In This Election Season, Only the Media is Guaranteed to Lose
Journalists wait for candidates in the spin room after the Oct. 13, 2015, Democratic presidential debate.
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
At various points in the election season just ending, each side complained bitterly about the media coverage of the other. During Trump's good months, his Republican primary opponents and then later the Clinton campaign were convinced the media would never stop lavishing him with free publicity.
And of course later when he tanked in the polls, Trump accused both the media and the pollsters of conspiring to do him in.
But there is one important difference in terms of the public perception of pollsters and the perception of media: Most of the public don't have any idea who the pollsters are or how they work, whereas the media are everywhere, not just accessible but intrusively and intimately omnipresent, in the public's ears, eyes, automobiles and living rooms. Everybody's got their number.
Perhaps that should make the outcome of this election all the more devastating for the media. Of all the results up and down the ballot in the Clinton-Trump national election, the final tally for the media is the one outcome no one will contest: The media lost.
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In 1999, at its best moment in recent history, the media, according to the Gallup poll, enjoyed the confidence of 55 percent of Americans. By the time this election season was largely over, that confidence level had fallen to 32 percent.
A survey by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas (named for a former Dallas mayor) found that 6 in 10 Americans now think journalists don't even know how to keep their own biases out of their reports.
More than one-third of Americans, according to the institute, believe media bias tilts liberal. One-fourth believe there is no bias.
As overwhelming as those results may be on the national level, translating them to the local scene seems awkward at first. After all, City Council and mayoral elections in Dallas are almost nonpartisan. Local issues are concrete, not ideological. In fact most local issues are literally about concrete — curbs, gutters, storm sewers, whatever.
In speaking with three people whom I know to be both watchful of and knowledgeable about local media, I found they all distrusted the media pretty much in tandem with the national numbers, but their feelings were sort of a nonpartisan mistrust. They were less likely to blame the shortcomings of local reporters on ideological bias than on personality.
One way in which their mistrust was most consistent was that none of the three would allow me to name them. Two of them deal with the media in their work and careers. But even the third, who does not deal directly with journalists, would not let me use his name. Something about the media made all three of them worry about getting the media mad at them.
I asked them in separate interviews to describe broadly their perceptions of the media. All three began by asking the same good question. Which media?
"Do you mean business media like Bloomberg?" a well-known lobbyist asked me. "Sports media? Entertainment media? Fashion media?" She answered her own question and said she thought I meant news and politics media.
She said she wasn't sure she saw a consistent philosophical slant in local reporters she dealt with so much as a consistent personality type.
"Seasoned political reporters who have been at it for a while, five years or more, tend to be very cynical," she said. She added that they are often envious: "Journalists deliberately choose a field where they know they will not make much money, but they often are dealing with people who do have a lot of money and power."
Another local media observer, the officeholder I spoke with, is a person you know, well known to the Dallas electorate as a veteran of hard-fought local political battles densely covered by local news media. I asked him if he sees reporters as actual searchers for truth, willing to go wherever the path takes them, or as soldiers for an agenda.
"It depends entirely on the integrity of the reporter," he said. "Some reporters do come at you with a preconceived notion, and then, when you provide them information, they will make adjustments from that. That has happened to me.
Donald Trump speaks during a rally aboard the Battleship USS Iowa in Los Angeles in September 2015.
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
"And then others don't care. They actively filter out information that doesn't fit their narrative."
I asked if they have an agenda.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I don't know that I could paint with a broad brush. Some of them are lazy. Some of them are stupid. Some of them are cynical."
My third subject is a person who is in the media business but not in journalism. I chose him because he's familiar with all of the same mechanical and production-related factors that we in journalism deal with, but he's not "in the business," as we say. He gets what we do, in other words, but he's not a part of it. I asked him to describe to me the typical reporter.
"If you're asking me about a stereotypical reporter," he said, "I think it's a product of a liberal university who is crusading to protect the public from corporate America in all its forms. Anything they can dig up to demean and diminish corporate America and show how it is enslaving the public is fodder for their particular outlet."
Can a personality type and an agenda wind up being the same thing? Jim Rutenberg, the media columnist for the New York Times, touched on this question recently when he interviewed an old Dallas media hand, Rod Dreher. Dreher was once an editorial writer at The Dallas Morning News and is now a senior editor at The American Conservative, a bimonthly opinion magazine.
Dreher told Rutenberg: "The people who run American journalism and who staff the newsrooms think of themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and, culturally speaking, on the right side of history. They don't know what they don't know and they don't care to know it."
Simple ignorance or laziness, of course, common as they may be in the human condition, were not the basis of the accusations hurled against the media by the Trump campaign. If anything, the Trump theory of media gives reporters a lot more credit than that, painting them as both biased and coolly cynical. The Trumpian view is that reporters are political activists willing to trounce the truth in order to bring about a favored outcome in the election.
