The media’s coverage of the 2016 campaign was, quite literally, a scandal of world-historical importance:
But another key component of journalism is the framing and contextualizing of events and new information: How do you take that raw material and present it in ways that don’t just provide consumers with new data points, but help them suss out how critical those data points are and what they mean in the scheme of things?
Here, major media outlets failed abysmally. The best illustration of this came just days ago, when a media monitor tallied the amount of time nightly news broadcasts devoted to stories about Clinton’s emails, and the amount of time they devoted to stories about all policy matters combined, and found that the former exceeded the latter. On any given Sunday morning, network news shows host panels of journalists, nearly all of whom are fluent in the esoteric details of Clinton’s email practices, but many of whom couldn’t tell you how Trump’s tax plan works. As a result, if Trump were to win, millions of people would expect him to enact a populist agenda, even as his own campaign promises to raise taxes on millions of middle-income workers, privatize roads, and deregulate Wall Street.
As it turns out, the legislation that Trump might enact, though radical, is only a medium-sized story compared to more basic facts like his disdain for democratic norms and his temperamental unfitness for public service—just how dangerous it would be for him to be the president. Here, the story isn’t much better. News outlets did make real, novel efforts to communicate Trump’s unique kind of political dishonesty and his erratic nature to news consumers, but this was offset by a parallel collective decision to hold him to the irresponsibly low bar that his campaign set for itself.
The final week of the campaign has been reminiscent of every relatively quiet stretch between Trump’s serial implosions (attacking Gonzalo Curiel, attacking the Khan family, attacking a former Miss Universe, or responding to the unearthing of the Access Hollywood video in which he boasted about committing sexual assault with impunity). When Trump wasn’t in the midst of a self-inflicted crisis, we were treated to breathless commentary about how he was once again “sticking to script,” as if this were a meaningful demonstration of competence for the hardest job in the world.
A grossly unqualified white nationalist authoritarian is about to take office in what is likely to be a global economic recession, with a Congress poised to enact a radical domestic agenda. And the collective judgment of the media was that one of the most important questions facing the country was Hillary Clinton’s EMAILZS! It is hard to overstate what an indefensible error in judgment this was. James Comey deserves enormous blame, but nobody made the media cover a minor story obsessively for months.