How Much Did the Media Narrative Contribute to Clinton's Loss?

by Neil H. Buchanan

It is impossible to overstate the significance of this year's election.  The consequences for America and the world are profound, and we are only beginning to come to grips with what might come next.  As we do so, it is important to learn and remember the key lessons from this terrible election campaign.

Unfortunately, liberals and media types are already engaging in the worst kind of post-election recriminations.  Suddenly, we are being treated to 20/20 hindsight about Hillary Clinton's supposedly "flawed candidacy," even though the swing of only a few thousand votes in a couple of key states would have resulted in her winning the presidency.

Had she won the electoral vote, of course, there would surely have been no stories about how brilliantly Clinton navigated the treacherous political terrain of 2016, but rather more snark about how she should have done better.

Even the best commentators, like Jim Newell at Slate, immediately defaulted into claims about the awfulness of everyone involved on Clinton's side, writing that "the Democratic establishment has beclowned itself and is finished."  To be fair, Newell published his piece at 3:25am on the 9th, only hours after the awful outcome had become a reality.  His piece was more like an extended primal scream than anything else.

But the scariest part of this post-election conversation is how badly it misses the big picture.  Republicans (with a big assist from the Supreme Court) have spent the last several decades figuring out how to prevent Democratic-leaning Americans from voting.  Maybe that made a difference in, say, Wisconsin and North Carolina.  Maybe?

More importantly, as I will discuss at length below, the supposedly liberal press relentlessly repeated the narrative that Clinton was unlikable, untrustworthy, and so on.  That onslaught of negativity poisoned the campaign in a way that no one could have imagined.

To blame Clinton for losing in such an environment, or to fault her "messaging" and other matters dear to political insiders, is quite frankly insane.  It would be like watching a school bully tie a kid's shoelaces together and push her down the stairs, and then criticizing the kid for being clumsy.

I have been planning for quite some time to write at length about the disastrous state of the American political media.  Had Clinton won this election, my message would have been that she did so in spite of the irresponsible coverage from the mainstream press.  That she lost only makes this topic more urgent.

Prior to this year, I had never really thought of myself as a critic of the media.  That is not to say that I have been pleased with the quality of press coverage, because at least on the issues in which I have professional expertise, I have found that reporters are almost willfully ignorant and are all too ready to write uninformed nonsense.

On the other hand, it is true that the four policy areas that have been the focus of my writing as a legal scholar and an economist -- government borrowing, Social Security, tax policy, and the debt ceiling -- are all highly technical and often involve numbers.  Writing about such issues is a challenge for anyone, and doing so in a way that lay readers can understand is truly difficult.

Still, the persistent problem that I have noticed over the years is that the press -- and here I am very definitely including the most prestigious media organizations in the country -- buys into the conventional wisdom almost every time.  Supposedly skeptical reporters mindlessly take it as an established fact that Social Security is going bankrupt, or that tax cuts always increase economic growth, or that the president would have no choice but to cut spending during a debt ceiling crisis.

None of those things are true.  The problem, however, is not that reporters would include such claims in their articles.  After all, there are many politicians who say these uninformed things, and reporters would be negligent to exclude such statements from their stories.  The true problem is that reporters do not even bother to engage in he-said-she-said journalism.  They simply accept the conventional wisdom, perhaps supplemented by a quote one or two from people with alternative views (although such views are presented as being off the wall in some way).

Ezra Klein, then of the Washington Post, noted one aspect of this problem in 2013: "For reasons I've never quite understood, the rules of reportorial neutrality don't apply when it comes to the deficit.  On this one issue, reporters are permitted to openly cheer a particular set of highly controversial policy solutions."  During dozens of interviews with different reporters (print, radio, and television) over the years, I certainly have found this to be true, not only regarding deficits but on nearly all economic topics.

If the problem with economics-related stories is that they are too technical, however, then political coverage should be different.  Political reporting does not require knowledge of multivariate calculus (not that economics coverage really does, either, but stay with me here).  It should not be too much to expect writers and editors to resist falling into easy, lazy established narratives.

By the end of this year's campaign, however, I discovered to my surprise that a large number of my columns have been devoted to chastising the media for being nothing less than sloppy.  This is not at all the same as Donald Trump's claim that "the media is corrupt" because they report unflattering facts about him.  It is reporters and editors reinforcing tired storylines, especially about Hillary Clinton, that were based on little more than a smug belief that what "we all know" about Clinton must be true.

Before I get into some examples, I should acknowledge that there are trained media critics who have been taking the press to task for years, certainly before Trump's hate-filled circus came to town.  For example, NYU Professor Jay Rosen has been writing incisive commentary on the media for quite a long time.

