Those of us in the news media have sometimes blamed Donald Trump’s rise on the Republican Party’s toxic manipulation of racial resentments over the years. But we should also acknowledge another force that empowered Trump: Us.
I polled a number of journalists and scholars, and there was a broad (though not universal) view that we in the media screwed up. Our first big failing was that TV in particular handed Trump the microphone without adequately fact-checking him or rigorously examining his background, in a craven symbiosis that boosted audiences for both.
“Trump is not just an instant ratings/circulation/clicks gold mine; he’s the motherlode,” Ann Curry, the former Today anchor, told me. “He stepped on to the presidential campaign stage precisely at a moment when the media is struggling against deep insecurities about its financial future. The truth is, the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit.”
Curry says she’s embarrassed by the unfairness to other Republican candidates, who didn’t get nearly the same airtime.
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An analysis by The Times found that we in the news media gave Trump $1.9 billion in free publicity in this presidential cycle. That’s 190 times as much as he paid for in advertising, and it’s far more than any other candidate received. As my colleague Jim Rutenberg put it, some complain that “CNN has handed its schedule over to Mr. Trump,” and CNN had lots of company.
Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, says TV networks “have a lot to answer for.”
”We all know it’s about ratings, and Trump delivers,” Sabato says. “You can’t take your eyes off him. When Trump is on, I stop what I’m doing and wait for the car crash.”
Sabato is particularly critical of Sunday morning news program hosts who have allowed Trump to “appear” by telephone, instead of in person.
Although many of us journalists have derided Trump, the truth is that he generally outsmarted us (with many exceptions, for there truly have been serious efforts to pin him down and to investigate Trump University and his various business failings). He manipulated television by offering outrageous statements that drew ever more cameras — without facing enough skeptical follow-up questions.
It’s not that we shouldn’t have covered Trump’s craziness, but that we should have aggressively provided context in the form of fact checks and robust examination of policy proposals. A candidate claiming that his business acumen will enable him to manage America deserved much more scrutiny of his bankruptcies and mediocre investing.
All politicians spin, of course. But all in all, I’ve never met a national politician in the U.S. who is so ill informed, evasive, puerile and deceptive as Trump.
When the fact-check website PolitiFact was ready to choose its “lie of the year” for 2015, it found that the only real contenders were falsehoods by Trump. So it lumped them together and awarded the title to “the many campaign misstatements of Donald Trump.”
That pattern of prevarication is what we in the media, especially television, didn’t adequately highlight, leaving many voters with the perception that Trump is actually a straight shooter.
The reason for this passivity goes, I think, to a second failure: We wrongly treated Trump as a farce. “The media made a mistake by covering Trump’s candidacy at the start as some sort of joke or media prank,” notes Danielle S. Allen, a political scientist at Harvard. “The repeated use of references to ‘the Donald' across all platforms structured the conversation around ironical affection for a celebrity rather than around serious conversation of character and policy.”
”Trump was quite literally a laugh line,” says Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN correspondent and communications professor at the University of Delaware. Begleiter notes that Sarah Palin received more serious vetting as a running mate in 2008 than Trump has as a presidential candidate.
I personally made the mistake of regarding Trump’s candidacy as a stunt, scoffing at the idea that he could be the nominee. Mea culpa.
We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated. “The media has been out of touch with these Americans,” Curry notes.
Media elites rightly talk about our insufficient racial, ethnic and gender diversity, but we also lack economic diversity. We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.
All this said, I have to add that I don’t know if more fact-checking would have mattered. Tom Brokaw of NBC did outstanding work challenging Trump, but he says that when journalists have indeed questioned Trump’s untrue statements, nothing much happens: “His followers find fault with the questions, not with his often incomplete, erroneous or feeble answers.”
Likewise, Bob Schieffer of CBS tells me: “I’m not sure more fact-checking would have changed that much. We’re in a new world where attitude seems to count more than facts.”
That may be true. But I still think that we blew it and that this should be a moment for self-reflection in journalism.
Despite some outstanding coverage of Trump, on the whole we in the media empowered a demagogue and failed the country. We were lap dogs, not watchdogs.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.