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The Media Refuses Accountability For Its Own Malpractice

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I generally admire Lynn Vavreck’s work, but this apologia for the media’s gross malpractice in its coverage of the 2016 campaign is, to say the least, unpersuasive. I completely reject the general assumption that the media essentially lacks agency and can only follow the lead of campaigns. But aside from that, the analysis has a lot of problems:

I compared the content of campaign ads with the content of news articles about two specific topics: candidate traits or characteristics, and the economy or jobs. Both the candidates and news organizations spent more time discussing the candidates’ fitness for office (or lack of it) than they did the nation’s economy.

Note the choice to focus solely on ads rather than on ads and speeches and candidate websites, etc., which obviously stacks the deck against policy appeals. And it also obscures the fact that Clinton’s campaign paid much more attention to policy and in much more detail.

The candidates’ controversies received more coverage, on average, than their views on the economy. From June until Election Day, 38 percent of the stories mentioned Mr. Trump’s various missteps, and 35 percent mentioned Mrs. Clinton’s email.

Let’s just stop here and note that this data reflects a grotesque failure on the part of the media to inform the public.

Closer to the election, from Oct. 8 on, the numbers got even more lopsided. This was an important date — just after the release of the “Access Hollywood” video and a few weeks before F.B.I. Director James B. Comey’s letter to Congress. From this point, 53 percent of the campaign articles mentioning either controversies or the economy discuss Mrs. Clinton’s email, while only 6 percent mention her alongside jobs or the economy. As for Mr. Trump, 31 percent mention his entanglements, while 10 percent mention him related to jobs and the economy.

Again, this is extraordinary. Clinton’s EMAILS! were receiving constant attention and being treated as the equivalent of Trump’s many actual scandals, even when there was no actual news about Clinton’s EMAILS! happening. What is being described her is just staggering malpractice. And yet:

These choices have consequences. According to the Gallup Organization, Americans’ reports of what they heard or read about Mrs. Clinton between June and September were mainly references to her handling of emails during her time as secretary of state. In contrast, mentions of Mr. Trump changed week by week, tracking what was happening on the campaign trail.

But before anyone blames the news media, it’s important to examine what the candidates themselves were talking about over the course of the campaign. If media reports reflect candidate discourse accurately, then it is not merely the media choosing to report on scandals. It might be at least as much the candidates’ choosing to campaign on them that results in unending coverage of traits and characteristics.

Leaving aside the implicit denial of agency to the media, conflating “what candidates are saying” with “advertising” is obviously very problematic. Clinton spent a lot of time talking about policy; the media just chose not to cover it. (For this reason, I also find the implicit empirical assumption that the media would have spent significantly less time focusing on EMAILS! if Clinton had run more policy ads massively implausible. I think Clinton running more policy ads would have been a good idea, but that’s a different issue.) And the denial of agency to the media shouldn’t be left aside.

I will concede that when it comes to covering Trump, the media had a legitimate dilemma. There is no precedent for a major national candidate engaging in one ordinarily disqualifying act after another throughout a campaign. The sheer number of scandals had the perverse effect of diluting the impact of any one. But each one of the scandals were news, and the media couldn’t refuse to report on one because it would dilute the impact of other stories. There were problems with the coverage of Trump but he didn’t receive the kind of fawning coverage George W. Bush did in 2000.

But what can’t possibly be defended is the media’s relentless focus on EMAILS!, an utterly trivial pseudo-scandal featuring no significant misconduct by Clinton, and implicitly equating it with Trump’s frauds and alleged sexual assaults and boasts about sexual assaults and serial dishonest. The media wasn’t forced to engaged in this false equivalence. It wasn’t forced to provide this extraordinarily disproportionate amount of coverage. Nothing forced the media to report non-stories like “donor asks Huma Adebin for a meeting and doesn’t get one” as the equivalent of Donald Trump refusing to pay contractors or conning his fans out of tens of millions of dollars. As Krugman says:

Prominent media outlets made choices about what to cover and how to cover it. They weren’t compelled by the candidates or the campaigns. These choices have to be defended on their own merits. The editors and journalists involved want to deny their agency precisely because these choices cannot possibly be defended, and the consequences of the malpractice will be horrific in many respects (not least for the free press.)

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  • BGinCHI

    It feels mundane to say it, but the major media’s self-imposed task is to legitimate the political process, no matter how seriously flawed it is.

    They want to maintain the status quo because they benefit mightily from it.

    • NewishLawyer

      Right. I think the media has abandoned any gate-keeper role they have or had for money and ratings.

      Of course the media will argue that they also published dissenting pieces blaming the media so they try to have their cake and eat it too.

      Policy debates are hard, long, and probably not good for advertisers. You can have a horserace debate in a few minutes and then switch to commercials.

      • XTPD

        Per Jeff Zucker’s Daily Derphole (link old but relevant):

        ALT-RIGHT FOUNDER UNSURE IF JEWS ARE PEOPLE

      • BGinCHI

        Plus, the 24-hour news cycle is bad for rendering judgments and good for talking about optics.

        You can’t fill 24-7 news “coverage” with “Donald Trump is unqualified and dangerous and the GOP is nuts.”

        But, I supposed, A for effort on keeping the system going so that no one rocks the boat.

        • NewishLawyer

          There probably is not enough news to justify the existence of a 24/7/365 News channels. Even CNN is starting to realize this and produce more documentaries on pop culture during various decades and stuff like Parts Unknown (which is more of a travel show than a News show).

          I realized this a few years ago when CNN did a story about a bear that was wondering through the backyards of suburbia. This might be a local newsstory but it doesn’t deserve national attention. Same with Balloon boy.

          The problem is that there is no way of enforcing a no 24/7 News Channel rule/law without being anti-Democratic.

          • Joe_JP

            There probably is not enough news to justify the existence of a 24/7/365 News channels

            Reasonable. You can fill a lot of time with the news out there, up to a point, but it isn’t the type of news they want to fill time with a lot of the time.

            So, even MSNBC is dominated with the same Trump stuff with the same basic talking heads, when there are a range of other things to talk about too such as water in Flint, health news on the front lines or whatever.

