Scott MacKay Commentary: How Big Media Blew A Big Election

Nov 11, 2016

Every American election brings an assessment of how well the media covered  things. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says there should be some vigorous scrutiny of the 2016 election cycle.

History will someday judge the media’s role in the election of Donald Trump. It may not be pretty.

Reporters, pollsters and the pundits missed much of the story behind Donald Trump’s victory. That’s always a line after an upset election; how could so many smart people be so dumb. And academics and reporters have long questioned the lazy reliance on reporting horserace polls, the increasing focus on infotainment and the coverage of national politics as televised Mardi Gras.

But the hand-wringing should be deeper at a time when way too many in the media either missed the elements behind Trump’s rise, or even contributed to it. Perhaps the most candid – and obnoxious –comment on the television campaign coverage came from Leslie Moonves, executive chairman of CBS.

Speaking of the Trump candidacy, Moonves said, ``It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He added, ``The money is rolling in and this is fun.’’

The cable television networks were even worse. During the Republican primaries, it seemed that barely an hour went by without a Trump screed flashing across the screen. No other candidate got nearly so much air time. Was this because Trump is media-savvy? Yes, of course. It also signals that ratings top serious journalistic scrutiny on these 24-7 outlets. This meant a serious national election was treated  like the Oscars or the Super Bowl.

Trump forged his narrow victory among less educated white working class voters in such Rust Belt states as Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

There is a grand irony here: If any business should have understood the concerns  of left-behind working class voters,  you’d think it should have been the media, especially what’s left of the mainstream newspapers and television networks. Has any major institution in the country suffered more from economic change than the media?

News outlets have been devastated by endless rounds of layoffs, pay cuts and buyouts. News gathering budgets  have been slashed, bureaus shuttered. Even such elite institutions as the New York Times and the Washington Post have been affected. Yet, as writer Thomas Frank, points out, big media underestimated the mistrust among average Americans in government and politics.

The issues raised by Bernie Sanders were too often ignored or lampooned by reporters. A New York Times story on the Sanders campaign last December stands out. It stated that voters are ``more anxious about terrorism that income inequality,’’ according to some fine reporting by Thomas Frank in Harper's.

Reporting was once a high blue collar craft. New York journalistic icon Jimmy Breslin said that the best training for reporting was to spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cab driver. Journalists of a certain age can remember when the path to the Washington news elite began at a Podunk newspaper or radio station after school at a state university or modest college. Reporters covered cops, teachers, politicians and were first name acquaintances with the local preacher and town crank.

Then journalism became more of an elite vocation. The ladder begins at an Ivy League college.  Junior year abroad is too often given more hiring heft nowadays than years toiling away at local newspaper.  The contractions have severely diluted minority hiring. It’s as rare to find a military veteran among young reporters nowadays as a Trump bumper sticker on the Brown campus. Top reporters now are like other bi-costal elites who don’t much interact with flyover America.

So you shouldn’t really be surprised when the media fails to take a serious look at how the rise of a global elite combined with the borderless movement of money has enriched the few at the expense of the many. And don’t hold your breath waiting for that article or an in-depth look at what the decline of private sector unionism has meant.

The saddest aspect of the media decline and the rise of Trump is that solid, smart, fact-based journalism will be more vital in the next four years. Trump is a blank slate; he has no government record or discernable program. He has a penchant for secrecy; we never got his tax returns. And his vast business holdings set up all manner of conflicts of interest.

Now, more than ever, a free, vigorous press is needed for the health of our democracy. Let’s hope the media gets it.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at RIPR’s On Politics blog at RIPR.org