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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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