As 2020 mercifully comes to an end, let's look back at the five biggest acts of media malfeasance this year. And, yes, it was hard to narrow this list down to just five selections, given the litany of examples to choose from. But here it goes, in reverse order:
#5 — Polls and forecast models presented as “Breaking News”:
Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles MORE will win the presidency going away. Democrats will gain in the House. Republicans will lose control of the Senate. We heard this drumbeat for the better part of the year.
In its final polls going into Election Day, CNN had Biden at +10. The New York Times had Biden winning Iowa by 9 points and Ohio by 10. ABC and the Washington Post had Trump down 17 points in Wisconsin. All had Biden winning Florida.
Trump would go on to win Iowa and Ohio easily while recapturing Florida; Wisconsin went to Biden but only by 0.7 percentage points, not 17. Republicans actually gained in the House, giving Democrats their slimmest majority since World War II, while Senate control rests with two runoff races in Georgia on Jan. 5 that do not include Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE on the ballot to serve as a mass-motivator among progressives.
But news organizations often reported every poll without much scrutiny or many disclaimers around the fact that polling in the Trump era is increasingly difficult to execute accurately. There's the "shy Trump voter" factor, which basically means that in a world of "cancel culture," some of those polled were afraid to tell pollsters they supported the president. There's also the stubbornness of pollsters who continue to use sampling models that don't reflect the true makeup of the country. It is confounding that Democrats continually are overweighted in almost every polling sample by 6 or 8 or 10 points over Republicans. If you give a team a big lead going into a game before the first at-bat, then these are the kind of results you’re going to get.
And remember, many "respected" polling outfits had a chance to make this adjustment after the 2016 election – which was supposed to result in changes – but apparently didn’t.
Will things finally change in 2024? Don't hold your breath.
#4 — "Anonymous" revealed, hilarity ensues:
We tend to have short memories in this business, sometimes chalked up to selective amnesia. Because, if you recall, the op-ed written by "Anonymous" and published in The New York Times was one of the biggest stories of 2018. And, when looking at the way the Times portrayed that anonymous author, one would have no choice but to believe that perhaps the president's chief of staff or vice president or chief counselor or Defense secretary was behind the scathing rebuke of the president, which included calling into question his mental state. Why? Because the Times called this person a "senior administration official."
Well ... turns out Anonymous wasn't exactly this big deal in the White House with direct access to the president, as the piece titled "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration" implied. The author, Miles Taylor, was chief of staff to Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenEx-Trump official: 'No. 1 national security threat I've ever seen' is GOP Left-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' MORE when she headed Homeland Security, which doesn't get you a seat in the Oval Office for the important meetings to which Anonymous said he was privy.
The 34-year-old has since resigned and signed with CNN as a staunch critic of Trump (because those are in short supply). Initially, he insisted on the network that he was not Anonymous. When it was revealed he was behind the op-ed and lied on the air, the network kept him on anyway.
Will the Times publish any op-eds from Anonymous 2.0 during the Biden administration? Again, don't hold your breath.
#3 — "Mostly peaceful" protests:
The scenes in cities across the country were surreal — buildings on fire, looting, rioting, beatings, death. Yet we saw reporter after reporter attempt to convince you at home that what you saw playing out on your TV screen was not at all what it seemed. It may look like anarchy. It may look like Berlin in 1945. But, really, these were "mostly peaceful" protests with only good intentions and fine people exercising their right to free speech.
Here's Axios in need of a chiropractor after twisting itself into knots with this doozy trying to explain how the billions of dollars in damage in cities across the country was the most expensive in U.S. history despite "mostly peaceful" gatherings: "The protests that took place in 140 U.S. cities this spring were mostly peaceful, but the arson, vandalism and looting that did occur will result in at least $1 billion to $2 billion of paid insurance claims — eclipsing the record set in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the police officers who brutalized Rodney King." That September piece includes the biggest "but" of the year.
And again, with feeling:
MSNBC reporter just now: "I want to be clear on how I characterize this. This is mostly a protest. It is not generally speaking unruly."— Caleb Hull (@CalebJHull) May 29, 2020
The guy is literally standing in front of a burning building in the middle of a riot. pic.twitter.com/IzCV6On4sF
The viral joke to emerge from this coverage says it all: "93 percent of the beer is non-alcoholic, so I guess I'm OK to drive."
Yep, that about sums it up.
#2 - Joe Biden gets a yearlong pass from the press:
In the rare times that Joe Biden did appear before cameras and microphones outside of his basement, it was the WWE of event-planning in an effort to make the candidate look as good as possible.
A Biden town hall on CNN in September featured 16 questions from voters: 13 were from Democrats, just three from Republicans. If striving for objectivity as a network, that’s an easy 8-8 split. But that didn’t happen.
One Biden town hall on ABC in October featured a question from someone presented as your average, everyday Democratic voter — except that this average, everyday Democratic voter was a director of speechwriting in the Obama-Biden administration. You can't make this up.
On NBC in October, a town hall billed as being comprised of undecided voters had several who clearly had decided to vote for the Democratic nominee. The best part: Those declarations of support for Biden by two men in the NBC October town hall were made on MSNBC. In August.
Meanwhile, the questions for Biden during the limited press conferences he held weren’t remotely hostile or remotely long, with reporters chosen from a predetermined list by Biden's staff, in an effort to keep him in his safe space.
Biden's strategy of avoiding any tough interviews paid off: He won the election. And the all-too-predictable result? Avoiding any tough interviews in the transition and likely moving forward into a risk-averse, packaged presidency. Because he can.
As for the #1 example of media malfeasance in 2020, much more space will be needed for our final topic.
To be continued on Friday, Jan 1, 2021.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.