Susan Bordo
Jan 2 · 16 min read

IT WASN’T JUST RUSSIA: THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA AND THE 2016 ELECTION

It might be the instinct of a bully. It might be a savvy political strategy, imported from the world of advertising. It might be the result of an inadequate vocabulary turned to asset. It might be all of these. Whatever its origins, Donald Trump is a master at branding. He knows how to affix a defining label and make it stick. There’s virtually no truth in any of them, and are usually projections of his own crimes. (Everything he’s falsely accused Hillary Clinton of he is actually guilty of himself. And “fake news” — his branding of the “lying liberal media” — accurately describes virtually everything he says and tweets.) But invented brands, like the jingles attached to products, like the bacteria that spread infectious disease, are potent. Repeated often enough, they become pseudo-realities.

Trump’s false brands are deliberate and vicious. But that’s not the only way that pseudo-realities are created. In fact, the mainstream media, without being malevolent, “fake” or consciously “lying,” generates them all the time. A classic early example is security guard Richard Jewell, who was wrongly accused of being the pipe bomber at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Exploiting the possibilities of a great story — “The Hero Turned Suspect” — reporters zestfully painted a portrait of him to fit the “profile” of a “lone bomber,” a frustrated police “wannabe,” who — the coup de grace — had duct tape under his bed and curtains drawn in his house. No real evidence against him existed, but the constructed journalistic “text” was so coherent and convincing — and the duct tape, in particular, made into such a compelling detail — hat it was all people talked about for weeks. He was ultimately exonerated, but the exoneration didn’t make the headlines (the truth can be so boring!) and many people today still think he was the bomber.

The same thing has happened, time and again to Hillary Clinton, with “scandals” from Whitewater to Benghazi to the “private server” to the Clinton Foundation. The GOP would seize on anything that didn’t “look quite right” or could be made to appear that way, begin a major investigation, and announce their suspicions to the press in a way that emphasized (or concocted) potentially “criminal” or “unethical” behavior. The press, doing what they believe is their job and getting a good story in the process, take it all straight to the headlines as “breaking news,” at which point it’s on every ticker and hotly discussed on every major show. When no damning facts are found to confirm the stories, they may (or may not) be retracted…but by then, the story is already circulating “in the air.” Like members of a jury who are instructed to strike something that’s been objected to in court, there’s no really effective “walking back” of what we’ve heard.

It’s really hard to dislodge or discredit a pseudo-reality once people have heard it enough times. As Laurel Raymond and Josh Israel write, “As a theory spreads — even if it gets debunked at various points along the way — sheer density confers a sense of “truthiness,” to borrow an apropos term from Stephen Colbert.”I would add, too, that people have an investment in being “in the know” when it comes to the common wisdomdeveloped through that density of repetition. It makes them feel “informed,” part of an engaged community that’s on top of things. This was true of Sanders supporters, who would recite the same list of Sanders talking points over and over. And it was true of Trump enthusiasts, who were proud to be among those who saw through Hillary’s crimes, who weren’t afraid to call her out, political correctness be damned.

Throughout the 2016 election, pseudo-realities ruled the airwaves, especially on the rolling news channels where leaks, poll results, gaffes, “optics” and concocted “scandals” were immediately turned into high-voltage headlines and endlessly repeated, organizing people’s perceptions into yet-to-be-analyzed “narratives” of dubious factual status. In the process, like a piece of trashy gossip that has made the rounds of the high school cafeteria, “untrustworthy Hillary” became stamped in viewers’ or readers’ mind as a naturally occurring “fact” rather than a perception that had been pushed deliberately by her enemies and inadvertently by the media.

Sexism may have provided the fertile soil and the GOP may have planted the seeds and helped them to take root through their endless attacks, investigations, and hearings — but it took the media’s continual harping on Hillary’s “trust issues” to turn them into the (pseudo) realities that they became. It was so easy: present every charge of the GOP as “breaking news,” report every new email find as a potential treasure trove of hidden secrets, remind viewers that “people don’t trust her” every chance you get, and of course by the time a pollster calls and asks, the “trust problem” shows up as a documented “fact.”

