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In the five weeks before the November 8 presidential election, evening cable and broadcast news, major newspapers, and the Sunday morning broadcast network political talk shows combined to flood the media landscape with coverage of hacked emails released by Wikileaks, according to an analysis by Media Matters.
After its July release of emails that were stolen from the Democratic National Committee, Wikileaks released a daily stream of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta starting in early October.
Between October 4 and November 8, weekday evening cable news aired a combined 247 segments either about the emails or featuring significant discussion of them; evening broadcast news and the Sunday morning broadcast network political talk shows aired a combined 25 segments; and five of the country’s most-circulated daily newspapers -- Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post -- published a combined 96 articles about the emails released by Wikileaks in their print editions.
Following Donald Trump’s presidential victory, the U.S. intelligence community released a report with its assessment that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” The assessment, which represents the view of the 16 federal intelligence agencies, concluded “with high confidence” that as part of this effort, “Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.”
In response to mounting evidence that Russia sought to swing the election in Trump’s favor, in part through allegedly releasing hacked emails through channels like Wikileaks, Trump and his allies have in recent months downplayed the impact of the hacks. Trump, who has repeatedly sought to de-emphasize Russia’s alleged role in the election-related hacking to begin with, has also argued that the hacks had “absolutely no effect on the outcome” of the election. As ThinkProgress noted, “This was not the view of candidate Trump, who talked about Wikileaks and the content of the emails it released at least 164 times in last month of the campaign.”
And Trump wasn’t alone.
Media Matters’ review shows that news media treated the emails released by Wikileaks a major news story in the lead-up to the election. (It’s important to note that this is only a quantitative study; Media Matters did not attempt to assess the quality of articles and news segments about the hacked emails. A segment or article criticizing coverage of the emails or highlighting suspicions about Russia’s potential involvement was counted the same as a segment or article breathlessly promoting the contents of the hacked emails.)
Data-driven news site Fivethirtyeight.com determined that the hacked emails released by Wikileaks were “almost exclusively an October story. Over 72 percent of people who searched for Wikileaks from June onward did so during October or the first week of November. Interest really got going with [Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief] Julian Assange’s press conference on Oct. 4.” We reviewed transcripts and articles beginning on October 4, when Assange first announced during a press conference that Wikileaks would release additional information pertaining to the election, through November 8, Election Day.
Evening cable news -- defined as shows airing weekdays from 5 p.m. through 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC -- devoted massive coverage to the Wikileaks story, with Fox leading the way. In total, Fox News aired 173 segments over the course of the period studied. Fox also aired teasers 64 times to keep audiences hooked throughout broadcasts. The hacked emails were also mentioned in passing by a guest, correspondent, or host 137 times during additional segments about other topics.
Fox’s coverage was a near-daily obsession for its evening news hosts. Four of the six programs in the study ran at least one segment every weekday or nearly every weekday between October 7 and November 7. Special Report with Bret Baier ran segments every weekday between October 7 and November 4; On the Record with Brit Hume ran segments every weekday between October 7 and November 7; The Kelly File ran segments on all but four weekdays between October 7 and November 7 (and on those four days, Wikileaks was still mentioned in passing at least once); and Hannity ran segments nearly every weekday between October 7 and November 7 (excluding October 10 and 20, the latter of which featured at least one mention of the story).
CNN aired the second most Wikileaks coverage, with 57 segments teased to audiences 21 times and an additional 75 mentions during segments about other topics. MSNBC aired only 17 segments teased six times and tallied 23 mentions during additional segments. (MSNBC’s 6 p.m. hour, which at the time aired With All Due Respect, was not available in Nexis and was therefore excluded from this analysis).
On broadcast network news, the numbers are smaller, but over the course of the period studied, the networks each aired a significant number of segments on their evening news programs and Sunday morning political talk shows. ABC programs World News Tonight and This Week with George Stephanopoulos devoted the most coverage to the Wikileaks emails, with 10 segments and five mentions during additional segments combined. CBS’ Evening News and Face the Nation with John Dickerson followed, with nine segments and three mentions during additional segments combined. NBC’s Nightly News and Meet the Press with Chuck Todd aired just six segments and 12 mentions during additional segments combined.
