Media Takes a Crack at Critiquing Itself, Sort of, at the National Press Club
- by Skip Kaltenheuser
Thursday night, Dec. 1st, the National Press Club in Washington, DC put up a panel discussion, The Trump Victory and 2016 Election-- What the Media Got Right & Wrong. A promising title, it filled every seat. I expected much would be made of media lost in a labyrinth of echo chambers, unable to dodge the bull-headed minotaur of Clinton surrogates, but I was wrong. Other than pesky polling, there wasn’t as much “why” in the journalists’ analysis as hoped. Or of what they got wrong. You can watch a video of the panel above.
Uncertain I could attend that night, early in the day I sent the panel written questions I’d welcome their consideration of. Two of the panelists were from the Washington Post, so among my questions was a request for comment on the Harper’s article by Thomas Frank, Swat Team, in which Frank noted a sustained editorial drumbeat throughout the primaries against Bernie Sanders that took its rhythm from Clinton campaign talking points. Another request was for comment on a Washington Post article that uncritically amplified the nonsense of an incognito organization-- my money’s on ? and the Mysterians. This group, Propornot.com, cries tears for a couple hundred online outfits the incognito’s claim are Ruskie tools.
I was disappointed that neither request found takers, as both relate to the why of what the media got wrong. To be fair, the panel allocated time to questions from the floor and I didn’t get one in before the clock ran out.
By the way, there is a Rootstrikers petition to give the Washingon Post a piece of your mind. Would I be shocked if the whole damn list of stooges and useful idiots was a hoax to see who’d take the bait of Russian caviar, if they’d get a big fish like the Washington Post? No. But it’s probably too much to hope for.
At the end of this post are excerpts of issues I sent to the panelists, on which I’d welcome any comment. The issues drifted into something of an essay, but they might form the bones of a good discussion in the future.
Though there wasn’t a great deal of introspection as to the why, there were still some good offerings. CNN Politics Senior Digital Correspondent Chris Moody gave an interesting account of a smart idea CNN had, to have him travel around with a crew avoiding campaign professionals, experts and strategists. Instead, they traveled in a Winnebago for a month, from New York City to Las Vegas.
Speaking with regular folks wherever they found them, the news crew soon picked up that for undecided voters, it wasn’t the normal response of "I like this candidate or that one." It was indecision over whether they could stomach voting for either one. Many people were honestly struggling right up to election day. Among those Moody spoke with were ranchers near the Mexican border, who were getting the brunt of immigrants passing through, as policies drove them from populated areas to rural areas, while government claimed it had solved the problem. They’d been very frustrated for a long time.
There were many besides ranchers who expressed similar disillusionment with government not working for them. A lot of people simply concluded that whatever Trump stood for, he was different, he was change, so what did they have to lose? Though surprised when watching the returns, Moody was no where near shocked. If I had cable, Moody is someone I’d look forward to.
Another item of interest, regarding the ubiquitous presence of Trump in media throughout the primaries, some of it has a simple explanation. Bookers lining up guests on shows would call all of the primary candidates. Often all but one would reject interview requests, and that one was Trump. And Trump was ever-ready on the dial to call in and hijack a program.
Also of note was RNC National Spokeswoman Lindsay Walters account of the strategy of the Republican ground game. They delved deep into data showing where Trump and get-out-the-vote troops had to focus to catch "unallocated voters" in areas in which Clinton was ahead. Areas that with a change of wind Trump might be in striking distance if he could reach and appeal to the unallocated voters still adrift, who might then be turned out to vote. So in the areas it most counted, the vaunted Clinton ground game operation got caught from behind.
Mike McCurry responded to a question of why Hillary didn’t put the email controversy to bed right away. McCurry, former Clinton White House Press Secretary and presidential debate commission co-chair, said it simply wasn’t in the Clintons mental makeup to believe that anyone would attribute mischievous motives to them. They think it’s self-evident that they act in the interest of the American people, and that people would understand that. They believe people would discount anything that raises questions about their own integrity and truthfulness. They don’t understand perception, the perception of negativity.
McCurry is known to be an honorable guy, and he knows the Clintons well, so he might be accurate that that’s really how they thought people would think.
But I have a difficult time wrapping my head around it. Of course, it doesn’t get to why the curious behaviors happened in the first place. And if, after all they have experienced, the Clintons were really that confident that people wouldn’t really think anything untoward might underlie their decisions and motives…what can one say? Victims of their own echo chamber?
Margaret Sullivan is media columnist for the Washington Post and was previously the public editor of the New York Times. I was surprised to see the emphasis she tried to put on the Comey letter’s impact, and heartened to see McCurry and the Post’s Abby Phillip put the letter’s cha-cha in what I view a more realistic perspective, as just another of many things in motion out there. Walters said RNC analysis showed that trends showing Trump rust belt gains were already in place.
From Phillip’s observations, a greater bellwether was how late in the game the Clinton campaign increased spending in Wisconsin and Michigan. Phillip noted the Clinton campaign realized they were losing momentum in the upper Midwest before the Comey letter came out.
One of the panel observations that had resonance: Media was too easily distracted by shiny things to look at-- tweets, for instance-- instead of insisting on more of a focus on the issues, on the details beyond the tweets. Tweets are easy.
Another impression that lingers is how meaningless campaign message themes ultimately are, which doesn’t mean the better ones won’t have an effect. "Stronger Together" didn’t fly as well as Bill Clinton’s “Bridge to the 21st Century.” But according to McCurry Bill Clinton was very frustrated coming up with a message. Clinton’s bridge slogan didn’t appear until Bob Dole said he wanted to build "a bridge to the past." After that, Clinton turned it to the future and sought out every bridge he could walk across.
