What journalists say back when they are criticized for mishandling coverage of Trump

I've been keeping track of these replies. This is what I have heard.

2 Oct 2016 4:05 pm 39 Comments

First, let’s summarize the criticisms: These are the complaints journalists talk the most about. Not the only complaints that have been made — or the most apt — but the ones they tend to listen and respond to.

Campbell Brown, formerly of CNN, writing in Politico:

“I believe Trump’s candidacy is largely a creation of a TV media that wants him, or needs him, to be the central character in this year’s political drama. And it’s not just the network and cable executives driving it. The TV anchors and senior executives who don’t deliver are mercilessly ousted. The ones who do deliver are lavishly rewarded… It is not just the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump. It’s the openness with which some are reveling in his attention. It’s the effort, conscious or not, to domesticate and pretty him up, to make him appear less offensive than he really is, and to practice a false objectivity or equivalence in the coverage. Here, journalism across all platforms—corporate, as well as publicly funded—is guilty.”

Jeff Spross, The Week.

“The basic charge — leveled by plenty of people — is that the media lavished massively disproportionate coverage on Trump because he generates clicks, and this ‘free publicity’ helped fuel his rise. But I’m not buying it.” (See especially: $2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Donald Trump.)

Dean Baquet, New York Times:

“The backdrop of the debate is that it’s the press’ fault that Donald Trump has the Republican nomination and that it’s the press’ fault that Donald Trump is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. I don’t buy that for a minute.”

Chris Cillizza, Washington Post:

“[There’s a belief that] the media has failed in its responsibility to hold Trump accountable for the many and various misstatements and outright untruths he has peddled in this campaign. If the media was doing its job, the argument goes, then Trump would have never come so close to winning the Republican nomination, much less be within striking distance of Clinton at this late date.”

Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune:

“Trump and his fervent followers refer to the media as scum and liars and traitors, and the candidate’s campaign routinely sends out fundraising emails that paint the election as a war with ‘the liberal media.’ Clinton supporters shout down any negative news about her — be it relating to her health, her private email server or her family’s charitable foundation — as unfair and a false equivalence, implying that anything bad that she has done is irrelevant because Trump has done bad things that are much worse.”

To the criticisms they are willing to hear journalists give these replies. I know because I listen to them talk about this a lot: on social media, on TV, in columns and blog posts, on panel discussions (I was at one this week with Molly Ball, Arianna Huffington and Marty Baron.) These are the responses I hear the most:

  • Sorry, your beef is with the voters. The viewers. The clickers.
  • Blame culture war. And partisan politics. And echo chambers.
  • We’re not the gatekeepers. We don’t have that kind of power anymore.
  • Yes, we gave him a lot of attention. Because his rise is an amazing story!
  • Voters have a very jaundiced view of Trump. Because we did our job.
  • Quit griping about “the media.” There really is no such thing.
  • Hey, Trump earned a lot of it. Most accessible candidate ever!
  • Stop whining about false balance. It’s not our job to win it for your side.
  • What bothers you is that all the negative coverage he’s gotten isn’t working.
  • Trump won massive mind share because he’s an innovator— and a media genius.

In a minute I will explain each one, with quotes to show you what I mean. But first I need to clarify two things about this post.

I am not trying to evaluate these responses from journalists. Rather, I am trying to be descriptive. I’m not saying I “buy” their replies. I’m not dumping on them, either. I’m trying to listen to The Criticized and tell you what they’re saying back. In other writings, I’ve been critical of election coverage. You can read some of it here and here, or check the “Recent Entries” section of my site. If you want to know what my politics are, go here.

Second clarification: I am not trying to capture what committed Trump supporters and people in the conservative movement say about the treatment of Trump’s candidacy by mainstream journalists. For the most part committed Trump supporters and people in the conservative movement have one thing to say: There is no journalism, there are no journalists. There is only politics — Democratic party politics — going on. In this view, the people who call themselves journalists are not trying to find out what’s happening and tell the voters. They are not struggling to hold the candidates accountable while holding on to their audiences. They are Democrats trying to win the election for their side. That’s why no one with any sense trusts them— again, according to this view.

“Democratic operatives with bylines” (coined by Glenn Reynolds) is the phrase that best captures this sense, which has become pervasive on the right. I hear that sentiment all the time from drive-bys on Twitter and in the comment section of my site. It is rocket fuel for the Trump candidacy, and bedrock for the Breitbart view of the world, in which “the media” and “the left” are interchangeable terms. I’m not dismissing the importance of this view; on the contrary, I think it is one of the most consequential developments in American politics in the last 50 years. But to take it seriously is to recognize just how completely the militant right has eclipsed journalism from its world view and media critique. There is no real reporting, just endless bias. There is no profession there with a code of conduct and a public service mission. Just politics: party agents with press cards. Because it is a fraudulent actor, “the media” must be defeated, discredited, and replaced.

The people who think this way don’t have much to say about how to cover a phenomenon like Trump and remain true to a demanding code of public service. They have one thing to tell the press: you’re trying to get Hillary elected. There are elements on the left committed to a “propaganda model” of news coverage who evacuate journalism in a similar way. That is worrisome. But they have nowhere near the same influence on the rank and file, and they have never captured a candidacy the way Breitbart has captured Trump.

I realize that many readers will hotly dispute the three paragraphs above. So be it. On, then, to my description of the responses from journalists to criticisms commonly made of their coverage of Trump.

1. Sorry, your beef is with the voters. The viewers. The clickers. The audience who responded to Trump, the public that wanted more and more of him, the crowds that showed up at his events in huge numbers, the people who pulled the lever for Trump in the primaries, the ones who are telling pollsters they will vote for him. Far more than journalists, they’re the ones responsible.