The five major newspapers we studied each published numerous articles in their print editions (we did not include online coverage) about the Wikileaks emails in the month before the election, but three stood out from the rest. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal each published 27 articles about the emails and mentioned them in 26 and 10 other articles, respectively. The Washington Post was the third paper in this group with 26 articles about the Wikileaks emails published and mentions in 14 additional articles.
USA Today published 11 articles about the Wikileaks emails and mentioned them in three other articles while Los Angeles Times ran just five stories and mentioned the Wikileaks emails in only seven other articles.
As was the case with Trump, conservative media figures who hyped and encouraged reporting on hacked emails quickly adjusted their views on the significance of the hacked emails during the presidential transition period. After touting the release of the stolen emails, credulously reporting on numerous illegally obtained emails published by Wikileaks, encouraging Trump to “just read” the stolen emails at campaign rallies, advising Trump to “study Wikileaks,” and repeatedly providing a platform for Assange to promote the publication of the stolen emails, right-wing media figures downplayed the influence the disclosure of the emails had on the 2016 campaign. Taking the lead from Trump's transition team, some right-wing media figures then argued that “no one can articulate or specify in any way that” the publication of the private emails “affected the outcome of our election.”
Although right-wing media figures have claimed that there is “no indication that” the publication of the private emails “affected the election,” the breathless reporting on the contents of the Wikileaks disclosures by media outlets played into the hands of the Russian government’s “influence efforts to … amplif[y] stories on scandals about Secretary Clinton and the role of Wikileaks in the election campaign,” according to the intelligence community’s report. Days after the first trove of private emails was published by Wikileaks, a group of former top national security officials and outside experts warned “the press … to be cautious in the use of allegedly ‘leaked’ information,” which “follows a well-known Russian playbook.”
The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum summarized the strategy in an interview with Slate months before the first disclosure of Podesta’s personal emails:
I didn’t think about the United States because I thought the United States is too big, American politics isn’t moved by these smaller amounts of money the way that Czech politics are or Polish politics are. But I hadn’t thought through the idea that of course through hacking, which is something they’re famously very good at, that they could try and disrupt a campaign. And of course the pattern of this is something we’ve seen before: There’s a big leak, it’s right on an important political moment, it affects the way people think about the campaign, and of course instead of focusing on who did the leak and who’s interest it’s in, everyone focuses on the details, what’s in the emails, what did so-and-so write to so-and-so on Dec. 27, and that’s all that gets reported.
The press could have seen this coming. On the August 24, 2016, edition of The Kelly File, then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly interviewed Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange, who used the platform to hype the “material” Wikileaks planned to publish, and announced it would be released in “several batches.” Kelly asked Assange if he thought the information in his “possession could be a game changer in the US election.” Assange said the effectiveness of the release “depends on how it catches fire in the public and in the media.”
Media Matters reviewed the Nexis database for news transcripts and articles that mentioned Julian Assange or Wikileaks approximately within the same paragraph as variations on any of the following terms: Hillary Clinton, Democratic National Committee, DNC, or John Podesta. We included cable news networks’ weekday evening programming (5:00 p.m. through 11:00 p.m.) on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC; the evening news shows (ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’ Evening News, and NBC’s Nightly News) and Sunday morning political talk shows (ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, CBS’ Face the Nation with John Dickerson, and NBC’s Meet the Press with Chuck Todd) on ABC, CBS, and NBC; and five of the most-circulated daily print newspapers: Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. (MSNBC’s 6:00 p.m. hour, which hosted With All Due Respect was not available in Nexis and was therefore excluded from the analysis).
Data-driven news analysis website Fivethrityeight.com determined the hacked emails released by Wikileaks “was almost exclusively an October story. Over 72 percent of people who searched for Wikileaks from June onward did so during October or the first week of November. Interest really got going with Julian Assange’s press conference on Oct. 4.” Therefore, we reviewed articles beginning on October 4, 2016, when Assange first announced during a press conference that Wikileaks would release additional information pertaining to the election, through November 8, 2016, Election Day.
For television, we coded as “segments” news segments where the hacked emails released by Wikileaks were the stated topic of discussion, and we also coded as “segments” when signification discussion about the hacked emails from Wikileaks occurred during segments with a different initially stated topic or during multi-topic segments. We defined significant discussion as at least two or more speakers discussing the hacked emails to one another during the course of the segment. We determined the start of a segment to be when the show’s host introduced either the topic or guests and determined the end of a segment to be when the show’s host concluded discussion or bid farewell to the show’s guests.
