Media Coverage of the Presidential Campaign

During this pledge drive, amid disputes about media coverage of the presidential campaign, it’s a good time to review how we got here.

The 19th century press was partisan; every party had their papers. Around the dawn of the 20th century, publishers and advertisers who wanted to reach people on all sides, shaped the era of the penny press and just-the-facts news, with opinion segregated onto separate editorial pages. News was supposed to be nonpartisan. It worked very well when the media put the cruel responses to the Civil Rights Movement into every home in America.

Nevertheless, even while Civil Rights and Vietnam glued Americans to the media, the press was still reeling from self-criticism about how it had allowed the infamous Senator Joe McCarthy to make unsubstantiated charges of treason and communist sympathies without appropriate debunking. And so was born the era of checking with targets for their response.

In broadcasting the FCC enforced the fairness doctrine, requiring balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. That sounds better than it was. I learned first-hand when the now defunct St. Louis morning paper blasted the Legal Aid Society there and we met with the editorial board of the afternoon Post-Dispatch. They told us that denials wouldn’t help, and would actually remind the public of the charges. Instead they would – and did – run stories about the good things we were doing.

He said-she said journalism or the more oblique but effective good-story-bad-story journalism could help to inform people on issues they follow closely with open minds. Otherwise it could be more confusing than helpful.

In this era, I believe Irving Kristol, himself a conservative, wrote an article saying the New York Times was both America’s best newspaper and not very good. His point was that reporters weren’t experts in the areas they were covering. Taking a man-in-the-street approach to stories helped reporters write for and speak to ordinary Americans but often at the cost of misunderstanding issues that experts could have untangled.

Sociologist Herb Gans wrote a book explaining that media bias rarely resulted from partisanship but from the ease of newsgathering from a few sources, like the White House, which gave those sources disproportionate access to the press.

By the time their work came out, Woodward and Bernstein had blown Watergate open and everyone tried to copy what we now call investigative reporting. That goes much deeper but involves the reporter or news outlet in examining controversial issues, laying themselves open to charges of bias by anyone who disagrees.

But legal rules changed and cable soon splintered the marketplace for news, now further splintered by digital media. As in the 19th century, Americans can choose what they’d like to hear, see or read and ignore the rest. Everyone can speak to their own choir with thunderous applause. More discerning and complex stories are often ignored or reduced to sound bites.

Donald Trump takes advantage of that by simply announcing his views in outrageous ways sure to catch everyone’s attention. While Joe McCarthy could make unsubstantiated charges without fear of press criticism, Donald Trump uses inflammatory rhetoric to get everyone’s attention above the din of press criticism.

I’m not convinced there is a perfect answer. Every campaign reflects the efforts of a new crop of politicians to game the media approach of their era. And in an effort to be fair, the press tries not to make candidate-specific judgments about how to cover campaigns – including Trump’s – but tries to cover them in standard ways.

If you listen closely on this station you will hear the residue of every method of journalism practiced in America for the last century. There are straight facts, he-said-she-said journalism, commentary, investigative reporting and a plethora of polling and analysis from every direction. This certainly is the thinking person’s station. Thank you WAMC.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 7, 2016.

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