When historians set out to determine why Donald Trump happened, from initial campaign to attempted coup to authoritarianism-premised comeback, the role of this nation's press will be hard to overlook. In a piece published for the Columbia Journalism Review, five researchers who examined The New York Times' campaign coverage leading up to the 2016 presidential election returned to similarly examine the 2022 race.
[W]e did expect, or at least hope, that in the years that followed, the Times would conduct a critical review of its editorial policies. Was an overwhelming focus on the election as a sporting contest the best way to serve readers? Was obsessive attention to Clinton’s email server really justified in light of the innumerable personal, ethical, and ultimately criminal failings of Trump? It seemed that editors had a responsibility to rethink both the volume of attention paid to certain subjects as well as their framing.
As any New York Times or Washington Post reader could likely tell you, the new results are just as dismal. Political coverage at even the largest and most consequential newspapers consists almost exclusively of horse race reporting and campaign gossip. Actual issue and policy examinations were nearly nonexistent.
After the 2022 midterms, we checked back in, this time examining the printed front page of the Times and the Washington Post from September 1, 2022, through Election Day that November. As before, we figured the front page mattered disproportionately, in part because articles placed there represent selections that publishers believe are most important to readers—and also because, according to Nielsen data we analyzed, 32 percent of Web-browsing sessions around that period starting at the Times homepage did not lead to other sections or articles; people often stick to what they’re shown first. We added the Post this time around for comparison, to get a sense of whether the Times really was anomalous.
It wasn’t. We found that the Times and the Post shared significant overlap in their domestic politics coverage, offering little insight into policy. Both emphasized the horse race and campaign palace intrigue, stories that functioned more to entertain readers than to educate them on essential differences between political parties. The main point of contrast we found between the two papers was that, while the Post delved more into topics Democrats generally want to discuss—affirmative action, police reform, LGBTQ rights—the Times tended to focus on subjects important to Republicans—China, immigration, and crime.
By the numbers, of four hundred and eight articles on the front page of the Times during the period we analyzed, about half—two hundred nineteen—were about domestic politics. A generous interpretation found that just ten of those stories explained domestic public policy in any detail; only one front-page article in the lead-up to the midterms really leaned into discussion about a policy matter in Congress: Republican efforts to shrink Social Security. Of three hundred and ninety-three front-page articles in the Post, two hundred fifteen were about domestic politics; our research found only four stories that discussed any form of policy. The Post had no front-page stories in the months ahead of the midterms on policies that candidates aimed to bring to the fore or legislation they intended to pursue. Instead, articles speculated about candidates and discussed where voter bases were leaning. (All of the data and analysis supporting this piece can be found here.)
If one set out to design a national press that would be most conducive to undermining democracy, you could hardly do better. In focusing on horse race coverage, campaign speculation, and the superficials of each race, the actual policy differences between each candidate are brushed aside.
Even when the race features a conventional political figure paired against a coup-attempting alleged felon whose policy prescriptions call for the restructuring of government into a one-party, authoritarian-premised tool determined to bend the nation's laws in unprecedented ways—as the 2024 presidential race will likely have it—the public cannot exercise its democratic rights if those differences are intentionally hidden from them. In ignoring the policy differences between each and every pairing of candidates, the nation's press is hiding the stakes of each election. It is hiding the most existential of policy debates in darkness, shining a light instead only on candidate sound bites, gaffes, and infighting.
In particular, the researchers call out the journalistic fiction of "objective" reporting. "What appears in a newspaper is less a reflection of what is happening in the world than what a news organization chooses to tell about what is happening—an indicator of values," they write. And they emphasize that the papers are not being inaccurate in their reporting, but that coverage is "misleading" nonetheless.
On any given day there are many accurate and arguably newsworthy stories that could appear on a front page. (In our study period, the overlap in front-page-story selection at the Times and the Post was only about a third.) Which topics editors choose to emphasize is neither accurate nor inaccurate; they simply reflect subjective opinions. Likewise, the way an article is written also involves a series of choices—which facts are highlighted, whose voices are included, which perspectives are given weight. Words such as “objectivity” and “independence”—even “truth”—make for nice rhetoric but are so easily twisted to suit one’s agenda as to be meaningless.
Democracy is premised on an electorate that knows what they are voting for and can make rational decisions about which of multiple approaches is best. Campaign coverage is flashy, but it’s valueless to voters. It emphasizes politics as sporting event. It may be pleasing to follow for interested partisans, but is worse than valueless for voters seeking to understand the sometimes-critical policy decisions they are expected to vote on. By emphasizing candidate claims and counterclaims and broadcasting potentially deceptive arguments as far and widely as truthful ones, the front pages do damage to democracy and readers both.
There has never been an American election in which the would-be beneficiary of an attempted coup came back, upon losing, to call for the indictment and imprisonment of his political foes, mass deportations and an end to birthright citizenship, and a purge of government to ensure only partisans loyal to himself can remain. It is a fascist manifesto—and you would not know it from the front pages, whose editors find such dangers to be no more important than whether his opponent is old, or analyses of how voters in Iowa are reacting to various campaign pitches.
It is dreadfully dangerous. This is how democracies die.
And the free press, as those same editors should know perfectly well, cannot itself survive in a nation that has decided it is addicted to the flash of political upheaval but indifferent to its consequences.
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