But even if reporters actively doubt and aggressively question the sincerity of a politician, that doesn't make them cynical. It means they're skeptical. There's a big distinction. And, yes, as the lobbyist suggested, that latter quality may seem to increase as the reporter spends more years on the beat. Guess why? Experience.
Here we come to a seam in things where the journalist's interests may simply conflict and even collide with the politician's interests. It's the reporter's job to peel back the curtain and poke his nose backstage. It's the politician's job to kick the reporter off the stage and go on with the show. But does that make anyone cynical? Does it make anyone a liar?
For example, one of the great nonevents of the presidential race was the Wikileaks leak that seemed to confirm every accusation of lying and hypocrisy that the Trump campaign had ever lobbed at Clinton.
In a speech to the National Multi-family Housing Council, an industry group, Clinton seemed to be telling them she was a liar: "You just have to sort of figure out how to — getting back to that word, 'balance' — how to balance the public and the private efforts that are necessary to be successful, politically, and that's not just a comment about today," she said in a private speech.
"Politics is like sausage being made," she said. "It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody's watching all of the backroom discussions and the deals, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So you need both a public and a private position."
And, oh my God, once everybody got a chance to read that or hear it declaimed in a falsetto shriek by Sean Hannity, the whole nation should have turned itself upside down and inside out to oppose her, pouring out its favorable poll results instead into Trump's expectant hands. But the revelation sank beneath the waves without causing a jiggle in the bad polls for Trump. Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, even wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about it, congratulating Clinton on her honesty. About her dishonesty.
Because, yeah. When the kids ask through the closed door what's going on, a married couple arguing about sex will tell them they're arguing about a new car. Not only do the kids not need to know about the sex issue, it would be irresponsible to tell them, and the couple also would never be able to work out the sex issue.
As Clinton said in her speech, there has to be a closed-door zone where grown-ups can do business in politics just as in any other endeavor, and sometimes the grown-ups have to be two-faced to get it done.
And reporters are there to count the faces. How much readers care about what they find falls on the readers' shoulders — and on the story. Given that human nature is what it is, can we really be surprised that the story exposing a life-time pol's conniving strategy was swamped by the one about Trump bragging about groping women's genitals? News that Clinton is a slippery, secretive operator falls under the heading "dog bites man." The horny dog who boasts that no one respects women more than him — now that's a headline.
Of course, as this story goes to press, a new story is bubbling up involving a man with women and genitalia issues. News broke Friday that the FBI had found another trove of emails from Clinton's private server on "electronic devices once shared by Anthony D. Weiner and his estranged wife, Huma Abedin," the New York Times reported.
"The FBI is investigating illicit text messages that Mr. Weiner, a former Democratic congressman from New York, sent to a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina," wrote the newspaper that's at once the most- and least-trusted major media outlet in the country.
How that story plays out in the final tally of votes is anybody's guess, but one thing is certain: Many people are going to believe the media mishandled it.
I have been a reporter my entire life, literally since I was a kid. It's all that I have ever been and everything I have been.
When I was very young and already knew I wanted to be a journalist, I had a very high opinion of journalists. I'm not sure where it started. My parents were both products of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, but neither one was a journalist. I asked my mother once why she didn't stay in the business, and she told me she didn't like being around that many alcoholics.
In high school I had a wonderful American history teacher who spent a long time teaching us the First Amendment, especially the role of Thomas Jefferson in crafting it. He taught us that if Jefferson were forced to pick from among the three branches of the federal government and the free press for one institution that would stand alone as democracy's last bastion, Jefferson said he would give up the government and keep the press.
I took Jefferson's words as a badge of honor. I thought it was especially cool that the press had its own amendment.
Later when I got to the University of Michigan, I took courses from some even better history teachers. Through them, I was exposed to Jefferson's own writings, mainly in letters, expressing his personal views of the press of his own time.
One of the first that took me by surprise was a reference in a letter by Jefferson to the press and "its abandoned prostitution to falsehood." And then it got worse. Jefferson said, "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put in that polluted vehicle."
During this recent national campaign, there was a great hue and cry from the media about the hostility of Trump supporters toward the media and about the extent to which Trump himself was fanning it. I kept a file of my best Jefferson quotes all these years, so I couldn't help looking at some of the modern media, wailing over Trump, and say to myself, "Man, if you guys think Trump hates us, you should read these Jefferson quotes."
Jefferson went beyond calling us merely envious. He said the journalists of his time, "ravin on the agonies of their victims, as wolves do on the blood of the lamb."
In another letter, he said: "I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors ..."
Jefferson, with most of the founding fathers, knew from powerful personal experience what kind of explosive forces build up within a society that is never allowed to express itself freely and openly, like methane building up in a landfill. While he did not admire or even much respect the practitioners, he saw the free press as a kind of venting system for that pressure. He wrote that newspapers of his time serve "as chimneys to carry off noxious vapors and smoke."
Jefferson called riots and upheavals "interpositions." He wrote: "The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.