No, I don’t think it was a conspiracy. And I would never describe the media, as Donald Trump does, as an “opposition party” who are deliberately dishonest. I don’t see the media as the enemy, but potentially our safeguard against authoritarian inroads. I am immensely grateful for those investigative journalists who have worked so hard during and after the election to separate fact from spin, to find the truth behind the phony “scandals,” and to unearth the actual crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated by the campaigns and after the election.

But it’s also true that since the late sixties, when shows like Sixty Minutes began experimenting with “packaging reality as well as Hollywood packages fiction,” the line between informing and entertaining has become blurrier. At the same time, the advent of CNN and its other 24 hour-news-cycle spawn created the need both to fill time and hold viewers captive, resulting in too swift reporting and endless sensationalizing repetition of the latest “breaking news” — giving uncertain reports the illusion of “truthiness.”

“The inevitable result,” as television historian Steven Stark remarks in Glued to the Set, “was a thinner line between fact and rumor.”

All these factors were in play during both the 2008 and 2012 elections. But with the 2016 election, it seems, several new developments made the line between fact and rumor, truth and “story,” even thinner — and profoundly strengthened the resilience of the “Untrustworthy Hillary” fiction:

Optics

First, “Bad Optics” became a prominent topic of political punditry, and eventually began to be discussed as though it were a crime in itself. Case in point: the August 30 New York Times editorial, recommending that the Clinton Foundation be shut down immediately. It’s a prime example of how the pseudo-issue of Clinton’s “trust problem” was perpetuated through the authority of appearances rather than facts. And it happens entirely in the first two paragraphs:

Does the new batch of previously undisclosed State Department emails prove that big-money donors to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation got special favors from Mrs. Clinton while she was Secretary of state?

Not so far,but that the question arises yet again points to a need for major changes at the foundation now, before the November election.”

Let me point out a few things. First, the use of the term “batch.” The number of “undisclosed” emails (“related to” Benghazi–in what way, who knows?) was actually 30. Out of 33,000, not exactly an overflowing cornucopia of evidence.

More significant, the answer to the question as to whether this “batch” “proves” that “Big-money donors…got special favors from Mrs. Clinton” is–note carefully–“Not so far.”A simple “No” would have proved sufficient, and would be completely factual. But the Times couldn’t resist adding that loaded, suggestive “so far,” implying that perhaps–indeed, perhaps likely–something suspect will show up later. There’s no reason to suspect this, as nothing had shown up of significance. It’s pure insinuation. Stay tuned!

Having established (again, through insinuation) that “special favors” may yet be discovered, the Times can then go on to speak as though their own speculation has the weight of proven fact. “That the question arises yet again points to a need…”The grammar of this makes it sound as though the question of special favors arose by itself, crystallizing out of thin air, when in fact, it’s the Times itself that is raising the question. It’s the Times, not the “question” that is doing the “pointing” here.

Is the appearance of a conflict of interest important to investigate? Of course. But until the “appearance” is discovered to rest on fact, it’s premature to call for “major changes” — as the wording of this article recommends with urgency.

In fact, multiple investigations into the whole “Clinton Foundation Scandal,” initiated by “revelations” from the roundly discredited Clinton Cash, authored by Breitbart editor-at-large Peter Schweitzer and promoted by the New York Times,never produced any evidence of “pay for play.” But it remained a story, as reporters described the “mere possibility of ‘impropriety’ as a form of corruption.”

False Equivalences Became the New Standard of “Objectivity”

Clinton says Trump Leading Hate Movement; he calls her a ‘bigot”

That was the storyline for a piece in CNN Politics, in which Theodore Schleifer and Jeremy Diamond likened Hillary Clinton’s “Alt-Right” speech, which provided a wealth of detail linking Trump’s campaign to white supremacist groups, to Donald Trump calling Hillary a “bigot” for pursuing the African-American vote. The equivalence? Each is calling the other a racist.

Trump, Clinton both threaten free press”

That’s a headline from USA Today. How do they “both threaten the free press”? Trump has banned news organizations hostile to him and basically considers reporters a bunch of liars. Hillary? She’s uncomfortable with press conferences.

