[Friday would have been Walter Cronkite’s 100th birthday. So to wrap up the ElectionStudying series, three thoughts on the worst and best of the media’s role in this election season.]
On where in the 2016 campaign the mass media has failed and where it’s lived up to our ideals.
First, I need to be clear that I have no illusions about a fabled time when “the media” (an amorphous and evolving concept in any case) stayed above or outside of the fray of partisan politics in America. Indeed, the first American periodicals rose quite directly alongside the Revolutionary era’s activisms and propagandas, and in the Early Republic period the first daily newspapers were often if not always attached to particular parties and factions within their cities. Yet as always in America, those most practical and perhaps cynical realities should be complemented with collective memories and narratives of more ideal histories; so, for example, there is this amazing Vietnam War moment recounted by longtime journalist David Halberstam, when as a very young reporter he literally and figuratively stood up to a powerful general to demand more accurate information about the U.S. war effort. To ask the media to live up to such ideals isn’t (to my mind) to long for a glorious past that never existed in any absolute or all-encompassing way, but rather to seek those voices and perspectives who follow Halberstam’s lead and epitomize the media’s best possibilities.
For far too long in the 2016 presidential campaign, the mass media—and most especially television news, although certainly not limited to that sphere—not only did not live up to those ideals, but actively contributed to the rise, prominence and popularity, and eventual nomination of the worst major party presidential candidate in American history. Obviously Donald Trump needed news coverage, as does anyone running for president; but as far as I can tell he was the only candidate, among the couple dozen running in the primaries, whose every speech and rally and remark was covered and re-covered in full; both cable and the evening news recognized early the viewers and ratings that the Trump Show would bring, and acted in response to that crass motivation. Moreover, much of the time—at least until very recently, when the leads explicitly became Trump’s horrific statements and actions—the coverage simply provided Trump the time and air, without offering even partial rebuttals or critiques of his neverending series of lies. I’m sure his most ardent supporters would have viewed him positively in any case; but a much wider swath of Americans saw and (and at least some still see) this man as a serious presidential candidate thanks to these media abnegations and failures.
But it’s important to be fair and balanced, of course (just threw up a little in my mouth after writing that phrase), and there have been standout media voices who have lived up to the ideals embodied by moments like Halberstam’s. Without the investigative journalism of Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald and the Washington Post’s David Farenthold, for example, many of the most shocking stories of Trump’s histories of cons, corruptions, and lies would have reached a far less wide audience; neither of their publications had exactly been a model of journalistic bravery over recent years, making their work that much more significant. The same could be said for Charles Blow of The New York Times, whose op eds have consistently offered some of the most thoughtful and devastating media critiques of Trump. And perhaps most tellingly of our 21st century moment, a number of cable comedy/satire programs have built on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report’s models and become truly vital voices in covering Trump with the accuracy and depth often missing from the news networks: I would single out John Oliver and Last Week Tonight in particular, but both Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal and Trevor Noah’s Daily Show have also done hilarious and impressive work as well. There are of course questions produced by blurring the lines between news and satire, and we should continue to ask them as we move forward; but without these comedic media voices, I shudder to think about how much might have remained absent from the coverage of and conversations about Donald Trump.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Any other ElectionStudying takes to share?
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