The media’s 2020 election coverage correction
The dirty little secret of 2020 election coverage is that major media outlets across print and television are taking responsibility for their disastrous 2016 election reporting. They just aren’t owning it publicly.
There are many reasons Hillary Clinton lost the election, but the magnification of stories that ended up being meaningless was indisputably a prominent factor. It is also one factor that we can place squarely at the feet of media hungry for stories that rate, with little concern for the long-term implications.
Things are different this time around for the Democratic candidates for president. While I’m thankful for that, the media endeavoring to rectify their wrongs, without acknowledging the role their coverage played, rubs me the wrong way.
A few examples are illustrative.
Consider the Ukraine “quid pro quo scandal” that may lead to President Trump’s impeachment in the House. Reporters consistently have been shoehorning into their articles and on-camera appearances that the charges Trump and his defenders lob against former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, are unfounded. They openly call out Republicans for peddling conspiracy theories about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. For example, NBC’s Chuck Todd told Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.): “I have no idea why a Fox News conspiracy, propaganda stuff is popping up on here” in an on-air dustup.
Can you imagine a scenario in which a reporter came to Clinton’s defense like that in 2016 about her private email server scandal?
There were thousands of articles and countless TV segments dedicated to Clinton’s “crime” with a spike around former FBI Director James Comey’s decision not to bring charges against Clinton in August 2016 and then again when he announced the FBI was reopening the investigation just days before the election. This story was the original impetus for then-candidate Trump’s rally cry of “lock her up.” A Los Angeles Times analysis in August of 2016 found that “liar” and “corrupt” were the top two words most used when describing Clinton. And FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver argued that the Comey letter probably cost Clinton the election.
Fast-forward to just a few weeks ago, when the State Department released a nine-page report concluding that there was no deliberate mishandling of classified information. One would expect this report to get huge coverage, especially in the New York Times since it broke the story in 2015. But alas, it was buried on page A16. And according to Media Matters, only 56 minutes of cable news coverage was spent discussing the State Department report.
Another important example is the question of “electability” in 2016 versus 2020. It’s no secret that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is the favored candidate of many in the media. Reporters soak up her folksy style, fist pumping and energetic presentation, while often letting her skate on the tough questions. This is all despite her consistently low approval with black voters, Democrats’ key voting bloc, as well as very real concerns over her health care plan that would eliminate private health insurance for 153 million Americans, costs $52 trillion to fund and is less popular than Biden’s proposal to improve upon ObamaCare and create a public option.
Compare that to Clinton’s media treatment in 2016. Democratic primary voters consistently saw Clinton as the most electable. An Associated Press-GfK poll, for example, found that 75 percent of Americans, including two-thirds of Republicans, thought Clinton would win the general election. Clinton was overwhelmingly supported by African Americans, garnering an 80 percent approval rating with blacks and backed by the Congressional Black Caucus. Sounds like a recipe for positive coverage — and yet, headlines such as “Is Hillary really that much more electable than Bernie?” circulated and accusations that the Democratic primary was rigged in Clinton’s favor bubbled from major players, including former Clinton confidante Donna Brazile, the former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee.
This isn’t the only instance of media about-face in coverage of Warren versus Clinton’s. The media would have us believe that Warren is the first candidate to have a plan for just about everything, but before Warren, Hillary Clinton was that grandma with plans for it all.
The difference is, the media didn’t find her charming.
Despite very real missteps, including a failed attempted defense of her Cherokee heritage, Warren is not subjected to the dreaded “Is she likable enough?” debate. Warren, a former professor whose main sell is that she studied the issues and created comprehensive plans for every subject area, is heralded as refreshing and electric. Comparatively, Clinton was portrayed as professorial in an elitist and disconnected way. She was “too prepared,” which I didn’t think was possible, especially when running for the highest office in the land. Major publications and pundits openly mused about why Clinton was almost as disliked as Donald Trump.
Maybe the coverage had something to do with it? Clinton was the most admired woman in America for 17 years, for crying out loud.
There are more examples worth exploring, but these illustrate some of the most notable changes media outlets have made in how they cover the presidential race. I’m all for improving coverage and amplifying stories made up of real truths, but the answer isn’t A) running away from the mistakes of 2016 without acknowledging them and B) potentially letting a nominee head to the general election without genuine battle-testing.
To beat Trump, both Democrats and the media will need to get it right.
Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.