In an excellent piece from 2011, Rosen argues that the mainstream press is not biased in the standard sense of that term.  Instead, the reporters are part of the "cult of savviness," where "[s]avviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political."  This means that "the savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you."

But the supposed reality that the savvy-ists claim to have divined is a manufactured reality of inside jokes and accepted memes.  As I wrote in a column after the second presidential debate last month, the with-it political writers for The New York Times clearly live in a world in which they talk to each other all the time, read each others' work, and try hard to prove to each other that they are part of the in-group and are always in the know.

Again, however, a further crucial distinction is in order.  Part of the immediate post-election narrative has involved faulting the media for living in a bubble and failing to see that Trump would win.  Even the still-new public editor for The Times has weighed in, chiding reporters for not talking to "the half of America the paper too seldom covers."

This is silly, and it actually amounts to little more than anti-scientific bias.  After all, the reason that the election was a surprise was not that a bunch of reporters had sat around in coffee shops on the the Upper West Side of Manhattan and talked to people who look like themselves, or that they only wrote down sound bites from Trump voters without truly trying to understand their lives.  Poll-based statistical models -- where the pollsters had surveyed Real People -- had proved to be highly accurate in the past, and it made sense to focus on them rather than on reporters' gut feelings or to lurch from one poll to another without context.

The modelers that I am aware of were quite clear that nothing was certain.  Now, however, because the outcome of the election was a surprise, the claim is that the press was blinded by its own privilege.

What the electoral prediction models had been saying, however, was that Trump had about the same chance of winning as the Chicago Cubs did of coming back to win the World Series when they were down three games to one.  Guess what happened there?  That is not a matter of isolated or narrow reporters, but simply the reality of a still-young and imprecise statistical method.

So the problem that I am focusing on here is not that reporters should try to figure out how to talk to people from places like Ohio (where I grew up).  They actually do that a lot.  Calls to "contextualize" their reporting sound suspiciously like an effort to get journalists to rely even more on anecdotes and then hope that they get the big picture right.  Excuse my skepticism, but it is more than a bit difficult to imagine that this will improve political reporting.

The fundamental problem is, instead, how the boys (and girls) on the bus engage in "pack journalism," where they not only cover the same stories by talking to the same sources, but they replicate each others' framing of questions and issues.  The hive mind quickly determines what is savvy, and heaven help the chump who does not go along.

Which brings us back to the press's coverage of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  There has been some very good commentary on this question already.  In Newsweek, for example, the former news reporter Allan Chernoff recently offered some excellent insights about TV news coverage of the election, and Isaac Chotiner in Slate just published a particularly insightful analysis of the good and bad ways that the press covered Trump.

But the pack mentality was absolutely brutal to Clinton.  For example, it turned the James Comey story in late October from a needless distraction into an embarrassment for the press (and arguably a game-changer for the election).  If reporters and editors had simply reported the facts of Comey's leaked letter to Congress, after all, they would have said that there is nothing new or interesting happening.  Yet the story became a feeding frenzy based (as far as I can tell) on the idea that anything related to Clinton and emails was Big News, even when it was no such thing.

Although TV news deserves much criticism, my focus here is on the print media, especially The New York Times, because throughout the campaign these supposedly left-leaning journalists so clearly bought into a negative Clinton narrative largely of their own construction.

One problem, which I criticized again and again as it was happening, was the story that "both candidates are unpopular."  This was the worst kind of lazy false equivalence, and it infected nearly every aspect of the coverage.  It also helped to make people feel morally superior by saying, "I'm not voting for either one of them because they're both terrible people."

The bigger problem was that no one actually seemed to have watched Hillary Clinton during this campaign -- that is, almost no one watched her without putting everything she said through the "Hillary is a scandal-ridden and unlikable policy wonk" filter.

For example, Clinton's comments during the second and third debates regarding sexual assault and women's rights were downright moving.  But even if a journalist were to disagree with my subjective assessment, at the very least the objective truth is that Clinton spoke with intensity and emotion.  Yet we were soon back to seeing supposedly objective news articles that lazily relied on anti-Clinton memes such as her supposed need for "the safety of her teleprompter."  Unrelatability again.

Even though Clinton's supposed scandals have never amounted to anything, we were inundated with comments about "clouds of suspicion" and "doubts" and "voters' unease with her."  The coverage of the Clinton Foundation was especially galling, because it added up to nothing but was infused with comments about "intimations of pay-to-play" and similarly slanted language that fed into the overarching narrative.

The day before the election, when it still appeared that Clinton would win, two media critics for The Times discussed what lessons the press should learn from the campaign.  They were, of course, worried about how easily the press had been played by Trump, but they could not resist going right back to the well of false equivalence.

