The US media has had an exciting year. They got to cover one of the most polarized, intoxicating, and prurient of Presidential elections ever. Everyone weighed in, all the mushrooming online outlets, the traditional paper press turned online, and television. They had a photogenic – albeit mostly in a funny way – candidate and a candidate whose stolidity, some surmised, could only hide layers of Machiavellian ambition. With very high stakes and appalling new twists every few days, the relevance of and popular addiction to news spiked. As boundaries between commentary and reporting blurred, readers and watchers often found opinion crowding out information.
Already in the months before the November election, the press started getting criticism, from across the political spectrum, for editorial bias, too much false equivalency, focusing too much on relatively trivial issues, and too little on important issues of policy; for simplistically reflecting and stoking drama, mudslinging, and divisiveness; and, yes, for offering entertainment and opinion more than analysis with enough of the data and logical structure revealed to allow the reader, or watcher, to explore the plausibility of conclusions other than that of the writer or speaker.
After the election, the criticisms continued, with the added critique that the mainstream press was too slow to recognize and counter the spread and effects of “false news.” The press has engaged with some of the wide-ranging critique, most often acknowledging that there were important trends that they missed, but also defending their editorial choices, including the choice to prioritize opinion even in “news” articles.
On December 8, 2016, the New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet was interviewed on National Public Radio. Terry Gross, the interviewer, read a letter to the NYT by a David Langford, who expressed dismay at the “continuing blurring between editorial commentary and news coverage. In another age, the word ‘baseless’ in your front-page headline would have been reserved for the editorial page where it belongs. The Times and other news organizations should resist the temptation to… drop their conclusion into news stories. Please allow me, the reader, to draw a conclusion for myself.” In his response, Baquet chose to defend the use of “powerful language,” side-stepping the larger question of opinion dominating information in news stories. As Baquet acknowledged – “I’ve said this to a lot of readers,” he said in the opening sentence of his response – there are a lot of people out there who are frustrated about opinion-creep in the US news media, and not just in the NYT.
The media are not helped by the President-elect’s orientation to information. Mr. Trump blurs information, probability, investigation, wishful thinking, and certainty in idiosyncratic and alarming ways. A case in point is the current issue of the degree and intentionality of Russian hacking and influence in the recent Presidential election. On October 7, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence who leads the 17 US intelligence agencies and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson issued a joint statement that the US intelligence community “is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations…. [And,] based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” The Trump campaign dismissed that statement. More recently, the CIA has offered the stronger view that the Russian government aimed to promote the election of Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama has instituted a deeper investigation, in which he is supported by various Democratic lawmakers as well as a few Republican lawmakers, most notably John McCain and Lindsay Graham both on the Senate Armed Services Committee. In a small side-twist, the FBI, while not denying that the hacking was directed from Russia, is hesitant to attribute intention to favor Mr. Trump. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has rejected the conclusions of the intelligence agencies he will lead as President of the United States and on December 11, 2016, in a Fox News interview, Mr. Trump said about the intelligence reports on Russian hacking that “It’s ridiculous…. I don’t believe it.” This is not, “I have questions, it is under investigation, we still need more evidence,” or anything like that, it is bluntly, “I don’t believe it.”
So in an environment in which the media are already tending towards information-light and opinion-heavy reporting, the press is charged with covering a President-elect who has taken the prioritizing of opinion, in this case his own, to a whole new level. If information and logic are minimized to “I don’t believe it,” and “wrong” by the highest executive authority in the country, it leaves the press running behind, trying to substantiate, confirm, and correct as necessary. If in that effort to play its role of “watchdog of democracy,” the press counters OPINION with opinions, it will leave us in the electorate less and less informed and thus render our democracy more fragile.
Over the last two decades, the press has had to adjust to the speed of aggregation, low barriers to spin-off articles, and overall pressure to update news rapidly, while revenues have fallen, resources and time for fact-checking, writing and editing have become tighter, and there is always someone ready to draw away your readers and audience with something – usually opinion, preferably polemical and polarizing – that is more entertaining.
On October 14, 2016, Matt Taibbi, a superb writer for RollingStone, wrote a very clever and opinionated article on “The Fury and Failure of Donald Trump” in which he pointed out that the Presidential election campaigns were being run and presented as a “Campaign Reality Show” and the effect was “to reduce political thought to a simple binary choice.” When asked on Twitter what the role of the press has been and can be in relation to this “Campaign Reality Show,” he responded, “ It’s hard. The reality show format is too profitable for MSM [the mainstream media] to give up. The actors are not only unpaid, they pay us (in ads)!”
The US media must do better than that.