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post:

“Any carnival barker can draw a crowd. Trump would have been sent home to his Fifth Avenue penthouse long ago if a substantial part of the Republican Party base didn’t agree with what he is saying. If there is any sort of collective media failure, it’s in paying not too much attention to Trump but instead too little to his message… Blaming ourselves for Trump’s rise is just another way to ignore the voters who have made him the favorite for the GOP nomination.”

Molly Ball, The Atlantic:

“The press is the effect here, not the cause: The media were noting—often to their collective surprise—that more and more Republican primary voters were becoming receptive to Trump’s message. Should they instead have ignored or downplayed this development? Journalists shouldn’t blindly follow polls, but we should—constantly!—attempt to understand what sentiments are percolating in the electorate.”

Callum Borchers, Washington Post:

“News organizations enjoy the ratings and readership delivered by Donald Trump — just ask CBS boss Les Moonves — but they haven’t made him the Republican presidential front-runner. Voters who ignore or even embrace his venomous brand of politics and the many negative stories about him have done that.”

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone:

“An important news story or 10 will likely die on the vine while the country obsesses over Trump’s latest foot-in-mouth episode. That’s the paradox with this candidate. Even the people who wish he didn’t exist can’t take their eyes off him. No amount of ‘contextualizing’ or pointing out his flaws and deceptions can walk back his gravitational pull on audiences.”

Eric Levitz, New York magazine.

“The media lavished Trump with attention because the American people enjoy watching garbage fires burn. But only the GOP base wants to make a garbage fire our president. Thus, responsibility for Trump’s political fortunes rests with Republican voters — and the party that conditioned them to mistake flaming refuse for fearless leadership.”

2. Blame culture war. And partisan politics. And echo chambers. That phrase of Eric Levit’s, “the party that conditioned them to mistake flaming refuse for fearless leadership…” points to another reply I’ve heard journalists give when criticized for their coverage of Trump: culture war works.

Chris Cillizza, Washington Post:

“Trump’s ability to weather so many blatant falsehoods is far more complex than simply shouting at the media to ‘do its job!’ It’s about the increasing tribalism of our politics, the partisan siloing of our media and the result of years of committed efforts to discredit the neutral media referees.”

3. We’re not the gatekeepers. We don’t have that kind of power anymore. It has become more and more obvious to journalists in the mainstream press that politicians can go around them and voters’ information diet is not theirs to determine.

Michael Hirsch, Politico.

“It’s a critical moment for mainstream media that I think has been getting less and less relevant with each election season. We’ve seen recent presidents, starting at least with Clinton, trying to talk over the heads of the media, not always successfully. Trump has succeeded in talking over the heads of the media. And if he’s elected president, then that will underline just how irrelevant we’ve become.”

Ben Smith, Buzzfeed:

“The press mostly just doesn’t have the gatekeeping power it once had.”

Eugene Robinson, Washington Post:

“Commentators should spend less time flattering themselves that the news media have the power to make such a thing happen — and more time trying to understand why Trump is succeeding.”

Callum Borchers, Washington Post:

“It’s convenient to blame the media for Trump’s rise, but the reality — made dishearteningly apparent this week — is that the press isn’t powerful enough to be responsible for his success or failure. It can’t even control the campaign narrative, never mind the outcome.”

Jeff Zucker, CNN:

“I only wish that CNN had that much power to be able to create a frontrunner on either side… The critics of Donald Trump are looking for people to blame for his rise. There are many people who are either surprised by his strength, or don’t like him, and want to blame someone to explain why he has been this popular.”

4. Yes, we gave him a lot of attention. Because his rise is an amazing story! This was beyond “man bites dog.” This was “the laws of the political universe have been repealed.” Huge news.

Sam Reisman, Mediaite.

“Like it or not, a political neophyte coming down his brass-plated escalator from out of nowhere, violating every rule of political gravity, and wreaking havoc in one of our two major political parties — that is a major, ongoing story. But it’s his often frightening message to which we should credit his success, not the frequency with which it is broadcast.

Chris Cillizza, Washington Post:

“Beginning as a punchline — and an asterisk in polling — Trump beat the most crowded (and one of the deepest and most accomplished) Republican fields in modern presidential history. trumptvtechA first-time candidate, he systematically dismantled Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio — to name just a few. And, even amid the relentless media coverage of whether Trump had peaked or whether his moment had passed, he led the race virtually wire to wire. He won in the Midwest, the West, the South and the East. He won among very conservative voters and moderate voters. He won and won and won… It is, simply put, the single most amazing thing I have seen in my 18 years of covering politics.”

5. Voters have a very jaundiced view of Trump. Because we did our job. Yes, we gave him a lot of attention, but a lot of it was negative. We questioned him, we aired his outrageous claims and fact-checked them, we investigated him, we showed Americans who he is. And it shows in the polls.

Brendan O’Connor, Gawker.

“Given how unfavorable Trump is viewed more broadly, isn’t it possible that widespread coverage of Trump—his insults, his misogyny, his racism, his scams, his bluster—has ensured that general election voters are… informed? Hmmm.”

Molly Ball, the Atlantic:

“So much has Trump ‘benefited’ from media exposure… that he now is viewed negatively by 70 percent of voters.”

Eric Levitz, New York Magazine:

“Recent polls show 70 percent of the American public now holds an unfavorable view of the Republican nominee, as he falls further behind Hillary Clinton in general-election trial heats. This dip was not the product of cable networks suddenly turning their cameras away from Trump. Rather, the media’s steadfast attention to the mogul’s various obscenities did what it has been doing for the past 12 months: increase the number of American voters that see Donald Trump as unfit for high office.”

Jack Shafer, Politico:

“No one but a dimwit would accept that all the Trump publicity—critical stories about his flip-flops and skeevy business deals; countless rebukes from fact-checkers; pieces knocking his views on eminent domain, his dubious modeling agency, his backstory as a birther and so on—helped his candidacy. There’s just as good an argument that all this coverage will end up hurting Trump: Should he claim the nomination, he will be the least popular candidate to start the general campaign in modern times, with a 67 percent unfavorable rating.”

