Politics and the Press–Redux

Last night, I participated in a panel discussion focused in part upon the role of the press in the 2016 election cycle.

In my brief introductory remarks, I began by noting that the course in Media and Public Policy that I teach every two years requires an entirely new syllabus every time I teach it, because the media environment and the way we citizens get our information is constantly changing.

I also emphasized the difference between MEDIA and JOURNALISM. We are marinating in media, but we are losing what used to be called the journalism of verification. And I ticked off some of what I see as the consequences of this new reality:

  • The competition for eyeballs and clicks has given us a 24/7 “news hole” that media outlets race to fill—far too often prioritizing speed over accuracy.
  • That same competition has given us sports and gossip and opinion—often wildly inaccurate– rather than the watchdog journalism that informs citizens. It’s cheaper to produce, and (let’s be honest) those are the things people click on and watch.
  • We still have national coverage but with the exception of niche media, we have lost local news. The reporters with institutional memory who produced it are gone. There’s virtually no coverage of either the Indiana statehouse or the City-County building—instead we get the “beer beat,” telling us where to party on the weekend.
  • Most troubling of all is the “filter bubble.” The Internet has exponentially expanded our ability to live in a reality of our own creation, where (in defiance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum) we can indeed choose our own “facts.” Political psychologists call this behavior “confirmation bias.” We used to call it “cherry picking”—the intellectually dishonest process of picking through information sources from the bible to the U.S. budget looking for evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

As I tell my students, the sad state of journalism is ultimately our fault. The media is giving us what sells. If a naked Kardashian gets more clicks than articles about school vouchers, naked Kardashians are what we’ll get. When Donald Trump’s inane insults and kindergarten antics make money for the media, the media gives us nonstop Trump.

How all this will affect the 2016 elections is anyone’s guess, but a recent report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center isn’t comforting.

The report shows that during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone—he received far more “good press” than “bad press.” The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.

The Democratic race in 2015 received less than half the coverage of the Republican race. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was largely ignored in the early months but, as it began to get coverage, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone. Sanders’ coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates, Republican or Democratic. For her part, Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate. In 11 of the 12 months, her “bad news” outpaced her “good news,” usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings in 2015.

Now, if Clinton’s negative coverage consisted of actual news, emerging information that had not already been exhaustively covered, that would be appropriate. But as the report notes,

Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end. Of the eight news outlets in our study, Fox News easily led the way. Clinton received 291 negative reports on Fox, compared with only 39 positive ones, most of which were in the context of poll results that showed her with a wide lead….

What accounts for Clinton’s negative coverage? One reason is the schizophrenic quality of journalists’ coverage of a “front-running” candidate. It is the story of a candidate with a solid lead, which is the main source of the candidate’s “good news.” There is, however, a less positive aspect to a frontrunner’s story.  The candidate is typically described as overly calculating and cautious—the implication is that the candidate is withholding something from the voters. And if the frontrunner loses support in the polls—a virtual certainty given the artificial boost that comes from high name recognition in the earliest polls—the narrative tilts negative.

We voters have to rely on the media for our information about the candidates. But in this media environment, in this time and place, we need to be very careful consumers of what passes for news.


  1. Thank you. I don’t think there is really any news anymore. The press has become cautious and apologetic and is afraid to publish information because of a possible backlash by, e.g. Trump supporters.

  2. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, the problem with the news is that it’s in a very different business than we think. Its business is actually to bring views to its advertisers, not news to its viewers.

  3. You are exactly right about people cherry-picking the information that supports their narrative. The aspect of this that is most frightening is that, regardless of the narrative, we (all of us) only recognize that fatal flaw in others.

  4. Totally spot on as usual. Makes me wonder thought what is taught in journalism schools across this country in regard to the 4th estate’s traditional role and responsibility of informing citizens of this country in regard to what is going on around them that has real import. Surely, someone, somewhere, that teaches in this field of study has this thought cross their mind at least occasionally. Maybe sometimes in between those regarding the Kardashians and the local ‘bar beat’.

    My late Mom was a journalist (Indianapolis Times), among others in my family now long gone, and if she was still around she would be screaming bloody murder over this and also firing off volley after volley of ‘Letters to the Editor’ over it.

  5. In your class, I would be curious to find out the answer to this question: Day One of the class – what is your list of news providers? (or however you need to ask it to get a list of places your students go to “receive” the news. And then on your Last Day – what is your list of news providers?

  6. Sheila–
    For your local readers, it would be great if you would let us know in advance of panels, lectures, etc. such as the one you describe here if they are open to the public. I would have loved to attend.

  7. The media is reporting the Republican party is backing Trump as the presumptive presidential nominee.

    The media is reporting that Republicans are attempting to distance themselves from almost everything Trump says and stands for.

