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Man reading news,Dead Sea.
Man reading news in the Dead Sea. Photo credit: Pete / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

Report shows they focus on human drama, while ignoring actual policy implications affecting us all.

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I just had coffee with a friend who stated, matter of factly: “Trump will be elected.”

It’s not something he’s happy about, but he’s a practical guy with a background in journalism and a career on Wall Street. He reads things fairly dispassionately. He mentioned in passing that the news media had a lot to do with that, given how it joyously promoted Donald Trump as an entertaining character, failed to properly scrutinize what he actually represented, and thus helped make him president once and is helping him again. 

I agree. The media was never really very good at covering Trump’s corruption and debasement of government either. More needs to be said about this, and the media needs — immediately — to do much, much more to make amends. 

My friend and I are hardly alone in thinking this. None other than the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) has recently published a harsh takedown of the media over the nature of the work it does in keeping the public informed. 

The CJR compared how the media did back in 2016 — when its failures contributed mightily to Trump’s surprise victory — with how it was doing six years later, in 2022. Guess what? Terrible both times. 

Eyeballs and Money 

The bottom line is that, in their pursuit of audiences and eyeballs and the dollars that follow, the large news organizations heavily hype anything dramatic, and give short shrift to substance. 

In other words, an emphasis on posturing, on horse races, on bickering and blood-letting takes heavy precedence over coverage of the policies that actually affect Americans. 

No wonder people don’t know anything about what Trump actually did in office. 

No wonder they don’t understand the reality of the vaccine situation.  

No wonder they’re so vulnerable to emotional manipulation. 

No wonder they vote against their own interests and harm themselves —  and the rest of us —  in the process. 

And no wonder there continues to be a huge national blindspot, affecting tens of millions at least, when it comes to the dire threat Trump now poses to the very fabric of this democratic nation.

The media largely abdicated its role. 

Objective: Baloney 

CJR researchers criticize what the publication calls “the self-serving fiction of ‘objective’ political news.” That of course allows those at these news organizations — and the audiences that adore them — to feel better about themselves, much more than they have any right to. 

In fact, the truth has been less about being “objective” and more about doing what makes good business sense for themselves. 

We found that the Times and the Post shared significant overlap in their domestic politics coverage, offering little insight into policy. Both emphasized the horse race and campaign palace intrigue, stories that functioned more to entertain readers than to educate them on essential differences between political parties. … 

A generous interpretation found that just ten of those stories explained domestic public policy in any detail; only one front-page article in the lead-up to the midterms really leaned into discussion about a policy matter in Congress: Republican efforts to shrink Social Security. [Emphasis added.]

Now, take a look at these striking statistics from the CJR on front-page stories published in the lead-up to the last midterm elections, from September 1, 2022, through Election Day:

The New York Times:

408 Front-page stories
219 On domestic politics
10 Explained domestic public policy in detail
1 Discussed Republican efforts to shrink social security
37 Republican-favored topics
7  Democratic-favored topics

The Times often focused on subjects important to Republicans and a core component of their talking points — China, immigration, and crime. 

The Washington Post:

393 Front-page stories
215 On domestic politics
4 On policy
20 Republican-favored topics
15 Democratic-favored topics

The Post focused more on subjects important to Dems — affirmative action, police reform, LGBTQ rights than the Times. My read is that, without good explanations of the policy side, they probably also provided cannon fodder for the Republicans, for their core message that Democrats oppose law enforcement, favor people other than white people, and want to turn their kids trans. 

CJR continues:

The Post had no front-page stories in the months ahead of the midterms on policies that candidates aimed to bring to the fore or legislation they intended to pursue. Instead, articles speculated about candidates and discussed where voter bases were leaning. 

What People Actually Care About 

Exit polls show that Democrats cared most about abortion and gun policy; for Republicans, the big issues were crime, inflation, and immigration. 

It’s bad enough that the media don’t do a good job explaining what is being done about these issues. But equally problematic is that whatever explanations the major media do provide, they’re usually not even seen. Because the topics rarely get the marquee treatment. 

We figured the front page mattered disproportionately, in part because articles placed there represent selections that publishers believe are most important to readers — and also because, according to Nielsen data we analyzed, 32 percent of Web-browsing sessions around that period starting at the Times homepage did not lead to other sections or articles; people often stick to what they’re shown first. [Emphasis added.]

Um, hello! People often stick to what they’re shown first. And what they saw in the New York Times favored Republican issues. While the Post’s content was somewhat different, it wasn’t really much better, because, as I noted above, it highlighted, without really explaining, material that  Republicans can exploit to stir up emotions. 

***

We launched WhoWhatWhy as an ad-free nonprofit news organization with a single mission: to ensure an informed public — which is the foundation of our democracy. We do this by reporting facts and contextualizing events. Media organizations driven principally to achieve financial and social media success rather than having a primary mission of factually informing society are not just failing the public trust but are, in truth, undermining democracy globally.

To those who say, “Why bother — there’s plenty of good information out there,” I say: Bullshit. 

The proof, if still required, is in the polls showing an extremely tight race between Biden and Trump in 2024. The readers of these major media know that Trump is dangerous, but, based on this study, they do not actually have a lot of specific information at their fingertips. If they did, perhaps they could influence their extended circle, some of whom might be wavering on their 2024 options. 

We need responsible media in this country. And we need all of you to support us so we can grow and continue to do more substantive reporting, on real issues, affecting all of us. 

If the public starts seeing that kind of thing, day in, day out, presented in a compelling way — and soon — we might just turn things around. 


Author

  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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