            Heck, with so many congressional races alone, a “Stephen Colbert” know your district candidates type segment alone could fill a lot of time. And, we would get a sense that the election wasn’t just about one race. Plus, sure, toss in some human interest stories like the bear thing.

            • Manny Kant

              BBC World and CNN International manage to fill up the time in a fairly reasonable way. Our 24/7 news networks are not actually interested in providing news. They’re interested in having assholes shouting at each other.

        • You can’t fill 24-7 news “coverage” with “Donald Trump is unqualified and dangerous and the GOP is nuts.”

          You actually could have done so, fairly and accurately, during the campaign, and will probably be able to continue to do so as long as Trump remains in the public eye, but you would of course open yourself up to charges of bias. The right wing in general and Trump in particular have done such an effective job of working the refs in this area that even when such coverage would be eminently defensible the media would much rather just avoid the fight.

        • tsam

          You can’t fill 24-7 news “coverage” with “Donald Trump is unqualified and dangerous and the GOP is nuts.”

          CHALLENGE ACCEPTED

      • CrunchyFrog

        Right. I think the media has abandoned any gate-keeper role they have or had for money and ratings.

        We probably overestimate how much of a gatekeeper role they had in the past. Even that benchmark example, Watergate, almost no other paper went along with the Washington Post during the early months and there was a lot of resistance within the system to having them continue their stories. And when it was all said and done, the owner of the paper had a little party celebrating the publishing of their book and pointedly said that this was not the model she thought the paper should follow going forward.

        The media have always been much more comfortable in cheerleading roles – see WW2 or watch any post-WW2 newsreel. Every single news item was a positive reinforcement of American values – as interpreted at the time.

        A lot of real journalism happened in the 1960s and early 1970s, but that was an era when everything was changing due to technological advances and dramatic cultural shifts. Journalism in 1980 was drastically different than journalism in 1960s, and during that shift the elite controls on the news were being completely revised and sometimes real reporting could leak out. You might think that would have happened again with the internet boom, but as it turned out that mostly was about the rise of alternative fake news media on the right.

        No, if there is going to be an era of real investigative reporting it is best to think of it as something new, not a return to a past that didn’t really happen.

        • We probably overestimate how much of a gatekeeper role they had in the past. Even that benchmark example, Watergate, almost no other paper went along with the Washington Post during the early months and there was a lot of resistance within the system to having them continue their stories. And when it was all said and done, the owner of the paper had a little party celebrating the publishing of their book and pointedly said that this was not the model she thought the paper should follow going forward.

          I think it’s fair to view the Watergate coverage as an aberration. Editors and publishers are hesitant to take on something that separates them from the pack and leaves them vulnerable to charges of bias or being wrong, not just from the subjects of their stories, but from other media outlets, as well – see the experience of Gary Webb and the San Jose Mercury News.

        • LeeEsq

          Most of the gatekeeping in the past seems to be in the form of investigatory journalism. The newspaper, radio station, or TV channel would tell their audience about bad things happening and let the audience draw their own conclusions. Very rarely did the media take a direct stance against a national level politician or figure. It happened to McCartney, Goldwater, and even Trump. Nearly every newspaper and magazine came out against Trump and in favor of Clinton. It did little good.

          Even though media malpractice in 2016 election was real, I do not think that better media coverage would have made the difference. Very few people follow the news regularly. Those that do tend to do so in a very partisan manner.

          • Colin Day

            It happened to McCartney

            Those hippies with their long hair and weird music.

            Now get off my lawn!

        • ASV

          Gatekeeping is not watchdog journalism, it’s the process by which the press uses its power and (former) attention monopoly to decide what gets covered and what doesn’t. The traditional press has less power in this regard than it used to have, but it still has a lot, and it once had nearly uncontested gatekeeping power. It is also part of how Hallin’s spheres are formed.

  • Dilan Esper

    The reality is every election has way too much horse race and scandal coverage and way too little coverage of policy disagreements. (I recommend Martin Schramm’s “The Great American Video Game”, from the 1980’s, as a rather comprehensive treatment of this.)

    It’s just that in this election it may have had an impact on the result.

    • Scott Lemieux

      There’s truth in this, but 2016 had notably less policy coverage than even 2008.

  • Joe_JP

    Yes. The media here has agency. We saw that a group that some might think just is leaking everything had agency. The media surely does. For various reasons, it picks certain things to publish, for ideological reasons or otherwise. Own up to your basic point of being allegedly superior than Joe Blow self-publishing — professional editorial judgment.

  • Norrin Radd

    I thought the press did what you’d expect them to do. They bashed Trumps head in.

    As for the emails I thought it got more coverage than it deserved but I never heard the MSM draw an equivalency between the two candidates. You read the Washington Post? They did everything but put out a hit on Trump.

    • The emails got more coverage than all policy issues combined, and it wasn’t even close. Even if the media didn’t explicitly draw an equivalence between the two candidates, their coverage implicitly did.

      • Ghostship

        Which e-mails are you referring to? The dodgy e-mail server with the 33,000 emails requested by the FBI that had been deleted on Clinton’s orders? Or the Podestas e-mails? Conflating the two is a good distraction from the damage that the Podesta e-mails did to her reputation but I doubt the dodgy e-mail server “scandal” did her candidacy much harm, and as Wikileaks released the Podesta e-mails in frequent small batches, it was likely that the issues they raised would receive constant coverage as they did. She might have done better if she’d preemptively released all the Podesta e-mails to stop the constant drip of damage, but she didn’t.

        • Horseshit. Most people couldn’t even tell the difference between the email server stories and the Podesta email stories because the reporting was so awful and most people don’t understand technology anyway. The only thing people knew about Clinton was “emails”. The average voter couldn’t even tell you whose emails they were, just that there was a problem with emails and that Clinton was somehow responsible. This isn’t even getting into the fact that the media repeated literally everything Jason Chaffetz said about the FBI announcement in October and literally every word of it was wrong.

          (Also she didn’t personally delete the 33k emails, but why let facts get in the way of an argument?)