6. Quit griping about “the media,” there really is no such thing. Isn’t it time we dropped this fiction? It’s not helping.

Brendan O’Connor, Gawker.

“There is no ‘we in the media.’ Within platforms or across them: What NBC News does has nothing to do with what CNN does, and even less to do with what the Times does.”

Paul Farhi, Washington Post:

“There are hundreds of broadcast and cable TV networks, a thousand or so local TV stations, a few thousand magazines and newspapers, several thousand radio stations and roughly a gazillion websites, blogs, newsletters and podcasts. There’s also Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and who knows what new digital thing. All of these, collectively, now constitute the media. But this vast array of news and information sources — from the New York Times to Rubber and Plastics News — helps define what’s wrong with referring to ‘the media.’ With so many sources, one-size-fits-all reporting is impossible. Those who work in the media don’t gather in our huddle rooms each morning and light up the teleconference lines with plots to nettle and unsettle you. There is no media in the sense of a conspiracy to tilt perception.”

Paul Farhi, Washington Post:

“As I understand your use of this term, ‘the media’ is essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like. At any given moment, ‘the media’ is biased against your candidate, your issue, your very way of life. But, you know, the media isn’t really doing that. Some article, some news report, some guy spouting off on a CNN panel or at CrankyCrackpot.com might be. But none of those things singularly are really the media.”

7. Hey, Trump earned a lot of it. Most accessible candidate ever! Maybe the other candidates should have put themselves on the line like that.

Frank Rich, New York Magazine:

“He gets a lion’s share of television time and other so-called ‘earned media’ because he earns it: Unlike Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, he never limited his exposure to the press but seized virtually every invitation handed him to go on the air and mouth off unscripted.”

Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times.

“At least he’s been accessible. He’s given far more time to interviewers – both broadcast and print – than Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Clinton’s last full-scale news conference was more than six months ago. Trump has held perhaps a dozen news conferences since then. According to USA Today, Clinton has appeared on Sunday morning interview shows 25 times since the campaign began; Trump has appeared 75 times during the same period.”

Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner:

“On Tuesday, Trump made one of his many call-ins to the program for a 10-minute interview. At the end, co-host Mika Brzezinski addressed any critics who might be watching. ‘I should just point out, for all the eye rolling that I hear happening, that if Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would like to call into the show, we would take their call at any time,’ she said. Brzezinski said Trump ‘has proved himself to be the most accessible candidate, like it or not. But don’t blame us if the other candidates are not as accessible.'”

Howard Kurtz, Fox News:

“Trump has seized much of the ‘free’ air time by doing many, many more interviews than his rivals, and by driving the campaign dialogue—which all candidates try to do but are usually too cautious or dull to pull off.”

Jack Shafer, Politico:

“He’s disarmed the media by acknowledging that he’s a greedy man full of self-contradiction, and he has inspired voters with his positive and entertaining campaign. Trump also makes himself readily available to journalists for interviews, even when no camera is running. Remember, this is a man who got blanket publicity in 2007 when he announced he was going into the frozen meat business with Trump Steaks. Publicity ain’t free if you’re working for it! Maybe the other candidates should have worked as hard as Trump did.”

8. Stop whining about false balance. It’s not our job to win it for your side. And it’s not ‘false balance’ to hold both sides accountable, so we’re going to keep doing that. We’re not on the team. Quit asking us to be.

Liz Spayd, New York Times:

“I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates.”

Molly Ball, The Atlantic:

“Journalists don’t write their stories to advance or hinder the candidacies of particular politicians.”

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone:

“The people complaining about ‘false balance’ usually seem confident in having discovered the truth of things for themselves, despite the media’s supposed incompetence. They’re quite sure of whom to vote for and why. Their complaints are really about the impact that ‘false balance’ coverage might have on other, lesser humans, with weaker minds than theirs.”

Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept:

“Aggressive investigative journalism against Trump is not enough for Democratic partisans whose voice is dominant in U.S. media discourse. They also want a cessation of any news coverage that reflects negatively on Hillary Clinton.”

9. What bothers you is that all the negative coverage he’s gotten isn’t working. It’s not that we have been insufficiently tough. It’s that people still support him because he’s “tapped into” (that’s a key phrase) something real. Deal with it.

Chris Cillizza, Washington Post:

“So, what is really going on here? What are Democrats trying to say when they continue to claim — facts be damned! — that the media isn’t doing its job fact-checking Trump? I think I know. What I believe people are saying is ‘Why doesn’t the fact that independent fact-checkers keep finding Trump lying not change people’s opinions of him?’ Or, put another way: How can someone who isn’t telling the truth two-thirds of the time possibly be in contention to be president of the United States?”

Dean Baquet, New York Times:

“I think that carries with it the belief that many people had that somehow if people really knew about his finances and all this other stuff, they couldn’t possibly vote for him. Guess what: They do know. There’s a tremendous amount known about this guy, and the press gets credit for that. I think Donald Trump has been investigated a whole lot by a lot of institutions, and I think it’s misunderstanding this moment, this moment in the history of the country and even in the history of media, to say he’s the front-runner because people don’t know a lot about him.”

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone:

“Anyone who tries to argue that there’s insufficiently vast documentation of Trump’s insanity is either being willfully obtuse or not paying real attention to the news. Just follow this latest birther faceplant. The outrage is all out there, in huge quantities. It’s just not having the predicted effect.”

10.Trump won massive mind share because he’s an innovator— and a media genius. Give the man his due. He created a new way to run for president.