We coded as “mentions” comments made by a speaker about the hacked emails without any other speaker in the segment engaging. We coded as “teasers” introductions by the host of upcoming segments on the hacked emails where the segment in question did not immediately follow.
For print, we coded as “articles” news stories and opinion pieces where the hacked emails were mentioned in the headline or the lead of the story or article. If the hacked emails were used as a piece of evidence within a larger story or used to provide context, those were coded as “mentions within an article.”
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In a series of tweets by The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, we learned President Donald Trump was relying on “anecdotes about alleged fraud from sprawling network of friends & associates” to enable his latest temper tantrum about nonexistent voter fraud making him the popular vote loser.
Since the election, Trump has repeatedly claimed that millions of illegal votes swung the popular vote in favor of former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. After Trump reportedly raised the issue in a meeting with congressional leaders earlier this week, claiming three to five million illegal ballots were cast, he announced on Twitter this morning that he would seek a “major investigation” of supposed voter fraud.
We know exactly where Trump’s blatant lie came from, and we know exactly who is in the network of hucksters that supplied it to him.
For the past twelve years, Media Matters has been tracking the nexus between right-wing media and a collection of pseudo-academics and dark money-funded conservative lawyers and activists whose mission has been to roll back decades-old civil rights law, in particular those laws that did so much to help America’s communities of color.
For these far-right activists, voting rights have always been at the top of their target list, and lies about the prevalence of what is in fact virtually non-existent voter fraud has been their ammunition of choice.
From conservative pundits like John Fund, Hans von Spakovsky, J. Christian Adams, and Roger Stone to right-wing media platforms supplied by the “alt-right” fringes, Alex Jones, and Fox News, to the lawyers and statehouses who have pushed their reactionary rhetoric, the assault on the Second Reconstruction and core civil rights laws like the Voting Rights Act and various components of the Civil Rights Act has been relentless, and increasingly successful.
And now, the president is repeating one of their core and repeatedly disproven lies -- that election fraud is a systemic problem. We all have a big problem now, and nonexistent voter fraud sure isn’t it.
There is literally no honest debate to be had on this point. Voter fraud is not, and never has been, a systemic problem in modern American history. Anyone who tells you differently is lying, and anyone who humors the theory with false equivalence or “devil’s advocacy” is enabling the lie.
The real problem and horrifying prospect is that the successor to Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama -- all presidents who expanded or protected the franchise -- either believes in this manufactured falsehood, or is happy to spin it further and louder for his personal political vanity.
Media Matters will continue with allies to expose this lie and its roots in media misinformation and fakery for as long as we can, and we encourage responsible journalists to continue pushing back aggressively on this flagrantly undemocratic and frankly un-American posturing of our newest president.
And to all the enablers of the voter fraud lie, the self-interested proponents of strict voter ID, the turnout conspiracy theorists, the historical “colorblind constitution” revisionists, the political beneficiaries of voter suppression and purges, now that the President of the United States has caught the carrot -- think hard about what comes next in your role as self-professed guardians of democracy.
If President Trump sees non-existent voter fraud when he wins, what’s going to happen when he loses?
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One America News Network (OANN) drew attention after President-elect Donald Trump took a question from its correspondent at his January 11 press conference. OANN, which was founded in 2013 as a right-wing news network akin to Fox News, shilled for Trump throughout his campaign and recently hired Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a commentator. The network has a history of race-baiting and presenting anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-abortion reporting.
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Before and since the election, media outlets have repeatedly failed to write headlines that adequately contextualize President-elect Donald Trump’s lies. Simply echoing his statements normalizes his behavior and can spread disinformation, particularly given the high proportion of people who read only headlines. Below is an ongoing list documenting the media’s failure to contextualize Trump’s actions in headlines and sometimes on social media. Some of the initial versions were subsequently altered (and these are marked with an asterisk), but many of the updates still failed to adequately contextualize Trump’s remarks.
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The new face of NBC News spent the final months of the presidential campaign withholding vital information about Donald Trump, revealing it only in the book she published days after the election.
