While it’s true that fake news appears to have circulated widely in Trump-friendly corners of the internet — possibly with some assistance from the Russian government — the idea that fake news was central to the outcome of the campaign has little basis in fact. The very nature of viral fake news is that it’s mostly likely to be shared by people who have already bought into a partisan or ideological worldview, with pro-Trump fake news largely shared by Trump supporters to other Trump supporters.
Clinton’s campaign did have a real news problem, but the problem was with the real news coverage — coverage that dwelled overwhelmingly on a bullshit email server scandal, devoted far fewer resources to investigating Trump’s shady foundation than Clinton’s lifesaving one, largely ignored Trump’s financial conflicts of interest, and almost entirely avoided discussion of the policy stakes in the campaign.
Trump ended the campaign as he began it — unpopular and viewed as unqualified by a majority of voters, with no amount of fake news stories to puff him up succeeding in moving the needle. But Clinton, who began the 2016 cycle with reasonably high favorable numbers, saw them crater under a torrent of email stories with 45 percent of voters telling exit pollsters they were bothered “a lot” by her decision to forgo a state.gov email address, of which 86 percent voted for Trump.
Whether journalists want to be proud or ashamed of the work done by mainstream press during the campaign is up to them, but it was perfectly normal stories in normal outlets that moved the needle in a major way — fake news was a total sideshow.
The stories about Clinton’s email server, the separate spate of stories about Clinton Foundation emails revealed through Freedom of Information Act requests, and the third spate of stories about emails stolen from John Podesta’s email account were not fake news.
They were very real stories that totally normal mainstream media organizations chose to make the focal point of their coverage of the 2016 campaign. This coverage, though extremely extensive, did an extraordinarily poor job of explaining the actual legal issue at stake in the server matter. Network television newscasts from ABC, NBC, and CBS chose to devote three times as much airtime to Clinton’s email server as they gave to all policy issues combined. The Associated Press ran a major investigative story into Clinton Foundation influence peddling that treated a meeting with a Nobel Peace Prize winner as evidence of an insidious pay-to-play scheme. The New York Times did a Clinton Foundation investigation that treated Bill Clinton successfully rescuing American hostages from North Korea as scandalous. The fact that public health experts believe the Clinton Foundation saved millions of lives, by contrast, played extremely little role in 2016 campaign coverage.
To summarize the media’s performance in the election campaign that installed Donald Trump in the White House, its coverage of his opponent was completely dominated by trivial pseudo-scandals, and the quality of the coverage given these topics was extraordinarily bad. There is no possible defense of this, no conceivable argument that Hillary Clinton’s email server management was far more important that every policy issue but together, no possible justification for the implicit claim that the Clinton Foundation was similarly corrupt to one of Donald Trump’s many actual cons including his actual fake foundation. This is just a huge institutional failure with disastrous consequences.
On a related note, I’ve always thought that liberals over-emphasizes the impact of Fox News. The War on Gore that put George W. Bush in the White House was driven by the mainstream media — including newspapers with liberal op-ed pages — and so was the even worse sequel. Fox News preaches to the converted: it’s not the big problem. The fact that after not just 2016 but 2000 a lot of liberals just want to ignore this because it would be whining or something is just amazing to me. We certainly know that’s not how Republicans would react, which is of course a crucial reason why the media was so desperate to find anything it could use to create a false equivalency between Clinton and Trump.