The “Disaster” of the Media

Obsessive horse race election coverage ignores policy

“Trump’s Disastrous Day One” blared the headline from Politico. It was not alone. At least half a dozen other media outlets blasted the opening night of the Republican National Convention, held in Cleveland, Ohio.

It was not the ideas expressed that drew so much ire. Rather, it was the fact that the four-day pep rally had been mismanaged. The various stories decried how speaking slots were badly arranged, delegates on the floor were being unruly, and how major figures within the party skipped the convention altogether.

Despite the wide criticism of the optics of the speeches, the content of them went by largely unscathed. Take the Politico article. Its opening paragraph explained how the dark tone of the convention played up fears of violence in the street and the threat posed by immigration. The piece might have used this to provide context to its readers. For instance, it could have explained that crime is at an all-time low or how immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native population. Or pick another unsupported claim. There were plenty to go around.

Instead, most of the coverage we got was obsessive reporting about the Republicans’ lackluster communications game. The only speech that provoked widespread and immediate push back wasn’t even from a politician, much less the candidate. It was the revelation that Melania Trump lifted portions of her speech out of Michelle Obama’s 2008 address before the Democratic National Convention. An example of intellectual dishonesty, no doubt, but why did it get so much more coverage than the fact that her husband’s speech was riddled with inaccuracies?

While amusing to read at times, horse race coverage is ultimately meaningless. Not only does this rob us of any serious discourse about the policies at stake in the election, it even fails to explain what is happening in the race.

For all the claims that the convention was poorly run, Trump ended up receiving a fairly typical polling bump. Journalists may care a great deal about how many minutes of prime time coverage the parties managed to wring out of each convention, but voters, it appears, do not.

The polling bumps are themselves likely mirages. Polling averages around the convention are remarkably bad predictors of the final result — they’re usually off by double digits. It will be several weeks before polls start to become reliable. I expect we’ll see many more stories focusing on polls than on policy in the coming weeks, however.

You might think that all this might have led to some introspection among the press after the RNC. You would think wrong. When the DNC opened up in Philadelphia, we were greeted with headlines such as “Dems flirt with disaster on convention’s first day” because some Bernie Sanders supporters were voicing dissent. There was no story about whether there were policy arguments that led to the discontent. The discontent was the story. Even positive news about the convention was framed as a “disaster” for the other side because it was well produced. Absent was any mention the actual reforms Clinton called for. The media once again opted to ignore the substance in favor of spectacle.

If they hadn’t, they may have been forced to confront the wild disparities between the two candidates. On one hand, you have Hillary Clinton. Whatever your opinion of her, there’s no denying that she has laid out her views with exhaustive detail. Her website contains hundreds of pages of policy briefs, op-eds, and supporting documentation for every issue you can imagine — and then a few more. There are even separate pages for early childhood education and K-12 education. It may be the most comprehensive policy platform ever produced by a candidate.

Contrast that with Trump. In keeping with his allergic reaction to facts, the “Issues” page his website contains nothing more than a series of short videos. His vision for the American education system is confined to a 51 second video. Trump doesn’t start talking until five seconds in.

Nonpartisan fact checkers show a similar gulf between the candidates. Over the course of a decade of scrutiny, the most common rating of Clinton’s statements was “mostly true.” For Trump’s statements, the most common rating — by far—was false.

Poring over policy memos to expose faults and fact checking statements is neither easy nor exciting, but it is necessary to provide real coverage of the candidates. In a democratic society, the role of the press should be to promote an informed citizenry and help us make reasoned decisions in elections. Unfortunately, much of the press has abandoned this mission. Too many seek greater click-counts, not greater knowledge.