Fox News host Megyn Kelly has been hired away by NBC, where she will play “a triple role in which she will host her own daytime news and discussion program, anchor an in-depth Sunday night news show and take regular part in the network’s special political programming and other big-event coverage.”
There are many reasons to be concerned with Kelly’s move, among them her history of using white racial anxiety to bolster her career, her willingness to defend and promote anti-gay "hate groups," and her ability to use a patina of unearned credibility to push out the same right-wing lies that her Fox colleagues spout. But among them must certainly be her decision to wait until after the election to reveal key facts about Trump's interactions with her network.
In her book, Settle for More, Kelly writes that she learned Trump had inside information from Fox about the question she would ask him at the first Republican primary debate. She confirms that during the campaign, former network chairman Roger Ailes was shilling for more positive coverage of the now president-elect. She reports that she was "offered gifts" by Trump "clearly meant to shape coverage," and details numerous death threats she received after Trump attacked her in interviews and on Twitter, which led her to hire security guards, and a Fox executive to warn to Trump’s lawyer that “If Megyn Kelly gets killed, it's not going to help your candidate.”
None of this came out during the campaign -- in fact, Kelly plugged her book in May by stating, “For the first time, I’ll speak openly about my year with Donald Trump.” “There are times,” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple writes of the book, “when Kelly all but smacks the reader in the face with her scoop-preservation strategy.”
Kelly defends her conduct by saying she was prioritizing her family's safety. That's a valid reason to stay silent about the threats of violence from Trump supporters, but not to hide Trump's bribes or efforts inside the network to support him.
Reporters have a responsibility to provide news when it matters to the American people, not when the news is most convenient for their books sales. It’s unfortunate that NBC News doesn’t seem to agree.
There are lots of ways the political press continues to normalize President-elect Donald Trump’s often radical behavior. From regurgitating his vague tweets as news while he refuses to grant press conferences, to shying away from calling the serial prevaricator a liar, journalists continue to play nice.
Here’s another way Trump’s getting the benefit of the doubt: He’s a wildly unpopular political figure, yet the press continues to gloss over that fact while granting him soft coverage.
In terms of polling data, there’s virtually no good news for Trump. The results generally point in the same direction: He’s widely disliked and inspires little confidence in his presidential abilities.
This stands in stark contrast with characteristically stronger bipartisan approval for presidents-elect in recent decades. For instance, in 2008, "50 percent of John McCain's voters approved of Barack Obama's handling of his presidential transition,” noted an NBC News report. And as NPR reported, “Even after a prolonged recount and Supreme Court decision, George W. Bush received 29 percent approval from Democrats in 2001.” This is 14 percentage points higher than the same Pew statistic for Trump.
Trump’s contrast with Obama in late 2008 is stunning: Obama entered 2009 with a 68 percent favorable rating. Today, Trump’s favorable rating stands at an anemic 43 percent. And if history is any indication, that rating is almost certain to go down once the new president takes office.
A plurality of Americans think he will be a “poor” or “terrible” president. His cabinet picks enjoy historically little support, and 54 percent of adults say they’re either "uncertain (25 percent) or pessimistic and worried (29 percent) about how Trump will perform during his presidency." Meanwhile, 68 percent would describe the president-elect as "hard to like," and less than half of Americans are confident in Trump’s ability to handle an international crisis.
Those numbers are off-the-charts awful for an American president-elect. On average, 71 percent of Americans were confident that Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton could handle an international crisis, when polled after each was newly elected. Today, just 46 percent are confident about Trump's ability to handle such a crisis.
Modern American history hasn't seen anything like this. So what explains the press’s passive, often genuflecting coverage of Trump since November?
“Watching the formation of Donald Trump’s presidency, the press coverage is disappointingly weak and thin,” John Dean recently wrote in Newsweek. “The news coverage of the transition of the most unqualified man ever elected to the White House is as weak and wishy-washy as it was at the outset of his campaign.”
And as Media Matters stressed last month:
In the weeks since Election Day, political journalism has largely fallen short both in style and substance. Journalists watching from the sidelines have been reduced to parroting Trump’s publicly available tweets -- allowing him to drive the news cycle -- and have bungled one of the most important roles the press plays during a transition period: the vetting of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations and appointments.
