The Media Helped Elect Donald Trump And They Need To Own Up To It

Throughout the chaos of 2016 one thing has become abundantly clear: The press has failed the people
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The reason the news media is considered the Fourth Estate is because it plays an integral role in shaping our politics. The press is the backbone of democracy, and when it’s broken the other components of the system are able to operate unchecked by the people they’re supposed to serve. This is what we saw during the 2016 election, and this is what we are still seeing today.

The top priority of many in the mainstream media is self-interest. Informing is no longer the main objective, and it is having adverse effects on our democracy. When the people are misinformed they elect leaders who don’t represent their best interests, resulting in congressional gridlock and policy that does not propel us into the future. It grinds the nation’s forward progression to a halt.

The mainstream media’s obsessive pursuit of ratings, clicks, and the *normalizing* of false-equivalency in order to appear “fair and balanced” has propelled us into a misinformation age, where 94% of Americans don’t trust the news they are reading. And while many journalists do truly incredible work, the institutions’ respect for honest reporting has all but diminished as far too many media organizations prioritize being first over being true, or are not seeing a story to its completion before reporting.

Their love affair with sensationalism places self-interest above the best interests of the American people and resulted in the mishandling of Wikileaks (Russian Propaganda), the Comey letter, and a continuous false equivalence problem that still permeates throughout the media landscape. This failure to adequately inform Americans set in motion the rise, and ultimately, the election of Donald Trump.

Despite the obvious influence that media organizations have had over public opinion, after November 8th, many appear to be in denial and deflecting blame over their role in the election.

The idea that the media deserves zero blame or did not play a significant role in turning businessman Donald Trump into President-elect Donald Trump, is not only false…it is delusional.

Let’s break this down:

The Chase For Ratings And The Obsession With Being First

There is no better illustration of cable news’ insatiable hunger for ratings than their obsessive coverage of Donald Trump.

Throughout the 2016 election, cable news networks gave Trump the equivalent of $5 billion in free media. Even though they knew it was not in the best interest of the American people, cable news networks covered every rally, every speech, and every tweet with barely any fact-checking. CNN, MSNBC and especially Fox News all gave Trump an unfiltered platform that enabled him to deceive the American people. As each network streamed his rallies live, lie after lie went unchecked. Even after his outrageous Muslim ban proposal, he was still treated like a viable candidate, normalizing his behavior.

Donald Trump at a campaign rally on September 19, 2016

Donald Trump at a campaign rally on September 19, 2016

This allowed Trump’s fear-mongering, falsehood driven message to be carried far and wide. Even CNN President Jeff Zucker has said it wasn’t right: “If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run.” This realization came far too late. The damage was already done.

CNN made another mistake Zucker failed to mention. In an effort to increase ratings, CNN took some measures to appear “fair and balanced.” They created a panel of pro-Trump contributors (Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Nell Hughes, Jeffrey Lord, and Corey Lewandowsk) that consistently spread lies. These contributors acted as pro-Trump surrogates and defended their candidate. Corey Lewandowski was previously Trump’s campaign manager before being fired in June and was still getting paid by Trump until late September. Lewandowski signed a confidentiality agreement with Trump that prohibited him from speaking negatively about Trump. CNN basically hired a pro-Trump drone who was contractually obligated to say only positive things about his previous boss.

Online publications have their own obsession; The endless pursuit of clicks. When a story breaks, publications race to be the first to cover the story so that they can drive the most traffic to their sites. That’s fine, but unfortunately, the first headlines of a developing story are what usually sticks in the minds of the people. When an online publication jumps to conclusions and quickly blasts out incomplete headlines before a story is fully developed, it may boost their bottom line, but it can sometimes mislead the public.

There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of profit. But there is something deeply wrong with the unethical pursuit of profit at the expense of the American people. As cable news networks and online publications continue their chase for eyeballs on their content, coverage degrades and meaningful stories are diluted. The negative impact that this has had on public opinion and American society cannot be understated.

The False Equivalence And Double Standards

If you were anywhere near a TV screen or smartphone during the election, chances are you’ve heard about the Clinton Foundation. And if you’ve read or watched a report on the organization, you may have walked away thinking the foundation is more like the Illuminati than a charity.