Jack Shafer, Politico:

“Whether Trump wins or loses the nomination, he has done something new, creating an example that future candidates will be eager to follow. We can already envision these candidates, without organization, without advisers, without anything but a big running mouth. Existing outside the usual boundaries of what’s generally been allowed, the Trump style has three identifying markers: not exactly entertainment, but entertaining just the same. Not really populist, but popular. Not politics, but very political. Even people who can’t stand Trump have found themselves watching him and reading about him, breathing heavily until the next outrage. It’s his movie, and he’s the auteur.”

Robert Draper, New York Times:

“Trump was a TV star for more than a decade before he became a politician; he watches TV news incessantly and understands the medium intimately. He knows the optimal time slots on the morning shows. He stage-manages the on-set lighting. He is not only on speaking terms with every network chief executive but also knows their booking agents. He monitors the opinions of hosts and regular guests more avidly than most media critics do and works them obsessively, often directly.”

Bonus! There are some criticisms that journalists will sign on to. These are the ones I hear most frequently.

They didn’t take Trump seriously at first.

David Folkenflik, NPR: “For all of their obsession with horse-race coverage, much of the political press treated Trump’s campaign as pure spectacle, which it undoubtedly was, instead of something that could also draw support from real voters. As readers and viewers, we heard much more about what political insiders were telling us the voters thought than about the voters themselves.”

Hadas Gold, Politico: “From the most serious magazine journalists, writing with the voice of history, to most street-savvy, ear-to-the-ground bloggers: Trump had a polling ceiling; the Republican establishment would coalesce to bring him down; he didn’t have a sufficient ground game; one giant gaffe would inevitably bring him down; and on and on.”

Michael Hirsch, Politico: “We certainly, as I said, could have tried to do a better job challenging him, perhaps taking him seriously earlier rather than treating him as nothing more than a clown, and of course there was the spectacle of months and months going by where people in the media kept delivering judgments of ‘peak Trump,’ where we’ve now hit peak Trump and the inevitable decline will start, and it never happens, so just a massive misreading. If nothing else, you could say conclusively — and I think very few people in the media would disagree — that this was just a massive misreading of the political environment in this season.”

Maybe they did let Trump set the news agenda (and phone it in.)

Sabrina Siddiqui, The Guardian: “At what point do you need to say, ‘Okay, this is a fact, that he knows exactly how to dominate the news cycle. It’s a ploy.’ At what point do you need to say, ‘He is effectively calling the shots and managing exactly when he’s covered and how he’s covered’? And essentially — any day that Trump felt like he was losing traction, he would say something, and lo and behold, he dominated the day and the week again.

David Folkenflik, NPR: “Those favored by the great man were graced with sit-downs on camera. Others had to settle for Trump’s calls, always the least desirable option. Producers contorted themselves to accommodate him, accepting not just phone interviews but cellphone interviews. That held even for programs with major audiences such as NBC’s Today show and ABC’s This Week. At one point, BuzzFeed counted 69 televised phone interviews with Trump in 69 days. Media analysts of all stripes and ideologies assessed the coverage not just as disproportionate but wildly so. Even negative stories or controversies involving Trump pushed his rivals from news coverage.”

They developed a symbiosis or mutual dependence with Trump.

Jim Rutenberg, New York Times: “As the people have made clear, they want Trump. [Thus the] disturbing symbiosis between Mr. Trump and the news media. There is always a mutually beneficial relationship between candidates and news organizations during presidential years. But in my lifetime it’s never seemed so singularly focused on a single candidacy. And the financial stakes have never been so intertwined with the journalistic and political stakes.”

They had lost touch with Trump’s constituency

Dean Baquet, New York Times: “I do think we probably didn’t quite have a handle on how much the country was sort of torn apart by the financial crisis and other stuff, too. I think that I can make the case, if I’m being really reflective and self-critical, that there are parts of the country we probably were not quite in touch with. I want everybody to read the New York Times. I don’t think we understood that part of the country well enough. I think there was a bigger part of the country than we knew that’s really frustrated. I think we missed that story.”

David Brooks, New York Times: “Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else. Moreover, many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country.”

* * *
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.


marie whaley says:

This is a very thorough explanation of the complexities of the Trump media coverage. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I was given a few new ideas to think about.

Thanks, Marie. As I just said on Twitter, I’m not expecting this post to be very popular.

Popular or not, thanks.

It is whacko to say that Journalists did their job. The GOP is heavily evangelical oriented. It is very much a part of the story of the campaign how the candidate has comported himself sexually. But has there been a story, yet, even, about Trump’s numerous connections with Playboy? Let’s put it another way. If Hilary Clinton was a big favorite at Playboy mansion parties and in their movies, would that have been ignored by the press? It is your old fashioned double standard. The same press that couldn’t wait to dive into the Lewinski scandal kept Trump’s very publicized sex life at arm’s length. That did no favor to GOP voters. The press sucked.

Elmo Craven says:

The flip side is the narrative about Clinton. What has been called the “Gore-ing” of coverage that treats Trey Howdy’s hearings as non-partisan.

Kevin Bradshaw says:

It’s interesting to me that many of these excuses either falsely assert a false causal dichotomy or simply deny existence of a causal factor. An example of the latter is the excuse which denies the existence of the media based on an obvious fallacy (e.g. that a specifiable phenomenon must be composed of homogeneous parts).

Tbe reality is that when he announced his intent to run, the news media should have mentioned all the known disqualifiers from Trump’s personal history. And his remarks should have been labelled as racist without the typical “critics say” qualifiers. This media could do. If he were to prevail in spite of objective coverage if badic facts, then special pleading and excuse making would be unnecessary.

“They had lost touch with Trump’s constituency”

David Brooks lost touch with RealAmerica(TM)? Say it isn’t so!

Seriously, isn’t the same bit we heard about the Tea Party circa 2009? After they thought they missed something there, they went overboard with getting back to “real America”.

I’d like to be surprised the next time Republicans change their brand name, and not hear this mea culpa from the Beltway media sorts.