If Trump had just posted a 49-state, Reagan-esque landslide victory, I could more readily understand why the press would be acquiescing so regularly. But Trump just made history by losing the popular tally by nearly three million votes and remains, without question, the least popular president-elect since modern-day polling was invented.
Yet members of the press seem unduly intimidated by his presence, and have even rewarded him with chatter of an invisible “mandate.” (He has none.) Noted John Nichols at The Nation, “It's absurd to claim that [Trump's] administration and this Congress enjoy enthusiastic popular support. They don’t.”
Yes, some news outlets have highlighted Trump’s miserable standing with the public, and what the political implication might be for him this year. “Trump will enter the White House as the least-popular incoming president in the modern era of public-opinion polling,” Politico announced in late December.
But those kinds of stories have made for spot coverage, passing reports here and there about Trump’s approval ratings. But why isn’t that the running narrative about Trump's presidential transition? Where is the endless cable news hand-wringing about Trump standing poised to be a failed president even before he’s inaugurated? Or about the mountainous challenge he faces in trying to lead a country that largely does not support him or even find him likable?
Does anyone think that if Hillary Clinton had won in November while badly losing the popular vote to Trump, and then posted historically awful approval ratings during her transition, that story would not dominate Beltway coverage day after day, week after week?
And don’t forget the press’s entrenched fascination with Obama’s public approval during his presidency, particularly the desire to depict “collapsing” support when, in fact, Obama’s approval rating remained stubbornly stable for years.
There’s a glaring Trump transition story hiding in plain sight: He’s historically unpopular. The press ought to start telling that tale on a daily basis.
After a presidential campaign season that seemed unprecedented in its length and ferocity, on Election Day 2016 there were two contenders vying to become the most powerful person in the world.
One was a conventional politician who had spent decades in public service. Her positions, philosophy, and actions were well within the norm for an American presidential candidate.
The other was a racist misogynist who ran a campaign based on hatred and vitriol and was described by leading conservatives as a proto-fascist whose rise was “perilous to the republic.” He openly undermined press freedoms, threatened the nation’s decades-long alliances, lifted up white nationalist elements to new prominence, lied constantly and brazenly, mocked the disability of a reporter, attacked a Gold Star family, was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and was accused of doing so by several, showed a frightening lack of familiarity with public policy, promised to imprison his opponent, and drew support from Russian intelligence services. He represented a fundamental break with virtually every norm in American public life.
The press plays an essential agenda-setting role in American politics. Every day of the campaign, news executives, editors, TV newscasters and bookers, reporters, and pundits made thousands of independent decisions which, collectively, determined both the stories included in the nation’s papers, websites, and broadcasts, and how those stories were covered. Those journalists could, through the volume and tone of coverage, turn a story into a major scandal for a politician, treat it as a witch hunt against that politician, or let it languish and be forgotten as new stories replace it in the public consciousness. Over and over during the 2016 campaign, the political press chose wrong.
The campaign broke political journalism. Despite the vast differences between the two candidates, the message media consumers heard from journalists was that to an equal extent, both candidates were flawed.
In fact, according to Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, which reviewed an analysis of news reports in major newspapers and cable and broadcast networks from January 1, 2015, through November 7, 2016, the conventional candidate actually received a higher proportion of negative coverage over the course of the campaign.
The study also reveals that during the general election, “on topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone” -- 87 percent negative for both. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump?” asks the study’s author, Professor Thomas Patterson. “It’s a question that political reporters made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign.”
Yes, Clinton had personal flaws and ran an imperfect campaign. No, it was not the press’s responsibility to deliver Clinton a victory. But in such a close race, where it is impossible to disaggregate one ultimate “cause” of the results, it seems likely that the choices news outlets made over the course of the election played a role in her defeat.
In a prescient July 2015 essay, reporter and Clinton biographer Jonathan Allen explained that over the course of her career, “coverage of Hillary Clinton differs from coverage of other candidates for the presidency,” and warned that the “difference encourages distortions that will ultimately affect the presidential race.” He pointed out the reason public perception of Clinton is distorted: because “the media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith unless there’s hard evidence otherwise” and outlets are willing to serve as a vector for unhinged, unfair, or false attacks on her character.