Chuck Todd of Meet the Press predicted on May 3, 2016 that the next six months would see “the two most unpopular people running for president, probably going down a low road, led by Trump — Clinton feeling, doing the same thing, and it’s sort of this race to the bottom.” The notion that there was any indication Clinton would — or could, by dint of her more reserved personality — take a road as low as Trump’s is absurd. But for many journalist, such “balancing” of the scales — what Paul Krugman has called “bothsidesism” — came to be seen as “objective” reporting during the election.

Yes, Trump is a raving lunatic, but what about those emails?“ That one I made up. But it pretty much sums up the kind of “balance” that prevailed during the 2016 election, captured most succinctly, according Erik Wemple, by Matthew Dowd’s November 1st tweet: “Either you care both about Trump being sexual predator & Clinton emails, or u care about neither. But don’t talk about one without the other,”

Suspicion as the “Go To” Approach to Telling Stories.

This is one that seems to have been applied to Clinton far more often than to any other candidate, as was evident in the way Clinton’s pneumonia was handled by the press, when her “penchant for privacy” (as the New York Times put it) “threaten[ed] to make her look, again, as though she has something to hide” while Trump’s ludicrous doctor’s letter was laughed about — and then forgotten.

Clinton’s “motives,”too, were constantly questioned during the election:

One thing we need to recognize about Clinton’s speech on race is how it turned the conversation away from questions about the Clinton Foundation.

Yes, Kasie Hunt really tried to make this the main topic of apanel about Clinton’s “Alt Right” speech. It was a brilliant and well-aimed warning. But Hunt was determined to find something suspect about the very fact that it was so newsworthy. While Al Sharpton was able to return the discussion to the troubling racial dynamics of Trump’s campaign, he wasn’t there later in the day when other reporters took the same tack as Hunt. Apparently, the more compelling Clinton’s speeches, the more likely they are to have been devised to “divert” us from the “scandals” that defined her campaign.

“Perceptions” and Polling as Self-Validating.

For several days at the beginning of July 2016, media pundits salivated over the previous week’s poll results, in which Donald Trump rated sixteen points better than Hillary Clinton in a question asking which one was “better” at “being honest and straightforward.” These astonishing results afforded the media an opportunity to chew yet again over “Hillary’s honesty problem.”

It never occurred to any of the pundits (or simply wasn’t journalistically hot enough) to question the poll question itself. As in: Which quality did respondents have in mind? Truthfulness? Or straightforwardness? It’s perfectly possible to lie in a straightforward way (the best liars, in fact, do so baldly) OR to be truthful but not in a straightforward way — for example, when one is trying to tell someone something that will be hurtful or explain something complex or contradictory.

In fact, as it turns out, Trump is a perfect example of a straightforward liar, while Hillary undoubtedly has, after decades of concocted scandals, contributed to that“honesty problem” precisely because she has learned to speak the truth so cautiously it seems phony. She also tries to be exact. And political commentators grow impatient with complex explanations about ever-changing classification procedures or differences between “marked” and “unmarked” emails; they glaze over when faced with the subtleties of her policies; they would rather take questions on the polls at face value than examine how they may lead (or mislead).

It may also be, dictionary be damned, that saying whatever you feel like without regard for fact had come to be equivalent to “telling it like it is” — which in turn was conflated with “honesty.” So “straight-shooter” Trump, who (unlike the circumspect, cautious Clinton) “told it like it is” without regard for political correctness, people’s feelings, or factual evidence, was for that reason seen as more honest. Hillary Clinton, who rarely lost her cool and only got truly aggressive with Trump after months of “lock her up!” was seen, in contrast, as “inauthentic” and therefore “untrustworthy.” We heard it virtually every day, not only from her political enemies, but from news commentators on every channel, who simply could not resist raising the issue no-matter how irrelevant it was to the main story they were reporting. We heard it in casual comments and jokes told by neighbors, as if it were an accepted scientific fact that needed no proof. We saw its influence on her approval numbers in the polls.