I wrote about one such effort by the New York Times here:


The media buildup of Trump began long before he ever thought of (seriously) running. He was on (NY-based) national mag covers in the 90s, primarily b/c of his history of being NY tabloid crack, and his reputation as the loudest of the local loudmouths. Then, there is the unmistakeable contribution of Mark Burnett’s casting him in “The Apprentice”, and of the care Burnett took in crafting, lighting, and shooting the character Trump played. 15 years of that figure emblazoned in millions of Americans’ brains is a powerful heat-shield against fact-checking, even before the fact-checkers are demonized.

To the journalists trying to make sense of yet another confounding Trump moment: Are you trying to explain why Trump just said something so disprovable/alienating/stupid/awful? Well maybe you can’t because you’re still treating him as a “rational actor” who wouldn’t intentionally be throwing this election.

Conventional politicians have conventional motivations, like greed or a lust for power or unresolved daddy-issues or even occasionally altruism. But meeting those needs requires a successful election. I don’t think that’s the case with Trump.

I think his need is the spotlight, and staying in the spotlight doesn’t require an electoral victory any more than it required a successful Trump shuttle, steak or “university.” Win or lose, the more outrageous he’s been, the more the spotlight’s stayed on him.

So don’t fool yourself into believing he has a vision, a coherent set of policies or a desire to serve the American people. His only plan is to stay in the spotlight.

That means a Clinton win won’t be a loss for Trump. Rest assured, he’ll still get what he’s always wanted: that big old spotlight on him when he claims the election was rigged and whatever other outrageousness he can come up with to keep it going.

The public needs to understand when the world talks about Donald Trump’s taxes, his lies or his petty verbal attacks, it’s not a detour from his path to victory. For him, that IS the victory.

Andrew Tyndall says:

My two cents:

Sorry, your beef is with the voters. The viewers. The clickers.

Category confusion: yes, voters are responsible for Trump’s popularity at the polls; no, viewers-and-clickers are not solely responsible for his popularity in the ratings — both the news media and their audiences have to be on board for that feat to be pulled off.

Blame culture war. And partisan politics. And echo chambers.

A necessary condition, that does not fully account for the current phenomenon: previously, Patrick Buchanan and the Tea Party never represented more than a minority faction of the Republican Party; Trump became its standard-bearer.

We’re not the gatekeepers. We don’t have that kind of power anymore.

Lack of power is no excuse for a failure to make the ethical decisions that, if you happened to have power, would have made a difference.

Yes, we gave him a lot of attention. Because his rise is an amazing story!

True dat.

Voters have a very jaundiced view of Trump. Because we did our job.

“Because” is an oversized claim. Voters may have arrived at a jaundiced view of their own accord. Nevertheless, the fact that political journalists did their job was no obstacle to voters drawing that conclusion.

Quit griping about “the media.” There really is no such thing.

Wrong. Of course it is possible to make generalizations about broad trends in political journalism without having to make the claim that there is such a single entity as “the media.”

Hey, Trump earned a lot of it. Most accessible candidate ever!

Collapses two categories: the antics Trump engaged in — being willing to speak provocatively, to violate norms of political discourse, to make his persona compelling, to disdain practiced pre-scripted talking points — earned him unprecedented media coverage; accessibility includes topics such as his tax returns and his medical records, concerning which he is the least accessible candidate ever.

Stop whining about false balance. It’s not our job to win it for your side.

Correct. The news media are in the news business. Their first priority is certainly not to be balanced, nor to worry about who wins elections. It is to ferret out what aspects of a political campaign are most newsworthy: how interesting they are, how unusual, how controversial, how riveting, how consequential and so on.

What bothers you is that all the negative coverage he’s gotten isn’t working.

Damned straight. Journalists are in the information business not in the propaganda business. See Rosen’s Second Clarification above.

Trump won massive mind share because he’s an innovator— and a media genius.

Let’s not go overboard. “Innovator” and “Genius” are hyperbole. Let’s just say (per Rosen’s previous post at the site) that Trump introduced an asymmetrical style of politics that political journalism was constitutionally ill-equipped to cover.

I like this. Thanks, Andrew.

I have plenty to say about all these replies. I just decided not to in this post.

Emily E. Smith says:

Trump’s rise makes total sense if we consider all media to be Infotainment. Days when we could rely on any entity to mostly “Report the facts” are gone. Now it’s read & watch with a jaundiced eye; take it all with a large grain of salt; consider who & where you’ve gotten this info and then still, do your own research.

It’s high time Americans got back to thinking things through and thinking for themselves anyway.

Beth Cope says:

One thing that is not addressed here is all of the self congratulating media round table discussions. I can’t remember seeing an actual expert on healthcare, climate change, civil rights or the economy featured and raising issues in these discussions. It is always journalists, surrogates and spokespeople. Also not mentioned in this article is the poll showing that MSM is not trusted by an overwhelming majority of Americans. These excuses give food for thought, but I question the use of Jeff Zucker as a source since he approved of Trump hosting the Apprentice. The public is not wrong or out of line by questioning this relationship. Neither is their frustration with the coverage being all about the horse race and not about substantive issues. Ms. Camarota from CNN had the nerve to complain that viewers need a journalism 101 course. For those of us who grew up with Walter Cronkite we know what journalism 101 is and that is why we are angry. Instead of journalismsplaining, the media should concern themselves more with winning back the trust of their audience.

“Also not mentioned in this article is the poll showing that MSM is not trusted by an overwhelming majority of Americans.”

Sometimes you have to click the links. This study was linked to:


Beth Cope says:

Actually, I was referring to the recent Gallup Poll titled, “Americans’ Trust in Media Remains at Historical Low”. Sometimes you have to Google things, but for your convenience, I included the link.


It may have given context for the pressure that the reporters you cited seem to feel to explain themselves. Happy for you to address the other issues I mentioned too. Thanks for responding!

