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The Media Seems To Have Learned Nothing From 2016

President Donald Trump gestures as a reporter asks a question, as he speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House, Thursday Jan. 10, 2019, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
President Donald Trump gestures as a reporter asks a question, as he speaks to the media on the South Lawn of the White House, Thursday Jan. 10, 2019, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

This week, CNN announced that it would be hiring a woman named Sarah Isgur to help oversee its coverage of the 2020 election. Isgur, naturally, is a right-wing operative with a long record of trafficking in conspiracy theories but no actual journalism experience. Last year, she joined the Justice Department as a spokesperson, which required her to personally meet with Donald Trump and pledge her loyalty to him.

How’s that for Fair and Balanced?

The reaction from most quarters has been shock and indignation.

To me, this move was utterly predictable.

Then again, I stopped thinking of CNN as a journalistic organization long ago. While there are certainly plenty of journalists who work at the network, CNN is in the entertainment business.

In this March 23, 2007 photo, Sarah Isgur, poses at her desk at the Romney for President headquarters in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)
In this March 23, 2007 photo, Sarah Isgur, poses at her desk at the Romney for President headquarters in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Don’t take my word for it. Ask president Jeff Zucker. Back in his days as the head honcho at NBC, he hired Donald Trump — whose serial bankruptcies had made him the laughingstock in the New York real estate market — to play like a gilded mogul on TV. “The Apprentice” became a reality TV hit. Zucker and Trump have been reluctant pals, and colleagues, ever since.

It was CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage that helped propel Trump to the Republican nomination, and eventually the presidency. And their coverage has continued to promote show business over journalism.

Zucker describes his pro-Trump panelists as “characters in a drama … Everybody says, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,’ but you know what? They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.” CNN airs Trump propaganda, in other words, to build audience share.

I’m singling out CNN because the symbiosis is so transparent. But virtually every other major journalistic outlet behaves like this. After all, every media outlet that covered the 2016 election knew that Russian hackers had supplied the “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. They all knew that publishing that material would directly serve the interests of Vladimir Putin.

For all the righteous questions about the Trump campaign colluding with Russia, the scandal in plain sight was that American journalists did the same thing. And not just the conservative propaganda machine, but the New York Times, the Washington Post and the major networks.

They all ran endless pieces on political strategy and fundraising — the horserace coverage that reduces campaigns to sports events. They all chose to give attention to phony scandals that paled, ethically, in comparison to Trump’s blatant lies, his corruption, his racist demagoguery.

And they all failed to provide coverage of the candidate’s actual policies — meaning what was actually at stake for voters. Why? Because that stuff was too boring. It threatened to reduce a thrilling TV drama to a mere election.

Our Fourth Estate seems to have learned nothing from 2016. This is why the Washington Post chose to run a story Tuesday noting that Trump would be calling Bernie Sanders “Crazy Bernie” again. And why the New York Times ran a story two days ago under the absurd headline, “Elizabeth Warren’s Native Ancestry Draws a Shrug from These Voters."

Because simply writing a story about these candidates’ policy positions, their ideas, isn’t enough — even when voters tell reporters they don’t care about the phony scandal and want to talk about issues.

It’s worth circling around at this point to revisit CNN’s decision to hire Sarah Isgur.

Will we get a reckoning or more desperate beckoning?

Let’s think about why CNN would never hire a left-wing operative to run their coverage. Obviously, they’d be attacked as Fake News by Trump and the conservative politburo. But the bigger problem is that a progressive political editor would be much more likely to focus on policy issues rather than rhetorical feuds.

The reason for this is that most voters — if adequately informed of policy — support a progressive agenda. By overwhelming numbers, they support higher taxes on corporations and the super wealthy, universal health care coverage, sensible gun control measures, and campaign finance reform, even in conservative, rural areas.

Thus, a media ecosystem focused on substantive issues — as opposed to inflammatory rhetoric and horse race coverage — will always favor progressive candidates.

The question is whether our Fourth Estate will treat the 2020 election as a contest of ideas, or another partisan brawl. Will we get a reckoning or more desperate beckoning?

That question is really up to us, given that the central agenda of today’s media is to generate profits. It is our reading and viewing habits that drive their coverage. If we want media outlets to cover issues and policies — to stop reducing democracy to an entertainment product — we have to insist on news and tune out the noise.

Related:

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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