One reporter pointed out that Trump lied all the time, but he then made sure to tell us that Clinton "fibbed less (but did aplenty)."  The story to which he linked was a PolitiFact piece from late October titled "Hillary Clinton's Top 10 Most Misleading Claims."  As usual, this was an astonishing article in which Clinton was subjected to a clear presumption of guilt.

For example, PolitiFact rated as a "Pants on Fire" lie a claim from Clinton that "Comey said my answers were truthful."  Why was this false?  "Comey said that there is 'no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI' about her email practices. But Comey has specifically declined to comment on whether Clinton’s public remarks have been truthful."  So he said that she did not lie, but he did not specifically say that she was telling the truth.  There is a difference there, but people refer to "not guilty" verdicts as "innocent" all the time.  Yet the conclusion is that Clinton's pants are on fire?

Even more bizarrely, PolitiFact's list includes a greatest hit from 2008 about her landing under sniper fire in Bosnia, a claim that all of her grandparents were immigrants, and a claim that "Donald Trump doesn't make a thing in America."  (Of the latter claim, PolitiFact writes: "Many of Trump’s products are made overseas, but not all of them."  Bombshell!)

This is all incredibly petty, but it then becomes a citation for a Times reporter to say that Clinton "fibbed aplenty."  As I wrote over the summer, the lists of Clinton's supposed scandals is similarly full of hot air, including the nine-times-investigated-and-debunked Benghazi non-scandal.

The problem is that a reporter who adopts this kind of insider wink-wink narrative never runs a risk of losing professional stature, because that is what they are all saying, even though it is not based on facts or logic.  It is impossible to imagine anyone other than Clinton being called a big fat liar for saying, for example, that "I am the only candidate on either side who has laid out a specific plan about what I would do to defeat ISIS."  That counts as "false"?  Not an argument with which one might disagree, but a falsehood?

When the prestige press gets into this kind of self-reinforcing feedback loop, of course, everyone else piles on.  Saying "Clinton is dishonest" becomes as safe as saying that the budget should be balanced.  (Both statements are false).  This then affects other commentators.  For example, Trevor Noah's first year on "The Daily Show" has been marked by an unquestioning acceptance of the Clinton-is-dishonest conventional wisdom.

After the first debate, for example, Noah showed a clip of Clinton saying something about crime rates that was absolutely true.  Even so, he then scolded her: "You don't need to defend it by lying.  These are the small lies that allow false equivalency to exist."  Again, she had not lied.  But Noah, safe in the embrace of the narrative that the top-tier media pushed relentlessly, acted as if it was obvious that she had done something wrong, and he seemed to believe sincerely that he was only trying to help.

After all of that, it should surprise no one that even commentators who want to praise Clinton go out of their way to offer up gems like this one from Nicholas Kristof: "Clinton has made thousands of compromises and innumerable mistakes, her pursuit of wealth has been unseemly and politically foolish, and it’s fair to question her judgment on everything from emails to Iraq."  With friends like these ...

And of course, we end up with the Clinton emails saga.  This story dominated the mainstream media narrative like no other, yet there was virtually nothing to it.  Kevin Drum at Mother Jones did what journalists are supposed to do, that is, he actually read the FBI's report from beginning to end.  He concluded that it was "an almost complete exoneration of Hillary Clinton" and that "if the FBI is to be believed, it's all pretty small beer."

Seriously, read the article.  It is astonishing how much distance there is between the FBI's findings and what made its way into the discussion in the press.  No matter the reality, it was a "scandal" that framed everything about the media's coverage of Clinton, and it seemed to support the "Crooked Hillary" label from Trump.

This, then, brings us back to the people, especially young people, who decided that they did not need to vote for Clinton over Trump because "everyone sucks," or "I just don't know about her," or whatever.  Clinton only needed support from a few thousand of those nonvoters in swing states to turn her popular vote victory into an electoral college victory.  Yet they stayed home (or voted for third-party candidates), some in disgust and others due to a sense of entitled (and imaginary) purity, convinced by the relentless anti-Clinton narrative.

To return to my image of the bully and his victim in high school, it was bad enough that Clinton had to deal with Trump's provocations.  He was the one tying her shoelaces together and pushing her, but the supposedly liberal press was throwing things at her and telling her to catch them or dodge them as she tried not to fall down the stairs.  She still managed to come out of it all with her dignity intact, never falling even as the last banana peels were thrown in her path.

Yet now some people want to blame her for being flawed.  She lost a winnable election, they say, but she did so because she could not overcome voter suppression or a relentlessly harsh media narrative.  She -- and the country -- deserved better.  Now, we will all pay the price.