The polls themselves often worded questions that were supposedly only about “perceptions” in such a way that they implied the accuracy of those perceptions. And in constantly reporting poll results without examining their biases, the media perpetuated the myth of the polls’ objectivity. In a July NBC/Wall Street survey, for example, the first item in a list of “four criticisms that have been made about Hillary Clinton” which respondents were asked to rank as either“a serious concern or not” reads: “She has a record of being dishonest and is not trustworthy.” But the wording of the prompt presents Clinton’s dishonesty as an established fact. I wonder how many of the 69% who found the trust criticism a “serious concern” were at least a little influenced by being “reminded” of the “record” of dishonesty?

You’d think, after 2016, that the media would have become at least a little skeptical of the usefulness of polls, and hopefully more aware of how continual repetition of results can in fact become a self-fulfilling “prophecy.” Yet at this moment, in January of 2019, pundits and anchors on every station are already branding 2020 “front-runners” (Biden, Sanders) and a rising “rock star” (Beto O’Rourke) on the basis of an Iowa poll done so early that virtually all other contenders have little or no name recognition with most Americans. Occasionally, commentators caution how “early in the game” it is. But they seem not yet to realize that they are participants in this “game” — not merely “reporting” results but enhancing their power through repetition.

“Narrative” and Image Replace Fact.

Whereas traditional programs like 60 Minutes made “stories” the coat hanger on which the news was presented to the viewer — and reporters got in trouble if their stories were proven false — by 2016, the stories themselves had become the invisible thread that bound the “news” together, and when it unraveled, reporters didn’t even notice. So, during the election, polls were constantly trotted out, showing Hillary as historically “unpopular,” with “unfavorables” equal to Trump’s. That was the dominant “narrative,” and one that served the media very well, as it created the impression of a neck-in-neck horserace, and kept viewers tuned in for the latest results.

It doesn’t square very well, however, with the huge popular vote advantage Clinton held in the election — despite Comey’s eleventh-hour interference, Russian weaponizing of social media against Hillary, and right-wing scheming (and possible conspiracy) in the manipulation of the “email scandal.” Have we seen this disparity explored or analyzed? On the contrary, now that the media has decided that Clinton was a “flawed candidate,” “an imperfect messenger” who lacked dynamism or a good campaign strategy, there’s rarely any mention of the overwhelming popular vote advantage — nearly 3 million — that Hillary held. It doesn’t fit the current narrative. Did the media pile-on concerning her emails, the “common wisdom” about her unpopularity, the “appearance of impropriety” in the Clinton Foundation have nothing to do with her loss? Entertaining that would require some media self-scrutiny, which is the one “narrative” that never seems to take hold.

As of this writing, the media has more become alert to the dangers of a “post-fact” culture. Most of the alarm, however, is centered on Trump’s bald-faced lies and his minions’ attempts to justify them as “alternative facts” or “not to be taken literally.” Trump is indeed outrageously scornful of evidence or argument. But we would make a big mistake to not recognize that disdain for fact has been creeping up on us for some time, preparing our receptivity to the Big Con that so many Americans fell for.

I remember during the O.J. Simpson trial, for example, being astounded when one juror dismissed the DNA evidence as “just a waste of time. It was way out there and carried no weight with me.” Impressionist snapshots, in contrast, did carry weight. Detective Philip Vannnatter, as one juror explained, didn’t look jurors in the eyes and thus couldn’t be trusted. The accuracy of criminologist Henry Lee’s findings, however, were certified for another juror by the warm smile he directed at the jury as he approached the witness stand to testify. Simpson himself was declared innocent by one of my students at the time because “he’s a football hero, and handsome, and seems nice and friendly, and, well, I just sort of see it that way.”

This kind of thinking created enormous benefits for Trump, who himself is“post-truth” and was able initially to snooker journalists into going along with him. It’s true that he was indulged, in part, because he wasn’t taken seriously as a candidate, and his status as celebrity (not a politician, whose motives were more suspect) also won him a very different kind of treatment, allowing him countless phone-in interviews on shows like Morning Joe, where he schmoozed amiably and was never taken to task for his lies and extremism.

