Unraveling Media Bias in the U.S. Elections

Amidst fierce divisions, there’s at least one outcome of the 2016 presidential election that seems to have left everyone equally dissatisfied: the media coverage surrounding it. What made this year so contentious, and how did both sides end up feeling like they got a raw deal?

A Comment by Tori Dykes

 

The Trump-Fallon Controversy

On September 15, Jimmy Fallon hosted the 534th episode of The Tonight Show and what ensued set off a firestorm in the internet. Most of the program was thoroughly unremarkable, with a standard allotment of vaguely amusing segments about topics like a 100-year-old tortoise that had produced 800 offspring over his lifetime (an admittedly impressive feat) or tweets using the hashtag #MyTeacherIsWeird. Oh, and he also had then-Republican Presidential Candidate Donald J. Trump as a guest.

For some observers, Fallon’s playful and innocuous banter with Trump crossed a line (the interview even included a segment wherein Fallon got to aggressively ruffle Trump’s hair). Sure, many other presidents and presidential candidates have appeared on entertainment shows in the U.S. It’s a tradition that goes back as far as John F. Kennedy on Tonight Starring Jack Paar or Richard Nixon on Laugh-In (although it was probably Bill Clinton’s saxophone playing on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 that really paved the way).

But Trump is different, argued critics of Fallon’s actions. Giving him such a wide-reaching platform and treating him like “any other guest,” the argument follows, was inappropriate for someone that has said and done so many offensive things.

A columnist for the Guardian accused Fallon of helping to “build a monster” by treating Trump so genially. A writer for Variety lambasted Fallon for not even attempting to press Trump on any issues and acting like he was just like any other guest. Actress Tina Fey recently spoke out in Fallon’s defense, however, suggesting it’s unfair to hold Fallon responsible for the vitriol of the current election cycle.

 

Between a Rock And a Hard Place

Yes, it’s important to remember Fallon is an entertainer first and foremost, so holding him to the same standards as professional journalists is largely unfair. But, he is still a member of the media with significant influence and large audience, and that can’t be discounted. The Trump-Fallon controversy highlighted what was (and continues to be) an ongoing struggle for the media this election cycle – did the media have an obligation to treat both presidential candidates as equally legitimate, given that each had earned the backing of their party and a significant portion of voters? Or, to the contrary, did the media bear some sort of responsibility to expose Trump’s falsehoods and deny him the chance to use their platforms to spread his message?

Both options are fraught with consequences. If you take the stance that the media has an obligation to treat both candidates the same – same level of coverage, same attention paid to personal scandals, same level of scrutiny on policy proposals, etc. – it denies a very real possibility: that the candidates are not the same. In this context, efforts to pursue ‘balanced’ coverage may in the end actually distort the truth more if it gives too much weight to certain aspects of a candidate (or not enough weight).

For example, maybe Donald Trump did deserve more attention paid to past comments than Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did by nature of his comments being uniquely offensive and particularly unbecoming of a presidential candidate. Or from the opposite perspective, perhaps it was justified for Clinton’s email scandal to dominate the media coverage so thoroughly given that, unlike Trump, she actually has already held a high-level political office and made undeniably poor choices as part of this role.

Alternatively, if you believe that the media has an obligation to call out Trump as a distinctly problematic candidate who is uniquely unqualified for the presidency (as many publications did in their endorsements, such as the Atlantic, which called Trump “spectacularly unfit for office”), you open yourself up to a host of accusations about bias and unfairness.

 

What to Expect From the Media

The classical perspective on journalism is that we expect it to give us the necessary facts and context to understand a story – not to tell us how we should think about those facts. Though a compelling case can be made for viewing journalism as much more nuanced than that, it wont’t change the fact that this kind of judgment call does not sit well with many media consumers, especially when the decisions of who gets coverage and who doesn’t (or what kinds of coverage a person receives) are made by ‘media elites’ with unknown political motives. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that in September of this year, a Gallup poll found that overall just 32 percent of Americans have either a “great deal of trust” or a “fair amount of trust” in the media, down from 40 percent last year.

When you take this a step further and flat-out deny a candidate a platform (e.g. if Jimmy Fallon had declined to host Trump but had still invited Clinton, who was on his show a week later) the preference for one candidate over another is very hard to ignore, even if you were able to make an argument for why this decision was justified.

In one of the more striking summations of this dilemma, commentators from The New York Times argued that the candidates did indeed receive differential treatment in the media, but the treatment they received was commensurate with how they carried themselves: Clinton “received coverage befitting a traditional politician running for president” while Trump “received coverage of a billionaire reality-television star who turned politics into performance art and sparked a powerful movement in the process.”

 

More Questions Than Answers

Another important perspective coming out of this election is how the media can actually create the story itself, sometimes unwittingly. Many articles have been written this cycle about the role the media has played in drawing more and more attention to Donald Trump and building his candidacy in the early stages.

A study published by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy noted that during the early days of the Republican primaries, “[j]ournalists seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump’s first audience.” As early as March, Trump was reported to have benefited from some $2 billion in free media due to outsized coverage of his campaign. And CNN President Jeff Zucker reportedly suggested that, in hindsight, CNN did give inordinate media attention to Trump early on in his campaign, particularly his rallies.

This reflection leaves us with a host of questions with no easy answers. Should candidates be treated as completely equivalent, or is there a point where one candidate deserves to be taken less seriously than the other? Whose job is it to make that call? Does a candidate like Trump deserve no media platform whatsoever? But then how will you respond to the masses who see a glaring double standard when their legitimately-chosen candidate is shunned while the other party’s is welcomed? And finally, if you do choose to cover a controversial candidate because you feel the subject is newsworthy and relevant, how do you walk the line between simply reporting the story and inadvertently creating the story?

 

Where to From Here?

It quickly becomes clear why there is so much mistrust of the media today, particularly from supporters of candidates like Trump. For them of course, the choice seems clear: their candidates and parties and viewpoints, upon gaining widespread support, deserve to be held in the same esteem as the established candidates/parties/viewpoints. Anything less appears as biased and unfair. And certainly, his election reinforces their viewpoint that he deserves to be treated as a legitimate political figure.

And now the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election: conservatives, particularly Trump supporters, continue to mistrust the mainstream media, perhaps more than ever given how the election results have vindicated their causes and left mainstream media looking foolish for not taking Trump’s candidacy more seriously. And liberals, especially Clinton supporters, are starting to wonder if the media played an unfair role in pushing Trump’s candidacy to greater prominence, as well as by giving her e-mails scandal so much attention. Not to mention, many are likely feeling betrayed and bewildered by a media that led them to believe their candidate had this election all but won.

With a country so divided in the aftermath of last week’s elections, most politically-minded Americans can find at least one piece of common ground: a general sense of being let down by the media.

 

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. Image: http://bit.ly/2gmWWzg.

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Tori Dykes

Tori Dykes is a master's student at the Hertie School of Governance studying public policy. Originally from the U.S., her interests are the intersection of technology and governance, as well as efforts to fight corruption and increase governmental transparency. She is currently involved in the Polis180 U.S. elections task force, as well as the Digitalization and Data Security Program.

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