How the U.S. political press enabled a post-truth America — Part 3


In this third installment of a four-part series deconstructing how the U.S. political press hastened the movement towards a post-truth America, I focus on two of the key factors that were the foundation for some of the worst reporting during Election 2016 — speed and access.

[Background: Part One and Part Two.]

Speed Thrills But Kills

The media business is aggressively competitive and an extremely tough one in which to succeed. Understandably, therefore, metrics like traffic (quantity) are very important for media outlets. However, the big story of U.S. political press in the last two decades has been that a focus on quantity has often come at the huge cost of quality (accuracy).

One of the primary reasons for the degradation of the accuracy of U.S. political journalism is, ironically, an attribute that Politico’s Susan Glasser believes has made the media better:

The truth is that coverage of American politics, and the capital that revolves around it, is in many ways much better now than ever beforefaster, sharper, and far more sophisticated.

The attribute I have highlighted — "faster" — refers to speed. Speed in reporting an issue — usually driven by the desire to be first to report an issue — is great to get traffic, views, and clicks. However, it is rarely a good thing when it comes to the accuracy of reporting. Interestingly, when asked about the media coverage during the election, actor Denzel Washington pointed this out quite succinctly.

REPORTER: You were the subject of a fake news story.

WASHINGTON: Oh yeah, what did they say? I was running for President? No...


WASHINGTON: No, what'd they say?

REPORTER: You switched your support from Hillary to Trump.

WASHINGTON: I switched, yeah, yeah, yeah...

REPORTER: What do you make of all the fake news? Does it affect you?

WASHINGTON: If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you do read it, you're misinformed.

REPORTER: What do you do?

WASHINGTON: That's a great question. What is the long term effect of too much information? One of the effects is the need to be first, not even to be true anymore. So what a responsibility you all have, to be, to tell the truth. Not just to be first, but to tell the truth. We live in a society now where it's just first, who cares, get it out there, we don't care who it hurts, we don't care who we destroy, we don't care if it's true. Just say it, sell it. Anything you practice, you'll get good at — including BS.

Experienced people in the media are likely to acknowledge how the first, quick reports from breaking news events often change significantly. The rapid reporting of initial rumors and incorrect claims, especially in the absence of important details early on that provide a proper understanding of what really happened and why, are almost always the result of prioritizing speed (the "scoop") over accuracy. Interestingly, Glasser shows no recognition of this critical issue. If anything, she talks about how the media basically doubles down on speed:

The same proliferation of news—and noise—was happening all over town. While we were busy reporting previously ignored stories the big guys didn’t know or care about, the upstarts at cable news were filling not just one carefully edited nightly newscast but 24 hours a day with reports—and, increasingly, shouty partisan talk shows—about goings on in the capital. We all watched those too. Access to information has always been Washington’s currency; speed up the news cycle, and we had no choice but to race ahead right along with it.

In the two previous parts of this series, I outlined several examples of catastrophic and consequential media failures in Election 2016 when it came to accuracy. One of those examples, which I covered in some depth in Part 2, is the Clinton email story. In fact, a critical element of the email story that played out at the tail end of the campaign is a great example of how a focus on being "faster" and "racing ahead" with the "news cycle" resulted in atrociously poor journalism.

David Cole wrote at length about this episode in the New York Review of Books:

Whatever else one might say about the just-concluded 2016 presidential election, one thing is certain: FBI Director James Comey played an outsized and exceptionally inappropriate part. His highly prejudicial announcement on October 28, just eleven days before the election, that he had reopened an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server ensured that the final critical days of the campaign were taken up with innuendos and suppositions set off by his action.

When Comey then announced on November 5, just two days before the election, that upon further review he had again found no basis to believe that Clinton had committed any crime, it only underscored the impropriety of his October 28 announcement. Had he conducted the review in confidence, as Justice Department rules require, the entire matter would have been resolved without interfering with the election. As it was, his October 28 announcement dramatically shifted the trajectory of the campaign, deflected attention from Donald Trump’s own considerable troubles, and inevitably influenced the choices of many early voters.

Comey made the renewed investigation public against Justice Department policy and rules, and over the objections of the attorney general and several other Justice Department officials, even though he had not even seen the new evidence, much less determined that it hinted at any wrongdoing on Clinton’s part. The announcement predictably played right into the hands of Trump, who immediately took the occasion to repeat his charge that Clinton should be locked up. None of this should have happened; under long-standing Justice Department practice, Comey should have kept silent about the fact of further investigation, especially so close to an election.

There is now substantial evidence that Comey’s egregious and unprecedented intervention into the election, and the overwhelmingly negative (for Clinton) media attention to this story, had a very material impact on late voter support for Trump. It is also possible this might have suppressed some pro-Clinton votes in important swing states. The preponderance of the evidence indicates that, if not for Comey’s letter and the media malpractice that accompanied it, Clinton would have won the Electoral College.