“Pay-to-play,” they said. Foundation donors received “special access” to the State Department, they alleged. All of these charges ended up being hollow, with the worst being some email correspondence and some meetings, with no direct evidence of “pay-to-play.” But of course, cable news and many publications said the email exchanges “raised questions,” as they do with all her perceived scandals. At most, the scandals surrounding the Clinton Foundation were issues of poor optics, not anything sinister.

The truth is, the Clinton Foundation is a charitable organization that does meaningful work around the globe with 90% of its funds going to charitable causes like combating HIV and malaria in Africa.

The Trump Foundation, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Although he hasn’t personally donated to the foundation since 2008, that hasn’t prevented him from spending the money how ever he sees fit. He’s been fined by the IRS for making illegal campaign contributions to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, purchased oil paintings of himself for tens of thousands of dollars, and paid off a quarter million dollars worth of business lawsuits. All of this was done using Foundation funds.

On Saturday, September 10th, the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold (he’s done phenomenal work throughout the 2016 election) published a piece. It detailed how the Trump Foundation has improperly spent other people’s money for years.

It was covered by online publications pretty heavily. With this new information, you would expect the Trump Foundation to be equally scrutinized by cable news going into the next week…That was not the case. That weekend was the 15th anniversary of 9/11, or as the media made sure we didn’t forget, it was the weekend Hillary Clinton had pneumonia.

What followed was some of the worst examples of click-bait journalism and ratings hungry broadcasting this year. Story after story was published about “Hillary’s Health,” and if you watched cable news that week, you would’ve had no idea that there was a Trump Foundation scandal at all.

The point being, when the Trump Foundation was caught red-handed sending illegal campaign contributions to Pam Bondi (he had to pay an IRS fine), there was barely a peep. And when more evidence was released of Trump using Foundation funds to make purchases for himself, more silence.

When the subject was broached, TV commentators would say, “Well, looks like both Clinton and Trump have foundation problems.” But that is a complete misrepresentation of two distinctly different issues and foundations. One is a charitable organization that is helping to cure disease, and the other is a slush fund that Donald Trump used to make illegal campaign contributions, pay off his business lawsuits, and buy himself signed Tim Tebow helmets. Imagine if the Clinton Foundation had been caught doing even one of those things. We would have never heard the end of it.

What makes this even worse, is since election day, the Trump Foundation admitted to the IRS that Trump did indeed partake in “self-dealing.” This story was reported by, once again, David Fahrenthold. Way before they admitted to self-dealing to the IRS, Fahrenthold had already laid the evidence out in plain sight for everyone to see, and yet cable news networks failed to adequately report on it. In the end, the Trump Foundation was guilty of everything that the media, and Trump himself, attempted to project onto the Clinton Foundation.

With the intent of appearing “fair and balanced,” media organizations have become the embodiment of false equivalence. They created a double standard from which they judged Clinton and Trump on completely separate scales. A microcosm of this kind of coverage was the way the debates were covered. As Hillary had very polished performances, in some cases she was deemed “Too prepared.” When Trump appeared unhinged and called to jail Clinton, he was deemed “on message.”

Throughout the election season, news organizations equated Trump blacklisting reporters from covering his campaign to Clinton’s reluctance to hold press conferences. They’ve equated Clinton’s “perceived” lack of transparency to Trump breaking precedent and not releasing his tax returns. They threw both the Clinton and Trump Foundations into the same basket and acted as if they were comparable circumstances. Then when polls were released showing that voters didn’t trust Clinton, they asked, “Why?”

The Mishandling Of Wikileaks (Russian Propaganda)

This election season, the American media turned into an unwitting distribution network for Russian propaganda. To put it bluntly; they became useful idiots for one of our foreign adversaries.

After the DNC was alerted by the FBI that they were hacked, they hired Crowdstrike, a firm that analyzes threats to network security. In June, they released their findings in an extensive report implicating Russia as being behind the hacks. The following week, two cyber security firms independently corroborated Crowdstrike’s findings. Then, on October 7th, the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a joint statement directly accusing Russia of being behind the hacks on Democratic officials. Unfortunately, this statement got lost in the smog. That very same day, the pussy-grabbing Access Hollywood tape was released. This dominated several news cycles and caused the joint statement to get minimal coverage.