    I do believe this is happening but Republicans cannot have it both ways. Their entire presidential campaign; the foundation(s), tactics and especially the candidates, has been questionable from the beginning. I hope all those who are “fence-straddling” are sitting in the most uncomfortable position possible and in great pain.

    The media has reported the bias against President Obama is because he is a Black man. Why are they not reporting the true problem; the source of the problem is because the Republicans are so WHITE.

    News reports often contain those “dog whistles” once known as “subliminal messages”; plus we need to be adept at “reading between the lines” to understand too many news reports. We also need to research much of what is reported if we want the truth. Being deaf results in higher visual acuity; we often see more in the speaker’s eyes, facial expressions and body language than in the words they are speaking. I could see the grief and anger in President Obama’s eyes during his initial public statement regarding the Orlando massacre; that told me more than the concisely written statement he presented.

    True journalism is gasping it’s last breath; media reporting is flourishing – that is where the money is today.

  8. Ask a CC at any college; Journalism is dead. Those colleges , at one time, were on par with prestigious law, medical or engineering schools. Why? Because it was tightly linked to one of the most lucrative and powerful vocations in the world: Printing. After Masonry, and closely linked to it, the printing unions were most powerful and influential. The press, invented by Gutenberg in 1440, ushered in a new age of mass communication. It took more than 400 years but Alexander Bain conceived an idea which which would lead to eventual destruction of the one vocation expressly protected in our Constitution: The Press. He contrived a machine that could change the hot type into cold electric pulses. Communication switched from the galley to the electronic frequency and the die was set.

    Today, any clown with an ax to grind and a Walmart phone can opine to the world as though they were Tom Paine. But the major media is wholly owned by fat cats. Even the rogue press has been stifled by a need for the almighty dollar. Think of the writers for the prize winning Times, and who can forget the musings of Harry Ullmann. The Recorder had respectable and accomplished editors. Not today. Even the five Ws have been cast to the wind in favor of “Tune in a 6 for the answer.”

  9. Patmcc,

    Well said. Now, the solution is ________?

    Answer: Getting to the source of the problem. For a starter, I would suggest trying to focus on JoAnn’s post:

    “The media has reported the bias against President Obama is because he is a Black man. Why are they not reporting the true problem; the source of the problem is because the Republicans are so WHITE.”

    Who are they kidding?

    You have to start somewhere. I can’t think of a better spot to attack the media, especially at the top.

  10. Trump got positive coverage? Most in the news and almost all entertainment media seemed to love Bernie and hate Trump.

  11. Sheila:
    Our biggest challenge these days is that we don’t have a source of news that we can trust. All news stories (particularly TV news) has a partisan on each side of an issue. There is no objective voice and the partisans are never intellectually honest, so they lack credibility.

    Two recent examples for me are Obama Care and the Iran nuke deal. I have not found a reliable source for either issue, so I don’t know what to believe (and I am highly educated and well informed.) Fortunately, I attended a panel discussion that featured Madilyn Albright and Colin Powell speaking about the Iran deal. They both agreed that it was imperfect, but that is was the best the US could do and far better than no deal.

    It is scary to me to consider what “news” will be like when my grandchildren are adults. Will they even read or watch the news, or will it be sound bytes on Twitter?

  12. The 24-7 ‘news’ coverage has much responsibility for the undermining of real journalism. Being constantly on the air leaves little time for real investigative reporting. Then when a disaster happens, reporters dive 24-7 into the disaster to find every last detail to the exclusion of all other news. Skimming the news as well as saturation both fail to satisfy an appetite for real news but apparently satisfy a need for ratings and advertising.

    A friend gets so fed up with news coverage here that she listens to BBC. She says the Brits cover our news better than we do. The founding fathers must be rolling over in their graves.

  13. As a New Yorker, and a retired with time, I read the Times pretty much in its totality daily. While it has changed over the years, I still find it a reliable source of true journalism. I believe that The Times having remained in family hands for generations is a big part of the reason. The family takes its responsibility of upholding their legacy very seriously. After the plagiarism scandal a decade ago, they created the position if public editor. The responsibility of the public editor is to question management, both business and editorial, on issues raised from concerned readers. She certainly is an apologist fir the paper, and dies an excellent job, I think, of being a link between the readers and the paper, providing insight on how editorial decisions are reached. While, like anyone who doesn’t live under a rock, I also see a lot of online “news’, unless it is a source I know, I am very sceptical of what I read.

  14. Strictly speaking, to say the media is publishing what sells is an oversimplification. The media is publishing what generates the most money for the least amount of effort – a business model that is the default choice in a place like the US, where the only thing – the ONLY thing – that matters is money.

    There are a few news websites that are content to publish thoughtful, insightful investigative pieces while bringing in a modest income. They have thousands of readers, myself included. The remainder is garbage, but precisely what you would expect in a place that knows the price of everything & the value of nothing.

