Can the press avoid another campaign train wreck in 2020?

Gio / Flickr Journalists...
Gio / Flickr

Donald Trump is retweeting doctored “news” videos of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Republicans refuse to take any legislative action to protect the integrity of elections against outside interference, and the Department of Justice is now functioning as a partisan wing of Trump’s re-election campaign. Let’s face it: The ugly and corrupt 2020 electoral season is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen in American history. Yet there’s no indication that the Beltway press has a plan for how to deal with the pending onslaught of lies and dishonest Republican attacks. Coming off monumental journalism failures in 2016, the press seems poised to stumble through another campaign fiasco, and possibly help Trump get reelected in the process.

Following the 2016 media debacle, most in the press refused to concede mistakes had been made, let alone offer up much serious self-reflection. That’s dangerous because it’s simply not possible for news outlets to mess up as badly as they did in 2016, not deal with those public failures, and then expect journalism during the next Trump campaign to improve. What went wrong last time around? They treated Trump like a celebrity and let him essentially get away with running a substance-free campaign, while every Hillary Clinton utterance was dissected in an obsessive search for hypocrisy and bad faith. Conveniently for the Republican candidate, the press essentially eliminated policy coverage in 2016, in part because reporters were so busy obsessing over Clinton’s email. One study found that “In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.” (The Clinton coverage throughout the campaign was also flat-out sexist, while the press also promoted anti-Clinton Russian hackers.)

Meanwhile, the lessons that editors claim to have learned from 2016 are the wrong ones. Julie Pace, the Associated Press’s D.C. bureau chief recently insisted, “One of the lessons from 2016 is that news organizations didn’t pay enough attention to what voters outside of the coasts are saying.” In other words, the press has to play even closer attention to white voters in red states?

Even more disturbingly, we keep seeing campaign coverage that picks up right where the 2016 mistakes left off.

Last week, the Washington Post published a strange news article that suggested there was something odd about the fact that candidate Elizabeth Warren had done outside legal work while serving as faculty member at Harvard Law School. Under the accusatory headline, “While teaching, Elizabeth Warren worked on more than 50 legal matters, charging as much as $675 an hour” (the headline was later changed), the Post stressed that “Warren worked on more than 50 legal matters during her career as a professor at Ivy League law schools, charging as much as $675 an hour to advise a variety of clients, from people with asbestos disease to a corporation facing possible liability over ruptured breast implants.”

But the Post never explained why the pedestrian revelation qualified as news, or why the paper seemed to try to couch the financial details as some sort of deeply hidden revelation. Harvard Law School professors often do outside legal work, Warren has been transparent about her legal activities, and she charged the market rate for her much sought-after counsel. The Post coverage immediately brought back memories of the paper’s often mindless 2016 treatment of the paid speeches Hillary Clinton gave prior to running for president and how the press treated that common occurrence as a scandalous event when a Democratic woman did it.

Over at The Atlantic, the magazine recently published a long piece on Sen. Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign. In the headline, the trailblazing United States senator was referred to as the “Jan Brady” of politics. Then, the very first sentence of the article included a quote from Trump calling Harris “nasty.” So yes, reducing a leading Democratic presidential candidate to a TV sitcom character, and framing her campaign through the prism of Trump’s childish insults suggests the press has learned nothing from the previous election cycle.

And incredibly, last month The New York Times treated as front-page news the fact that Trump spent a day insulting former Vice President Joe Biden via Twitter, even posting a derogatory video about the Democratic candidate. This, the mighty Times declared, represented one of the day’s most important stories. But why? Why are boring, recycled, Twitter-based Trump taunts still considered breaking news in 2019? Why does the press hype up Trump attacks, simply because they come out of his mouth?

What’s so troubling is there appears to be so little self-reflection about previous media shortcomings that when it comes to covering blockbuster news stories during the Trump era, the press keeps making the same signature mistake over and over: namely, treating Trump and his team as honest players. Just look at how badly the press got duped back in March, upon the completion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Completely falling for Attorney General Bill Barr’s dishonest spin about the Mueller report, the press rushed out with an endless stream of inaccurate, pro-Trump headlines: “Mueller finds no conspiracy” (Washington Post), “Mueller finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy” (The New York Times),” Mueller finds no Trump-Russia conspiracy” (Politico), “Mueller doesn’t find Trump campaign conspired with Russia” (Wall Street Journal), “Mueller finds no Trump collusion, leaves obstruction open” (Associated Press). Keep in mind that at the time, reporters had no idea what Mueller found because none of them were allowed to read the report.

What’s also daunting is the prospect of an emboldened Trump teaming up with an emboldened Fox News and heading into the 2020 campaign season working under the assumption that there are no rules, in part because the press won’t hold him accountable. When Trump on Thursday amplified an edited video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supposedly stumbling over her words, he used a clip that had aired on Fox Business. Incredibly, in its write-up regarding the “war on words” that had broken out between Trump and Pelosi, the Times made no mention in its coverage that the president of the United States had also hyped an obviously doctored video of his political opponent.

For now, the guardrails have all come down. Will the press put any of them back up in time for 2020?


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