I also believe, however, that people who were familiar with his pre-election personae never quite believed he was as vile as he seemed in his campaign speeches. That is, the character that Donald Trump created for himself in “Celebrity Apprentice” remained an invisible but highly influential presence during the campaign, even as the candidate Trump was shouting messages of hate, bigotry, and misogyny from the stump. Contrary to the beliefs of those who never watched the show — which was undoubtedly most of the pundits — Trump did not viciously bark, “You’re fired!” Rather, he usually preceded his celebrity firings with praise and issued his conclusion reluctantly. His role, throughout, was that of a wise, fatherly, somewhat stern yet dependably rational boss. While the contestants competed ruthlessly and often nastily with each other — always with at least one loose canon in the bunch — Trump and his children appeared, in contrast, as calm, businesslike managers.

That was one persona. Then, for months during the primary, all we heard was what a “straight-shooter” Trump was, how “authentic,” how he “told it like it is.” This became the favored Trump “narrative” for so long that no-one bothered to worry whether anything he said was true or not. Some have suggested it’s because there are just too many lies to keep track of; the poor commentators, flooded with material, don’t know where to start. There’s something to this. But there was also — and more deeply important, I think — the perfect concordance between Trump and our postmodern world, in which the relevant question is rarely “is it true or false?” but rather “How is it playing?”

In this world of optics and appearances, pundits stopped wondering about who the“real” Trump was, and became more interested in charting or predicting “reboots,” “resets,” and “pivots.” “Can they pitch this new look?” Katty Kay, British correspondent who has become a “Morning Joe” regular, summed this up as the “challenge” facing a “softer” of Trump that seemed at one point to be emerging, thanks to the re-stylings of the crafty Republican operative-turned-campaign-manager Kellyanne Conway. “This is the kind of Trump,” said Michael Steele at the time, who can challenge the Democrats and, indeed, might win the election. Only Donnie Deutsch, the ad man (who perhaps knows a bit himself about pitching and selling) raised the issue of whether or not the latest Trump “do-over” was to be trusted. We have massive evidence, by now, that it wasn’t. Trump is a dangerously reactive, self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing bully who is utterly unequipped for the job.

That should have been the “story” all along. Instead, we were distracted and deceived by a steady stream of “suspect” optics, misleading polls, and pseudo-crimes — the “email scandal” being the paradigm, but not the only, illustration — that made Hillary out to be “just as bad” as Trump. Seems like an insane equivalence now, doesn’t it?

I wrote a book all about how that insanity came to be. After nearly two years since its publication, I no longer expect the mainstream media to notice that book. I continue, however, to be both amazed (and at the same time find it predictable) that I’ve yet to see a panel discussion — not even on those shows anchored by commentators that I respect and enjoy — about the role the mainstream media (not the right-wing press, not Facebook, not the Russian infiltration) played in the electoral defeat of Hillary Clinton. Instead, the journalistic community has collectively branded itself as the heroic, fact-finding free press versus the truth-stomping Godzilla that is Trump. To be sure, they have often come through in that role as Trump’s lies and crimes have come to be the target of their reporting. But they didn’t play that role during the election, and until they acknowledge their own culpability and vulnerability, a version of it is likely to happen again.

Actually, it already is happening again, for example, in the premature labeling of “front-runners” and “rock stars” and by the media’s latching onto Bernie Sanders’ conveniently self-serving division of Democrats into “progressives” and “establishment” and imbedding it in reporting about current candidates and elections. The words themselves are ill defined and malleable, and the differences among Democrats are far less extreme than such a dualistic construction would suggest. Nonetheless, in 2016 they did a huge amount of damage fostering fragmentation and among Democrats — and one only has to survey Facebook and Twitter to see it happening again. It’s good for business for the media to hype up these “divisions” — but it’s neither accurate nor helpful to anyone….except Donald Trump.

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Portions of this piece first appeared in my book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election. See also my related Medium pieces, The Talented Mr. Comey, If George Orwell Could Critique Broadcast News, Damned Emails, Revisited, and “Why Won’t She Behave?”:When Will they Stop Asking Hillary Clinton to Apologize?

Susan Bordo

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