  15. If I was in a position to do so, which I’m not at this time, I would take MoveOn’s slogan of: “Boycott Macy’s and Trump” to a much deeper level with a new slogan: “Boycott The New York Times and the Tea Party.”

    As been put forth many times on this blog: The “bottom line” is always about $$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

  16. Thank you for the opportunity to listen to you at the conference last night! I really enjoyed your remarks and input. I appreciate your honesty and look forward to following your blog.

  17. Jan,

    The owners of The New York Times had the story of the dangers that would come from the Tea Party as far back as 1982. Not only did they “bury” the story, but they also made damn sure that they buried the journalist with it.

  18. Can you say NYT?

    Can you say Judith Miller?

    It’s still interesting how the American media “ignored” Iran/Contra. I believe the news outlet that let the cat out of the bag was a newspaper in *Cypress?

    *I can’t recall the country of origin where the story was first reported. Cypress?

  19. I did find a brief spate of actual journalism in the Indianapolis Star with Stephanie Wang’s articles regarding LGBT issues and RFRA and Brian Eason’s series “Abandon Indy” regarding the escalating problems with abandoned buildings themselves and the ensuing problems with crime and crumbling infrastructure because of the abandoned buildings. Haven’t seen either name recently; where are they? That old adage, “The truth hurts.” seems to have hurt them for writing it so well and in depth.

    Matthew Tully does offer almost daily doses of good journalism, even when I disagree with his views. But; Gannett owned news is our only daily source of printed news here after once providing three daily newspapers. A sad state of affairs for those of us who depend on this source; newspapers do offer conveniences not available on the tube.

  20. Indeed, the BBC and Euronews in English is where we turn for true journalism since we moved to Europe. BBC does cover American news better. My husband started to get the Int’l NYT just last week every day and it’s about 10-15 pages with full page ads. He had trouble watching the news in America because of all of the commercials and the mug shots that lead every local program.

    With segments interrupted every 7 minutes with those pesky commercials, how can any news program provide true journalism? We tape the CNBC broadcast of NBC news with Lester Holt (M-Sat) so besides CNN Int’l that’s the only American news we get besides what’s on-line. I get most of my news on-line anymore but we still struggle with trying to access videos from CBS, ABC etc because of their blocking of international IP addresses. We get that pesky error that it’s blocked from international viewing. Don’t they realize there are Americans Abroad?

    I would really like to hear what media your students get their news from. Reddit? Buzzfeed? TMZ? Comedy Central?

    Honestly, HBO’s and John Oliver have provided more investigative news than anyone since he started his show, Last Week Tonight on Sundays. Brilliant subjects that should be covered frequently and aren’t.

  21. My highlight of the day.

    “Its business is actually to bring views to its advertisers, not news to its viewers.” Wonderful prose.

    Unfortunately business can never be more than it is. A simple minded institution that serves a necessary purpose – to organize labor into effective production of useful goods. Necessary but so simple minded it’s entire mission can be fully described as to make more money regardless of the impact on others.

    It wasn’t always thus. There was a time when business meant neighbors serving neighbors instead of strangers preying on strangers. That was a long ago.

    A major source of its simple mindedness is the accounting concept of “externality”, the excuse for “regardless of the impact on others.”

    Can we return to responsible business? Doing so will require a revolution to recover empathy; the prioritization of others as part of us, not nameless opportunities to be harvested.

    To me the problem starts with dumping investment media, the social force or union for investors. Business management should be somehow elected by workers and customers, not gamblers betting on the stock races.

    An entire rethink is required. Are we smart enough?


  22. Terryb, that’s a great piece. It shows how cultural intuition is largely a product of the political press. It’s created with purpose but then becomes ingrained in our culture and accepted as fact.

    BTW, I just noticed an error in my last post. Big one. In the third paragraph from the end I wrote “problem” but thought “solution” and that changes the meaning entirely. I apologize. I need an industrial strength editor mending my ways.

  23. Excellent Sheila and so very important. Is it possible in a democracy to consider journalism as a public trust? Could we consider reporting of the facts as a 4th estate yet free of governmentall oversight? Just wondering.

  24. I’m a nerd who prefers going to the original source for political information by watching C-Span, a cable television outlet provided as a public service.

    C-Span’s coverage of political and policy events is unedited, thereby providing viewers (or listeners) with unfiltered information about politics and government. I really enjoy watching political and policy issues unfold with no middle man media person interpreting the meaning according to their particular slant.

    Presently C-Span is covering the Senate debate re: gun violence.


  25. Pete, I’ve no idea if education, education as provided in the form of K-12 public school education, is capable today, and today is the keyword, of taking on the full responsibility of remediating the widespread, long-standing and seldom addressed failure of public school education to prepare our students to become informed citizens.