        • Scott Lemieux

          The mainstream media actually gave much more coverage to the private server. Anyway, they were both bullshit non-scandals with no content.

        • ColBatGuano

          Your framing has delicious Fox News flavor that pairs well with a good “voter fraud is rampant” Drudge report.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      the e mails were making the front pages of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and La Crosse Tribune again pretty much every day the last week or so of the campaign, and leading radio newscasts even when there was nothing new to say. It was *the* thing that managed to focus a lot of the general dislike/distrust/whatever people had for Clinton- and Trump, running as he did a shitzkreig, never allowed people to settle on one solid reason to not vote for him

    • Joe_JP

      I never heard the MSM draw an equivalency between the two candidates.

      Other than repeatedly mentioning how “both” were highly disliked in usual “both sides do it” fashion? The basic message was both sides were horrible. Major plus to the truly horrible person.

      I thought the press did what you’d expect them to do. They bashed Trumps head in.

      They, eventually, made it clear he is an asshole. But, the press did that in a basic fashion for HRC too by suggesting she’s untrustworthy and unlikable.

      Policy-wise, don’t recall them “bashing his head in.” If anything, repeatedly, we got analysis that he appealed to needy people there. So, if you were able to look pass him being a major asshole, why vote for HRC?

    • McAllen

      If Clinton’s emails are pushing the thousands of things wrong with Trump off the front page, that’s drawing false equivalence.

    • Scott Lemieux

      As for the emails I thought it got more coverage than it deserved but I never heard the MSM draw an equivalency between the two candidates.

      Whether or not it was drawn explicitly, the obsessive coverage of EMAILS! created a false equivalency.

    • Taylor

      Clinton gave a speech on alt-right.

      Trump called her a bigot.

      The media story was, Clinton and Trump call each other bigots.

  • libarbarian

    Not every instance of bullshit-spewing is “Gaslighting”

    • No, just the ones that contradict people’s personal recollections of how things actually occurred. In this case, Krugman is using the term correctly.

      • Dilan Esper

        Well, he’s using the term in the way that it’s getting used now, so I suppose that means it is correct.

        But it’s a terrible term. The actual movie, “Gas Light”, involves a possessive man who alters reality to trap a woman and make her think she is going crazy. It involves a gross form of psychological torture.

        But the way the term is being currently used is to describe anyone who is making false statements about past events. Making false statements about past events may not be praiseworthy conduct, but it isn’t the equivalent of Charles Boyer’s torture of Ingrid Bergman in the movie.

        • medrawt

          I disagree inasmuch as while this particular false statement might not be so intended, it is part of a stream of false statements that collectively function to make people like you and me think we’re going crazy. There’s a collective assault on the whole idea that we can actually know and rely upon facts about the world as reported to us by trustworthy sources. Trump thrives in an atmosphere where the truth value of his tweets is judged with a shrug emoji because who knows what the truth is, anyway, doesn’t everybody distort it, etc.

          • Right. Doing it once isn’t gaslighting. But there is a lengthy pattern of this happening both with the media and with Republican politicians in general. If it were an isolated incident, that would be one thing. It isn’t an isolated incident. It happens constantly. That’s what makes it gaslighting.

        • Srsly Dad Y

          Agreed. It’s another casualty like “begging the question,” which for hundreds of years was a useful name for a specific thing but has been degraded into one name among others for a general thing (raising or posing or inviting a question).

          Gaslighting had a good run meaning, “making someone feel crazy by claiming that real problems they see are mental projections.” Pour one out.

          • Manny Kant

            The current usage of “gaslighting” is directly related to the original meaning. The usage of “begg the question” to mean “raise the question” has no connection with the actual meaning.

            • Srsly Dad Y

              directly related

              is question-begging

              jk I agree Krugman’s use of gaslighting is loosely related in the sense of “denying that you saw what you saw,” but it’s lost its essence IMO.

            • XTPD

              Correct, but the SCLM’s use of “look what you made me do” w/r/t/ Trump voters, as well as its total refusal of culpability, illustrate abuser dynamics less ambiguously.

        • JonH

          Wait a few years until the media’s gaslight version of history has become accepted as the truth.

          Then, you may well feel a bit crazy remembering something completely different from the conventional wisdom about 2016.

      • Denverite

        I don’t think he is. Gaslighting is messing with someone’s perceived reality for the purposes of making them question their own sanity. That’s not really what the media is doing. They’re just denying fault for something they are transparently culpable for.

        • I guess I’m not willing to assign them that much of the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think they merely want to deny their own fault. They want to deny their own fault in a way that undermines others’ recollections of their past conduct – in other words, rewriting history. An Orwellian retcon, to use the parlance of TV Tropes. I don’t think it’s particularly important whether it’s being done specifically with the explicit intent of making people think they’re crazy, or whether it’s just being done with the intention of undermining people’s memories. The latter may be marginally less terrible than the former, but they’re both incredibly destructive.

          • Dilan Esper

            Even “rewriting history” is not gaslighting if the term is referring to what Boyer did in the movie.

            Orwell didn’t write Gas Light. And the mechanism he proposed for propaganda to work in “1984” did not involve convincing the public that they were insane, but convincing them that they were sane but remembered something other than what really happened.

            • I’m not convinced there is a meaningful distinction between convincing someone they are insane and convincing someone that their memory is faulty. To be fair, I do not have a degree in psychology, but as far as I’m concerned, they are functionally the same thing, particularly when attempted on as large a scale as being done here. Trying to undermine people’s conception of objective reality is, to me, fundamentally an attack on people’s sanity.

              • ASV

                I, for one, am looking forward to leaving the era of tone policing and entering the era of semantic policing. Etymology policing? Well, I’m sure someone will correct me.

        • Scott Lemieux

          They’re just denying fault for something they are transparently culpable for.

          But in this case, they’re doing so by distorting reality.

        • Just_Dropping_By

          Eh, forget it, Denverite, it’s a lost battle — “gaslighting” now just means “lying by people I don’t like,” just like “judicial activism” means, “judicial decisions that I don’t like.”

