The American mainstream news media made many mistakes in its coverage of the 2016 presidential election.
It treated Donald Trump as a harmless curiosity because he was a reality TV show star and professional (alleged) billionaire.
Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings — both real and perceived — were amplified. Trump’s were downplayed if not largely ignored.
The mainstream media thought Trump was a harmless amusement, and not a demagogue, racial authoritarian or fascist in waiting. He was good for their ratings and profits. This meant the threat he posed to democracy could be overlooked because money apparently matters more than civic duty.
Too many reporters, journalists and other members of the commentariat hoped that Trump would mature into a more “traditional” candidate and then president. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, this foolish hope was the dominant narrative through the 2016 presidential campaign and Trump’s first year in office.
At the end of the third year of Trump’s presidency the American media continues to enable Trump and his party’s assault on democracy and the truth. Few mainstream voices are willing to consistently state the truth that Donald Trump is a fascist, a racist and mentally unwell, and that he is likely beholden to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
In all, the mainstream media cringes in terror before Trump and his supporters’ threats of violence and other and acts of intimidation. It all too often defaults to “fairness” and “balance” and both-sides-ism, elevating Trump’s most outrageous lies into reasonable opinions about “alternative facts.”
Yes, there have been successes, including important investigative reporting on Trump’s corruption, his abusive treatment of nonwhite migrants and refugees, and, of course, the Ukraine scandal. But overall, the mainstream news media has learned few lessons from the many postmortems on how it failed in its responsibilities as guardians of democracy in the 2016 presidential election. Indeed, it now appears ready to repeat the same errors in 2020.
Eric Boehlert is an award-winning journalist who has written for Media Matters, Rolling Stone and Billboard. He was previously a senior writer for Salon. Boehlert is also the author of the books "Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press" and “Lapdog: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush.”
In this conversation he explains how the mainstream American news media helped to elect Donald Trump because of a deep dislike for Hillary and Bill Clinton. Boehlert also warns that the media has helped to normalize and protect Donald Trump because of an unwillingness to explain that he is a true aberration in American history. Under Trump’s regime, Boehlert tells me, the United States really does not have a president.
Boehlert also highlights how the American mainstream news media is both cowardly and complicit with Trump’s assault on democracy because of its unwillingness to tell the truth about the threat he and his regime represent to the country and the world.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
We are now approaching the end of the third year of Trump’s regime. Are things better, worse or about how you expected?
I am not surprised. In fact, I think it was the night of the election or the day after when I put up two tweets that I remember quite vividly. One was, “It is going to be so much worse than anyone can imagine.” I also said that the American press is not going to save us from Donald Trump. Unfortunately, both of those observations were true.
Why were so many people in denial?
There was all that chatter about how America’s political institutions were so strong and they would keep Trump in check. People were also saying that we should have a businessman as a president and Hillary Clinton is so conniving and in the end it will all be fine. That was the Beltway conventional wisdom: Trump won't be able to break anything, this country has been around for so long, we'll be fine. And then of course the exact opposite happened.
Given all the evidence to the contrary, how were members of the mainstream media able to tell themselves such a thing? By what logic were they operating?
A lot of it was driven by their contempt for Hillary Clinton. There is a hostility towards Hillary among the news media that goes back to the 1990s. There was an attempt to normalize Trump because the mainstream, inside-the-Beltway corporate media types did not like her. Of course, almost everyone was convinced Hillary was going to win. In the fall of 2016, I believe that the American news media saw its job as to make sure her win was as unsatisfying as possible, that it wouldn't be historic and she would limp across the finish line.
Ultimately, Hillary Clinton would not be able to take a victory lap and too many in the American news media miscalculated in the end. By being so relentlessly negative towards Clinton and letting Trump get away with so much stuff, the news media did not calculate that he could ever win. And in the end, that is what happened.
Given their error of overcompensating against Hillary Clinton why didn’t the American news media go after Donald Trump with more zeal?
