I think it's pretty obvious that much of our political media's behavior during the 2016 election cycle was pretty terrible. Sure there were many brave voices against the madness of EMAILS! (as we called it on Twitter) but much of the political media, especially "mainstream" outlets like The New York Times, cable news, the networks, and The Washington Post, chose to focus almost obsessively about things like email servers. All the while largely eliding bigger questions like, "what are the major differences between these two candidates' plans for the country?"
Matt Yglesias summed it up recently in an article aptly entitled "Fake news is a convenient scapegoat, but the big 2016 problem was the real news" where he points out that:
This coverage [of emails], though extremely extensive, did an extraordinarily poor job of explaining the actual legal issue at stake in the server matter. Network television newscasts from ABC, NBC, and CBS chose to devote three times as much airtime to Clinton’s email server as they gave to all policy issues combined. The Associated Press ran a major investigative story into Clinton Foundation influence peddling that treated a meeting with a Nobel Peace Prize winner as evidence of an insidious pay-to-play scheme. The New York Times did a Clinton Foundation investigation that treated Bill Clinton successfully rescuing American hostages from North Korea as scandalous. The fact that public health experts believe the Clinton Foundation saved millions of lives, by contrast, played extremely little role in 2016 campaign coverage.Which means that:
The sum total of this media coverage — real stories based on editorial decisions about how to weight and present real facts — was to give the public the impression that two similarly ethically flawed candidates were running against each other in an election with low policy stakes. The reporters and editors responsible for that coverage can reasonably (if a bit absurdly) consider themselves proud of the work that led the public to that conclusion, or they can consider themselves ashamed of it. But the idea that voters were moved by fake stories about the pope rather than all-too-real ones about email servers is a preposterous evasion.When many journalists are confronted with this complaint, they tend to just abruptly change the subject. Generally to why Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate, or something about Bill. As in most things linking pathological Clinton hatred, destructive "leftier than thou" politics, and bad journalism Glenn Greenwald is the Platonic Archetype here, but other people like Andrew Sullivan have fired off some similar takes.
You can also see this going on 24/7 on Twitter as well.
The reality is that this sort of topic switching just simply won't do. Scott Lemieux put it this way when riffing off a similar column by Paul Krugman:
The effect of yadda-yaddaying the media’s malpractice, Wikileaks, and a rogue FBI is both to normalize Trump and to make Trumps more likely in the future. That Clinton’s campaign, like all campaigns, made mistakes is worthy of discussion but is also entirely immaterial to this question.For some reason Scott's point really reminded me a classic scene from The Sopranos. I'm not a huge fan of the show for a variety of reasons, but I will acknowledge that it certainly belongs in any list of "Great TV Shows" and I think it's really helpful here.
The scene in question is the one depicting Christopher "Chris" Moltisanti's intervention. Chris is an up and coming younger mobster with some profound substance abuse problems and (I assume) narcissistic personality disorder, who is also the protege (to the degree that they have those in the Mafia) of Tony Soprano played by the late great James Gandolfini.
It's a great scene that really shows The Sopranos at it's best. From mixing humor with very serious subjects to highlighting the themes of some of the shows best characters. From the fundamental tragedy of Adriana's life, to Carmela's willful blindness to the truth that's all around her, to Tony's almost desperate need for control, to the fact that Paulie Walnuts really is crazy and really believes in the whole "Cosa Nostra Code" bullshit, this scene has it all.
Chris responds to being confronted about his raging addictions by changing the subject and pointing out everyone else's problems. Silvio is a misogynistic womanizer! Tony is fat! Fuck you too mom! Then the Mafia guys beat him up. Good stuff.
So why does this scene remind me of so much of the aftermath of the political media's coverage of the 2016 election? Well it's not just because of the tactic of responding to your own crisis with rampant topic switching and going on the offensive against people who are pointing out inconvenient truths about you, although those parallels are pretty obvious. But also because of the great insight the scene provides into Chris' own psychology.
Chris is a vicious, murdering little shit, but he's pretty smart. Probably the smartest of all of Tony's henchmen, which is a big reason why Tony tries so hard to groom him for leadership despite his massive other failings. As I see it Chris is smart enough to have figured out how bad he really did screw up by going into the Mafia lifestyle and in no small part uses booze and drugs as away to try and escape this hard reality. Just consider his position. Sure he's in a crime family and has the boss's ear, but that really just means that he's chosen a career where there isn't any way to get out, other than cooperating with the government, going to prison, or dying (probably in a really horrible way). Meanwhile his "family" is filled with stone killers almost as narcissistic as him who he can never really trust. Meanwhile the organization he's chosen to dedicate his life to serving is getting weaker and more dysfunctional day by day. Meaning that even if he is able to succeed Tony, which is a big if, he'll end up being the boss of a dying organization with no way out.
Thus why Chris gets so angry, and begins attacking anyone who points out the obvious. He screwed up big time, he's stuck with it, and the top person to blame is himself.
Which strikes me as being similar to the thought process of a lot of people contemplating what "covering" the era of Trump is going to be like in DC. Like Chris the political media "won", in this case by finally driving the Clintons from the stage after an epic 25 year death struggle. But that's been rewarded with something much worse than Hillary's dissembling or legalizing which so many journalists found so annoying for so many years. Instead they've gotten Trump whose already claimed his first scalp of members of their profession.
Meanwhile nothing his administration says can be trusted because they lie all the time. No source is worth developing because they might turn on you at any time. And there's no way to write about him without pissing off huge sections of the country.
The political media screwed up big time, and they're stuck with it, and one of the biggest actors to blame is themselves.
When us angry liberals shout like Tony that, "We're here to talk about you screwing up the country by how you chose to cover this election, not Hillary Clinton's fucking personality!" it seems to me that far to many political journalists act like Chris and come back with really witty answers. She's terrible! Not enough events in Michigan! Neera Tanden should never email! And fuck you too liberal subscribers!
The problem of course is we're all about to suffer the beat down for the next four (or maybe more) years. I wish that more people could come to grips with this, or at least acknowledge the validity of our complaints. But some people aren't very good at self improvement, instead they decide to just kill their friends for no good reason.