          • XTPD

            In cases like this, yes, but in using it to mean”Orwellian retcon,” it’s defensible. (Of course there are better ways to link media misconduct to abuse tactics – cf. “This is why Trump won”).

        • Kathleen

          I disagree. That is exactly what the media are doing. And they are doing it purposefully.

        • Strictly speaking, “gaslighting” needn’t cause you to question your sanity. Merely your perception and/or your judgement. Thus the abuser gets away with things because he has successfully convinced the victim to doubt their own judgement over whether the behavior was, in fact, abusive.

      • UserGoogol

        No, gaslighting is specifically an attempt to get someone to question their own general sanity. (So you can steal the jewels of a lady you murdered without scrutiny, in the eponymous case.) Contradicting people’s personal recollections is pretty much a risk with any form of lying.

        The liar wants you to believe what they’re telling you, the gaslighter wants you to believe you’re crazy.

        • Again: if this were a single case, I would agree; it would just be a lie/bullshitting. It’s not a single case. It’s part of a sustained pattern of behaviour which constitutes a prolonged attack on the very concept of truth. That’s substantially different. If you undermine the very concept of objective reality, that to me constitutes an attack on people’s sanity, whether explicitly intended to be such or not.

          • Kathleen

            Thank you! You stated my opinion above better than I did!

  • medrawt

    The blatant assertion by voices in the mainstream newsmedia that they lack agency is the latest iteration of a long-brewing problem contributing to the deterioration of newsmedia commercial viability and credibility:

    They do not know what they are, and do not know how to assess their own work. They sell the idea that they provide something they transparently do not even try to provide and cannot account for their failure to provide it or even recognize the evidence of that failure. I think a serious external academic study of, say, the NYTimes’ practices would be effectively illegible to a large number of NYTimes editors and political reporters.

    • Downpuppy

      Part of the not knowing is that major papers speak in code, and have done so for so long they forget that it is code. There are some basic parts, like “controversial” (means Idi Amin) & colorful (means controversial) but a lot of it is so inbred that I can read an article and only realize that it’s coded, not what they’re actually saying.

      Then there’s garbage like Patrick Healy’s covering Trump speeches. No words can explain that.

    • ASV

      As a political journalism scholar, I can tell you that most journalists are about as interested in scholarship of their field as most political operatives are of theirs.

  • XTPD

    On a related note: The ubiquity of fake news has been pegged by certain technocratic liberals (e.g., Hayes, Oliver & the Vox crew) as a significant pro-Trump factor this election. Do you think this is a) moral panic,
    b) merely a symptom of polarization,
    c) a definite factor, albeit one significantly weaker/less mutable than mainstream media malpractice, or
    d) a definite factor roughly as pernicious as indicated by the above persons?

    (FWIW, my uneducated impression leads towards b) and c), with the added caveat that even though this problem’s easily fixable it’s not especially important as regards the outcome).

    • JR in WV

      “Fake news” aka propaganda has reached a point where seemingly educated normal people can have a conversation about how disqualifying it is for Hillary as a candidate that she is the illegitimate child of Adolph Hitler. True fact, doesn’t everyone know this?

      This is on the level of believing one presidential candidate is possessed by demons [true fact, people do believe this totally], or that only angels can cure disease. After graduating from college.

      How can this level of ignorance support a real democracy? We have global climate change, a shrinking bio-diversity, the end of wage-paying jobs, nuclear waste (including hundreds of nuclear power plants reaching end-of-life soon) by the megaton to dispose of safely, pandemic diseases appearing out of Africa, all these real problems to deal with.

      And people believe in demonic possession. Sad.

      I’m so old that I probably won’t see the horrific end game, but it would be a sight to see.

      I will rest in peace knowing that these dolts are getting what they so richly deserve and asked for. Good and hard. Repeatedly.

  • NewishLawyer

    Kevin Drum has an interesting take on Donald’s tweet outbursts:

    http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/11/donald-trump-and-shiny-object-strategy

    Donald Trump and the Shiny Object Strategy

    Kevin DrumNov. 28, 2016 12:01 PM

    Is Donald Trump using his Twitter outbursts about the popular vote to distract us from this week’s real news: the vast conflicts of interest between his business empire and his upcoming presidency? This question is getting a lot of attention today.

    The answer is no. I mean yes. But no, not really. On the other hand, maybe a little bit yes. I’m sorry, what was the question again?

    The real answer is the same as it was during the campaign: Trump is dedicated to creating constant uproars all the time. Is this because it’s just who he is? Or is it part of an instinctive strategy to keep us from ever paying attention to anything for long aside from the fact that Trump is in the limelight? I can’t say for sure, but I’d put money on the latter.

    My belief in this comes mainly from an observation about the campaign: Trump, it turns out, is fully able to focus on something for months at a time if he wants to. And the thing he focused on was “Crooked Hillary” and her emails. That was a constant theme of his campaign, and he kept at it relentlessly for months. And the press assisted, covering every new email revelation—big or small, meaningful or trivial— in blazing headlines on the front page.

    • Sebastian_h

      Yup, it is clear that many of his outrages are specifically designed to keep any one bad thing from dominating the coverage.

  • Gee Suss

    So, what do we do to combat or correct the media going forward?

    • McAllen

      Mainstream media is, at this point, a lost cause. What we need to do is marginalize it. Every time the media publishes something that soft-pedals Trump, push back against it hard. Make media figures defensive, make them publish apologism, until people get it in their heads that the media is not objective and has an ideology and agenda of its own.

      • Right. Basically, exactly what the right-wing has been doing for at least the last forty years, except in our direction instead, and, you know, actually based on facts. This also includes pushing our own media, or, as Jello Biafra put it, become the media.

        • Kathleen

          We must mercilessly mock and hammer the mainslime media.

      • Downpuppy

        Fine, but obviously creates an information vacuum that will be filled by something even worse, unless (insert miracle here).

