The media: A proven embarrassment
— If you’re angry at how the media have behaved in this election, you have a lot of company.
It’s not just that some newspapers and broadcast networks have largely abandoned any pretense of objectivity as they set out to elect one candidate and destroy the other. Publications that never endorse candidates are taking pride in the fact that they’ve ditched their neutrality in order to oppose Donald Trump.
And it’s not just that the media apply one set of rules to scandals involving Democrats, and another when it comes to Republicans. For instance, any woman who makes an allegation of sexual impropriety now ought to be believed even though this isn’t the case when the accused is Bill Clinton.
And it’s not just that the media have gone from being a supposedly impartial observer who may have slightly favored one combatant to a full-blown surrogate who joins the fight. It’s like those old skits in professional wrestling where a grappler pretended to be a substitute referee but wound up slugging and pinning one of the wrestlers himself.
And it’s not just that — thanks to the release of private emails by WikiLeaks — we now see just how cozy a relationship the media have with Democratic Party insiders. The arrangement seems to include planting stories and inviting journalists to private, off-the-record dinners at the homes of top surrogates for Hillary Clinton.
Guess who’s coming to dinner. Actually, they already came to dinner in April 2015 — at the Washington home of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Attendees included about 20 hand-picked reporters who were expected to be covering Clinton’s campaign.
I bet some of these reporters didn’t even tell their editors where they were spending the evening. And what do you suppose they talked about? Certainly not Clinton. Why, that would be inappropriate.
I don’t care that these journalists got a free meal. I care that they got spun, and that they might be tempted to go easy on Clinton so as to get a return invitation.
The guest list included CNBC’s John Harwood — who would, several months later, moderate a cringe-worthy GOP primary debate where he bickered with the participants. Afterward, he claimed in an email to Podesta that “the opposition party” had gone “off
the rails” and that this vindicated his tough questioning of Trump.
Also invited was Maggie Haberman, who was then a reporter for Politico and now writes for The New York Times and with whom a Clinton operative said the campaign had a “very good relationship.” The operative expressed confidence that the campaign could “do the most shaping by going to Maggie,” and then he laid out the components of the story they intended to feed to Haberman.
Holy smokes. Were the Clintonistas looking for positive coverage, or someone to take dictation?
The media can’t make up our minds whether we want to be a fly on the wall, or a player on the field.
One minute, we cover the news; the next, we are the news. One minute, we’re incognito; the next, we’re in your face. One minute, we’re pretending to be fair; the next, we’re dying to tell you how we really feel.
The joke is on Trump. The media helped him get his party’s nomination with millions of dollars of free air time. Trump loved the attention but he made the mistake of not spending enough of his own money on ads that made his case to voters. And what the media giveth, the media taketh away. Now that Trump is facing off against Clinton, all the coverage is negative. And the media are getting a perverse satisfaction from helping slay the dragon they created.
Recently, Vanity Fair posted an online article — originally written as a commentary for the Poynter Institute — that bragged about how The Washington Post and The New York Times have swayed the election. The headline: “How Two Newspapers Brought Down Donald Trump.” Fellow journalists shared that article on Facebook, citing it as evidence that newspapers still have power.
There’s the rub. One of the first things I learned when I started writing for newspapers 27 years ago is that, in this business, the quickest way for journalists to lose what little power we do have is for us to start believing we have it.
The truth is, in this election, we in the media only had the power to embarrass ourselves. And we did.
Ruben Navarette Jr. is a syndicated columnist from the Washington Post. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.