Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday June 26, 2016

By voting to withdraw from the European Union, Great Britain has chosen to leap into an abyss of the political and economic unknown – a decision that will be felt far beyond the British Isles. Populism and nationalism, fed by fears created by the social upheavals of globalization and life-changing communication technologies, are not unique to the British. Similar fears in this country are causing millions of people to want to elect as president a man who by every conceivable measure is totally unfit for the job.
There are complex reasons for what is happening in the world today. In my view one of the important ones is the decline and fall of the responsible, mainstream news media. We are seeing major consequences of what happens when the news media don’t do their job, or do it badly.
The man who led the fight to have Britain break with the European Union is Boris Johnson. He is a senior Conservative Member of Parliament who was formerly the Lord Mayor of London. I knew him only as the author of a somewhat off-beat but interesting biography of Winston Churchill. But Johnson was once a prominent journalist with the London Telegraph. And according those who knew him, his stock-in-trade was trashing the European Union.
In a recent scathing op-ed in the New York Times, Martin Fletcher, a former London Times foreign editor and Brussels correspondent, makes a compelling case against a highly influential journalist who never let facts get in the way of a good story. According to Fletcher, “For decades, British newspapers have offered readers a stream of biased, misleading and downright fallacious stories about Brussels.” And the man who set the tone was Boris Johnson.
Fletcher writes, “Johnson made his name in Brussels, not with honest reporting but with extreme euroskepticism, tirelessly attacking, mocking and denigrating the European Union. He wrote about European Union plans to take over Europe, standardize condom sizes and blow up its own asbestos filled headquarters. These articles were undoubtedly colorful but they bore scant relation to the truth.”
Furthermore, as Fletcher explains, London editors from competitive newspapers soon began demanding similar approaches from their correspondents in Brussels. “They wanted only reports about faceless Eurocrats, dictating the shape of cucumbers that could be sold in Europe or plots to impose a European superstate.” He concedes that the European Union can be meddlesome, arrogant and incompetent, but “seldom was the British reader told how (the EU) had secured peace on the continent.” This is no small achievement considering that Europe had been in conflict for centuries, and in just the last century more people were killed in two world wars than at any time in human history.
As for the American news media, many of us felt instinctively that the rise of Donald Trump was something more than the frustrations of white American males who never attended college. There is now strong research data that Trump was given an enormous boost by the American news media. It comes in the form of a new report by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. (Full disclosure: after my retirement from ABC News in 1995, I was a Fellow at the Center.)
This report is based on an analysis of the coverage of major news outlets in the year leading up to the 2016 Presidential primaries. It notes, “This crucial period, labeled ‘the invisible primary’ by political scientists, is when candidates try to lay the ground work for a winning campaign – with media exposure often playing a make or break role.”
This is the Center’s  summary of its report:
“Major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers – a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone – he received far more ‘good press’ than ’bad press.’ The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.
“The Democratic race in 2015 received less than half the coverage of the Republican race. Bernie Sanders was largely ignored in the early months, but as (he) began to get coverage, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone. Sanders coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates. For her part, Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate, In 11 of the 12 months, her 'bad news’ out- paced her ‘good news’ usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings.”
The Shorenstein Center’s study is based on the analysis of thousands of news items on CBS, FOX, The Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
What it provides is a statistical answer to Trump’s rise. But what it doesn’t mention here is the almost gleeful way in which the news media treated Trump for nearly a year. They simply couldn’t get enough of him. Clearly this was tied to their ratings and their bottom lines. Trump claimed his campaign was self-financed. In fact this was a campaign based on an unprecedented amount of free media.
Unfortunately it was also a campaign that was fact free – as doting media were reluctant to offend their new political darling with unpleasant questions challenging the veracity of his daily diatribes, insults and out and out lies.
The good news, is that this appears to be changing. Not just the fact checkers, but the anchors and the star reporters are no longer willing to be dupes for this extraordinary snake-oil salesman. Let us hope that it is not too late to help keep the American people from leaping into the same abyss the British have just chosen.


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