With Biden pulling ahead, the media must avoid the poll-driven mistakes of 2016

Jill and Joe Biden in Des Moines last Fourth of July. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

From the moment that former Vice President Joe Biden emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, political observers have been proceeding on the assumption that this year’s presidential election will be close.

But what if the dynamics are changing? What if President Donald Trump — behind in the polls even before the COVID-19 pandemic and falling further behind now — is written off as a political goner? Can the media handle it? Or will we see a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton was subjected to a disproportionate amount of negative scrutiny on the grounds that Trump, as we all thought we knew, had no chance of winning?

First, let me lay out the evidence that Trump is starting to look unelectable — keeping in mind, of course, that he looked unelectable four years ago, too. Then I’ll loop back to what the media’s role ought to be in a campaign in which one candidate seems like the all-but-certain winner.

From the moment he took the oath of office, Trump has been a historically unpopular president. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average as of Monday, 42.7% approve of his job performance and 53.5% disapprove. That’s in line with his numbers for most of his presidency, and it represents a dip from the rally-round-the-flag bump he got after he belatedly started to address the pandemic.

Moreover, there were indications even before the pandemic that Trump would lose his re-election bid by a wide margin. For instance, in the very first sentence of his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party,” the political scientist Andrew Hacker of Queens College asserts: “There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term.”

Although Hacker’s argument is backed up with a considerable amount of data, it essentially comes down to this: The blue wave that enabled the Democrats to take back the House in 2018 is almost certain to be followed by an even bigger blue wave in 2020, overwhelming any attempts at voter suppression or Electoral College math that would otherwise favor Trump.

Trump’s prospects have only deteriorated in the face of his cruel and incompetent response to COVID. Oxford Economics, which has a solid track record of calling presidential races dating back to 1948, is currently predicting that Trump will receive only 35% of the popular vote and lose the Electoral College by a margin of 328 to 210. The RealClearPolitics polling average as of Monday showed Biden ahead by more than 5 points and leading in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

So, good news for Biden, right? Not necessarily. Because if it looks like a Biden blowout, he may be held to a different, higher standard than Trump.

We all remember what happened in 2016. Clinton’s relatively minor shortcomings over issues like her speech transcripts and, oh yes, her emails were covered as though they were the equivalent of Trump’s stream of racist outbursts, revelations about his corrupt foundation and his boasts, caught on tape, that he had sexually assaulted women.

In his definitive study of how the media performed during the 2016 campaign, the political scientist Thomas E. Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

(Incidentally, Patterson has a new book out called “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?” Spoiler alert: He thinks the answer is “yes.”)

Unfortunately, we may be seeing the same thing happen again. Yes, the media showed some restraint in covering Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault against Biden, with Politico and the PBS NewsHour doing an especially good job of reporting problems with her credibility. But the smear lingers — despite Biden’s denial, and despite the 25 women who’ve accused Trump of similar and worse misconduct.

The media have risen to the bait regarding Trump’s claims that there was something called an “Obamagate” scandal in 2016. Although Trump hasn’t bothered to flesh it out, it appears to be based on his fury that his campaign’s well-documented ties to Russian interests (see thisthis and this) were the subject of an FBI investigation.

“It’s becoming clear that journalists never fully reckoned with the mistakes of 2016 campaign coverage,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently. “We know this because they seem poised to repeat them.”

And look at what happened over the weekend. Biden had to apologize for joking with the African American radio host Charlamagne Tha God that “you ain’t black” if he was still trying to decide between him and Trump.

Trump, meanwhile, went off on a sociopathic bender, retweeting attacks on Hillary Clinton (a “skank”), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a drunk), Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Stacey Abrams (she’s fat) and repeating his nauseating and utterly false innuendo that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a female staff member when he was a congressman in 2001.

Guess which story got more attention? To be fair, the press did take note that Trump went golfing and made no mention of the COVID pandemic as the U.S. death toll neared 100,000. But by every indication, it seems that Biden is going to be held to a more stringent standard — and his lead in the polls may have something to do with it.

What would better coverage look like?

First, the media should ignore the polls — not all the time, but most of the time. And they certainly shouldn’t decide who deserves the hairy eyeball on the basis of who’s ahead and who’s behind.

Second, the political press should report on what really matters. Gaffes, of which Biden will make plenty, are worth a tweet, maybe. Phony scandals ginned up by an increasingly desperate president and his supporters should get less than that.