One would reasonably think that the press would just be chomping at the bit. Trump is corrupt. He's dishonest. He lies about everything. In theory one would think the press would have a field day with Trump. This is what the press loves to do. They're going to knock this guy down, they are going to expose him. But exactly the opposite happened. Why? There are many reasons.
Trump effectively bullied the American news media during the campaign. They were shocked that he won. The press felt like they missed a big story. Because Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by 70,000 votes, the American news media felt like there was this huge white middle-class rural movement that they had missed. One fluke election made them feel like they were fundamentally out of touch. The American press is also perpetually afraid of the Republican Party.
The American news media is possessed by a deep fear of Republican hardball. Therefore, they were nervous about being portrayed as out of touch because Trump had won and they missed the story. They're nervous about being portrayed as part of the “liberal media” and they had never experienced anything like Trump before. They got a taste of it during the campaign with all of Trump’s “fake news” and such things. That knocked the American news media back on their heels and they didn't have the courage to stand up against Trump. This happened in many different ways and important moments.
The American mainstream press was cowed, and they embraced this timidity. In turn, they decided, particularly the New York Times, that they need to go write a story literally every week for the next two years about white voters in red states and how much they love Donald Trump.
But when Barack Obama was president for eight years, I don't think there was one story in the New York Times about how black voters in Baltimore love Barack Obama. It wasn't news. The New York Times didn't care about love for Obama among black voters. But wow, the New York Times loves to go to those diners and find those white folks who love Donald Trump.
In total, the press has been bending over backwards because they were afraid of Trump. We are almost three years into this administration. Now, recently, the press certainly has shown signs that they're going to stand up to Trump. This is mostly just because of the facts of the Ukraine scandal — facts which are mind-boggling. Moreover, there is really no other way to portray the facts of what Trump did with Ukraine than as a crisis for Donald Trump. But not calling him a racist, not calling him a liar, not questioning his mental stability? Those should have been basic journalism tasks from March and February of 2017 forward, and it just never happened.
Could it be that there are many people in the American news media, journalists and reporters and others, who have never had to contemplate that their work would put their lives at risk from Trump and his supporters?
Certainly, the American press, for the most part, has never had to deal with this. The American press has no history or tradition of covering authoritarian rule. That is a skill necessary in Eastern Europe and in Third World or developing countries. The idea that the press is under attack in the United States institutionally, by a ruling party or from the president of the United States — and the overall creeping loss of press freedom — has been revelatory for many reporters and journalists.
If you had said four years ago, "There will never be another White House press briefing under the next Republican president," most people would have looked at you with incredulity. Such a prediction would be viewed as ridiculous.
We've been having press briefings televised since the '90s. We've had them at the White House since the Kennedy years.
President Trump is going to come in and cancel the press briefings? The press would never let that happen. That was thought to be inconceivable. But now here we are in America with Trump. It has been almost 250 days since the last press briefing.
Trump hired a new press secretary, and she will likely never host a press briefing in the White House. That is a perfect example of the creep that happened over the first two years of the Trump administration. The press could have done many things in response. To say there was nothing the press could have done is total nonsense. These news organizations did absolutely nothing and they let it happen. These news organizations could have pulled their teams from the White House, for example.
Now we are left with these “chopper talk” sessions where Trump walks from the White House to the helicopter. The blades are whirling, people are shouting questions at him. Trump doesn't answer follow-ups. That's the press access. The press in the White House is supposed to be the people's representative by providing some sort of transparency. Trump has totally rigged the game.
How do we make sense of the dividing line between cowardice and complicity in the press?
Cowardice versus complicity? It's all the same stew to me. The biggest problem in the last two or three years is just refusing to tell the truth. There are so many examples of Trump and his administration not doing that. There is all this talk about Donald Trump as a “chaos agent” or some type of “disruptor” and things like that. We are so far beyond that description.
