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The Media and Institutional Failure

The news media is one of those institutions we rely on to investigate politics for us. In a partisan era, we expect the media to act as a non-partisan arbiter of truth. But how realistic is this model?

By Seth Masket


Demolition of the old Washington Post headquarters at 1150 15th St. NW in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Antony-22/Wikimedia Commons)

The media is enduring a good deal of criticism lately, particularly with regards to its coverage of politics and elections. But what, exactly, is the media’s role in politics? Are we applying unrealistic expectations to an entire industry?

A few weeks ago, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote an important story in the New York Times asking whether Donald Trump was a threat to American democracy. The story included this notable paragraph:

Mr. Trump is not the first American politician with authoritarian tendencies. (Other notable authoritarians include Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana and Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin.) But he is the first in modern American history to be elected president. This is not necessarily because Americans have grown more authoritarian (the United States electorate has always had an authoritarian streak). Rather it’s because the institutional filters that we assumed would protect us from extremists, like the party nomination system and the news media, failed.

This is important because it correctly notes that institutions are neither infallible nor immortal. The venerable Republican Party, which has frustrated the presidential dreams of many would-be authoritarians, did not function in 2016 as it typically has. I’ve written extensively about this institutional failure elsewhere and likely will continue to do so, but I wanted to focus particularly on the media for this column.

The news media is one of those institutions we rely on to investigate politics for us. We know that individual voters, with very few exceptions, aren’t going to track down campaign finance expenditures, uncover conflicts of interests, or catch politicians in the act of committing crimes. We expect that the media will do these things and will let us know when something is important enough for us to be concerned about or to consider when casting a vote. In a partisan era, we expect the media to be acting as a non-partisan arbiter of truth.

But how realistic is this model? As Jonathan Ladd has written, this conception of the news is tied to a rather narrow and recent time period and may simply no longer apply. Ladd writes here:

American journalism became largely nonpartisan in the mid-twentieth century after calls for reform by Progressive Era figures like Walter Lippmann. But… these few decades were an historical aberration made possible by the lack of party polarization and a legal and technological landscape that artificially restricted media industry competition. Beyond these few decades, partisan media are the historical norm in the United States.

We hear many complaints today about the rise of fake news, false equivalencies, deeply partisan news sources, etc., but that’s actually how the political media have typically behaved. Newspapers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were often publicly affiliated with a political party and saw their role as backing that party’s candidates. We seem to be moving back to that model today.

But even if we expect a mid-20th century non-partisan model of media behavior, it’s difficult to pinpoint just where we believe the media went wrong in 2016. Did it ignore Trump’s bigotry, conflicts of interest, sexual predation, and basic ignorance on many public policy issues? Hardly. It reported on these extensively. That’s a large part of the reason Trump had historically high unfavorability ratings throughout the election year. Voters knew who he was. Many were deeply uncomfortable with him. Many of those same people voted for him anyway. According to exit polls, two-thirds of voters felt that Trump lacked the temperament to be president. Among that two-thirds, one in five still voted for him.

And, for what it’s worth, the media was as close to unified as we ever see in a presidential election. In a study of daily newspapers with readerships of 20,000 or more, Trump was endorsed by 19, Hillary Clinton by 240, including some that have never previously backed a Democrat.

One area where the media really did seem flummoxed was in false equivalency. Stories about Clinton’s emails dominated news coverage despite a lack of any evidence of actual wrongdoing, and this may have hurt Clinton significantly.

In part, this is a result of the persistence of the 20th-century non-partisan model of journalism. If you’re covering scandals in one campaign, you’re supposed to cover scandals in the other. Even if the race is between Josef Stalin and Mother Teresa (this one wasn’t), coverage should approach something like balance. Indeed, it may be appropriate for the media to provide more scrutiny of the candidate it thinks is going to win in this model.

But we may also be in a moment when the media has only partially reverted to the yellow press model. Even if many journalists at places like the New York Times or CNN are actually liberal, they often are concerned about appearing so publicly, and seek to prove their non-partisan bonafides and adherence to the 20th-century model of journalism. Journalists at Fox and Breitbart, however, appear to have fewer such compunctions and more readily back their party’s candidates.

This could put Democrats at a slight disadvantage in the near term, but only to the extent that voters rely on media coverage when casting their votes. Judging from 2016, quite a few voters don’t seem to care all that much what the media tells them anyway.