Instead, the press should focus on offering an honest, fair-minded appraisal of the candidates’ character, leadership abilities and experience. And that coverage should look the same no matter who’s ahead or by how much.

Because we all know that regardless of what the polls and the models say, either candidate could win.

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In a new book, political scientist Andrew Hacker argues that Trump can’t win

Nearly every poll says the same thing: Joe Biden is beating Donald Trump nationally, but it’s closer in the swing states, and by no means should we rule out a second term for Trump. For those of us who believe Trump represents an existential threat, it’s a nerve-wracking prospect, conjuring up nightmares from 2016 all over again.

But not to worry, writes Andrew Hacker in his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party.” Hacker, a political scientist based at Queens College who’s best known for his book “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” argues that 2016 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. He opens thusly:

There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term. Nor is this wishful thinking. Compelling evidence abounds that anyone the Democrats nominate will win the popular vote, and by a margin to easily carry the Electoral College. Republicans down the ballot will suffer a similar demise, losing even more House seats, and very likely the Senate.

Among other things, Hacker argues that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely unappealing candidate who combined arrogance with a sense of entitlement (I don’t agree, but I know plenty of people who do); that massive Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterm elections foreshadows a blue wave this November; and that the electorate continues to favor the Democrats demographically as it becomes less white, less straight and better educated.

Hacker wrote “Downfall” before the Democrats had settled on Biden as their presumptive nominee and before anyone had heard of COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether Biden was the best choice to do battle with Trump. But polling shows that the president’s cruel and incompetent response to the pandemic is harming whatever chances he had of being re-elected.

The argument that Hacker offers is in line with that of Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist based at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank. Bitecofer made a splash earlier this year with a new election model that said Trump has virtually no chance of winning, mainly because unusually high Democratic turnout this fall is assured.

“In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates,” Bitecofer was quoted as saying in Politico Magazine. “What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated.”

Another political scientist, Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School, argues in a new book that the Republican Party has guaranteed its demise by moving to the extreme right, by ignoring demographic trends, by taking dictation from right-wing media, by showering tax cuts upon the wealthy, and by disregarding democratic norms such as voting rights, through which “it has made lasting enemies and created instruments of power that can be used against it.”

In so doing, Patterson writes in “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?,” the GOP has abdicated its role as the necessary center-right counterbalance to the center-left Democrats.

All of this is encouraging if you want to see Trump leave office next January. And the data suggesting that he’ll lose is compelling. But we’ve all been here before, haven’t we? Patterson, after all, is also the author of the definitive analysis of how media malpractice contributed to Trump’s election four years ago — and, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan laments, here we go again. So let’s see how it plays out.

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Report shows how the media failed us in the 2016 campaign

Photo (cc) 2016 by Mike Mozart.
Photo (cc) 2016 by Mike Mozart.

In a close election, you can point to any single factor and say that was responsible for the outcome. The presidential election was not close in the popular vote (Hillary Clinton is ahead by 2.7 million votes), but the margin of victory in the states that put Donald Trump over the top in the Electoral College (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) was narrow indeed.

Now comes Thomas E. Patterson of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School, to tell us that the press failed in its coverage of the general-election campaign. Plenty of us have been making the same argument, though I tend to believe that the coverage of Trump was so wildly negative that the more plausible explanation is his voters knew and didn’t care.

But Patterson takes that into account. His data-based findings show that coverage of Trump and Clinton was more or less equally negative. As a result, the landscape flattened out, with voters deciding Clinton’s emails were every bit as serious as Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, his hateful rhetoric, his dubious business dealings, and on and on and on. Patterson’s report is chock full of quotable excerpts. Here’s a good one:

[I]ndiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it. Large numbers of voters concluded that the candidates’ indiscretions were equally disqualifying and made their choice, not on the candidates’ fitness for office, but on less tangible criteria—in some cases out of a belief that wildly unrealistic promises could actually be kept.

Patterson also finds that Trump got more coverage than Clinton, giving him the opportunity to define both himself and her. Another important observation: Even when coverage of both candidates is uniformly negative, it tends to help the political right, since it’s conservatives who are promoting the message that government doesn’t work.

Clinton's "scandal" coverage, week by week, showing the effect of Comey's reopening of the email investigation.
Clinton’s “scandal” coverage, week by week, showing the effect of Comey’s reopening of the email investigation.

My own caveat about Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state: You can choose to believe that it was not a serious matter. In fact, I think there’s a strong case to be made that the importance of that issue was vastly overblown (see Matthew Yglesias at Vox).