        • It already has been filled by something worse. Mainstream sources have been reprinting bogus news stories because they too can’t tell the difference between fake news and genuine reporting. We need to continually push the idea that you don’t get two sets of facts. There is only one objective reality, and, as Stephen Colbert put it, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” We need to push for that incessantly.

        • SatanicPanic

          I’m hard pressed to imagine something much worse than Breitbart and Alex Jones, the sources our next president goes to for information

    • efgoldman

      what do we do to combat or correct the media going forward?

      Re-education camps?

      More seriously, no-one mentions one of the main reasons for media’s failure: Severe, unbridled, unchallenged consolidation. When your local paper (if you even have one anymore), multiple local radio stations, and local TV, report up the same corporate ladder, which also controls a major cable news network, it’s going to affect the coverage. And when the same conglomerate owns multiple outlets in multiple markets, it’s even worse. The ownership limits which used to exist gave multiple chances for multiple points of view to be seen and heard.
      That having been said, there’s no excuse – none – for the NYT and AP, which are independent, slanting the coverage as they did. As jim/iowa notes, their stories were often picked up verbatim and uncritically in hundreds of markets, and not just smaller ones like Cedar Rapids.

  • DrDick

    The news media in this country has been in a death spiral for decades at this point. While it started well before that, it really took off with the founding of Fox News and the rise of the RWNM. At this point it is pretty much comatose and really only represents “infotainment”.

    • joel hanes

      print -> TV -> cable -> internet -> social media

      TV -> “reality” programming -> culture of celebrity

      The medium is the message.
      Discuss.

      • DrDick

        It is much more basic. This is all about money and advertising, along with a very aggressive rightwing presence that relentlessly attacks anyone who tells the truth about them.

        • Gee Suss

          I wish someone would do a documentary on how news is made. I think having a third party watch a story get discovered, written, edited, printed, and then the subsequent reactions, would be fascinating.

  • Gone2Ground

    I feel certain there is enough “real news” to keep the 24/7 channels busy – there’s an entire globe’s worth of stories that could/should be covered, plus, as we’ve been brownbeaten about for the past thirty days, “flyover country” and The Real America. However, advertisers won’t pay to be sandwiched in between actual news stories about sweatshop labor or the heroin epidemic versus talking head fests that feature no actual news but lots of excited, well-dressed, well-spoken people yelling.

    Plus, actual news requires a budget for reporters, editors, photographers, and a fact checking staff. Much, much cheaper to invite Newt Gingrich on to bloviate for 15 minutes. Probably for free.

    Sorry, this was supposed to be a reply to NewishLawyer above…

  • Funkhauser

    After the Michael Labour fiasco, I respect neither Lynn Vavreck nor anything she writes. Perhaps you’re more charitable.

    • Gee Suss

      At least the (small number of) commenters let her have it before the comments were closed.

      • brewmn

        Yes, but the majority of those were outraged at the Times’ coverup of DNC corruption and other “scandals” that denied Bernie the nomination. There is still a not insubstantial cohort out there that apparently believes that Bernie losing the nomination is a greater tragedy than Clinton losing the general election. Lest we forget, she lost that election to Donald F’ing Trump.

        • Origami Isopod

          No, not all of those commenters were Bernie fanatics.

          • Gee Suss

            Yeah, I saw some but I chose to ignore them.

    • pillsy

      the Michael Labour fiasco

      I was seriously baffled until Google eventually coughed up the Michael LaCour fiasco. And yes, autocorrect really wants to turn “LaCour” into “Labour”.

      • EliHawk

        If autocorrect just assumes you mean to type Labour fiasco, it just means autocorrect is up to date on British current events.

  • Sebastian_h

    The way media covers major party candidates is part of a dynamic. The dynamic interplay between candidate and press is an important part of what makes a successful national politician. Messaging is part of how you control the dynamic. Seizing opportunities presented by your opponent is part of how you control the dynamic. Focusing on key positive ideas is part of how you control the dynamic. Keeping focus off of negatives is part of how you control the dynamic.

    This line of posts is frustrating because you want to focus on tiny pieces of the dynamic but definitely don’t want to talk about how the pieces fit together or how it is absolutely a candidate’s responsibility to work the dynamics in their favor and roll with the ones that aren’t.

    Yes, the media has an annoying focus on the emails. Craft a narrative around it.

    Yes, the media lack of focus on any one thing done by Trump (because he did dozens of crazy things) made it difficult to pin one thing on him. CRAFT A NARRATIVE AROUND IT and don’t focus on horrible things that don’t fit the narrative.

    A lot of being ‘inspiring’ is crafting an over-arching narrative to link things together. That is part of the job. Yes the media reports in a certain way. Part of the job is to channel that to your benefit and keep your opponent from channeling it to his.

    Don’t say it is impossible just because you don’t understand how to do it (and I don’t either, I suck at it, I get way too bogged down in details). But at least I see the skill and recognize it as a necessary part of the political toolkit. You seem to deny that it exists at all.

    • Murc

      This seems to be an utter denial that the media is made up of people, those people have agency, and they are responsible for the decisions they make using that agency.

      • kped

        +1000000

        Hell, each editor who leaves the Times seems to have a moment of candor where they talk about the unfair treatment they gave the Clinton’s (while the new editor continues that tradition).

        People are fallible. Newspapers and newsrooms are run by people…ergo, newspapers are also fallible.

      • Sebastian_h

        I don’t understand what you mean. Reporters have agency and exercise it at the individual story level. Sometimes they can craft that into a narrative. Sometimes they only get a chance to report on a small piece. It is the responsibility of a candidate and campaign to use those pieces in a coherent and functional narrative.

        • This is assuming that reporters and even editors have editorial independence from the company’s bottom line, which is not a particularly safe assumption. Look into the propaganda model. You can’t understand how the news media in this country actually function without understanding it.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          the candidates *try* to craft those kinds of narratives but there’s no reason the media *has* to accept them- in fact much of the time the media pride themselves for *not* doing so. It’s an uphill pull from step one

        • Additionally, Clinton spent almost the entire campaign talking about policy – in other words, trying to craft a narrative – and the media spent more time talking about emails than about all policy issues. Combined. So this idea that she didn’t try to craft a narrative is just fundamentally wrong. It’s impossible to craft a narrative if you are unable to reach people with that narrative. This was not something under Clinton’s control, and it’s absurd that people are trying to pretend otherwise.