Offered with trepidation because it’s so predictable:

Would journalists in the 1930s have given these same replies? Are the stakes similar?
What is our view today, of how well the profession performed then?

(digression: what else could we learn of how journalism could better serve, if we reviewed its past performance in light of what we know now?)

David Johnson says:

Thanks for your article.

One thing you guys are forgetting is how much of us over in fly over country distrust the media and the establishment. Many folks I know, on the left and right, have no trust in the political establishment. Those on the right have no trust for either the political or media establishment. I used to be regular reader of the NY Times and Washington Post. I quit reading both papers in December of 2015 due to blatant biased coverage. It’s only gotten worse sense. The NY Times all out declared in August that they had to “take out” Trump. CNN tries its hand at it on a daily basis with their “fact checkers”. Meanwhile, all of the press give Clinton a free pass on the “Foundation”, lying about emails, Pay for play, and outright stealing the Democratic primary from Bernie. The coverage is so lopsided, so bad, so obviously in the tank for Ms. Clinton, it makes me want to vote for Donald Trump. Do you guys realize you are fooling no one?

I no longer get my news from the mainstream press. I don’t trust them. They have a blatant bias. Although it may not be partisan, I am certain the bias is in favor of the existing establishment. Regardless of who wins, I won’t trust them/you guys. That trust is gone. I want you to understand how betrayed I feel. It makes me want the media to fail. I have no respect for you guys. You lied to me. You continue to lie to me. And I’m not even a Trump fan, but you’re blatant bias makes me hope that Trump does win so guys can eat it. Is that logical? Not even remotely. But it’s how I feel. These days I go to UK news websites, blogs, zero hedge, and even Russia Today to get news about my own country. Do I trust those source? No But I trust them more than I trust our MSM. The MSM has a track record of lying to me, they haven’t established that yet.

I kinda think I am aware of what you say I am not aware of. (By the way, I’m not the media.)

From my post, summarizing this kind of sentiment.

“There is no real reporting, just endless bias. There is no profession there with a code of conduct and a public service mission. Just politics: [agents for the establishment] with press cards. Because it is a fraudulent actor, “the media” must be defeated, discredited, and replaced.”

Michael Brazier says:

Before you dismiss the idea that American political journalism has collapsed into propaganda organs for the left, consider how most journalists treated Trump during the primaries, compared to how they treat him today. Nearly everything that’s been published on Trump in the past few weeks was known or knowable at the start of this year; why did no one say a word about it until now?

A press concerned above all else with informing the public would have set forth the details of Trump’s sexual and commercial misdeeds at the first moment they realized that he might actually become the GOP candidate, heading off the possibility of his Presidency as soon as possible. It’s only a partisan wishing for a Democratic victory in the election who, knowing the facts that would convince the voters to reject Trump, would conceal them until the GOP had committed itself. (The alternative, that all major US media failed to realize that Trump was a serious candidate until he was nominated, would save their honesty at the cost of making them purblind idiots.)

The sheer incuriosity of US journalists about Hillary Clinton’s many malfeasances, in and out of office (David Johnson mentions some of them, and I would add the Libyan war, which was “worse than a crime, it was a mistake” – and the death of Ambassador Stevens, which Clinton could easily have prevented and did not) is another thing that a press whose first order of business is informing the public would never demonstrate – but is exactly how partisan Democrats would behave. There is an alternative here too: that the media is so frightened of retribution from the Clintons and their friends that they suppress stories casting them in a bad light; but that’s even less flattering to the media than the alternative I suggested regarding Trump. Are there any reporters who would want the public to believe that they will spike stories if a prominent politician tells them to?

There are elements on the left committed to a “propaganda model” of news coverage who evacuate journalism in a similar way. That is worrisome.

I’d be embarrassed if I ever said the left criticisms of media, which are basically correct and which you studiously avoid full engagement with (and will again here), were similar to the “post-fact style” caricature of the right wing offered here.

You understand that media criticisms rooted in political economy don’t “evacuate” journalism. No one believes that. The real joke is that much of your own analysis of media would be right at home in a PM-style analysis. You’re just unwilling to draw (at least in print) the obvious conclusions from your own observations – something which, ironically, is ALSO well explained by a PM-style model of media output.

We have gotten to where we are today because professional press culture has transformed “objectivity” and “balance” into conceptual shields, offering journalists and media companies protection from the duty to confront power. You understand this but out of your own aesthetic considerations, you remain unwilling to fully admit the consequences of it. It’s not a good look.

Paul Lukasiak says:

Journalism’s job is to tell us what has happened, and to explain it. Of course, the priorities of the journalistic establishment are necessarily biased toward things that are important to journalists. Its thus no surprise that journalism is its own biggest chronicler and explainer.

But journalism is currently tasked with trying to explain what something that is completely irrational — the throwing of a monumental temper tantrum by a massive part of the electorate. And because of the imperative of “respecting the audience”, journalists can’t really say what is going on — and winds up ‘gaslighting’ its audience in the process

(A perfect example is the just released New Yorker piece on West Virginia voters by Larissa MacFarquhar. She goes to great lengths to try to represent these Trump supporters are “rational” human beings — and not racists at all, of course — in an effort to construct a rational explanation for an irrational phenomenon. Ultimately, the article is journalistic gaslighting at its worst.)

Rory O'Connor says:

There’s plenty of blame to go around for Trump’s media rise — but like WaPo’s Margaret Sullivan, I am content to blame Jeff Zucker the most!


I think there’s a simple response to all the media failures, and they are miserable failures: it’s because they only talk to each other.

They tell each other the same narratives – “it’s not our job” etc., etc. And they take refuge in the same lies they tell over and over. Until people inside the media bubble are willing to stand up and say “this behaviour is unacceptable and we need to change back to the way journalism used to be when we had David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite” they will never change – and their audience will continue to shrink.