Comey’s intervention was criticized as unfair, unprecedented and unacceptable not just by Democrats but also by some Republicans and Libertarians.

Those who knew something about the email story warned that Comey’s nothing-burger letter was not just highly inappropriate but very unlikely to reveal anything that would change the prior conclusions of the FBI investigation.

Indeed, that is just how it turned out. Not only that, there were contemporaneous reports that rogue, anti-Clinton FBI agents were behind Comey’s action — which, if true, would imply a naked, partisan attempt by U.S. government employees to prevent Clinton from winning. There was also strong evidence of direct collusion between some anti-Clinton FBI agents and the Trump campaign via Rudy Giuliani. Taken together, there was more than adequate evidence to view this as a serious "dirty tricks" operation that violated historical Justice Department precedent.

Instead, Clinton faced the brunt of the media’s fact-free innuendo and scandal-mongering. For example, here is how the New York Times inundated their front-page with this story and how that compared with the Times’ treatment of the subsequent legal settlement on a far bigger and very real scandal about Trump — the one in which he defrauded thousands of people out of tens of millions of dollars through his fake Trump University.

It was not just the Times — negative media coverage of Clinton dominated the airwaves in that last week leading up to Election Day.

The fact that Politico’s Glasser never bothered to say a word about any of this is revealing. It is probably because the media’s rush to blanket the airwaves with innuendo and insinuations about Clinton, with little focus on accuracy and no attempt to exercise even a modicum of news judgment, had a material role in changing the outcome of the election by flipping the electoral college to Trump from Clinton.

The media’s habit of prioritizing speed over accuracy is a serious impediment to an informed public, especially given that people are much more likely to remember the first, often sensational or striking reports, and not pay attention to follow up stories and corrections.

In just the most recent example, immediately after the election, numerous news reports claimed that voter turnout was at a two-decade low. Multiple articles and opinions — most not favorable to Clinton — were published analyzing the election assuming turnout was very low. In reality, as more votes were tabulated it became clear that 2016 election turnout was higher than in 2012 — in fact, turnout was the third-highest since 1968.

Sophistication and Technology

Glasser also claims the media is a lot better today because it has become "far more sophisticated." This might be correct in a technological sense but it is plainly untrue when it comes to the accuracy of reporting many complex stories, such as the email story, that require the application of intelligence and sophistication (e.g., on the topic of record-keeping and classification laws). Needless to say, a focus on speed works in direct opposition to a focus on sophistication when it comes to coverage of non-trivial stories.

In fact, media malpractice on the Clinton Foundation stories served as yet another example where an emphasis on speed and "sharpness," along with a lack of sophistication (and interest) in understanding the issues, led to the public being systematically misled by the media.

Glasser’s discussion of why she believes the media is doing "much better" also included a reference to technological innovations:

There are great new digital news organizations for politics and policy obsessives, political science wonks, and national security geeks. Today’s beat reporters on Capitol Hill are as a rule doing a far better job than I did when I was a rookie there two decades ago, and we get more reporting and insight live from the campaign trail in a day than we used to get in a month, thanks to Google and Facebook, livestreaming and Big Data, and all the rest. Access to information—by, for, and about the government and those who aspire to run it— is dazzling and on a scale wholly unimaginable when Donald Trump was hawking his Art of the Deal in 1987. And we have millions of readers for our work now, not merely a hyper-elite few thousand.

Note that a lot of the text I have highlighted has little to do with journalism per se — and a lot more to do with technology. Those technological innovations are worth celebrating, but none of that has any bearing on the accuracy of the journalism, which has to be the first and foremost metric that media outlets use to determine how good their journalism is. After all, these same technologies and advances are used very effectively by Fox News and Breitbart, but it is hard to use that to argue that those outlets particularly care about the quality or accuracy of their journalism.

Access and Transparency

Another attribute mentioned favorably by Glasser in her celebration of Washington journalism is access to information. The importance of "access" was repeated in her article:

Access to information has always been Washington’s currency; speed up the news cycle, and we had no choice but to race ahead right along with it.

Access could certainly be beneficial at times — but most often, it refers to access to politicians and their inner circles. That type of access does not usually produce accurate journalism, but rather the reprinting of self-serving or partisan spin. Lest we forget, it is the “access” that the New York Times had to Bush administration officials that led the paper to produce the worst foreign policy "journalism" in modern history, on the topic of Iraq. The New York Times did more than any other paper to enable the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs and non-existent ties to Al Qaeda. Much of it was because of the "access" they — and especially Judith Miller had – to the Bush-Cheney inner circle.

The bigger problem here is that Glasser failed to realize that a lot of the best journalism happens in cases when there is no easy access to information, which forces painstaking work in the absence of access. Here are some examples from Election 2016.

(a) The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold’s seminal work in exposing the fraud, wrongdoing and illegal actions of Trump and his Trump Foundation was primarily the result of not having any meaningful access. This is a story the media and the New York Times barely covered in 2016 in contrast to the Clinton Foundation/email stories.