          • Sebastian_h

            Talking about policy isn’t “in other words” crafting an over arching narrative.

            • jim, some guy in iowa

              it is when your narrative is “I want to make the government work for everybody in America and I know how to do it”

        • Murc

          Completely missing from here: any analysis on whether or not said reporters were in fact crafting their own narratives and whether said narratives reflected reality or not.

          • Scott Lemieux

            The idea that the media doesn’t create their own narratives, that they’re just a black box to be manipulated by campaigns, is just so ridiculous.

            • Sebastian_h

              Who said “just a black box”? I’m saying it is very much the job of the candidate to form a narrative in the dynamic that presents with the media. The problem with ascribing things to “the media” is that it involves a huge number of people operating under various incentives who individually have much less power to craft a narrative.

              Now they still DO, but they do it as part of a dynamic where the candidates have vastly more control than any individual reporter, and in a system where it is difficult to coordinate the different reporters. There are many more narratives involved with ‘the media’, so it is more difficult for their message to defeat a candidate’s message *if the candidate is good at creating and using narrative themes*.

              If you really don’t believe that ‘messaging’ from a candidate with a narrow campaign structure is a thing, it makes infinitely less sense to ascribe narrative control to some amorphous ‘media’.

              • I’m saying it is very much the job of the candidate to form a narrative in the dynamic that presents with the media.

                Unless the candidate “controls” the media, that can’t be the candidate’s job. Some candidates are better than others at getting the media to cover what they want covered, but even then it’s like spoon-feeding.

    • sibusisodan

      The problem is partly that Trump won without crafting a narrative, or really doing any of that stuff you mention. Unless gish galloping is a kind of narrative?

      • Sebastian_h

        No. He crafted a narrative about making America Great Again and about Crooked Hillary. He hammered both repeatedly.

        • sibusisodan

          So when you say ‘narrative’, you mean slogan?

          Because neither of those things are narratives that are crafted together from disparate journalistic outputs. They were relentless drumbeats, facts be damned. No progression, no explanation, no policy.

          • Sebastian_h

            I think slogan really undersells what Trump did with those two things. And maybe “narrative” is to linear. I’m not a person who does it well so I’m not sure I can adequately dissect it even in retrospect. Maybe “hook” like in music or to hang things on? Or thread?

            He hung a huge number of disparate events and ideas (some contradictory even) on those two lens for looking at things. They were both extremely versatile and multi faceted.

            The Clinton equivalent was “I’m with her” which doesn’t hook into as many things and does so in a narrow way.

            The equivalent to Crooked Hillary is…. strangely I feel like I watched dozens of anti-Trump ads and I can’t come away with an intentionally crafted tag.

            • Scott Lemieux

              What was Obama’s single hook in 2008 and 2012?

              • Sebastian_h

                Yes We Can!

                • Sebastian_h

                  It was a great hook to link all the crap Republicans throw about how it isn’t possible to do anything. You could bring it into almost everything in the 2008 campaign.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yes, the media lack of focus on any one thing done by Trump (because he did dozens of crazy things) made it difficult to pin one thing on him. CRAFT A NARRATIVE AROUND IT

      This is EXACTLY WHAT THE CLINTON CAMPAIGN DID. It focused selectively on Trump’s misdeeds to create a narrative about he was unfit for office because he was a crude misogynist. This might have been right or wrong tactically, but to deny they did it is just a classic example of “messaging can never fail, it can only be failed.”

      • Sebastian_h

        No, that is what they did around the direct “grab the pussy” thing. They didn’t link it well to all of the other critiques of Trump. Each Trump craziness stood alone, while each Clinton problem was woven into a unified web.

        What is the slogan that Clinton used to weave those all together? Can you quote it exactly? Not off the top of your head you can’t. Why is that? Because it was messaged very poorly.

        • Scott Lemieux

          “Is this the president we want for our daughters/children”? Hammered repeatedly, in ad after ad.

          • Sebastian_h

            Which was a fine enough response to the misogyny angle, and which wasn’t really hooked in well to all the other Trump nonsense.

      • Manny Kant

        Right. They clearly crafted a narrative. That narrative did not work well enough to win her the election.

        • Sebastian_h

          Yes, but Scott is suggesting that there is no way to know in advance whether a narrative is a ‘good’ one or a ‘bad’ one in the sense of how it communicates.

          I’m not saying I know HOW to craft a good narrative. I don’t. That isn’t an area I’m good at. But I’m good enough to recognize them when presented with cases. Trump’s narratives–even though I recognize them as crappy from an intellectual perspective–resonate. Clinton’s don’t.

          The example above is of the hook, or narrative, or link which brought the disparate Clinton mini-scandals together in “Crooked Hillary”. Trump presented all sorts of horrible things to seed a similar hook. But Clinton’s team/Clinton the candidate didn’t craft one, so the misdeeds end up being filed by non-political-junkies as individual cases rather than an over-arching problem.

          The fact that you can’t tell me the equivalent hook from the Clinton campaign is a basic political failure from that campaign. They did not engage in one of the very most basic things in political communication. Saying that “the media” didn’t do it for them is a cop out. It was their responsibility to do it.

          • Scott Lemieux

            The obvious problem here is that if not for the Comey letter Clinton most likely wins the popular vote by ~5 points and wins the EC easily, and then we’re talking about how stupid and amateurish “Crooked Hillary” was and how well Clinton’s advertising made Trump unacceptable to enough voters. It’s all circular.

            • Sebastian_h

              Even Clinton’s VERY self interested staff see the Comey bounce at like 1% (and can track it to before his announcements). But hey in that case everything is fine. You don’t need to worry about what Clinton did wrong because it was no big deal and it’s IMPOSSIBLE to figure out how messaging works so it must be true that everyone is equally good at it.

