We’re burned out. The most exhausting, stressful and degrading campaign season of our lifetimes is almost over. We can barely bring ourselves to watch the next 48 hours’ worth of coverage.
And we are loathe to admit that our long national nightmare won’t really be over on Tuesday.
The media approached the 2016 election with its conventional tools and principles, only to discover this cycle would be anything but conventional. By the time the networks realized how they were being used, they’d played along for too long. The media sparked the rise of Donald Trump, and it was too late.
How did we get here?
Think back to the mob scene that was the first GOP primary debate, and the media’s collective shrug at the presumptive-ness of “Jeb!” Only one person on that crowded stage was a walking, talking reality show. The media’s fascination with that new shiny object created Trumpism.
The lack of aggressive, critical reporting on Trump in the early months gave the “outsider” candidate an edge. The entertainment value of his intentionally unpredictable campaign was irresistible. Blame cable news for giving undue airtime to early Trump rallies, spectacles that held the potential for violence and outrageous accusations, so addictive to cable news. CNN boss Jeff Zucker has admitted as much; ratings trumped news value at first.
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump, 6:37 AM – 14 Aug 2016
If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%
2016 will be remembered as the year a network paid a partisan political operative to act as a pundit and fired a pundit for acting like a partisan political operative — Corey Lewandowski hired by CNN, Donna Brazile fired by CNN. In the future, TV networks should demand more transparency about who’s playing what role.
It really was the first NSFW (not safe for work) election. This was the year the word “pussy” entered presidential political parlance, challenging media outlets to quickly bleep, reach for euphemisms or repeat the vulgarity.
Oh, the irony: this election was the first when an unhinged candidate blathered via Twitter at all hours, trash talking, baiting and bullying in 140-character blasts, while, in an unintentionally hilarious rare appearance, his wife read a speech lamenting the rise of cyber-bullying. At least that speech wasn’t plagiarized from the current First Lady…
This combination of speed and disinformation was dizzying. This was a digitally conducted election cycle in which fast-breaking fake news battled for prominence with actual, substantiated stories. Bombshells drove the direction of polls from insult to insult, impropriety to impropriety, at Twitter speed. The trolls had a field day. Racist attention-getting memes, anti-feminist hashtags, obscene audio tapes — it was all part of a deeply disturbing adrenaline rush.
On TV, the outrageous falsehoods emitted regularly by the GOP candidate and the personality contrast challenged comedy writers. “Saturday Night Live” responded by casting perfect impersonators in Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon, but the material proved beyond parody. John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah and the rest did what they could to reframe the inanity, but nobody could top the actual crazy.
In the home stretch, Fox News continued to call CNN the “Clinton News Network,” with a mockup of the CNN logo, particularly citing the Brazile leak. Five days out, Hannity’s jubilant message was, “Everything’s coming up Trump!” It was all about momentum. Whatever your view, you could find a poll to support it.
Fellow political junkies, we need an intervention. NBC’s Chuck Todd predicted the state to watch Tuesday night or maybe Wednesday morning is Alaska! Alaska, a sleeper tossup state? A long list of “tipping point states” gave credence to almost any theory.
As the coverage raced to a mathematical climax, the horserace aspects of political reporting were front and center, with “magic walls” and fancy graphics making us miss the old Tim Russert whiteboard.
The weekend before the election, with a Trump surge in the headlines, anxiety was palpable. “Democrats are checking the validity of their passports,” Clinton supporter Van Jones told the CNN audience. On “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s Brian Stelter weighed the lessons learned from Trump’s “war on the media” in which the presidential candidate denounced members of the Fourth Estate as “disgusting and corrupt.”
Here’s the glass-half-full view: what if Trump has sparked a new reckoning by members of the media. What if the press learns from 2016 that balance and fairness, the old priorities of journalism, are less crucial than the new priorities of truth and factual data?
What if false equivalence is out and accurate reporting is in? What if the traditional striving for balance doesn’t apply when one side is peddling delusion and lies?
Looking ahead, there will be dissertations, books and documentaries about the oddities of the 2016 election and what part the media played. Will we have the stomach for them? Those of us who survived it may want to forget it, but the best possible outcome may be renewed self-scrutiny by journalists.
There’s enough blame to go around.
So, now what? When the dust settles…
The Washington Post’s David Farenthold will win prizes for investigative work on Trump’s false claims of charitable giving.
CNN will have to live down months of unchecked Trump drooling, building him up until he became an actual contender.
MSNBC’s Katy Tur will be remembered for standing up to Trump, after he used her to represent what he sees as “the biased media,” name-checking her as the target of mob anger at a rally. (She was escorted to her car by Secret Service as a precaution.)
NBC’s Brian Williams will have won back credibility, passionately highlighting Trump’s threat not to accept the results of the election.
Fox News’ Channel’s Chris Wallace will be remembered as an even-handed debate moderator.
Megyn Kelly will emerge the heroine of that network, a solid journalist rising above the Roger Ailes-tainted cheerleading of the GOP’s channel. The downfall of Ailes, booted from Fox News Channel under a cloud of sexual assault accusations, will count as just one more layer of abusive, misogynist revelations in a season filled with them.
And rumors of a Trump media play will persist, even if it’s only a Facebook feed running to the right of Fox News.
Flickr photo by Michael Vadon