"Digging a Bit Further"
As Russell Frank’s article, “Beyond Rock Bottom: Will the News Media Learn Any Lessons from Coverage of the 2016 Election?” was being edited, almost every day brought to light additional news supporting Frank’s commentary. Some of these matters were incorporated as Frank’s article moved through the publication process, others were less clarifying in light of Frank’s arguments. In discussing how best to handle such matters in Media Ethics, Russell Frank proposed that the editor insert some of his addenda in a separate-but-related piece under his own name. And so, that’s what is presented below, using the subheads provided by Frank for the three salient aspects of the 2016 campaign that may have particular future educational value.
The Great Misunderestimation: Tipping the Scales
Did the news media give too much play to FBI Director James Comey’s letter—sent 11 days before the election—informing Congress that the FBI was investigating a new trove of emails generated by Hillary Clinton’s private server? The letter gave no indication that anything untoward would be found. And indeed, nothing was. In other words, much ado about nothing. But post-election media soul-searching will surely include consideration of whether front-page treatment of Comey’s letter influenced the outcome of the election.
Another external pressure on the electoral system only came to light—a month after the election—when the Washington Post (on Dec. 9) made use of “leaked” data from members of Congress who had been briefed by the CIA before the election, to report that there was general agreement in the U. S. “intelligence community” that (Russian) state agents had been responsible for much of the hacking of Democratic party computer servers that, presumably, had aided Donald Trump in winning a majority of Electoral College votes.
And what of the wildly inaccurate polls and predictions? Even on Election Day, The New York Times put Clinton’s chances of winning at 85%, down from a high of 93% on Oct. 21-25.1 One could well imagine that potential voters—Bernie Sanders supporters and others—who had no great love for the Democratic nominee but would have voted for her in order to keep Trump from claiming the presidency, might have concluded from these rosy projections that Hillary didn’t need their help, and so stayed away from the polls. (As absentee ballots are finally counted, and Clinton’s tabulations of the vote climb to more than 2.5 million above Trump’s, it is beginning to look, however, as though not all the polls were all wrong).
Also, in the sense that “all publicity is good publicity,” it may be that the great interest in Trump the character was a factor in electing Trump the nominee as the President of the United States.
How Low Can You Go?
We sometimes forget that the media need to fill all that time and all that space. It may be this need that led to 2016 being the longest election campaign in our history. While those reporting the election campaign could go “high” as well as “low” in terms of quality, civility and the like, it doesn’t seem probable that being polite and civil will translate to headlines, circulation or votes.
The attention being paid to “fake news,” and the continued practices of now President-elect Trump in such matters as attacking a union leader at the Carrier factory in Indiana because he challenged some of Trump’s publicity involving the number of jobs that weren’t going to be outsourced to Mexico, may be thought of as answering the “how low can we go?” question at the top of this paragraph with “We haven’t really tried to go that low…yet.” We should find out more as the Trump presidency unfolds, and the 2020 election campaign gets underway.
Good for Business
Needless to say, the widespread and prolonged attention paid to the 2016 election campaign brought a lot of traffic to media outlets. As Russell Frank tells us, his Penn State colleague, Matt Jordan, writing for The Conversation, noted that cable news organizations expected to rake in $2.5 billion during the 2016 campaign. While more accurate figures may come along later, this number (from Politico) probably is in the ballpark of expectations—even though many local media were disappointed in the political billings that they feasted on every four years in the past. (Politico cited “data from media and communications data firm SNL Kagan, a division of SMP Global Market Intelligence.” Jordan also quoted NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik as having reported that CNN was looking at $100 million more in revenue than anticipated. We’ll see.)