Since the beginning of the General Election, the media was well aware of the fact Russia was behind the hacks and that the emails released by Wikileaks were sourced from these hacks. This didn’t stop their obsessive coverage of every single leak.

In his press conference this past Friday, President Barack Obama not only took aim at Russia for their interference in our democracy, he went after the American media. Obama claimed that the media didn’t cover Clinton fairly. He went on to make the assertion that the media’s obsession with the contents of the emails from Wikileaks was harmful to Clinton’s campaign:

Obama said the press covered “every little juicy tidbit of political gossip. Including John Podesta’s risotto recipe. This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage. So I do think it’s worth us reflecting how it is that a presidential election of such importance, of such moment, with so many big issues at stake and such a contrast between the candidates, came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks.”

“I’m finding it a little curious that everybody’s suddenly acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton — because you guys wrote about it every day! Every single week!”

Despite the broad denial from many in the media, Obama is right. The media’s coverage of the Wikileaks had a significant impact. The majority of the leaks consisted of standard campaign communications but they were warped into scandals. The obsessive coverage of these leaked emails had a double whammy effect. Not only did some of the details in the leaks do damage, but hearing about leaked emails contributed to the broader theme being projected by the Republican Party that Hillary Clinton was reckless with the way she handled information.

In September, Gallup released findings from a study where they surveyed people over an extended period of time to ask what they were hearing about the candidates most. The results reflected the effects the coverage was having on public perception.

Both the CIA and FBI agree that Russia interfered in our election process in an effort to help put Donald Trump in the White House. And reportedly, Putin directed the release of hacked information himself, timing the releases for maximum effectiveness.

In hindsight, it is clear what happened. As the Wikileaks continued to drip through everyday coverage, the very important detail that they were sourced from the Russian government was thrown by the wayside, leaving the American people unaware that they were consuming information crafted with the purpose of undermining our democracy.

The Disastrous Comey Letter

On Friday, October 28th, 11 days before the election, FBI Director James Comey sent out a vague letter stating that the FBI had discovered new details that may pertain to Clinton’s private email investigation. The letter didn’t detail whether or not these emails were of any consequence. The media went wild, incorrectly reporting that the FBI had “reopened the Clinton private email server investigation.”

This misrepresentation of the letter was spurred by a tweet from Rep. Jason Chaffetz:

An analysis of coverage throughout the campaign showed that the Comey letter was among one of the moments where Clinton was covered most.

On the Sunday prior to the election, Director Comey sent a follow-up letter to Rep. Chaffetz confirming that the Director’s bombshell announcement was, in-fact, a big nothing-burger. It was too late, the damage was already done.

Hillary Clinton lost the key battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by less than 1 percent.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

The media covered Hillary Clinton like they were vetting the next President of the United States. On the other hand, they treated Donald Trump like the kid in the classroom who gets an A for effort. The American people were so distracted by emails/Russian propaganda and Clinton Foundation non-stories that they missed Trump’s conflicts of interest, the very real Trump Foundation “self-dealing” scandal, and the biggest story of all: Russia’s interference.

Advice for the media: There is no forward progression if one doesn’t own up to their mistakes and learn the valuable lessons within them. The last thing any journalist should be doing right now is being defensive. You helped put Trump in the White House. You need to own up to it, reflect, and make sure this doesn’t happen again. Put truth over speed and make social responsibility a top priority.

Advice for the people: It’s time we become more active and aware of the information we are consuming. We need to be cautious of fake news and think critically and objectively when analyzing all information. Most importantly; we must fact check everything.

If the press is functioning as designed and the people are vigilant, we will move towards a world where every individual has accurate and actionable information at their fingertips. Where the US Congress is not gridlocked by partisanship and our representatives work on behalf of the American people’s interests, not their own. The world can change, but only if we all do our part.

News // 2016 Election / Donald Trump / Hillary Clinton / Politics