear, we do not believe the Times’ coverage was worse than other mainstream news organizations, so much as it was typical of a broader failure of mainstream journalism to inform audiences of the very real and consequential issues at stake,” they write. “In retrospect, it seems clear that the press in general made the mistake of assuming a Clinton victory was inevitable, and were setting themselves as credible critics of the next administration.”
“Possibly this mistake arose from the failure of journalists to get out of their hermetic bubble,” they continue. “Possibly it was their misinterpretation of available polling data, which showed all along that a Trump victory, albeit unlikely, was far from inconceivable. These were understandable mistakes, but they were still mistakes. Yet, rather than acknowledging the possible impact their collective failure of imagination could have had on the election outcome, the mainstream news community has instead focused its critical attention everywhere but on themselves: fake news, Russian hackers, technology companies, algorithmic ranking, the alt-right, even on the American public.”
That last point is particularly salient one year into the Trump presidency. Mainstream media organizations have been collaborating with Facebook, Google and other big online platforms to combat “fake news” by establishing new “trust standards” that grade content based on metrics they have collectively established. Independent media like AlterNet are not part of these discussions, even though these standards will generally downgrade analysis and opinion journalism, compared to mainstream media reports.
As Edward S. Herman wrote for the Monthly Review, before his recent death, “It has been amusing to watch the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets express their dismay over the rise and spread of ‘fake news.’ These publications take it as an obvious truth that what they provide is straightforward, unbiased, fact-based reporting. They do offer such news, but they also provide a steady flow of their own varied forms of fake news, often by disseminating false or misleading information supplied to them by the national security state, other branches of government, and sites of corporate power.”
“Mainstream media fake news is especially likely where a party line is quickly formed on a topic, with any deviations therefore immediately dismissed as naïve, unpatriotic, or simply wrong,” wrote Herman, who co-authored 2008’s Manufacturing Consent with Noam Chomsky.
The Columbia Journalism Review’s analysis of the most influential mainstream media coverage in 2016 shows that the “party line,” as Herman put it, failed journalism’s basic mission to represent the public before the powerful.
There’s no ambiguity surrounding the results: Donald Trump’s America is taking hold. The GOP Congress is dismantling safety nets and raiding the middle class to enrich the wealthy. And mainstream news is still dominated by personal scandals before policy impacts.