And fewer and fewer people will trust them about anything. This is a big problem, common to dictatorships like Soviet Russia; that people know they’re being lied to and manipulated so they don’t believe the media, but there’s really no other reliable consistent source of information. So people wind up believing strange conspiracy theories. And this spreads to the left as well as right.

Just ask yourself a simple question – what would Walter Cronkite have done in a given situation. And it’s almost never what they do.

We know what journalism is supposed to look like and this isn’t it. Walter Cronkite got up on national TV and announced that he was opposed to the Vietnam War – in the middle of the war, when it still mattered.

Now, Phil Griffith insisted that Morning Joe have Trump phone in to his show virtually every day just prior to Super Tuesday, completely unfiltered and with absolutely no correction when he just lies his head off — because ratings.

Jeff Zucker hired Corey Lewandowski, who just urged publicly that Trump “sue the NYT into oblivion” for daring to print the Trump tax return.

Just get a load of that one. CNN just hired the Goebbels style surrogate who has openly declared war on the media – and wants Trump to use his wealth and power to suppress hostile media coverage in ways that Nixon never dared — and there’s zero chance he will be fired.

They don’t want those Foxified viewers to tune out from their shows, so, they wind up “Fox-lite”.

And they are just poisoning the well in search of short term profits.

Teri Beau says:

We need to go back to the equal time rule. I also think news should go back to being a public service, a matter of integrity. For-profit news is, as is demonstrated by Trump, a joke. It’s a realty show that peddles only the most sensational, and NOT what the self-governed really need to know!

The problem with the equal time rule is that that is exactly how the media works right now for contentious issues. To use an old joke, if a politician asserted that the Sun rises in the West, the media’s lede would look something like “Politician: Sun rises in West. Some scientists disagree” instead of “Politician utters incredible nonsense”. The media constantly implemented the Equal Time rule today.

To my mind, this problem begins and ends with the journalists self-conception:

We are for-profit companies in a competitive industry with increasingly low barriers to entry whose job it is to serve the public interest.

I propose the following radical idea: stop trying to serve the public interest. Just try to sell newspapers. The idea that a collection of college educated white people who are experts in writing and cultivating sources are even capable of *knowing* the public interest, let alone acting on it in a way that is also profitable is absurd. Earnestly trying to do the absurd rarely ends well.

On how a set of ethics might cause a for profit industry to nonetheless “serve the public.”

Professional ethics are bound to be written by people in an epistemic bubble. How is it that legal ethics and medical ethics are stable sets of rules that seem to work, by and large, and are broadly endorsed by practicing lawyers and doctors, while journalistic ethics are under constant assault from within and without, including practicing journalists who open flout them?

The answer is that there is no empirical check on journalistic ethics. As a result, they are divorced from reality and from their putative goals.

In medical ethics, individual patients either live and flourish or suffer and die. Good practice and privacy can be measured by patient satisfaction. In legal ethics, the interests of the client are also tangible and measurable. Did the money go where it was supposed to go? Did the lawyer help or hurt by passing on that information?

Meanwhile, how does one measure if a prohibition on printing a story which lacks a second source is in the public interest? How does one measure if anonymous sources tend to comfort the afflicted? What evidence is there that non-partisan journalism produces better democracy? Can there be any?

If one is able to believe that his actions “serve the noble ends of democracy” without any empirical check, is that not license to destroy?

Let’s face it, the Donald has been a FREAKISHLY great story for over 20 years. A great story doesn’t have to be true, just great. Nobody understands that better than the “great again” freak himself.

The complaint, that reporters were TOO LAZY to find the story in better candidates (who reporters generally deemed boring) was answered with the defense (which might be added to your list, Jay) that “Its not my job to find the stories, its the candidates’ job to create and project the stories.”

There is solid newseconomics behind the LAZY defense plus legitimate frustration with boring alternative candidates, but still I end up believing the media bears a heavy burden for the current situation.

Richard Aubrey says:

You don’t need a politician’s office to send you a list of talking points to have a story. I mean, that would be useful and save a lot of time and stuff.

If he’s already a story, that saves even more time. Because you don’t have to make a list of talking points into a STORY.
Whatever Trump means–I have no idea–he hits conservative buttons. IOW, Kate Steinle would be alive today if the feds and other government entities hadn’t colluded in her murderer being here, and armed. That’s true. What he proposes to do about it is less clear. The problem is, nobody else is talking about it. So he owns it.

The FBI had been in touch with the Orlando shooter several times and declared that one set of complaints was all about islamphobia. Okay. But there’s a bunch of dead people and doesn’t that count? Not, apparently, to the establishment. Loretta Lynch said, we have your back. To the Muslim community. Do you have to be a gap-toothed, cousin-marrying, Nascar-following moron to wonder WTF? Whatever Trump means, if he knows it himself, he sounds different from those folks, whose next iteration is Hillary.

As one writer said, referencing among other things the VA, “Who wouldn’t want to send a human wrecking ball to DC?”

A particularly liberal friend of mine, when I mentioned that, agreed fervently.

It is probably a bad idea to insist journalists should have figured this out. Nobody else had, including professionals in the political business.

A lot of people think Trump runs his mouth without engaging his brain. He tweets nonsense at three in the morning. But he sounds like…whatever your version of human wrecking ball is–and that’s good.

And he’s not Hillary, which for many people is sufficient.

He is, afaik , sui generis in American politics and benefits from the “as long as they spell my name right” aspect of PR.
Nothing the journalists could have done differently.

Fred Grosso says:

This is bull shit. I am usually an “independent”. The most appealing message this year came from Bernie Sanders. Where was the media on him?

Jay, the protestation that TV treated him exactly like it did other candidates is not supported by analyses (mostly during primaries, I think) of network/cable willingness to let him phone in rather than sit in front of a camera.

I don’t know if this pattern has held post nomination — but it punctures that claim.

