This election, media has improved slightly

On election night 2016, I described the news media's campaign performance as "an epic fail." You might remember what happened: the sense of inevitability about Hillary Clinton's rise, the damaging false equivalency that resulted, the free advertising provided in live coverage of Donald Trump's rallies and speeches, the crazily swinging "needle" on the New York Times website.

And so much more that we'd like to forget, but really shouldn't.

So now, with the midterm election here, it's fair to ask how much improvement has there been.

The short answer: not enough.

Granted, mainstream journalists aren't making all of the same mistakes they made two years ago. We're more careful about tossing around predictions based on our none-too-savvy interpretations of public opinion polls. We better understand the concept of probability.

We've made fact-checking President Donald Trump into a necessary cottage industry. And we've gotten over our hesitance to use the L word — lie — about his escalating falsehoods. Or even, when warranted, the R word — racist — as CNN did in its initial news coverage of a recent and now-infamous Trump ad that falsely accuses Democrats of helping Central American criminals invade America.

But there's still one overarching problem: Too many journalists allow Trump to lead them around by the nose, which is why you've heard so very much about that migrant caravan in recent weeks. With the president as their de facto assignment editor, too many seem to respond "how high?" when Trump says jump.

Wide-eyed coverage of his politically driven pet issues –- primarily the supposed horrors of immigration — has dominated the past few weeks of news, with a fixation on the refugees coming north through Mexico.

Skepticism and context make an appearance in media reports, but it's often too little and too late. And, even when smart and nuanced, the sheer volume of immigration coverage plays into Trump's hands.

When Trump sat down with reporter Jonathan Swan of the digital news site Axios last week, he cannily floated the idea of eliminating birthright citizenship by executive order— knowing that it would make big news.

Swan was "excited to share," he tweeted, his scoop, described as follows: "Exclusive: Trump to terminate birthright citizenship." Thus he (initially, at least) allowed the president to air this constitutionally dubious notion as if it were almost enshrined at the National Archives.

Then, news organizations from the Associated Press to Bloomberg News went along for the ride.

As Matthew Ingram wrote in Columbia Journalism Review, getting scoops is great but not if, like this one, "they perpetuate a Trump lie."

Michael Barbaro of the New York Times set a good tone when he tweeted that his popular news-oriented podcast would take a pass on the president's impromptu pronouncements regarding immigration: "Can't speak for rest of media, but the Daily is deliberately playing down these events because they are clearly not policy remarks or policy announcements. They are deliberate attempts to inflame the electorate before the midterms. Just happens to be from the White House."

Nicolle Wallace of MSNBC said she wouldn't air Trump's immigration remarks live, holding off until they could be fact-checked and summarized first.

I appreciated the BuzzFeed News headline on the birthright-citizenship story: "Now Trump Is Saying He'll Stop Babies Born In The US From Becoming Citizens, Though He Probably Can't."

We need a lot more of this in every bit of the reporting, framing and promotion of national political news.

We need a lot less "excited to share," a lot less wound-licking, a lot less "how high, Mr. President?"

Instead, the talking heads format on cable news, doomed to endlessly fill the 24/7 news hole, takes its lead from whatever silliness is happening in the moment, often dictated by Trump.

It is appalling and damaging that the president describes the nation's journalists as the "enemy of the people." But we do harm by overreacting to it and to the familiar charges of liberal bias.

This works beautifully for Trump, who gets to point to the collective media freakout as clear proof of their leaning left. The energy spent fuming about Trump's anti-press jabs would be far better used on bringing a more skeptical, context-heavy approach to everyday coverage.

More insidiously, taking Trump's "enemy" bait has another, less obvious effect. As the media try desperately to seem evenhanded — unbiased, not left-leaning — they end up overcompensating. As Media Matters for America documented recently, conservative guests often dominate the Sunday TV news shows, across all networks.

With an enemy like this, Trump and his cohort don't need friends.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post's media columnist.

 

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