    When you and I were public high school students, we both likely were provided classroom instruction re: propaganda in one of our required courses (perhaps English class or Civics or Political Science class). At least for me, I remember becoming aware of the various types of propaganda, how to recognize those types of propaganda, and how to formulate my personal response to propaganda. I’m not so sure our current students are provided such instruction.

    By the way, I’m still watching and listening to C-Span as the Senate debate re: gun violence continues. http://www.c-span.org/video/?411209-1/democrats-take-senate-floor-debate-gun-control&live

  26. I learned skepticism from science. Also the relatively little that I know about statistics and logic. I like to think that I’m hard to fool and the more experience I get even more resistant to delusion.

    So some of that definitely came from education.

    Perhaps skepticism ought to be a required high school course.

  27. Listening to the Senate debate about gun violence, and I say listening because C-Span is running in the background where I’m not viewing the speakers but rather simply listening to their words, no clue about names or political affiliation. After a couple of minutes of listening to a female speaking thoughts and ideas so close to my thoughts, I waited a minute before I maximized the C-Span screen to find out exactly who was that unknown female speaking. Who was that female who summed up the cause of the Orlando massacre in three equally important points: 1) it was a terrorist attack, 2) it was a crime of hate, and 3) it was brought to its fruition with a high-powered firearm.

    With the C-Span screen maximized, I realized the female speaker was Senator Elizabeth Warren. Speaking personally, I see that I’m occasionally biased against the message of some politicians when I know in advance and can see who’s delivering the message. Perhaps that’s why Lady Justice wears a symbolic blindfold. Perhaps we’d all be better served by listening to politicians speak using radio/audio with no prior reference to names or political affiliation.

  28. Pete and others, if you have the interest and the available time, you might enjoy this Noam Chomsky lecture where he delves into and charts the historical power of media propaganda as a necessary illusion designed to keep the ‘stupid and ignorant masses’ (his words) in line with the political powers that be. Human nature is what it is, and Chomsky’s lecture from 1989 remains relevant.

    Were it not for my graduate school degree that required several courses in Speech and Language Pathology, I’d never have been introduced to Chomsky, at least Chomsky as the linguist. As the saying went in the early to mid-1970’s, when in doubt ask Chomsky.


  29. I recently completed reading a book Devils Chessboard it is primarily about Allen Dulles who was the long term CIA Director. Dulles was basically forced to resign by JFK after the Bay of Pigs debacle in November 1961. The book documents in great detail the relationship between Corporate America and the Fascists in Europe prior to WW 2 and even after.

    Essentially who controls the content of what we read or hear controls public opinion. The CIA knew this which why the CIA developed Operation Mockingbird. Reporters and the News Media were fed stories which were dutifully reported on. If a government needed to be over thrown or a someone assassinated the press could be counted to provide the cover story.

    Somehow while the rest of the world was convinced JFK was killed as a result of plot or a coup, Americans bought the Lone Gunman Theory. Many who have questioned the Warren Commission see the hand of the CIA, FBI, Mafia and Corporate America. Guess who was on the Warren Commission – Allen Dulles and J. Edgar Hoover and future President Ford.

    We bought the Lone Gunman Theory with Malcolm X, JFK, MLK and RFK. The McMega-Media of the day propagated this Lone Gunman Conclusion. It was left to people outside the main stream to challenge the Warren Commission. The Mc-Mega-Media today is far more concentrated today than it was the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

  30. BSH: Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently nailed it in a big, big way!

    With each passing hour, and with every panicky word out of Trump’s mouth, it is becoming more and more evident that the 2016 election is Hillary’s to win.

    The rats are deserting the ill-fated Trump Titanic. The “emperor” has no clothes and no clue. Ye gods! Think about this embarrassingly inept hollow suit as the leader of the free world! That scares the hell out of thinking people from coast to coast, including me.

  31. Louie, I’ll add ‘Devil’s Chessboard’ to my reading list. Thanks for sharing.

  32. Betty, I’m still thinking that Elizabeth Warren is a stronger candidate for President than Hillary Clinton. While I was listening to C-Span running in the background on my desktop computer, I heard Warren (without knowing who was speaking, audio only) speak about gun violence during today’s Senate debate, and I was captured by her overall delivery, by her simple 1, 2, 3 method of presenting the cause of the Orlando mass murder, and by her skill in identifying which of the three causes offered the most efficient method of first making an impact on gun violence. I considered her speech as a form of ‘policy triage’, treat those ailments that first stand the quickest and greatest chance of success, and that would be some form of firearm regulation.

  33. Not really on topic, but would appreciate your perspective on this linkhttp://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1736501,00.html

  34. BSH: Listening to Elizabeth Warren speak, I had the same thoughts that you had. Powerful delivery of a powerful message. It’s my guess that many others had the same idea playing around in their heads.

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