News media’s underperformance a drag on the electoral process
Election season necessarily produces winners and losers. Among this election’s losers — again — are the nation’s news media. Unlike political candidates, however, the journalism industry only competes against itself. The American citizenry is increasingly disenchanted with the press, an institution that has no competition in the public sphere, but yet keeps losing. News consumers become the collateral damage when the press fails. Voters must suffer through election seasons full of horserace coverage of polls and campaign machinery, but stunningly short on issue examination and overall heft.
Worse yet, many in the news media have surrendered the role of being public surrogates to provide election information that serves the public. Instead, many news outlets have taken on roles as crusaders, serving as activists to steer voters in what the journalists determine to be the “proper” direction. This is hardly what the constitutional founders had in mind when the free press was created as the Fourth Estate, the entity that would serve the public’s information needs and hold government accountable.
The 2020 election season, as in 2016, saw the news media crafting and pushing narratives that were more wishful thinking than solid reporting. Many of the narratives emerged from the onslaught of political polls that do more to disrupt voter electoral deliberation than inform it. All media outlets must feel compelled to sponsor polls, but make no mistake, these polls do little to enlighten voters. Polls serve to help the branding of news organizations and then give news anchors and paid pundits something to yammer about. Constant reporting and analysis of polling fills time and space for news organizations, saving them from having to do the hard work of deep dives into policy and issue coverage.
The poll-driven “news” narratives largely failed to materialize. Biden might still win the presidency, but not in the easy cruise the polls indicated. There was no nationwide rebuke of Trumpism. Texas didn’t go blue, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina didn’t get ousted, despite the promising narratives pushed through many in the traditional press. The Senate didn’t flip, and Florida and Ohio weren’t late night barn burners either.
Sure, polling is not an exact process, but there is no need to generate such a volume of campaign coverage around a process with so little predictive benefit.
News outlets might also ponder whether this obsessive polling serves to reflect public opinion or perhaps is designed to shape it. Sports fans enjoy the speculation that surrounds the run-up to a big sporting event such as the Super Bowl, but an election is not for entertainment. The nation’s political future need not be shaped by flimsy polls and even flimsier advocacy/analysis generated from those polls.
Many in the media waltzed through the campaign season serving as lapdogs for the Biden campaign and attack dogs of the Trump campaign. Biden’s basement campaign was largely unchallenged. Voters know that Biden is not Trump, but the media never found out for them what Biden will do to combat coronavirus, other than to listen to the scientists, whatever that actually means. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign was roasted for hosting “super-spreader” rallies and causing coronavirus deaths.
The press today, far from serving the surrogate role a free press was designed to foster, is detached from a large swath of Americans. Journalists are now part of the establishment, whose primary function is to ride ideological high horses while attempting to work the citizenry.
It is difficult to serve the information needs of an audience when looking down on them.
This election season has again shown that the media misunderstand large portions of the American public and can’t grasp the complexities of the nation’s sociopolitical landscape. Worse yet, many east coast news producers and editors probably don’t care if they do misunderstand that guy who drives a pickup truck with a Trump flag flowing on top.
Election coverage will only improve when establishment newsrooms deign to hire reporters whose views are different from what come out of east coach journalism schools and then get trained in lockstep newsrooms where all think alike. A tip for CNN and the Washington Post: Make your next dozen hires from among people who grew up in Sedalia, Mo., or Kokomo, Ind.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.