Allen’s warning played out over the course of the 2016 election, as the press’s discussion of Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly focused on three stories that news outlets consistently depicted as major scandals for her campaign. And all related to emails: the private email server she used as secretary of state; emails regarding the Clinton Foundation’s operations that were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and dribbled out by conservative organizations; and emails that hackers reportedly linked to Russian intelligence agencies stole from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which were released through third parties.
Each story was worthy of press coverage -- measured coverage that put the facts in proper context. But context was washed away in a sea of often-inaccurate reporting that turned the stories into scandals. The evening network news broadcasts, for example, spent three times as much time on the Clinton email server story as on all in-depth campaign policy coverage combined. As the Gallup Working Group noted in reviewing polling data from July 11 through the election, what Americans reported they had read, seen, or heard about Hillary Clinton was “focused almost entirely on a single theme, email.” From its report:
Coverage of Clinton’s server frequently confused basic legal and factual issues regarding both the server’s creation and the information that flowed through it. Clinton Foundation stories, driven by deceptive presentation from partisan operatives, downplayed the organization’s effectiveness and the millions of lives it has saved in favor of concocting evidence of purported ethical conflicts. The gossipy tidbits journalists reported from the Podesta and DNC emails overshadowed the real concern the emails suggested -- that foreign actors were trying to sway the election.
In each case, as Allen had warned, journalists operated under the assumption that Clinton was acting in bad faith and had behaved unethically unless the allegations could be “proven completely and utterly false.”
As Gallup’s data show, the email coverage reached a crescendo when Comey announced on October 29 that the bureau planned to review additional emails that “appear to be pertinent to the investigation” of Clinton’s use of a private email server. Reporters rushed to trumpet Republican spin that the letter was a major development indicating that Comey had “reopened” his investigation, and they flooded newspaper front pages and broadcast and cable news programming with endless discussion that was frequently obsessed with optics and devoid of substance.
Two days before the election, Comey announced what had been obvious from the moment the story had broken -- that the review of additional emails would not change his conclusion that Clinton’s server had not violated the law (the emails reportedly turned out to be almost entirely duplicates of previously reviewed emails). But the damage was done: The email story garnered substantial negative media coverage over the last 10 days of the election while crowding out potential negative coverage of Trump.
“Did journalists create Trump? Of course not — they don’t have that kind of power,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan in her election postmortem. “But they helped him tremendously, with huge amounts of early, unfiltered exposure in the months leading up to the Republican primary season. With ridiculous emphasis put on every development about Hillary Clinton’s email practices, including the waffling of FBI Director James B. Comey.”
As Sullivan suggests, the overwhelming, carnival-like coverage Trump received in the early days of the election gave him a huge advantage that played a key role in his rise to the Republican nomination. Trump received nearly $2 billion in media coverage through February, almost three times as much as Clinton and roughly six times as much as that of his closest Republican opponent.
“The media greatly enabled Trump, embracing the spectacle to give him vast swaths of real estate on air, online and in print,” NPR’s David Folkenflik wrote at the conclusion of the primary season.
While Trump dominated news coverage across the board, the problem was particularly apparent on the cable news channels. “Producers at several networks said they initially treated his candidacy as a joke, albeit a highly entertaining one,” BuzzFeed reported in March. “Trump's rallies became must-see daytime and primetime television on cable, pre-empting regularly scheduled newscasts and driving day-to-day news cycle.”
In a particularly noxious example, CNN ran a live shot of Trump’s empty podium for 30 minutes when the candidate was late for a March event. This “illustrated the vacuity of the celebrity-driven frenzy that defined Trump’s early campaign,” according to Politico’s Glenn Thrush. Trump “was so much more important than any of his rivals that even his absence was more newsworthy than their presence, and the networks did nothing to dispel that view, airing his speeches in their entirety when no other candidate or even President Obama was afforded that privilege.”
Trump’s dominance on cable and broadcast news shows also came about because those programs allowed him to make regular appearances by phone, rather than appearing in person or by satellite. Media ethicists panned this unprecedented practice because it granted Trump a number of unusual benefits -- he could steamroll through tough questions while tightly controlling his own image, and doing the interviews by phone allowed him to easily flood the airwaves in the morning and thus dictate what reporters covered for the rest of the day.