              • Scott Lemieux

                Even Clinton’s VERY self interested staff see the Comey bounce at like 1%

                Cite? And leaving that aside, how could you possibly be confident that 1 one but not 2 of the 5 points Clinton lost after October 28 were related to the coverage of the letter?

                You don’t need to worry about what Clinton did wrong

                You can do both! However, arguments that Clinton did something wrong don’t have much value if they’re pure speculation, particularly since Clinton will not in fact be running again.

                so it must be true that everyone is equally good at it.

                Literally nobody is arguing this. And it cuts both ways — downplaying or ignoring the Comey letter is also very convenient for people who think that elections are determined almost entirely by the tactical decisions of the Democratic candidate.

                • Sebastian_h

                  Messaging concepts aren’t pure speculation. It has been pretty well understood for at least a decade that Hillary Clinton is terrible at it.

                  You don’t seem very interested in discussing actual examples like “Crooked Hillary” or “Make America Great Again” and what about them worked.

                  You can’t come up with the tight examples we should be discussing for Clinton, which should be a hint at a problem even if we can’t pinpoint it. With a good politician, you should be able to come up with them this soon after an election.

                  I’m a pretty close election watcher and I couldn’t tell you what the tight thread was for Clinton. Competence? Things aren’t so bad?

                • Sebastian_h

                  “And it cuts both ways — downplaying or ignoring the Comey letter is also very convenient for people who think that elections are determined almost entirely by the tactical decisions of the Democratic candidate. ”

                  Do you notice how often you totalize when you disagree with someone? Disagreements in emphasis don’t necessarily lead to statements that should be interpreted as almost entirely. I can believe that Comey might have influenced things, and that with a good campaigner it shouldn’t have been close enough to matter. (Not to mention that with a non-Clinton candidate Comey wouldn’t have had such a strong opportunity).

                  Also shouldn’t there be some cognitive dissonance created with the idea that messaging can’t be figured out and the idea that Republicans are so goddamned good at it that they can win with it year after year? How many times do they have to be lucky before it isn’t luck?

                  Isn’t there a problem with “messaging doesn’t work” and “Citizens United was important”? Which of those statements is more important to you?

                • BartletForGallifrey

                  Messaging concepts aren’t pure speculation. It has been pretty well understood for at least a decade that Hillary Clinton is terrible at it.

                  So terrible she won the most votes in:
                  -Primary election, 2000 (82% of the vote);
                  -General election, 2000 (55% of the vote);
                  -General election, 2006 (67% of the vote);
                  -Primary election, 2008 (48% of the vote);
                  -Primary election, 2016 (55% of the vote);
                  -General election, 2016 (48% of the vote).

                  So terrible she won more votes than anyone other than Barack Obama.

                  So terrible she got a 2.3 million and counting lead with both the Russian government and the FBI trying to take her down.

                  We should all be so terrible at messaging.

                • Scott Lemieux

                  Messaging concepts aren’t pure speculation. It has been pretty well understood for at least a decade that Hillary Clinton is terrible at it.

                  “The proof that my speculation is accurate is that there’s been lots of speculation.” OK.

                  You don’t seem very interested in discussing actual examples like “Crooked Hillary” or “Make America Great Again” and what about them worked.

                  Because, again, the fact that they “worked” was contingent on a number of other factors breaking for Trump.

                  You can’t come up with the tight examples we should be discussing for Clinton, which should be a hint at a problem even if we can’t pinpoint it. With a good politician, you should be able to come up with them this soon after an election.

                  I have; you have just declared them “not tight” because your argument is entirely circular. Obama’s cliche in 2008 was brilliant, because he beat a washed-up old man representing the incumbent party in a depression! Clinton’s cliche in 2016 was ineffective (and Trump’s taunts highly effective) because she only overperformed the fundamentals by 4 points!

                  Also shouldn’t there be some cognitive dissonance created with the idea that messaging can’t be figured out and the idea that Republicans are so goddamned good at it that they can win with it year after year?

                  When have I ever said that Republicans win because they’re better at messaging? I think this claim is, in fact, equally circular and lacking in real explanatory power. I also don’t understand the Citizens United non-sequitur, as that matters to quantity more than quality of advertising. (And, in addition, you’ll note that I think the effects of Citizens United are real but overrated.)

                • Sebastian_h

                  Your argument is boiling down to ‘I, Scott Lemieux, cannot distinguish good messaging from bad therefore they can’t be distinguished’. I will conceded that you can’t tell them apart and that I’m apparently not good enough at the subject matter to help you tell them apart. But your responses here aren’t ever going to let you learn to tell them apart if you never admit that other people might have more insight to the issue than you do. You shouldn’t believe the people who say that messaging can cure a terrible candidate. But neither should you believe that it can’t be worth quite a few percentage points on the margin. Which is all Clinton needed here.

                  Do you really see no difference between Yes We Can and I’m With Her? The numerous positive hook opportunities, the inclusiveness, the openness. You don’t see any of that?

  • kped

    My favorite was the 2000 odd words the NYT spilled on “Clinton Foundation asks for travel visas!!!”, and buried in it, you learn that they didn’t get the Visa’s…and that they were for some Bill Clinton aides to go on a diplomatic mission to North Korea to free American hostages.

    But despite that, it was a front page story filled with a lot of “questions raised” innuendo. But no, it’s not their fault they did this…it’s the campaigns and their advertising!

    What a joke.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Literally got more hype than Trump settling a fraud lawsuit for $25 million. But Clinton could have changed that by doing more advertising about Trump’ character. Wait, I’ll come in again.

      • kped

        And it was part of a days long deep dive into the Clinton Foundation, where no actual wrong doing was even remotely shown…but still…questions!

        So a person just loosely following the story, or just seeing the headlines at their local corner store, would come away thinking that the Clinton Foundation was a shady organization involved in multiple pay to play scandals.

        And even if this person decided to start reading the articles, it wouldn’t be until about 80% of the way through that they’d get to the little blurb saying “but no wrong doing was done”, only, of course, to be followed by “…still, questions are being raised about the nature of the foundation and…”

        Seriously, a disgrace. Whose the guy who spent a decade going after the media for the Gore election? I worry for his sanity, because this election was that multiplied by infinity.

