Why does the media keep botching their coverage of elections? A big reason is that journalists allow the right-wing spin machine to dictate the narrative.
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With many races still undecided and control of Congress in the balance (at the time this was written), political journalists across the country are trying to figure out who the biggest losers in this election were. That’s easy: All they have to do is look in the mirror.
As opposed to other countries that seem to hold elections willy-nilly (looking at you, Israel) or replace prime ministers more frequently than some people change their linens, democracy in the US has been remarkably consistent for two centuries: Elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November every other year, there is a peaceful transition of power (well, until the failed Trump coup of 2020), and white people are still trying to make it difficult for Black people to vote.
More recently, a new tradition has emerged: The media is screwing up its election coverage.
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when this began. Actually, it’s not that difficult once you think things through.
In the mid-’90s, there was a perfect storm of three events that sank political journalism: the emergence of the internet, the rise of Fox “News,” and the start of the descent of the GOP from a serious party into, well, whatever it is Republicans have become now.
And real journalism never figured out how to cope with any of this.
The internet ushered in an era of news in which speed began prevailing over substance (and accuracy). If you are the first to report something, you’ll get the clicks, and the more sensational the headline sounds (even if it is not backed up by the story), the better.
Then there was Fox. When a blatantly partisan network advertised itself as “fair and balanced,” it should have been clear to anybody that this wasn’t about journalism; it was about creating an alternate reality for its adoring audience. However, for too long, Fox was treated as a legitimate news source — both by lawmakers and actual news outlets.
This mistake was repeated in reverse during the increasing crazyfication of the GOP, which, not by accident, coincided with the rise of Fox and the internet as sources of misinformation. The media continues to treat Republicans as serious people acting in good faith.
Any one of these things would have been a problem for journalism. Together, they overwhelmed the system.
This is especially evident when the media tries to cover elections. Not only because they are so important but also because in this case, readers are not merely passive consumers of news but active participants, who end up deciding who gets to run the country.
That is why, perhaps more than anything else the media covers, elections-related reporting should be about substance so that voters can make an informed decision. What are candidates for? What are the big issues that need to be solved? Who has a plan to do that and is that plan likely to work?
But these are difficult things to cover (and for readers to understand). We live in a complex world, and there are many factors to consider when discussing issues like climate change or global inflation or gas prices.
Let’s just look at that last one. It seems pretty obvious that high gas prices are bad for the party in power. But what causes them? Republicans will say that it’s a lack of domestic energy production while Democrats blame price gouging by oil companies raking in record profits. In trying to understand the recent ups and downs in gas prices, analysts also have to factor in the war in Ukraine, a cartel that is trying to push up prices by cutting supplies, and a US president who released oil from the strategic reserve to keep them down. Another crucial data point is how gas prices in the US match up with how much it costs in other countries.
Any news report that wants to fairly and accurately discuss this issue should look at all of these factors (and many more). Experts have to be interviewed, context must be provided, and questions need to be asked of candidates who try to spin their own narrative regardless of the facts.
And then all that information needs to be presented in a manner that readers can easily grasp.
That is journalism.
Unfortunately, that is not what news consumers get these days.
Hardly any of these questions are ever asked, let alone answered. Instead, audiences are inundated with stories about the latest polls, soundbites, and the posturing of self-proclaimed experts. If actual policy issues are covered, it’s usually without important context. In other words: Voters deserve a gourmet meal of information before they go to the polls. Instead, they get fast food.
The internet is to blame for a lot of that. Speed over substance, reporters chasing clicks while trying to build their brand, and the constant need for more, more, more.
Not to be overlooked, the internet has also created a herd mentality among the media. That’s because platforms like Twitter (and whatever will follow once Elon Musk is done running it into the ground) allow reporters to see what everybody else is covering. Once an outlet publishes something, others will follow their lead because nobody wants to be scooped. That is why you see so many stories of one news organization “confirming the reporting” of another. All of this drains resources that are sorely needed elsewhere.
To be fair, this is not just the fault of news organizations. The internet has changed how people consume news. They now want it in bite-sized chunks, which has also opened the door to more misinformation that is spread more easily.
Speaking of misinformation, let’s turn to Fox and its impact on actual journalism. Despite its patently ridiculous claim of being fair and balanced (which it quietly dropped in 2016), the cable channel created a false reality from day one.
That in itself is not ideal. But if all Fox had done was create an insulated safe space for a few million conservatives who couldn’t deal with a reality that consistently upended their worldview, then that still might have been OK.
However, the real damage the Murdochs and their minions did was to accuse everybody else of bias. That’s because this accusation hit the sorest spot of journalists.