"The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
It's hard not to think that voters given that choice today would go with "none of the above," but have things really changed that much?
When I asked my three subjects if they had seen something change in media in their lives, all three wound up referring to what I would call the Imaginary Walter Cronkite Era When Journalism was Pure. In the Imaginary Walter Cronkite Era, journalism was authoritative but free from bias. Maybe because I have spent my own career laboring in local vineyards, not with Walter Cronkite, I don't remember that era. I remember the alcoholics.
But I also remember keen competition. I was talking one day with SMU emeritus professor Darwin Payne, who was one hell of a street reporter in his time, and I mentioned how much competitive pressure there was back when Dallas had two strong newspapers.
Dallas photographer Danny Fulgencio was nailed in the head by a rock outside a Donald Trump rally on June 16, 2016.
Payne said that was nothing. He said I should have seen what it was like when Dallas had three strong newspapers. When local newspapers were truly competitive — when they were all cranking out multiple editions and extras, fighting every hour of every day to steal readers from each other — there was very little Cronkite going on. In fact, there was much less sense of journalism as a profession.
Reporters were all out there trying to beat the guys across the street, trying to give the reader a faster better version of the real skinny so the reader would stop buying those other rags and stick with the reporter's paper. And, yes, they were slugging down some whiskey between editions.
But guess who that system put in charge? The reader. The reader was electing the winning newspaper every time he handed his two bits to a newsboy.
If I look for a change that has occurred in local media during my lifetime, I think I see the same thing Rod Dreher said about national media when he said reporters see themselves now as "sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and, culturally speaking, on the right side of history."
The old guys on the city desk when I started in the business were sort of street characters. If they weren't working as reporters I might expect to find them selling asbestos siding or running an after-hours blind-pig saloon. Whatever flaws of character might properly be assigned to them — and those were many — no one would ever have accused them of being sophisticated or cosmopolitan or, for that matter, knowing a damn thing about history.
The reader trusted a reporter's work — or didn't — because the reporter either did or did not get the story first and right. But there was no sense that I remember of an Olympian voice, a voice that talked down to readers from a place of great authority, unless you thought the Headliner Bar was a place of great authority.
I asked my officeholder interviewee about the voice of media. "Modern media is highly partisan-ized," he said, "and you get very specific delivery channels."
I said, "You're looking at a variegated diverse picture. But a lot of people really use the word, media, to mean this thing, this eyeball out there. Do you think that thing exists at any level, or is it a mistake to think there's something called 'the media?'"
"You think about kind of what technology has done," he said. "It has democratized information in a really transformational way. You know, any human being now has access to 40 percent of the combined knowledge of humanity at any time.
"You get on Google, and you can find any piece of information. And all those same people can be producers of media because of all of the tools. I can post a comment on Facebook and suddenly I'm a media person. I can make YouTube videos and have a YouTube channel in no time.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know if there is such a thing as a media anymore."
His observation about the way technology has democratized media did strike a chord. I remembered that when I was a young reporter, newsrooms all had long tables bearing enormous heavily bound collections of what we called criss-cross directories, books published new every year, like giant encyclopedia sets.
When a call came in from the police beat saying some guy in the suburbs had barricaded himself in his house with a gun, everybody flew to the criss-cross. Within minutes we accomplished the amazing magic trick of being on the phone with all of the guy's neighbors. Nobody knew how we did it.
Now, of course, that's a magic trick the average 12-year-old could work out online. Only instead of wasting time calling a bunch of neighbors who might not even know the guy, the 12-year-old would get on some combination of social media I don't know about yet and put together an instant community of the guy's acquaintances going back to his ex-wife and his high school swim coach with whom the ex-wife ran away once but came back and then they got divorced anyway.
The Democratic presidential debate press filing room at the Wynn in Las Vegas in October 2015.
Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
More important, as the officeholder said, people can become their own media providers. So doesn't that mean they can become their own methane vents? No, seriously, what if Jefferson's view was always the correct one — that the free press was never intended or capable of being some kind of singular Cronkitian voice of authority but was supposed to be a relief valve?
In Jefferson's view, the reader was the main act. The reporter was only a pipe, a channel. So if the reader now has his own channel, what is the real role of the media? What are the real media?
Of course we in the business will say that we are the best channel, because we do this for a living. No, really, I could seriously defend that hypothesis. For a little while.
But I am drawn back to Dreher's words, simply because I know in my gut he's speaking the truth. That voice of all-knowing superiority, the tone of condescension, is definitely out there, in both national and local media.
The temptation for us Clinton voters is to write off the Trump "rigged media" talk as whining. And I do think some of it was whining, at least in the recent national election cycle. But how does that explain my own belief that the local monopolized media are sort of rigged the same way and speak with that same irritating voice?
Something significant is happening in our relationship with media, locally and nationally. Clearly some cultural fawn is working its way painfully through the long python of popular consumption, and eventually whatever is to be the new formation of money-making commercial journalism will be expelled from the other end.
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