Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday February 14th, 2016
I confess. When I watch, listen to and read the news coverage of the 2016 presidential primaries, I am biased. No, I am not referring to my political preferences. It’s the bias that comes from one who reported on presidential campaigns for network television news going back forty years. Try as I might to avoid the old-fartitis disease which causes geezers to remember their times through rose-colored glasses, I can’t escape being appalled at what passes for election news coverage in 2016.
This matters, enormously, because the mass media are still shaping public opinion, now mostly by what they are not reporting. Nowadays they are giving the voters almost none of the important information they need to be at least minimally informed about those who aspire to be president. Instead, infinite broadcast hours and reams of newsprint are devoted almost exclusively to the horse race – the who’s up and who’s down in excruciating detail – but with virtually no time and space allocated to the meaning and likely consequences of a given candidate’s presidency. The result is that very many people are casting ballots with barely a clue as to what their candidate will realistically do for or to them, much less the whole country. T’was not ever thus.
In early 1976, having spent the previous decade as a foreign correspondent, ABC News assigned me to cover the presidential campaign of Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson. The Democrat from Washington was a cold warrior who was opposed to the policy of détente with the Soviet Union. It was expected that Jackson would emphasize foreign policy in his campaign and the reasoning of the network was that he should be covered by someone who had firsthand experience with these matters.
In briefing its reporters for the upcoming presidential campaign I specifically recall network executives stressing that our reporting had to be more than the horse race. Of course who was winning or losing was of great interest. But in those meetings, and in subsequent months of our daily coverage, we were encouraged to flesh out our candidate’s policies - to explain where those policies fit into the scheme of history and how they differed from the previous administration or the other candidates. We were also reminded that we were reporters, not apologists nor certainly not cheerleaders for those we covered. (In watching MSNBC’s coverage of this past week’s New Hampshire primary, I was embarrassed for its reporter covering Donald Trump, who could simply not contain her overwhelming joy that he had won - although this lack of objectively in the coverage was by no means unique to her. More on Trump’s unprecedented seduction of the news media later.)
I am not suggesting the reporting in my day was brilliant or didn’t get carried away with the horse race. But our goal was not to lose sight of what our candidates stood for - through their own words and actions but also based on our knowledge of the issues and the actual facts - not those made up by the candidates. We didn’t have designated fact checkers at that time. It was each reporter’s responsibility to keep our candidates honest, and while I am sure we weren’t perfect, I know I took that responsibility seriously. Although he won some primaries, Jackson ultimately lost to Jimmy Carter. I believe he did so because his hard line policies didn't fit the country’s mood at that time.
In subsequent presidential elections from 1980 through 1992, based at the State Department or overseas, I was regularly called upon to do foreign policy analyses of each of the major candidates and to report on how the world saw them. These reports were integral parts of the election coverage and appeared on all of ABC News programs throughout the election season. The other networks offered similar coverage.
In addition, reporters specializing in business, economics, labor and health-care among other issues, looked carefully at each of the candidates’ policies and projected what they might lead to. This was being done regularly in even greater detail in the major newspapers. Likewise weekly news magazines such as Time and Newsweek, who in those days had wide circulation and considerable political clout, specialized in such analyses.
In other words, once upon a time voters didn’t need to be news junkies or research specialists to have a general idea of where the wannabe presidents stood and what could be the consequences of their election. Yet today with thousands of hours more of cable news coverage and limitless sources of information on the Internet, voters indeed hold very strong opinions. But are those opinions based on much factual knowledge? Very often not, again because today’s news media are obsessed with reporting the horse race to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Today’s voters are said to be angry. But how much of that anger has actually been stoked by many of the candidates themselves? For the past eight months they've been incessantly telling Americans how bad things are in this country and the world. Rather than occasionally challenging this view, most news coverage has simply echoed it. Small wonder many Americans are today as afraid of Islamic terrorism as several previous generations were of communism. This is patently absurd but that’s what they conclude after listening to the politicians for whom fear-mongering is their most successful and often only message.
For this too I mainly blame the news media, which simply are not doing their job. For example, all major news organizations continue to beg Donald Trump to deign to give them interviews, even as Trump refuses to give credible answers to reasonable questions about his often off-the-wall policies. Instead of groveling, the media should be looking into how Trump built his financial empire. This should be done with as much rigor as Mitt Romney’s finances were investigated in 2012.
In the meantime the news media should stop their acquiescence, if not their abetting, of Trump’s unabashed selling of nationalist/nativist bigotry to a large, ill-informed electorate.
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