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By now, many Americans are familiar with CBS President Les Moonves’ infamous comment that journalists’ sensationalistic fixation on the Donald Trump “circus” “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Moonves explained in the same interview, at a San Francisco Morgan Stanley conference in February:
“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now…The money’s rolling in and this is fun…I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say, But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going…I’m not taking a side, I’m just saying for us, economically, Donald Trump’s place in this election is a good thing.”
Trump’s litany of sleazy reality-television theatrics, replete with ad hominem attacks, racist, sexist, and xenophobic slurs, and authoritarian assaults on basic Constitutional rights has dominated this election season, and the mass media have profited from and amplified the circus every step of the way. But for those who hold even the smallest commitment to democratic society, this carnivalesque election season is problematic for at least two reasons:
1) Superficial news coverage deprives citizens of the ability to think about actual policy issues. In a democracy, citizens must be informed about the policy stances of candidates in order to cast informed votes.
2) The obsession with Trump prohibits the public from being exposed to alternative candidates, who are either neglected or blackballed from the news.
Moonves comments that “most of the [television political] ads are not about issues, just like the debates. They’re saying he did this and he did that. They’re not saying what I stand for.” One could add to the list of superficial content the vast majority of election “news” stories disseminated by CBS and other media corporations.
Most obvious in terms of superficiality is the compulsive coverage of Trump’s every remark, updating Americans daily on his latest incendiary lamentation. Trump is not so foolish as to be ignorant to the symbiotic relationship he has with the press. He shrewdly feeds the media monster regularly, ensuring a never-ending diet of fluff, sensationalism, and vitriol in the news – thereby basking in the political spotlight.
If Trump is anything, he’s a media creation. The used-car salesman nature of it all may disturb many Americans, but it’s ultimately beside the point for media corporations. Journalists are as predictable as the tide; so long as they profit from the show, they’ll keep elevating Trump’s campaign above all competitors.
Consider some of the following statistics I pulled from the Lexis Nexis archives, if you want to understand just how lopsided this election season has become. With regard to the major party duopoly candidates, Trump towers over Hillary Clinton. In New York Times coverage from August 1 through September 30, Trump was mentioned in the headlines of 58 front-page features, compared to Clinton’s 25 features. This translates into 132 percent greater feature coverage. Even more extreme, third-party candidates like Green Partier Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson did not receive a single front-page news feature during these months in the New York Times. Stein and Johnson appeared in just one New York Times headline within this period, with that story emphasizing how the candidates “fail[ed] to make [the] cut for [the] first debate.” One could thank the Times and other newspapers for ensuring that the public was never exposed to the third party candidates to begin with, and helping prohibit these candidates from reaching the 15 percent polling threshold that’s necessary for being invited to the debates. The news coverage was similar at the Washington Post. The paper included 39 front-page feature stories mentioning Trump in the headlines, compared to Clinton’s 24 features. This translated into 63 percent more coverage for Trump over Clinton. Similar to the Times, the Post printed not a single front-page feature mentioning Stein or Johnson in the headlines for August or September.
Ultimately, it’s not clear whether greater coverage for the other candidates would even make a difference, particularly in light of the politically-challenged nature of modern election news. Superficiality in reporting is a constant these days, and this is no surprise to those who study this sort of thing. For example, the Pew Research Center finds that across the last few election cycles, rarely do policy issues appear in election stories. I explored these statistics in a previous piece (Counterpunch, “The Debates as Democratic Façade,” 9/27/2016) so I won’t rehash them here. But looking at this current election cycle, the trends documented by Pew from the 2008 and 2012 election cycles are reappearing. With regard to Washington Post features devoted to Trump and Clinton, just 10 percent of Trump features (5 of 39 stories) included any references in their titles to policy debates or policy proposals. With Clinton, just 13 percent of stories (3 of 24 stories) referred to policy. Similarly, with the New York Times, only 9 percent of Trump features (5 of 58 stories) and 8 percent of Clinton features (2 of 25 stories) made reference to policy. The few policy issues that made the headlines included: immigration, Syrian refugees, voter I.D. laws, health care reform, gay rights, tax policy, and terrorism.
Since most-all news coverage has little to nothing to do with policy substance, voters are left to decide between candidates based largely on candidate personality traits. This point is implicitly conceded by political commentator Nate Silver, as he argues that Trump will drop in the polls based on reports about his vulgar sexist comments and sexual assaults against women, as revealed in his 2005 interview with “Access Hollywood’s” Billy Bush. Silver writes about the potential effect of these kinds of mediated election events:
“when a story has broken through to dominate the news cycle, it usually has moved the polls in the direction that people expected. Trump’s feuds with Judge Gonzalo Curiel and the family of the American soldier Humayun Khan corresponded with periods when he declined in the polls. The first debate has turned into a disaster for Trump in a way that was fairly predictable based on instant-reaction polls. Trump’s convention was a mess, whereas Clinton’s was conventionally effective, and she got a much larger convention bounce. However, Clinton was hurt by her email scandal resurfacing as a major story line in July. And she declined in the polls after her “basket of deplorables” comments and Sept. 11 health scare.”
The problem is that most all of the fluctuations in candidate support that Silver describes have nothing to do with policy, suggesting that voting calculations are based on image, spectacle events, and perceived personality flaws. Needless to say, that’s a bad thing. It suggests that the dominance of the major party candidates in this election is not actually related to the “superior power” of their platforms or thinking, but rather springs from pseudo “events” in the news cycle that are largely or entirely divorced from policy matters.
With the fixation on the major parties, alternative ideas are left unexamined. Recent interviews with journalists across America find that they systematically reject the idea of directing greater coverage toward third-party candidates – and even many Democratic and Republican candidates, when they are not seen as serious contenders in election races. Political scientists Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless conclude that reporters wish to avoid electoral races and candidates who are not seen as “competitive” in terms of their likelihood of winning elections. What this perspective misses is that, in a heavily mediated society like the U.S., the vast majority of information citizens receive about candidates comes from the media itself. So if candidates are blackballed from the news, it ensures that the most well-funded candidates will be even more effective in saturating the airwaves with their ads, thereby further drowning out major and third party competitors. This kind of reporting has likely contributed to mass ignorance in the public mind regarding who the third party candidates are and what they stand for. For example, recent surveys from the Associated Press and GenForward find that, while Millennials (aged 18-35) are the least likely to be attached to the two major parties, large majorities in this group are simply not familiar enough with third party candidates to consider voting for them. Seven in ten Millennials say they are unfamiliar with Libertarian Gary Johnson, while 8 in 10 are unfamiliar with Jill Stein.
Regardless of whether one is voting Republican, Democratic, or third party, the above trends should be disturbing for anyone committed to democracy. Democratic government is premised on the notion that the people decide, based on a careful examination of the competing candidates and their policy stances. With the radical decline of coverage for candidates who are not Donald Trump, and the marginalization of “uncompetitive” candidates – with journalists deciding who will be “competitive” and who will not be – a full public consideration of voting alternatives is simply not possible. Journalists may take comfort in concluding that certain candidates are not serious, but in a democracy this decision is supposed to be left up to citizens, not unelected media corporations. With the tabloidization of American election coverage, and the severe impoverishment of issue coverage, citizens will struggle on election day to make informed choices.