On its face, that accusation of bias is not dismissable per se. If you held an election in which only journalists could vote, Republicans would never win. One reason is that there is an educational gap in US politics. Democratic voters tend to be more formally educated than Republican voters. The less time you spend in school, the more likely you are to support the GOP.
Another reason is that certain types of people are more likely to become journalists, and these people fit a progressive profile more than a conservative one.
However, the real question is how much of these biases spill into their work. Some do, for example when it comes to which stories editors assign and reporters work on.
Mind you, these biases are nothing compared to the blatant propaganda and outright campaigning Fox and its imitators in the far-right media do on behalf of the GOP.
And because journalists don’t like to be called “biased,” they have traditionally bent over backwards to make sure that their reporting is “fair,” i.e., that all sides get a say. In a world in which all sides act in good faith, that’s how it should be.
Sadly, that is no longer the world we live in, which brings us to the last point.
Today’s Republicans no longer act in good faith. There is no need to rehash all of the ways in which they have become performance artists more than public servants and how they now constitute a threat to us all.
However, in spite of all of the lies and the phony theatrics, journalists, especially in the nation’s capital, continue to treat Republicans as serious actors.
That’s because GOP politicians have identified a “cheat code” that allows them to manipulate the media: You can bully journalists into becoming compliant stenographers who parrot the GOP talking points of the day if you accuse them of bias, of being the “enemy of the people” and promulgators of “fake news.”
Do that, and they will try to prove how fair they really are (which, by the way, is an exercise in futility because conservatives will accuse them of being biased no matter what they do).
And that’s why journalists still refer to blatant lies as “falsehoods” or “misinformation.” That’s why Republicans involved in a failed coup still get invited on talk shows. That’s why reporters were hesitant to call the last president a dunce who was also a dangerous malignant narcissist.
You put all of this together, and it’s easy to see why the media is so bad at covering elections.
In 2015 and 2016, Trump was so good for ratings and clicks that news outlets kept giving him a free platform (especially once they saw how successful Fox was in doing so). And, to show their “fairness,” — taking their lead from right-wing journalists — they disproportionately covered Hillary Clinton’s email “scandals,” which turned out to not be all that scandalous.
In fact, according to research published in the Columbia Journalism Review, “the various Clinton-related email scandals — her use of a private email server while secretary of state, as well as the DNC and John Podesta hacks — accounted for more sentences than all of Trump’s scandals combined (65,000 vs. 40,000) and more than twice as many as were devoted to all of her policy positions.”
This time around, Republicans claimed that a red wave was going to sweep them into power… and the media just kind of went with it. After all, it made sense. Historically, the president’s party loses support in the midterms, and high inflation is always bad, so all those Republicans talking about a tsunami must be right.
Never mind that this wasn’t supported by the polls, that the right-wing Supreme Court had just taken away from millions of women their right to choose, that the GOP had spent the past couple of years aggressively undermining democracy, and that many of its candidates ranged from political novices to complete morons.
Clearly, none of those things were going to be a factor.
And then there was the attack on the octogenarian husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), third in line to the presidency. The response to this heinous crime by high-ranking Republicans, from TV pundits to lawmakers, not only reminded Americans of what MAGA supporters are capable of but also once again revealed the GOP’s true colors.
So, yes, gas prices are comparatively high, but what Republicans and the media neglected to consider when making their predictions of a resounding GOP victory was that, maybe, American voters had no interest in handing power to a bunch of heartless radicals who couldn’t even condemn an attack on the family of one of their colleagues.
Now, you might ask yourself what the harm is of the media repeating, instead of questioning, the election forecasts of a bunch of known liars.
First of all, that’s not the media’s job. More importantly, in the current environment, this was dangerous.
With Republicans having questioned the legitimacy of the last election for the past two years, predicting a massive GOP win would invite more of the same in case that victory didn’t materialize. Quite frankly, it is pleasantly surprising that we haven’t heard that argument made yet in so many words: “The New York Times said we’d gain 60 seats in the House and win the Senate but we did neither, so there is clearly more going on here than meets the eye!”
Well, with that bullet dodged, at least journalists have learned an important lesson from this total failure, right?
One day after having completely botched the election coverage because Republicans had spun them like a dreidel, the media was at it again… this time fawning over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the few Republicans who did exceed expectations.
The big winners on the other side, like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, who was resoundingly reelected as governor and saw her party gain control of the state Legislature for the first time in decades, did not receive nearly as much attention.
Maybe that will make conservatives realize that political journalists are not biased after all.
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Gretchen Whitmer caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), body (City of Detroit / Flickr), microphone (US Army / Wikimedia), reporters (Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet / Flickr), and background (j. l. / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0).