The surprise electoral college defeat of Hillary Clinton that allowed Donald Trump to claim the presidency was unexpected by many. I would include myself also in with the rest of the “liberal bubble” America, in that I did not think Trump was really going to pull out the win. Yet, from the beginning of his campaign when he gave his infamous first speech as a presidential candidate in front of his escalators at Trump tower, I did believe Trump was going to win the Republican nomination.
In Oct. 2015, I tweeted this:
Friends and I were making jokes about Trump’s seemingly insane ideas at the time, such as claiming that Mexico will build a wall at our border, for example. After his mass amounts of ignorant statements though, I personally saw a huge problem, explaining why I used the word disturbed. Maybe at the time I was disturbed by some outrageous or bigoted statement he had made, I’m not sure.
But I think I was more disturbed at the fact that he was leading in the polls at the time. I hadn’t realized exactly what Trump had captured at the time but I had bought it. Many journalists, pundits and political experts alike were dismissing the polls at the time, including current candidate for Trump’s cabinet as Secretary of State, Mitt Romney, who said Trump wasn’t going to win.
Nevertheless, to me, I had seen enough. I knew Trump was going to be the Republican nominee, and as a liberal, I for one thought it was great. Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton was going to have the easiest path to the White House in the history of this country.
Then, I noticed how reality around me was shaping. I don’t believe I was caught in a bubble. I may be living in bubbles, being from the ultra-liberal Washington, DC which had the highest percentage of voters for Clinton by county and attending school in Boston, but I don’t believe I’ve ever been caught in a bubble. In fact, in May of this year on Twitter, I halfheartedly made another bold Trump prediction:
A friend replied to my tweet and asked me why, to which I said, “cause the vast majority of the country doesn’t trust Hillary and I think Trump will be able to use that really easily.” I didn’t blame the media necessarily, which has become a go-to reason for many people, both on the left and right, to explain the election results. I took more aim at his voters, calling them “idiots” in another reply to my friend.
“Idiot” is a harsh word though and honestly violates the golden rule because I wouldn’t want someone to insult me based off of a political preference. So if I’m holding myself to my journalism ethical standards as a media member, I should probably choose my words more carefully, even on Twitter. Following the election, my toned changed from “idiots” to “ignorant” or “woefully uninformed.” Those are still harsh descriptions, but they are accurate in my opinion for the majority of Trump voters, particularly the “forgotten men and women,” who made their voices heard loud, only to elect someone who arranges his cabinet full of as, Sen. Claire McCaskill said, “Goldman, Generals and Gazillionaires.”
There is plenty of irony to go around for the never-ending post-election discussions, including a personal favorite of mine from Edward Snowden, who weighed in with this tweet:
Now Trump is planning to install multiple people with Goldman Sachs backgrounds in his cabinet and other positions on his staff. But Snowden is neither an expert on politics nor is he a journalist nor a media member. I question the role of the media in the election every day. Twitter is a strong news platform but in terms of a broad reach, it still falls short to Facebook which has more users. Both faced backlash over spread of fake news, particularly Facebook and that also no doubt contributed to the election.
Even close to home I’ve seen first-hand, not to be cliché, how fake news can have a real impact, with the story of #pizzagate, a gun-man who believed an online conspiracy theory based off of perceived codes in the Kremlin/Wikileaks hack of the John Podesta’s emails about a child sex ring being run out of the bottom of a pizza restaurant. I live two blocks away from the Comet, the restaurant that had to deal with this mess, I don’t like the food there, but I highly doubt it’s a child sex ring, and the gunman apparently came to the same conclusion as me when couldn’t find anything before he chose to surrender.
Still, many Americans, particularly older ones, rely on cable news to provide their news for them. In the case of conservatives, according to Pew research, 47 percent of conservatives say Fox News is still their main news source. Liberals also rely on cable news still with 27 percent citing either CNN or MSNBC as their main news source, NPR had 13 percent and the New York Times had 10.