We don't really have a president of the United States anymore. The American press should be talking about that fact. In no traditional or historical sense is Donald Trump filling the role that every other president of the United States has. When America has a foreign policy based on complete incoherence or payoffs to Turkey or Russia, the American press does not really know how to portray those events.
The American press knows that Trump is not a healthy, mentally stable person. The press can see that day in and day out, and yet they are not allowed to put that in their news stories. The news media often has to invent fantasies and narratives to make Trump look cogent.
If we in America were talking about a president being a Manchurian candidate for another county the idea would have been rejected as irresponsible. The president of the United States would never act in the interest of a foreign country. Yet, here we are.
If the American press were to talk about Trump as a racist, a fascist or a pathological liar, or say that he is not mentally well, then it changes the dominant narrative and terrain. Once you start addressing those issues in the news coverage — any one of those — that has to be the only story you cover every day and for the rest of Trump’s presidency. One can't acknowledge the president of the United States being an open racist and then cover it for two days. It is a defining story in American history.
The press does not want to have to cover those stories every day for the rest of the Trump presidency because they know it would unleash a torrent of attacks from Trump, the Republican Party, conservatives en masse and Fox News and the right-wing echo chamber. The press wants to keep a lid on it all. So the American press says things like "Trump uses 'racially tinged rhetoric.'" We all know what those euphemisms really mean.
You have had access to editors and newsrooms. How are these decisions being made?
How is it that the New York Times decided we're not going to call Trump a liar? That was clearly an editorial guideline decision the Times made during the campaign and certainly during his administration. How is it that the New York Times came to the very peculiar decision that “we can't read Trump's mind, therefore we can't call him a liar”? And every other news organization came to the exact same bizarre decision?
How come McClatchy Newspapers aren't calling Trump a liar? How come CBS didn't decide “Well, yes, we can call Trump a liar.” Such a rule was invented for Trump out of thin air. This guideline does not go back decades or centuries in American newsrooms. It was invented for Trump. The mainstream news media all decided to adopt the same invented bizarre guidelines.
I'm not conspiratorial. I don't think they all got together like a cabal. But I do think within the Beltway that there is a collective mindset. There's such a collective fear of the Republican Party and Donald Trump. It is completely unspoken. In many ways it comes down to the stories being pitched and published or not within many of the major journalism institutions.
So much of this is unspoken. Journalists and reporters understand how career tracks operate. For example, if you wrote for the New York Times about politics — and in particular if you are a woman writing about politics for the New York Times — and you bashed Hillary Clinton, that is a green light to a fast track. Likewise, if a black liberal decided they want the free money on the Trump or conservative side it works much the same way.
In the mainstream news media, people understand how the game is played. If you work for the New York Times and you see that editors literally cannot publish enough stories about white Trump rural voters in Ohio, guess what stories you're going to pitch. A reporter would say, “Send me to Ohio! I want to interview these people.” It will end up on page one even though the Times just had one of those stories on page one three weeks ago.
People are smart and savvy that way. They understand the culture of the newsroom. People know which way the wind is blowing. So that's how a lot of these collective news decisions get made.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. What if there was a reporter at a major journal of record, such as the New York Times, who was tired of these TrumpLandia white Republican voter stories. He or she wants to go to the same areas and talk to black and brown folks, progressives and liberal Democrats. Or what about people who live in Trump country who are in fear of their lives from Trump supporters? What would happen if such a story was pitched?
Since impeachment has been on the radar, I do not think that the New York Times has interviewed a voter of color. I've read so many pieces and they're always about how impeachment might be a problem for Democrats because that's the dominant media narrative. One of the dangerous things about Trump is this assumption that white voters, especially white middle-aged voters, are the most important part of the public.
If you look at the demographics, it's just not true. Let's send someone to the rural Ohio diner, but let's not just interview white middle-aged men. Let's interview Democrats. Let's find out if impeachment is igniting grassroots fire around the country for Democrats.
The fourth estate is not supposed to be neutral. It is supposed to be objective. There's a difference.