        • nemdam

          The media only did this because Clinton was a fatally flawed candidate. The evidence? If you aren’t a fatally flawed candidate, you don’t get smeared with BS scandals! How do you not get smeared with BS scandals? Don’t be a fatally flawed candidate! The logic is undeniable.

          • Scott Lemieux

            In fairness, I’m confident that any poll taken in 2014 would cite email management as the top priority of the public. Clinton ignored that at her peril.

            • ASV

              David Petraeus is lucky he handed out classified information in person rather than through an electronic medium.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Olivia Nuzzi @OliviaNuzzi:

    The media is an easy scapegoat, but that’s just bullshit. Maybe try running a candidate who isn’t fatally flawed next time.

    Hit a nerve, did we?

    • Downpuppy

      The Clinton Rules are older than Olivia.

      • BartletForGallifrey

        This is correct. Olivia was born two weeks before Bill was inaugurated.

    • Gee Suss

      I love how Hillary Clinton is “fatally flawed” but Trump is just dandy.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        she dies of a stubbed toe, meanwhile Trump goes on like that knight in the Monty Python bit

      • Manny Kant

        That’s not at all fair to Nuzzi, who’s being a moron here but who has been very critical of Trump.

    • Who the hell is Olivia Nuzzi?

      • XTPD

        A writer for The Daily Beast. Not an especially good or bad writer; falls into the “anti-Trumpis with BOFF SIDES impulses” (which is better than the “nominally anti-Trump Clenis-botherer,” but not by much).

        • EliHawk

          She also, rather famously, kicked off her ‘journalism’ career by jumping on the Anthony Weiner mayoral campaign as an intern while an undergrad so she could then sell her story everywhere.

          “Nuzzi was looking for advice on how to break into journalism, and, in particular, how to get a foothold in TV. All of her friends wanted to be TV pundits, she said. It’s what they idolized.”

          • XTPD

            Eeeew.

            Also, I just realized I’m two years younger than her.

            • BartletForGallifrey

              +1995

        • Manny Kant

          She’s typically marginally less annoying than a Maggie Haberman or a Chuck Todd, but more annoying than anyone who is actually good.

  • artem1s

    I agree that the rotating scandal extruder that the press had to go with probably hurt Clinton towards the end. Too many people in the media, the establishment GOP, and the Clinton campaign kept waiting for something, ANYTHING to be the last straw for traditional GOP voters. The only thing that this election has proven to me is people are partisan and very unwilling to listen to anyone outside the echo chambers they are already in. The GOP was clearly running a campaign to fatigue voters from the getgo. They did it in 2000 and along with a little voter suppression in a couple of key areas, it worked. In 2008 they had a harder time because it was their guy everyone wanted relief from. They will run the same playbook for as long as they can get away with it. It won’t matter who the nominees are, they want everyone to hate all the candidates and all the coverage. It means semi-reasonable people will get turned off and quit trying to parse out who is telling the truth. In this instance, they have also proven that they don’t have to have the most likeable candidate. It’s not the candidate they want voters to hate; it’s the process and voting they want them to hate. In this, they have been very, very successful.

  • BartletForGallifrey

    They recognized what they’d done on 11/9:

    MSNBC friend: We in media have blood on our hands. Treated him like a legit candidate, which he isn’t & her like a criminal, which she isn’t

    I guess their consciences couldn’t take it, so three weeks later we’re back to “huh what nope didn’t do nothing wrong”

    • XTPD

      Squishy-liberal media dipshits like the NYT & MSNBC: Yes, they did initially feel remorse. (I remember Chuck Todd got shat on when he expressed shock at the results a few weeks back). Horseracist Villager outlets like the Chestnut Nights of the Equine Order: Absolutely not at any point, and the best they could come up with were “Electoral College, so SURRENDER LIBTARDS” and “but Trump’s a media SUPERGENIUS”.

      • BartletForGallifrey

        Chuck Todd has been getting shat on quite a bit today. Deservedly.

        • XTPD

          It likely helps that in his case (as well as the NYT) that “squishy” modifies “liberal;” that is, the volume of pushback they’ve been receiving will likely have tangible results in the next four years (note that the Gray Lady started doing more critical coverage of Trump after catching fire for their EMAILZ! chickenfucking).

          Fucking Idiot, JoeScar, Cillizza & Shafer, on the other hand, are nihilistic monsters who deserve to be fired from a cannon, into the sun.

          • sapient

            The NYT didn’t really improve much until Hillary lost.

        • Kathleen

          Where and for what? Please do tell!

          • BartletForGallifrey
            • Kathleen

              Thank you very much for the link!

            • Kathleen

              That was such a treat. Thanks again.

  • IS

    In a rare case, I disagree with Krugman here, and think he may even be engaging in a bit of his hated both-sidesism: blaming one of the candidates for the lack of policy discussion is an act of gaslighting/Orwellian retconning; blaming the other is kind of on point. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out which is which.

  • Brien Jackson

    So I reference DATELINE in another thread, but it’s worth putting here too. What the media has done in creating the Clinton Rules is much the same as the sketchy convictions that litter this show. What happens, basically, is that the police/DA become convinced X person did the crime, can’t find any evidence to this effect, maybe even find evidence that suggests X is actually innocent, but ultimately decide 10 years later that they KNOW X is guilty and, fuck it, we’ll go ahead with it anyway, present some half-brained theories and play procedural hardball to win a conviction. It’s all good because we KNOW they’re guilty, right? The media invested A LOT of money investigating Whitewater and the some other Arkansas stuff that turned out to be nothing but right-wing bullshit, and they’ve spent eternity sense trying to nail Hillary, specifically, to the wall because they’ve been convinced she must be corrupt because they spent all that money invetigating Whitewater, right?

    • Bruce B.

      Right. I’m reminded of whichever Nixon staffer said, “Nobody suggest that there not be a cover-up.” For the mass media and the Clintons, nobody in any position of influence seems to ever suggest that the Cllntons not be guilty of major atrocities.

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