Since conservatives and liberals both rely on the filter of cable news and the “mainstream media” as a whole, it is important to examine how this year differed from past years. There has never been a major party candidate, and now President-elect, similar to Trump, so in some senses, it’s easy to understand why the media may have stumbled in their coverage and choice of personalities to put on the air.
I spoke with David Karol, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, about a wide scope of different topics relating to the media coverage of the election. To start the conversation, I asked him about the media ethics of installing surrogates from a campaign into roles as “pundits.”
At one point Karol mentioned Kayleigh McEnany, who at only 28, has rose from relative obscurity, besides her college degrees and a brief period where she worked with Mike Huckabee. He made the point that people like her and Jeffrey Lord were installed by CNN to level out the balance of anti-Trump voices, which CNN has plenty of, to pro-Trump ones as Lord and McEnany enthusiastically filled.
A deontological argument could be made that by getting Trump “pundits” as regular commentators on their shows, CNN is valuing fairness and weighing both sides. While there may be some sort of case to be made there, there were big media executives like Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, who sounded off with their true thoughts about Trump, saying in February that Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Karol and I discussed that statement along with the media’s fascination with Trump from the get go.
“Trump has been famous for 30 years and he works very hard to be famous. There were so many other Republican candidates and they weren’t getting the attention and he was drowning them all out, and even when the coverage was negative,” said Karol. “In the primary, you only need a minority of the overall electorate and even Republicans. As long as some people were liking him, that was what was important.”
Trump shocking the establishment through the Republican primaries was met with angst from establishment mainstream media, but they still fell into his attention-seeking traps. But as Karol pointed out, Trump is not new to the media and attention:
“Trump has this unique relationship with the media, even though he has no political experience,” Karol said. “But he has a ton of media experience, much more than anyone else. It’s not as though he was good at everything. Hillary won all the debates, but it is subjective, people see what they want. He always provides new content for the media. He would say something outrageous, sometimes by design, knowing that it would be red meat. And when most people say something false, they resist for a while then apologize, but that’s not what he does. He doubles down almost always and doesn’t admit when he’s lying and doesn’t apologize. And for the media, there’s no attention span.”
The lack of attention span in the media is shown in the coverage on the cable news networks, again, for both liberal and conservative alike. Issues are rarely discussed and political and ideological dissent is usually sensationalized almost to the point of satire, with both sides name-calling in some way, shape or form. Even with pundits like Van Jones, a liberal who appears also regularly on CNN with Lord and McEnany and has also made many notable efforts to speak with people outside of his political bubble, fits a narrative that CNN wants him to play just like his pro-Trump counterparts.
The ethical burden does not fall on any of the pundits, no matter how extreme. The role of pundits and interviews with surrogates like Kellyanne Conway for example, on an almost daily basis, falls at the feet of executives like Moonves. There will always be pundits, qualified or not, ready for hire, as evidenced by CNN’s rapid pro-Trump hires, not to mention his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski who became a surrogate while still receiving Trump severance checks throughout his time at CNN.
While pundits, like journalists, should be held to ethical codes when speaking, at the same time, they are being paid to give their point of view. The network always has an idea of what the pundits point of view is, just like the networks have an idea of what Trump’s point of views were when they were airing his speeches in full from the beginning.
It wasn’t until just a few weeks before the election, CNN president Jeff Zucker admitted it might not have been such a hot idea to air everything Trump had to say unfiltered, as almost free advertising (or even propagandizing).
“If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run,” Zucker said while speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Listen, because you never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on air.”
The attraction to put Trump’s speeches on the air does not outweigh ethical obligations as a media institution. Ultimately, if the heads of major news networks are more concerned with profiting than informing the public, the ethics of the individuals making up these networks, may not even matter.
While it is refreshing in some senses to hear such transparency from people like Zucker and Moonves about how good Trump was for their ratings, they also revealed in both of their quotes that truth-telling and minimizing harm are not among their top ethical concerns.