The concern with fake news is understandable, but at least in 2016 the mainstream press was a much bigger and more demonstrable problem:
Given the attention these very same news outlets have lavished, post-election, on fake news shared via social media, it may come as a surprise that they themselves dominated social media traffic. While it may have been the case that the 20 most-shared fake news stories narrowly outperformed the 20 most-shared “real news” stories, the overall volume of stories produced by major newsrooms vastly outnumbers fake news. According to the same report, “The Washington Post produced more than 50,000 stories over the 18-month period, while The New York Times, CNN, and Huffington Post each published more than 30,000 stories.” Presumably not all of these stories were about the election, but each such story was also likely reported by many news outlets simultaneously. A rough estimate of thousands of election-related stories published by the mainstream media is therefore not unreasonable.
What did all these stories talk about? 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. 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 problem is this: 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.
In this context, 10 is an interesting figure because it is also the number of front-page stories the Times ran on the Hillary Clinton email scandal in just six days, from October 29 (the day after FBI Director James Comey announced his decision to reopen his investigation of possible wrongdoing by Clinton) through November 3, just five days before the election. When compared with the Times’s overall coverage of the campaign, the intensity of focus on this one issue is extraordinary. 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). 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.
A few notes:
- To describe the media’s priorities during this campaign is to condemn them.
- It’s not true to say that the media never covers policy — policy coverage was well down from 2008. But that aside, the fact that Trump got relatively more policy coverage — despite not having any policy knowledge and being guilty of both much more serious and much more salacious misconduct — is truly damning.
- These decisions cannot be defended on grounds on inherent reader interest. The media doesn’t report on email server management issues in any other context because nobody cares about them. The idea that the public is more inherently more interested in Clinton’s email server than, say, in Trump’s boasting about sexual assault or tendency to rip off contractors or fake universities is ludicrous. The mass mobilization against ACA repeal is further evidence that this lack of focus on critical policy issues is projection, not pandering.
- The idea that there was One Magic Trick Clinton could have used to stop this massive, campaign-long over-coverage of the EMAILS! nanoscandal is idiotic on its face. But the data in the chart makes this even more obvious. What was the miscalculation by Clinton that caused the media to devote large amounts of coverage to the DNC hacks, which not only revealed no misconduct by Clinton but not even any interesting gossip? Did Trump get less coverage of his far more objectively worse scandals (and more policy coverage!) by GETTING IN FRONT OF THE STORY or offering an immediate abject apology or whatever the silly One Magic Trick was supposed to have been? This “stop hitting yourself” apologism for completely indefensible coverage priorities is embarrassing.
- If the typical elite editor and top reporter thought that their access to health care was in jeopardy, I guarantee the coverage priorities would be very different.
- If you think this can’t happen to the Democratic nominee in 2020 — that the media won’t still have a felt need to balance actual scandalous conduct by Trump with inane bullshit about the Democratic candidate, no matter who it is — you’re delusional.