(b) The New York Times’ story on Trump’s tax returns was also not the result of "access" but because the documents were leaked to the Times by an anonymous source. This happened because, in a historically unprecedented step, Trump fabricated excuses and never released his tax returns to the public and most of the media let him get away with it.

(c) Fahrenthold’s story in the Washington Post on Trump’s self-described sexual assault of women caught on video was likewise not due to "access." It was the result of a leak of the video to Fahrenthold, ironically because NBC, the media outlet that had access to the video was dragging its feet on making it public. I would not be surprised if the video was leaked to Fahrenthold primarily because he had built a reputation for good journalism by doing the grunt work required in the absence of access.

Lack of access and reliance on new or unknown sources often forces journalists to be a lot more thoughtful and careful about how they interpret and explain the material they receive. In contrast, when we look at some of the worst journalism in 2016 — e.g., myriad stories implying corruption with the Clinton Foundation, despite the lack of any such evidence — you will notice a common thread: the easy access that the media had to the relevant information, because Clinton had disclosed virtually all of the relevant information for those stories voluntarily.

In other words, many of the least accurate stories about Clinton were all about the things she disclosed voluntarily by displaying an unprecedented level of transparency. From her disclosures, it should have been quite obvious that Clinton did not think she had done anything wrong. On the other hand, some of the most accurate stories about Trump (aside from his public/recorded displays of bigotry) were based on information that Trump had never voluntarily disclosed.

The point here is that many people in the media seem to wrongly equate access with significance. The reality is commonly the opposite. Even Eric Trump admitted that his father was not disclosing his tax returns because it might reveal things that are uncomfortable for his father’s campaign. Despite this, the media let Trump get off scot free for disclosing virtually nothing material about his finances, emails, meetings, and more, which led to observations like these:

Given all of that, you can imagine why I find this section of Glasser’s article not particularly compelling:

As this wild presidential campaign progressed, that became my ever-more nagging worry and then our collective nightmare—the fear, clearly realized, that all the flood of news and information we’ve celebrated might somehow be drowning us. So much terrific reporting and writing and digging over the years and … Trump? What happened to consequences? Reporting that matters? Sunlight, they used to tell us, was the best disinfectant for what ails our politics.

But 2016 suggests a different outcome: We’ve achieved a lot more transparency in today’s Washington—without the accountability that was supposed to come with it.

Glasser’s claim that "we’ve achieved a lot more transparency" is bizarre to say the least. When it came to Clinton coverage, most of the transparency was NOT because of the media but because of Clinton. As I pointed out above, it was easy for media to write about Clinton’s income and speeches because Clinton voluntarily disclosed that information — unlike Trump. The media manufactured controversy about Clinton Foundation donors and their emails because Clinton voluntarily disclosed both the donors and emails to the public — unlike Trump. The media was able to create “clouds” and “shadows” of doubt about Clinton’s meetings with a small number of Foundation donors because Clinton disclosed her meetings voluntarily — unlike Trump.

Outside of a few journalists who filed FOIA requests on Clinton’s work emails/calendars, most people in the media were simply beneficiaries of Clinton’s transparency — which they promptly weaponized against her, giving her the treatment usually reserved for corrupt criminals.

On the other side, Trump released little of significance about himself. He was the least transparent candidate and the most hostile to press freedom in modern Presidential campaign history. Outside of Trump’s own bigoted pronouncements on the campaign trail and pre-2015 media stories about him based on his prior public pronouncements, most people in the media (with a few exceptions) did not care to dig deeper to expose all the things that Trump was hiding about his taxes, businesses, foundation, and unimaginable worldwide conflicts of interest. Instead, a temporary gap in press conferences by Clinton was used by some in the press to figuratively bludgeon her in public. In contrast, Trump went for months without press conferences — ending the year with fewer press conferences than Clinton — and was largely given a pass by the media.

So, the notion that the media somehow "achieved" a "lot more transparency" is laughable. If not for Clinton, whatever was "achieved" would have been minimal. Belatedly, a few people in the media are starting to realize the consequence of their colleagues’ egregious behavior in 2016.

If there is one big lesson for politicians from this election campaign, it is this: do not disclose anything that might be even slightly embarrassing because that is likely to lead to far less negative coverage for you than the alternative. After the incredibly appalling behavior of the media against Clinton, I really can not blame any politician if that is what they choose to do in the future. And this is how democracies die and banana republics are born.

Up Next (Part 4): In the final part of this series, I will discuss the common media misconception that "aggressive reporting" is somehow the same as journalism, using the example of WikiLeaks. I will also summarize some of the lessons from the media’s coverage of Election 2016.

T.R. Ramachandran is a blogger on politics, policy and media, a longtime veteran of the tech industry and co-founder of Kanvz. You can follow his latest work on Twitter @yottapoint or on the web at