Politico Magazine’s Michael Hirsh on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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The criticism of political reporters is they travel in packs and don’t dare to go against their sources.
We’ve actually been having some discussions about the issue of relevance. In some ways, this could be viewed as a decisive election. If Donald Trump is elected, it will cast a very harsh light on, not the basic functioning of the mainstream media but whether it’s relevant at all anymore. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact-checker, wrote this piece fulminating over why the media doesn’t do a better job of going after Trump for his obvious lies, and he’s been awarded all these Pinocchios. And I think there’s very little self-awareness in the media that the Pinocchios don’t matter. We’ve all, particularly in the print media, done a lot of hard-hitting stuff on Trump, and it doesn’t seem to matter. We’re going to find out how much it matters, of course, in the general election, but it certainly hasn’t mattered so far, and if you look at some of the more recent national polls, they show the race with Hillary now is even — of course that doesn’t mean a great deal — but this is a critical moment. I see this in some ways as the tail end of a long arc of history, of 30 or 40 years where we started out in the pre-internet age with a few authorized outlets that really spoke authoritatively; you had Walter Cronkite, you had three major networks, you had the Times, you had Washington Post, Newsweek magazine, which I worked for for many years. And that’s largely gone with the wind. The Times and the Post are still around, but there’s a question of how much they really dictate the agenda in the way that they used to. And in the meantime, of course, you have this phenomenon where 10,000 weeds have bloomed, if you will, on the internet, non-truth sites where like-minded people gather, where they get a lot of their information, much of it just garbage, and there’s no direction home anymore. There’s no real anchor. And of course a guy like Trump comes in and exploits that to the hilt.

Trump understands the rules better than the people in the media do.
I think that’s a good argument to make. I’m not sure that that’s true, but I think it certainly looks like a good case to make right now. Here’s a guy who bragged in 2013 that he knew how to get free media, he went ahead and did it, we in the media did our best to cover him in a tough way, in a fair way, but he did a better job of exploiting us that we did of exposing him.

What are those rules that he so well intuited?
Start out with his obvious mistakes, like his Trump Tower taco tweet. He’s a master tweeter. He’s on top of it, he appears to tweet 24/7, and every time he says something mildly controversial, it goes viral, it gets sent around, it often becomes a news story. That’s one obvious way he’s been able to work the media. And he’s brilliantly exploited the vulnerabilities of cable television, where producers get frothy at the mouth with excitement every time there’s some Trump call-in or some Trump event where who knows what he’ll say. So they cut live to it, and there’s more free media. While we in the print media have been trying to fact-check him tirelessly, to bring up some of the more dubious aspects of his biography, there’s a sense of frustration that it just doesn’t seem to stick. Obviously he does have sky-high unfavorables, and certainly some of the negative stories must be contributing to that, although I suspect that it’s more his own manner, just the way he appears and he talks when he is on TV, so 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.

It’s very depressing. I think that many people in the mainstream media are in denial about this. I was citing that Glenn Kessler piece, which I recommend that you go back and read. “Why doesn’t it matter that I keep giving this guys Pinocchios?” Well, Glenn, it’s because no one really cares about the damn Pinocchios when it comes to Donald Trump! This is someone who has no respect whatsoever for the truth or facts, and it’s only helped him, because of his mastery of the media, and the strange nature of the internet that was theoretically supposed to supply us with more information, and only has supplied us, or mainly has supplied us, with bad information. It’s not the information age, it’s the misinformation age.

But as you say, what we now consider a traditional medium, like TV or radio, he’s doing great on those, too.
I would recommend that you read Campbell Brown’s piece, which just came out in our latest print edition; she takes on this whole issue of how culpable cable TV is, TV in general, and she hears a lot from her former colleagues about how unhappy they are because they feel like they’re no longer reporters.

You mentioned how he exploits the weakness of cable news and producers getting frothy at the mouth. What is that weakness?
The weakness is that many of them are hanging on by their fingernails in terms of ratings. We know MSNBC has been, CNN’s been shifting around its schedule and its personalities in an effort to boost its ratings. And everyone knows in the producer booth that when Trump is on, their ratings go up. I think that’s created an irresistible temptation to just put him on whenever he’s out there speaking. And I think the last six or seven months have been really just a display of absolute mastery by a guy who has spent a couple of decades perfecting his exploitation of the media. Whether it’s his reality show, whether it’s the way he played the media in New York, or with his books, this is a guy who came in and really used this moment in history when the Republican Party had basically destroyed its brand, turned itself into a party that stood for nothing but “no to Obama,” and was really kind of a vacuum of ideas; he just stormed in, and he’s a master brander, that’s what he does well. He branded the Republican Party, in effect, using the media and these vulnerabilities, knowing that he could put on a show for them, and what they did most of all was a good show. To me, that kind of sums it up.

If you could go back in time a year ago and sit people down and say something to them and actually have your words take effect, what would you tell members of the media?
I do think that there’s a bit of a blame-the-messenger quality here that’s implied in your question. I’m not really sure, apart from cable-TV hosts and Sunday talk-show hosts challenging Trump more often on some of his factual misstatements, I’m not sure that there’s that much we could have done differently. It’s just that he ran roughshod over a traditional media that still sees itself as the voice of authority, the platform for authoritative news, and we’re used, we’re depended upon less and less for that. I think it really does come down to an eastern-elite problem, you know, “Everyone here on the eastern seaboard, they get the New York Times and the Washington Post, they do pay attention to how many Pinocchios he’s awarded.” But let’s face it, that’s a pretty small sliver of the U.S. population.

And everyone who’s complaining about him in the media, by the fact itself, has a job, and if you don’t have a job, you’re way more …
Exactly. I really don’t know that there is that much different we could have done. 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. And not just with Trump, but on the left as well. In the Democratic race, starting with the Clinton campaign, no one really saw the Sanders insurgency coming, and they should have seen it. They should have seen the popularity of Elizabeth Warren, in a way that Bernie Sanders really ably took that mantle and ran with it. So it’s not a good time for the mainstream media, we’re getting eclipsed, we misread the situation, it’s just been a bad season. I wonder if it’s another step toward this continuing descent into irrelevance.

Nate Silver was getting very defensive.
That’s another dimension of it, of course, the pollsters, right? That’s another issue.

Do you think that when Arianna Huffington said that “we’re going to cover Trump in the ‘Entertainment’ section,” that kind of pooh-poohing, fed into Trump’s narrative?
I think the failure of the mainstream media to take him seriously probably only heightened his appeal among Republican-base types who despise the mainstream media.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

Michael Hirsh on the Media