The argument that he came out of no where is almost equally vacuous.

t1gerlilly says:

The first thing I noticed about this post was that both the criticisms listed and the responses were both wholly about covering Trump – not election coverage as a whole or the coverage of both candidates. This seems both an oddly skewed perspective and a rather obvious blind spot. It removes the context for Trump’s coverage and makes it easier to defend.

I was also bothered by the perception of the criticisms as relayed by the journalist’s quotes. It’s easy to defend yourself when you get to choose what criticisms you want to hear.

When I think of the journalists that I respect and seek out, it’s because they provide historical context, policy detail, and cover issues that directly affect the lives of the public: veteran’s issues, healthcare, civil rights etc. These journalists tend to stand out, because they are willing to go against the grain and have the talent to present real information in an engaging way.
Because the truth is, most of the press are too lazy to do the actual work of digging up the facts, too cowardly to take a stand about what the truth is, and too focused on entertainment to fulfill their higher purpose.

I suppose that seems harsh, but the truth is that when it became legal for Fox News to lie in their broadcasts and still call themselves news and a news channel, without any reaction from the rest of the press – it was a short, sharp slide to the entire media landscape tilting into the world of propaganda. There are no basic standards anymore and the general public (especially the less educated) have no way of telling who’s lying to them. This isn’t the press’s fault alone – if American’s had a decent civics education, they’d at least be able to tell when a presidential candidate is suggesting something unconstitutional. But the press is responsible for shaping a national media landscape in which factual information is seen as inessential and indefensible.

Most of the criticisms people have about the press aren’t new; they have been lingering and gaining strength over the past fifteen – twenty years. It’s just that now there looks to be real and undeniable consequences to the flaws in the modern media. You can point to many reasonable causes: the laziness and shallowness of reporting is because of the overwhelming need to produce content 24/7 for multiple channels, the cowardice and infotainment is because of media consolidation and the corporatization of the news industry. But the essential fact remains that the average person is dying of thirst for actual information in the middle of a flood of coverage.
What do I mean by that? Well, I follow politics avidly and I can’t tell you for sure exactly what Donald Trump thinks about ANYTHING, except the wall, mexicans, and women. Not a single policy. How can there have been wall-to-wall (snort) coverage for months and I still don’t know what he would do if elected? How can the press seriously believe they’ve done their job if that’s the case?

The reason why it is so difficult to discern and document Donald Trump’s proposed policies may not be the fault of the media. I have been watching Donald Trump’s tweets and highlights of speeches, and apart from a couple of perpetual themes such as “we need a wall”, I have trouble figuring out what he intends to do. I concluded a long time ago that he regards the lack of detailed policies as a feature not a bug, in that it allows him to go up on stage and say literally whatever pops into his head at that moment. One of his appeals to supporters is that he is extemporaneous, they like somebody who does not sound scripted or filtered. If Trump is literally making it up as he goes along, assembling a coherent policy narrative is going to be difficult for the media. Another example of how Trump has broken the campaign reporting model.

Joseph Ratliff says:

The mainstream media (key word “mainstream”) is neither the “cause” or “effect” of Trump. It’s the platform he’s leveraging to succeed. Stop reporting on Trump, stop giving him a platform from which his “message” (with various containers) can carry, and the clicks and Trump-attention for each of these platforms goes away.

This applies to Clinton as well. In 2016 neither candidate is a good choice for POTUS, for different reasons.

There are a couple of journalists claiming they aren’t after “clicks” or attention to their media orgs … that is complete horse pucky. That is all they are after, it has become their business model (especially online).

Desperation to stay relevant is the mainstream media’s “reason” to go after clicks and attention online. This desperation might be “caused” by a public’s desire for tabloidism … but that is NO excuse to pursue that line of media business.

So in the end, the mainstream media is irresponsible, but not for “mishandling coverage” … mainly because they gave this 2016 “kindergarten politics” a giant megaphone.

Lydia Rice says:

One issue not addressed: media skittishness (cravenness?) toward Trump due to his over-the-top retaliation to negative reporting. He has smeared, sued, intimidated, and turned his followers (mob) on his detractors. Several reporters have reported being afraid of violence.

This is a similiar tactic to the Scientology religion, where they have ruined people who spoke against them, and different, more diffuse extent, extremist Islamists, who have cowed almost the ENTIRE media and entertainment business into self editing to self stifle any depiction of Mohommed, even if a media story is incomplete or confusing with out the depiction (ex., reporting on the murder of Theo Van Gogh without showing the cartoons of Mohommed which Islamists used to justify his murder.)

In these cases, the population and media come to a critical mass, where the intimidator can no longer intimidate everyone. That’s where we are with Trump now.

Chentally Mallenged says:

As a voter this did nothing to to convince me that the media is fair. All anyone has to do is look at the mainstream media sites to see that their is a disproportionate amount of news attacking Trump compared to the articles exalting Hillary. As an example of biased news operations you can message CNN on facebook two messages. 1. anti Trump 2. anti Hillary.

In CNN’s response to your message they remove the anti from the Hillary search.

Even though there are groups out there that are anti Hillary the news will not report on them. Another thing is that once a news organisation endorses a candidate they will be perceived as biased. The news should always be impartial and based on facts not personal beliefs. Unfortunately you turn the news on and all you hear is commentary, or the personal feelings of the people on screen. That is how the media drove me to Trump.

Richard Aubrey says:

I suppose there may be a question as to whether NBC is “media” in terms of news, or if the news department doesn’t reflect on the rest of it and vice versa.

That’s because the putative non-news portion of NBC sat on DJT’s lascivious discussions for some years while he was making tons of money on television and getting ratings execs would die for. So they kept it quiet while he was useful to them and…then released it.

Be a relief for those who believe in NBC news’ integrity to find that some other department was holding on to it and only just remembered having it.

Because there needs to be a reason, doesn’t there? I mean a good one, naturally.