It Wasn’t Just Russia: The Mainstream Media And The 2016 Election

Trump is a master at branding. He knows how to affix a defining label and make it stick. There’s virtually no truth in any of them, and are usually projections of his own crimes. (Everything he’s falsely accused Hillary Clinton of he is actually guilty of himself. And “fake news” — his branding of the “lying liberal media” — accurately describes virtually everything he says and tweets.)

…The GOP would seize on anything that didn’t “look quite right” or could be made to appear that way, begin a major investigation, and announce their suspicions to the press in a way that emphasized (or concocted) potentially “criminal” or “unethical” behavior. The press, doing what they believe is their job and getting a good story in the process, take it all straight to the headlines as “breaking news,” at which point it’s on every ticker and hotly discussed on every major show. When no damning facts are found to confirm the stories, they may (or may not) be retracted…but by then, the story is already circulating “in the air.” 

…People have an investment in being “in the know” when it comes to the common wisdom developed through that density of repetition. It makes them feel “informed,” part of an engaged community that’s on top of things. 

…Sexism may have provided the fertile soil and the GOP may have planted the seeds and helped them to take root through their endless attacks, investigations, and hearings — but it took the media’s continual harping on Hillary’s “trust issues” to turn them into the (pseudo) realities that they became. It was so easy: present every charge of the GOP as “breaking news,” report every new email find as a potential treasure trove of hidden secrets, remind viewers that “people don’t trust her” every chance you get, and of course by the time a pollster calls and asks, the “trust problem” shows up as a documented “fact.”

…“The inevitable result,” as television historian Steven Stark remarks in Glued to the Set, “was a thinner line between fact and rumor.”

…First, Bad Optics” became a prominent topic of political punditry, and eventually began to be discussed as though it were a crime in itself. Case in point: the August 30 New York Times editorial, recommending that the Clinton Foundation be shut down immediately. It’s a prime example of how the pseudo-issue of Clinton’s “trust problem” was perpetuated through the authority of appearances rather than facts. 

…The question as to whether this “batch” “proves” that “Big-money donors…got special favors from Mrs. Clinton” is–note carefully–“Not so far.” A simple “No” would have proved sufficient, and would be completely factual. But the Times couldn’t resist adding that loaded, suggestive “so far,” implying that perhaps–indeed, perhaps likely–something suspect will show up later. There’s no reason to suspect this, as nothing had shown up of significance. It’s pure insinuation. 

…Having established (again, through insinuation) that “special favors” may yet be discovered, the Times can then go on to speak as though their own speculation has the weight of proven fact. 

…For many journalist, such “balancing” of the scales — what Paul Krugman has called “bothsidesism” — came to be seen as “objective” reporting during the election.

“Yes, Trump is a raving lunatic, but what about those emails?“

…It may also be, dictionary be damned, that saying whatever you feel like without regard for fact had come to be equivalent to “telling it like it is” — which in turn was conflated with “honesty.” So “straight-shooter” Trump, who (unlike the circumspect, cautious Clinton) “told it like it is” without regard for political correctness, people’s feelings, or factual evidence, was for that reason seen as more honest. Hillary Clinton, who rarely lost her cool and only got truly aggressive with Trump after months of “lock her up!” was seen, in contrast, as “inauthentic” and therefore “untrustworthy.” We heard it virtually every day, not only from her political enemies, but from news commentators on every channel, who simply could not resist raising the issue no-matter how irrelevant it was to the main story they were reporting. We heard it in casual comments and jokes told by neighbors, as if it were an accepted scientific fact that needed no proof. 

…Trump is indeed outrageously scornful of evidence or argument. But we would make a big mistake to not recognize that disdain for fact has been creeping up on us for some time, preparing our receptivity to the Big Con that so many Americans fell for.

…I remember during the O.J. Simpson trial, for example, being astounded when one juror dismissed the DNA evidence as “just a waste of time. It was way out there and carried no weight with me.” Impressionist snapshots, in contrast, did carry weight. Detective Philip Vannnatter, as one juror explained, didn’t look jurors in the eyes and thus couldn’t be trusted. The accuracy of criminologist Henry Lee’s findings, however, were certified for another juror by the warm smile he directed at the jury as he approached the witness stand to testify. Simpson himself was declared innocent by one of my students at the time because “he’s a football hero, and handsome, and seems nice and friendly, and, well, I just sort of see it that way.” [Agggh, people are so, so fucking stupid!]

…In this world of optics and appearances, pundits stopped wondering about who the“real” Trump was, and became more interested in charting or predicting “reboots,” “resets,” and “pivots.” 

…That should have been the “story” all along. Instead, we were distracted and deceived by a steady stream of “suspect” optics, misleading polls, and pseudo-crimes — the “email scandal” being the paradigm, but not the only, illustration — that made Hillary out to be “just as bad” as Trump. 

…I’ve yet to see a panel discussion — not even on those shows anchored by commentators that I respect and enjoy — about the role the mainstream media (not the right-wing press, not Facebook, not the Russian infiltration) played in the electoral defeat of Hillary Clinton. Instead, the journalistic community has collectively branded itself as the heroic, fact-finding free press versus the truth-stomping Godzilla that is Trump. To be sure, they have often come through in that role as Trump’s lies and crimes have come to be the target of their reporting. But they didn’t play that role during the election, and until they acknowledge their own culpability and vulnerability, a version of it is likely to happen again.

…Actually, it already is happening again, for example, in the premature labeling of “front-runners” and “rock stars” and by the media’s latching onto Bernie Sanders’ conveniently self-serving division of Democrats into “progressives” and “establishment” and imbedding it in reporting about current candidates and elections. The words themselves are ill defined and malleable, and the differences among Democrats are far less extreme than such a dualistic construction would suggest.




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