It’s no secret why cable and broadcast networks were so eager to highlight every aspect of Trump’s campaign, newsworthy or not: An unfiltered Trump provided great ratings and, subsequently, ad revenue. As CBS chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves put it, Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
“The money's rolling in and this is fun," he said in February. "I've never seen anything like this, and this [is] going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
Too often, these incentives resulted in softer interviews and coverage than was justified. Frequent false statements were allowed to sail by. At CNN, executives hired a series of Trump surrogates -- including the candidate’s just-fired campaign manager, who was likely under a nondisparagement agreement and remained on Trump’s payroll for months -- to derail campaign segments with wild, implausible, and offensive spin. Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin fawned over the candidate on Trump’s plane and helicopter and even on a Zamboni. At MSNBC, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski’s cozy sitdowns with the candidate drew criticism from aghast media critics. And Fox News gorged itself on softball Trump interviews from its opinion hosts, including a soft-focus sitdown with Megyn Kelly.
Rather than deeming him a unique threat to democracy who was engaged in racist demagoguery, for much of the campaign, journalists all too frequently simply termed Trump “controversial.”
As Harvard’s study shows, the tone of Trump’s coverage grew increasingly negative during the general election. But at the same time, political reporters and pundits were frequently giving Trump outs, holding him to the low bar his campaign preferred and repeatedly imagining potential “pivots” and moves to campaign “discipline” in spite of the outrageous, extreme, and false things he was saying on a daily basis. Trump surrogates ran wild, distorting and outright lying about the candidate’s commentary in often-absurd ways that undermined the possibility of a reasoned debate. Reporters returned again and again to Trump advisers with long records of bigotry, giving them space to explain what the candidate really meant without calling them on their histories of misogyny and racism.
Many of the best investigative reports into Trump never got the attention they deserved, even as reporters mulled over, at length, every possible news hook about purported Clinton scandals. Political journalists can’t say enough about the brilliance of Washington Post reporter David Farenthold’s deep dives into Trump’s foundation, but his stories frequently failed to get the sort of full-spectrum attention granted to what seemed like every possible suggestion of an ethical scandal surrounding the Clinton Foundation. If reporters had provided fairer reporting on the Clinton Foundation, the contrast with the corruption of the Trump Foundation -- which actually was a slush fund for Trump’s personal interests and really did break the law -- would have been more clear to the public. And it was only after Trump was already elected that the press followed his lead and finally turned its attention to the billionaire’s business empire in depth; at that point, reporters discovered endless conflicts of interest that the president-elect shows little interest in trying to resolve.
Election coverage was not all dark. Many reporters did provide diligent and hard-hitting reviews of Trump’s extremism, shady business dealings, bigotry, and lies. In addition to Fahrenthold, Media Matters praised NBC News reporter Katy Tur for her brave and insightful reporting from the Trump campaign trail; BuzzFeed/CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski for his decimation of Trump’s repeated lie that he had opposed the Iraq War since its inception; and Guardian columnist Lucia Graves for her early, prescient, and careful stories on Jill Harth, who was one of several women to accuse Trump of sexual harassment.
Overall, however, editors and executives at major media outlets failed in their responsibility to present to their audience the full picture of the election in proper context, instead providing disproportionate scrutiny to relatively minor Clinton “scandals” in a way that ultimately resulted in a skewed picture of the election.
And that's because the political press was unable to adapt its methods and practices to a dramatically different election season. In typical elections, news outlets often treat both major presidential candidates as relatively similar -- comparing their flaws, scrutinizing their respective scandals, and framing the vote as a choice between two comparable options.
But this was not a normal election between two comparable choices. That sort of equivalency could not hope to provide viewers and readers with an accurate picture of this unusual race. And on balance, the press did not rise to this unique challenge.
Even after 16 months on the campaign trail, political journalists never figured out how to accurately depict the unprecedented nature of Trump's candidacy. Now they must find a way to reckon with and report on a president who has no regard for the freedom of the press or the norms of his office.
President-elect Donald Trump spread numerous falsehoods, myths, and outright lies about the state of the American economy in 2016. As the year comes to a close, Media Matters offers eight examples of journalists and media outlets debunking Trump’s outrageously misleading statements.