How the Media Did (and Didn’t) Fail in Covering the Rise of Donald Trump

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The 2016 Republican National Convention
Press at the RNC.Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the topic is the media and its shortcomings, in conjunction with New York’s cover story.

Did the media screw up in its coverage of the Donald Trump campaign? If so, how?
Pundits and poll analysts famously screwed up by consistently underestimating his chances, in some conspicuous cases nearly up to the point when he locked up the nomination. But I don’t buy the widespread notion that the news media has given Trump a free ride by bestowing $2 billion worth of airtime on his primary campaign or by failing to vet him seriously. Yes, he got a ton of television coverage, but he did so by creating news — outrageous and infuriating news, perhaps, but news nonetheless. By contrast, most of his Republican opponents favored scripted public appearances that generated little if any news. Hillary Clinton suffered a media shortfall for the same reason: She often has gone out of her way to avoid committing news, and, as of July, she had not given a single press conference in 2016.

Yes, Trump is a horror show, and in my view not the great entertainer that he and some of his fans think he is, but you find yourself watching him because he’ll say anything, and usually does. Given that the man is running for president of the United States, it would be a dereliction of duty for television not to cover his act. Concurrently, if a candidate is giving the same stump speech with minimal variations day after day, why should anyone watch more than once? Liberals who argued that Trump would have faded if only he had received less coverage — the thinking that led the Huffington Post to initially quarantine Trump articles in the entertainment section — were not just delusional but were calling for an illiberal muzzling of a free press. That was never going to happen and should never happen.

Meanwhile, the journalistic investigations of Trump and his business history — especially by the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Times — have been and continue to be hard-hitting and exhaustive. The fact-checking on Trump’s absurd pronouncements has usually been rigorous too. So when Democrats throw up their hands in frustration and complain that the press is giving Trump a free ride, they are missing the point about Trump. The problem is not that the press is failing to do due diligence; the problem is that many of his adherents are impervious to that diligence. He’s their guy, and they have been loyal to him no matter how sleazy a scam Trump University is revealed to be or how preposterous his promise that he’ll force Mexico to pay for a border wall. Logic, empiricism, and the other niceties of civilized discourse have nothing to do with his ascendance, a reality that eluded the press for too long during his rise.

What systemic issue facing the media today do you find most troubling?
As many others have said, the power of Facebook to adjudicate what is news and what is not is extraordinary and, I think, unprecedented in the history of modern media. William Randolph Hearst, Henry Luce, Walter Cronkite, the Times — no media titan or institution has ever had this kind of reach and power in America. There has to be more scrutiny and more transparency. Even if Facebook is behaving correctly now, as it may well be, that’s no guarantee for the future. What’s also needed is the antidote of stronger competition: What will most keep Facebook honest is the emergence of a wily and inventive upstart occupying the same space in our (social) media culture. Here’s hoping.

Have changes in the business of journalism damaged coverage or the ability to cover news objectively?
Even though I am a product of “legacy media” — God how I hate that patronizing term! — there’s much I like about the revolution that has transformed the business. The accessibility of so many news sources and voices — whether sober or crazy, professional or amateur, whether delivered in video or prose or 140 characters — is a boon to both finding and assessing news as it happens throughout the world. Social media have democratized and fractionalized the dissemination of all kinds of information. This new matrix does often require that you serve as your own editor and police the objectivity, indeed the legitimacy, of the countless sources that flood over the transom. But I believe that news consumers who care about ferreting out the truth will inevitably contrast and compare — they’ll shop for the most reliable sources. Those consumers who don’t have the time or inclination to take that trouble will do what they’ve always done — cede the authority to a single arbiter they trust (rightly or wrongly), whether it be NPR or Fox News or their News Feed on Facebook.

My bigger concern about the changes in the business of journalism has nothing to do with any decline in “objectivity” — after all, yellow journalism, the antithesis of an “objective” press, has been a popular fixture of America’s media culture since at least the turn of the 20th century. What worries me is the decline of financial resources for on-the-ground reporting. Investigative journalism is slow, time-consuming, and costly. So is war coverage. So is coverage of governmental and corporate behavior at the granular level. Will the money continue to be there? An exposé of a corrupt local school system or a bad corporate actor is hardly click bait. Nor is coverage of a war without end in the Middle East. We have reason to worry whether news in the public interest will be gathered strenuously and comprehensively when it cannot necessarily be monetized.

Should entertainment be a central goal of the major news networks?
No, but it is, and has been practically since the dawn of the medium. The sainted Edward R. Murrow of CBS, rightly venerated for bringing investigative journalism to prime time in the 1950s (in the series See It Now) and helping to take down Joe McCarthy in the process, simultaneously presided over the glossy celebrity interview series Person to Person, where he pitched softballs to the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Jerry Lewis, and Liberace. The pattern was thus set. Some two decades later — in the same year (1976) that Hollywood released All the President’s Men, a proto-Spotlight celebration of the Washington Post investigative journalists who broke Watergate — Paddy Chayefsky brought forth Network, a harsh satiric indictment of how network television news had degenerated into sensationalist tabloid entertainment in the pursuit of ratings. That was 40 years ago, and even back then that film seemed like a somewhat tardy protest against the status quo. In the decades since, the merger of news and entertainment that Network deplored has continued unabated and migrated intact to cable news. Ratings matter even more now in a far more competitive television marketplace, and you don’t get ratings if your programming is not entertaining. As Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, was fond of saying in his later years, his show would have been killed in its infancy by any contemporary television network because its Nielsen numbers were lackluster for several seasons before it finally caught on with the public. Once 60 Minutes did become a hit, Hewitt was assiduous in preserving its longevity in part by amping up show-business and celebrity pieces along with the harder-hitting segments.

At this late date, to rail against the merging of entertainment and news on television is a waste of time. It’s too late to rejigger that DNA now. And there may not be any reason to, given that the form itself is on a path to extinction. The median age of cable-network news viewers — and, for that matter, of the broadcast networks’ evening news shows — is old. Television as we’ve known it is on its way out. So this may be a problem that starts to solve itself. In 1963, America was glued to the three broadcast networks’ coverage of the Kennedy assassination — it was the first time television covered a news event 24/7 for days on end, and became the template for the cable-news format that was still years in the future. But when all hell broke out again in Dallas in 2016, most Americans did not turn to the anchors of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News for the latest, no matter how entertaining their coverage may or may not have been. Those who wanted the latest from Dallas turned to their phones. The dominance of network news, whether broadcast or cable, is gone with the wind.

Are journalists more cynical about the world than their readers?
If you see how the sausage is made in whatever business you are in — whether working at a restaurant or a car dealership or a hospital or a school or a church or wherever — you inevitably become cynical. You know there’s a gap between the public image of your profession and what really goes on when no one is looking. Political journalists see how the sausage is made not only in their own business but in the institutions they cover. It’s a trait that serves them well, because the whole point of political journalism is to ask questions, rude questions in particular, of those in power. It’s always been thus, and if you don’t believe me, go see the revival of The Front Page on Broadway this fall. That scabrous 1928 comedy, written by the onetime Chicago newspaper reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, remains a potent reminder that sentimentality and charity have never been of any use if you are a news hound who wants to be first with the lowdown on miscreants in high places.