Trump has represented such a shock to the system that many people in the news media, journalists and reporters, have decided they cannot have a moral compass. Moreover, if one were to suggest that journalists and reporters have a moral compass then that is somehow “liberal media bias.” It all goes back to that fear the press has of being accused of bias. Trump has obviously turned that narrative up to the extreme with his “fake news” hatred of the press.
News organizations aren't supposed to be soulless and they're not supposed to be incapable of suggesting when something is right or wrong.
In response to Donald Trump and all that is wrong, many journalists just decided, “Well, we know what's going on but we're not going to tell the public. Hopefully they will figure it out because we don’t have the moral courage to explain just how bizarre Trump’s presidency really is.”
Given the importance of ad revenue, there appears to be an unhealthy contradictory relationship between Trump, his movement and the corporate news media. On one hand, the media needs Trump for viewers. But on the other hand, Trump is threatening reporters and journalists and the very idea of the free press with Nazi slogans smearing them as “fake news.” Lügenpresse.
It should not be an issue. The newspaper industry is struggling across the country. That is a terrible threat to democracy. Donald Trump does not drive circulation. “Trump news” is not going to save any of these newspapers. People are going to read Google and Facebook for their news no matter who the president is. It could be the most boring president ever in our history and newspapers would be tanking. Conversely, it could be the most exciting whirlwind president ever and newspapers would still be tanking.
In terms of television, there is this assumption that Trump is great for ratings. In reality, cable news was up a little bit when he took office. ABC ran this ridiculous prime-time interview with Trump a couple months ago. The ratings were a disaster. Nobody tuned in. There's such a saturation at this point with Donald Trump.
The Mueller report is a damning indictment of a criminal president. Why was it greeted with such relative lack of interest whereas the Ukraine scandal has really taken on a life of its own. Why the difference?
The Mueller story was botched the day Bill Barr put out that three-and-a-half-page press release saying, “I read the Mueller report. Everything's fine. Exoneration. No collusion.” For almost a week the press ran with that. To me it was just absolutely stunning. There were journalists with no access to the Mueller report relying on the summation of a U.S. attorney general who had clearly been put into office with the goal of protecting Donald Trump. The White House and the Republicans were able to immediately muddy the waters. They lie about everything.
The idea that this White House was ever going to ever tell the truth about the Mueller report is a fantasy. The press bought that line, though. When Mueller testified, they then went into theater criticism mode. Why is the Ukraine scandal resonating? It is a simple story. Trump asked a foreign country for dirt on Joe Biden. Most importantly Trump admitted to it in public.
What do you think is going to happen with Trump and impeachment and the 2020 election?
There will be an impeachment in the House. I believe that Trump will lose a few votes in the Senate. I do not think it's going to be smooth sailing for the Republicans where it is done in a day in the Senate. The Republicans are going to lose some votes.
The idea this is going to happen during an election year is just absolutely mind-boggling, not only for Trump, but for the Republican Party. Their public officials can’t answer basic questions such as, “Is it ever OK for an American president to ask a foreign government to interfere in a presidential election?”
I don't know how the Republicans are going to campaign on any significant issues when that is happening. The Democrats won 40 House seats in the midterms. Trump wasn't even on the ticket. That was widely seen as a condemnation of Trump. Trump is going to be on the top of the ticket acting like a lunatic every day of 2020.
Trump and the Republicans can make an argument that will excite part of their base, but I think most people are just going to be so exhausted of the insanity. That is particularly true of suburban voters who helped flip those 40 seats in 2018.
Does Trump win 2020?
Donald Trump will lose those Midwestern states. Those are gone. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are a problem for Trump. I think Arizona is a problem for the Republicans too. Unfortunately, I think Ohio and Florida are Republican states now. I don't think Democrats should bank on those states anymore. I don't think it's a blowout. Donald Trump is never going to fully crater because he has a cult of personality in terms of his following.