But I also think it’s difficult to assign too much blame to the media given that James Comey, the director of the FBI, came forward in July to say Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information, and then reopened his investigation just before the election. Reporters report what the head of the FBI says, and if what he says is wrong and/or politically motivated, that generally doesn’t come out until much later. In any case, Comey took a tremendous amount of criticism in the media for his late hit on the Clinton campaign.

To get back to my opening point: The election was close enough that the media’s failures might very well have been sufficient to tilt the outcome toward Trump.

Patterson’s study was the fourth in a series dating back to the earliest days of the campaign, and was “based on an analysis of news reports by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, the New York TimesUSA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.”

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A compelling case for ‘knowledge-based journalism’

9780345806604This review was previously published in The Huffington Post.

In the early 1990s the media identified an existential threat: violent crime. Sparked by high-profile cases such as the murder of a 12-year-old girl, Polly Klaas, and the fatal shooting of six passengers on a train in Long Island, news outlets from local television to Time magazine elevated criminal carnage above all other issues.

Such relentlessness brought results. By mid-1994, 40 percent of Americans were telling Gallup that crime was the country’s leading problem. Elected officials responded by passing laws mandating tougher prison sentences and by building new prisons. Within 10 years, the United States was locking up a higher proportion of its population than other country.

But there was something fundamentally wrong with all this. As Thomas E. Patterson describes it in his new book, “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism (Vintage), violent crime was actually on the decline in the early ’90s — including a 4 percent drop from 1993 to ’94. Thus journalistic malpractice led to policy malpractice, with consequences we continue to live with today.

Patterson is a longtime journalism and media observer as well as the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. (Disclosure: He is also a friendly acquaintance.) The essence of his  argument is that it’s no longer enough (if it ever was) for journalists to describe what they learn from interviews and direct observation. They also need to know what’s true and what’s false, and to incorporate such knowledge into what they convey to the public.

“Today’s journalists,” Patterson writes, “use reporting tools that were developed more than a century ago and were better suited to the demands of that age than to those of today, where manufactured consent, clever fabrications, and pumped-up claims are everyday assaults on the public’s sense of reality. … Knowledge-based journalism would provide the steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news that Americans now lack, but sorely need.”

As the example of violent crime suggests, knowledge-based journalism should be grounded in a way of thinking. It’s never been a secret that the U.S. Department of Justice compiles crime statistics, and of course today those numbers are far easier to access than they were 20 years ago. Thus the key is for reporters, editors and news directors to seek out the truth and resist the urge to pander. Obviously that’s easier said than done. The spirit of Walter Lippmann’s quest for scientific journalism permeates “Informing the News,” but as Patterson notes, it has never pervaded more than a fraction of the news media.

Patterson is especially strong in describing the confluence of mindless objectivity and a lack of knowledge. When a journalist doesn’t understand the truth of what he is covering, it’s all too easy simply to present different viewpoints and leave it up to the reader, the viewer or the listener to decide. “The objective model of American journalism offers a weak defense against factual distortions,” Patterson writes. “Not only does the commitment to balance invite such distortions, it allows them to pass unchecked.”

Yet even an empiricist like Patterson can’t overcome human psychology. And one of the obstacles to knowledge-based journalism is that we are wired to adhere closely to our beliefs, regardless of whether they are grounded in reality. Patterson presents research by the Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan showing that we tend to cling to misinformation even more tightly after our errors have been pointed out to us.

In a world in which comfortingly false information is never more than a click of the mouse or the cable box away, it is unclear how knowledge-based journalism would reach an audience larger than the one that already seeks reliable news. It is, after all, the genius of the right that it has managed to convince large swaths of the public that The New York Times and NPR are merely liberal equivalents of the Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh. Patterson describes the problem, but he doesn’t propose a solution. And it’s hard to imagine what a solution would look like.

So how are we to move in the direction of knowledge-based journalism? Patterson writes that “the university rather than the newsroom is the logical place to develop it,” and he calls for reforms in journalism education along the lines proposed by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education — the most relevant being “expertise in the specific subjects to be reported on.” At the very least, journalists should make use of nonpartisan repositories such as the Shorenstein Center’s own Journalist’s Resource, which compiles data and studies in areas ranging from human rights to climate change.

Patterson has made a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of what we should expect of journalism at a time when media outlets are multiplying, revenues are shrinking and opinion is elevated over fact-based reporting. Whether we actually embrace knowledge-based journalism or not, he has underscored journalism’s basic mission: to provide the public with the information it needs to govern itself in a democratic society.