Walter Cronkite was a legendary television journalist. So was Edward R. Murrow who bravely stood up to another demagogue, Joe McCarthy. Cronkite and Murrow epitomized journalistic integrity at its best.
For many months the media coverage of the Presidential primary, and now the general election, has actually been quite unbalanced. Of course there are many media outlets –and it is simplistic to discuss all media as one. I am referring here to coverage by many of the mainstream print, electronic and online outlets such as the NY Times. NBC TV, CNN and the Washington Post.
Here are some examples of the blatant imbalance:
- A recent article the Washington Post analyzed 8 major media outlets from July 1, 2015 to the present and found that Trump was the headline in 14,924 of them and Clinton was featured less than half of that amount.
- Mother Jones Magazine found that there was more coverage of Trump’s false claim that Clinton was a “founder” of ISIS than Clinton’s actual proposal to confront the ISIS threat.
- Matt Lauer’s interviews with Trump and Clinton on NBC’s “The Commander in Chief” spent much of this time asking Clinton about her emails (hardly a major national security issue) and asked Trump easy questions. The NY Times called it “a farce.”
- Yet even the NY Times, which has endorsed Clinton, ran a lead story on a bogus subject that has been covered ad nauseum– the birther issue. Its 9/20 headline read, “Trump Gives Up a Lie But Refuses to Repent.” This is the lead story in the NY Times? Really?
- Finally, as reported by the Hollywood Reporter and Politico, Les Moonves, Chairman of the Board, President and CEO of the CBS Corporation was quoted as saying, “It may not be good for America, but Donald Trump is damn good for CBS.”
So is this all about ratings? As newspapers decline, ad revenue falls and media outlets scamper to reinvent themselves – are ratings and money prime reasons for this unbalanced coverage? It is a likely reason– but it may not be the only reason.
Matthew Murray deputy editor of the Wall St. Journal told the audience at “Ethics and the 2016 Campaign” sponsored by PRSA-NY that “Trump understood the media better than Clinton and used is more effectively. “ Is the media being used? Are they complicit in being used?
What IS the role of the media in covering Presidential campaigns? Nicholas Kristof, along with some other reporters, has distinguished himself in recent months as a watchdog. While he does not wear the mantle of Murrow or Cronkite he’s making a good start. In his 9/25 column “How to Cover a Charlatan” he criticized cable TV and other media for not fact checking and he concluded, “Our job (in the media) is not stenography, but truth telling…to expose charlatans is not partisanship, but simply good journalism.”
Let’s look at some key criteria of good journalism and see if they were practiced in last night’s debate:
- Did Lester Holt clarify his role as moderator in the beginning? Yes he was clear that he alone picked the questions and they were based on issues the American people are concerned about.
- Did Lester Holt ask hard, specific questions that would elicit clear answers that delineated each candidates’ position? He did ask some tough questions on race and the economy. He did push back on Donald Trump when he was not specific enough on the question about bringing back jobs to America. However, he did let Trump get away with a lot of generalizations.
- Did Lester Holt push back on obvious misstatements or falsehoods? He did a number of times – such as on the stop and frisk question and the birther question. However, he did let a number of very questionable loose statements go by – such as a Trump statement about companies going overseas.
- Did Lester Holt treat both candidates equally? It seems he did.
- Did Lester Holt ask questions Americans care about? According to a survey by the Pew Center for People and the Press he did discuss many of the top issues that Americans say they are concerned about.
So the good news is that Lester Holt’s leadership of this debate did make some strides in creating more balanced media coverage. We should all be vigilant however. We will see what happens in the coming debates and the coming weeks.