Virtually every day during the past year, I’ve digested a daily dose of Breitbart, the alt-right Web site that many journalists, including myself, have described as “Trump Pravda.” A typical day on Breitbart includes any number of articles extolling the rise of Donald Trump, including the massive size of his rallies and (on and off) his fast-rising poll numbers. There are also several pieces attacking the “mainstream media,” usually CNN, The New York Times or The Washington Post. Recently, there have been a slew of pieces from the Clinton WikiLeaks cache, which are part of a larger set of articles showcasing the couple’s venality, arrogance, and sexual peccadillos. The reporting, such as it is, is generally factually accurate, but mean-spirited and fantastically one-sided. If Breitbart were your primary news source, you would receive a view of the election that would be largely distorted and wholly unrecognizable to swaths of the American public.
When I checked the news the other day, it was more of the same. I counted some 20 articles about the presidential race, each espousing the unequivocal view that one candidate is collapsing due to moral failings, financial improprieties, and complete and utter lack of judgment and ethics. Notably, I was not reading Breitbart. Instead, I was reading The Washington Post, delivered to my doorstep, and the attacks were squarely waged not against the Clintons but rather against Trump.
In the Front Section, there was an incredible array of Trump-phobia, ranging from attacks on his business acuity to his ethics (“How Trump got a personal tax break by defaulting on loans”), to his personal knowledge (“Trump’s map of black America needs an update”), to stupid opinions about Trump (“Nader predicts fastest impeachment in history for a President Trump”), to smart opinions about Trump (“A contemptible candidate—and the party to blame for it”).
If you think this is limited to the National News portion of the paper, you would be mistaken. The Metro section, which typically reports on the Washington, D.C. area, was headlined by a news article describing the dysfunction at the Trump campaign in Virginia and a column arguing that Trump watching should be rated R for children. The top article in the Style section sported a massive feature on the Trump meltdown, supplemented by a column attacking Steve Bannon, the C.E.O. of the Trump campaign and the former head honcho at Breitbart. The sports section featured a column attacking Trump and defending, of all things, locker-room culture. Only the Health section lacked a Trump hook. (Trump, as you may recall, temporarily banned WaPo reporters from his campaign events.)
Rather remarkably, there was virtually no mention of Clinton or any other candidate running for president on this particular day. And so I repeated this little thought experiment again last week and the results were largely the same. The Post should not be blamed for criticizing a candidate who has demonstrated xenophobic, racist, and sexually predatory behavior. But even at the end of perhaps the worst stretch of weeks for a candidate in modern American electoral history, perhaps 45 percent of the electorate, some 55 million voters or so, still will vote for Trump. And some of them may wonder if the Post put their fat thumbs on the electoral scales.
We are all, by now, familiar with the belief among the Republican right that the so-called mainstream media is in fact the liberal media. This is an article of faith that has become a driving force for growth at Fox News and Breitbart, among other news organizations. There is, to be totally fair, some basis for this critique, but it has long ago been hyped and distorted beyond all factual recognition. And there has always been, at the very least, a concerted effort at places like The New York Times and The Washington Post to offer a balanced view, even if that effort is occasionally undermined by inevitable group think and lack of connection with parts of the country.
This effort, whether or not it satisfies a Breitbart or Fox audience, has always set them apart from partisan media like the Washington Times. But this election is different: for the first time in my memory, some of the major media organizations in this country have now abandoned all semblance of objectivity in furtherance of electing Hillary Clinton, or perhaps more accurately, in furtherance of the defeat of Donald Trump.
I recognize that this is Trump we’re talking about here, and that many voters might view his nomination as a one-time mental breakdown of the Republican Party. But let’s not be so sure. Attitude changes like these have a way of normalizing very quickly. I can easily imagine, for instance, a similar response from the mainstream media if Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz, or some other similarly non-traditional candidate were to secure the nomination of the Republican Party for President in 2020. Having helped successfully scuttle the nomination of one candidate, it may be terribly tempting for our leading organizations and media outlets to seek an encore performance.
There is additional complexity here. We have typically understood the media debate in this country as being waged between right vs. left. But that vertical division within our politics has been replaced by a more dystopian horizontal battle line. Many media consumers now perceive our political struggle as being disputed between establishment members and outsiders, somewhat divorced from political perspective. Many Trumpists will interpret press coverage of the campaign as the establishment rising up to defend their interests from the outsiders, the working class, and the dispossessed. They may argue and believe that Bernie Sanders, were he elected as the Democratic nominee, would also have suffered a media rough ride. We can be doubtful about the truthfulness of that claim, though it is unknowable one way or the other. But our doubt will not diminish the passionate belief of many that this has all been about the revenge of the Party of Davos.
Don’t mistake me for some traditionalist harrumphing that the media is not the way it used to be in the good old days. We had partisan media long before we had objective media. And Trump is an affront to American democracy and common decency, and if this is the price to pay for keeping him out of the White House, so be it. But there is most certainly a price to pay. The next time Fox News or Breitbart caterwaul about media bias, the claim will have substantially more bite to it.
Trump emerged, after all, at a time when news organizations had become increasingly desperate for attention and audience, and the revenues that come with them. And Trump was, in some very real ways, a salvation for news organizations that feared consumer indifference in a race presumed to be headlined by two overly familiar and less than riveting characters in Clinton and Jeb (!) Bush. Their lavish attention to his candidacy enabled the rise of Trump and, whether consciously or not, they are seeking to kill the monster they helped create.
This is not an argument at all for moral equivalency between Breitbart and, say, The Washington Post. That would be ludicrous, but all media organizations are grappling with changing audience expectations and demands. As Emma Roller wrote recently in The New York Times, “The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true.”
Audiences are increasingly seeking, and demanding, news that fits their personal notion of what is important and what is true. This is not only via Facebook and social media but also from the major news providers. I read the comment sections regularly on all these media sites; it is often awful, especially on Breitbart, but it gives you a real window into the most intense media consumers. And judging by these comments, Clinton may win the general election by 3 or 4 points, but she is going to win The New York Times primary by 70 or 80 points. And it is not simply that they have opinions on one side or another; they are routinely demanding coverage that conforms to their world view, and they have the choice to go elsewhere if they are not served.
In a fragmenting media world, with rapidly changing norms and vast choices for consumers, any media company that wants to survive over the long run, will need to factor in the demands of their best customers for news that fits their political biases. That need not be done by changing the facts, as happens too often in many places online, but by offering stories that cement a particular view of the world. That may be good for business, and audience, but it is most certainly not good for the notion of a democracy that depends on some notion of shared values and common discourse.
Hat tip: Ace of Spades:
The Washington Post has been particularly foul -- starting about four years ago, they re-made themselves into, essentially, a Social Justice Warrior blog with a sports section.
More: Don Surber says the press went all in for Clinton -- and got a tie for their spastic efforts.
They've stripped themselves of all credibility, reputability, and, worst of all, influence.
No one will ever believe them again.
No one. Ever