I tried to get at the media’s tunnel vision in an early June post on why Hillary would be a far weaker candidate, including with independents, than Bernie.
In another post I gave an example of government’s soft treatment of wayward bankers that the public would see as a major fail, of the fix being in for privileged insiders.
Saturday I attended an Irish wake for John Patrick Cosgrove, age 98, a former president of the National Press Club who was an Irish force of nature and a class act. JFK came to Cosgrove’s 1961 inauguration, where Cosgrove made the President join the club and pay dues in full before entering. Cosgrove was sworn in by Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Attendees at the wake included many elder journalists with impressive institutional memories of how Washington works, and who understand the importance of shunning the herd instinct that underlies many of journalism’s shortcomings. I doubt many of them would have been as manipulated by either Trump or Clinton as so many journalists were this campaign.
FYI, issues I’d hoped would get more play from the press club panel, from a note I sent:
Dear Ms. Sullivan and panel members,
I'm not sure I can make it to the presentation, but I'd welcome any thoughts you'd offer on the following matters.
I've a theory on why so much of the mainstream media got the election so wrong. I believe you have to go back to the Democratic primaries to catch media's early derailment, as the media also got most of the significance and power of the Sanders campaign wrong.
My thinking is that much of media abdicated journalism early on to essentially sign on to the Clinton campaign, treating Hillary as inevitable, as the presumptive nominee from the git-go, and odds-on electoral college victor.
Once in that echo chamber, journalists adopted the Clinton campaign viewpoint wholesale. We now know from WikiLeaks how chummy the campaign was with a number of key journalists, including those attending the campaign's off-record cocktail parties.
Related to that, I would welcome any comment on Thomas Frank's Harper's article, Swat Team, in which Frank analyzed Washington Post coverage, particularly editorials, and found a clear pattern of grinding down Sanders with Clinton campaign talking points.
Even now, the Clinton campaign and a number of journalists seem hell-bent on blaming everyone else for the electoral college loss, but not blaming a highly flawed candidate and an arrogant campaign goofing around in Texas and Arizona, bragging about the coming blowout, instead of tending to the wounds of the Rust Belt.
Related to the deflected blame game, I'd welcome comment from the panelists on the Washington Post's uncritical article on a mystery organization's list of 200 online sites run by people who are either Putin stooges or useful idiots. I'm quite familiar with some of those sites, and the ones I know of, including Naked Capitalism, are nothing as described. How could such nonsense be passed along to readers without an investigation of those behind the website? It's not for nothing Joe McCarthy comes to mind to a number of critics of the Post article.
This gets to another related issue, how much of media has discredited itself to the point of people wanting to raise the middle finger to a media busy jamming the Clinton influence machine down our throats as much as the public wanted to raise the middle finger to the perceived political establishment.
Think of the media pile-on, from the Sabbath Gasbags to editorial writers, on Trump when, joking or not, he welcomed Russian hacking. I even heard the word "treason" bandied about, and musings on prosecution. But no thinking person reading and listening to the media reaction believes that Putin or anyone else waits outside America's Internet door like Dracula, unable to enter until Trump invites them across the threshold. There was something of the boy who cried wolf there.
Why wasn't more focus on the veracity and implications of the WikiLeaks emails? Instead we heard distress over doctored emails, with no examples forthcoming. This kind of drumbeat contributed to the belief that news organizations were not giving the public straight info, that they didn't trust the public to make up its own mind.
If you'd like a specific WaPo example, I recall an essay by Dana Milbank, lauding the superiority of Clinton for the Democratic party because unlike the well-meaning Bernie, with his quaint collection of little contributions, Clinton was also raising Big Money for down-ballot candidates. When it was revealed that this was something of a scam, that the Clinton campaign was clawing back the money for its own use, often before state organizations got a whiff of it, I don't recall even an "oops" from Milbank. But I might have missed it, because sooner or later one quits reading the predictable.
So that's my theory: much of key media organizations, of journalists and editorialists, were so vested in the echo chamber promoting a Clinton victory that they didn't fully grasp the public's disdain toward politicians earning vast fortunes solely because of their vaunted public service. Media didn't realize the public, including in the flyover states, easily understood that the only way for the Clintons to earn fortunes of that size is by the sale of influence.
Media also missed the extent of the anger at banks over their ongoing damage to so many families, banks becoming inseparable from the Clintons who deregulated them and who continued to benefit from bank patronage. The media didn't understand that the public instinctively knew that the Clintons were unlikely to bite the hands that lifted them into the oligarchy. The media didn't understand the anger at Eric Holder and the revolving door, of failure to prosecute even bankers who laundered money for violent drug cartels. The public was ready to make a statement, a protest, the only way it could, even if the result was Trump.
It's also hard to ignore the WikiLeaks revelation of the Clinton campaign's early objective of having Trump become the easy-to-beat Republican nominee, and not to wonder at media mostly averting its gaze during the Republican primaries from Trump's connections to Roy Cohn and other unsavories. Ratings and page reads appeared to take prominence over close study of worrisome material on Trump available for decades.
In any case, I give great credit to the media echo chamber, and the public's adverse reaction to it, for landing us in Trumpville.
Thanks much for considering these matters and for any comments at the press club. If I can't make the event, I'll look forward to catching it online later.
Best fortunes with your intriguing and important topic.
|John Cosgrove delivering a National Press Club membership card to President John F. Kennedy in 1961|