Causes of the disaster: The media

Sam Smith


Objective coverage of the campaign was rare. Since politics is now defined more by what its participants say rather than what they actually do or promise, it is tacitly assumed that simply quoting a politician is objective journalism.

In fact, it is not not objective to simply pass on a lie or a myth.. How does one deal with this problem? In a rare journalistic exception the Guardian on a number of occasions relied on one word: falsely – as in:

Donald Trump falsely claimed at a rally on Sunday that Hillary Clinton wants to let …

Trump is distorting an FBI statistic into a false claim: in September the agency reported that murders and non-negligent manslaughter rose in the US by 10.8% in …

There is absolutely no objective reason why a good journalist should repeat a lie without identifying it as false. Yet this happened over and over during the campaign.

Here, also from the Guardian is a look at some of the cost:

The Guardian has catalogued more than 100 falsehoods made by the Republican nominee over the last 150 days, and sorted them according to theme. Hillary Clinton has been caught in more than a dozen falsehoods of her own, for instance about her email practices and her past support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But Clinton often makes her falsehoods in dense legalese, making them hard to pin a motive on: many could as easily be errors as lies, careless exaggeration or deliberately misleading claims.

Admittedly, things have become more complicated as Americans drop print in favor of the visual, since there is no good way a reporter can correct a live speech or comment without some time for checking it out. But a simple cure would be for networks to list every day on their evening news the falsehoods committed by either campaign. Without some such response the media simply becomes tools of a campaign’s propaganda.


Facts are far better news than the latest spin from a candidate’s aide. But the media dramatically ignored or downplayed essential facts about both Trump and Clinton. Here are a few things that were under-mentioned by the media during the campaign:

  • Trump’s Scottish golf flop
  • A third of Trump ventures were financially flaccid
  • Trump ditched American steelworkers for business with China
  • Trump hit with 3500 law suits alleging non payment of contracts
  • No Fortune 100 CEO has given to Trump
  • NY Attorney General called Trump University a “straight up fraud.”
  • Trump projects have received at least $885 million in public subsidies
  • Some Trump properties involved in a huge tax scam case
  • Donald Trump’s own line of men’s wear, the Donald J. Trump Signature Collection, is manufactured in China.

We know about these stories because of a few media but on whole,  the media – especially television – would rather just talk about what people were saying and where the candidate was going next.

And it wasn’t just Trump.  The Clinton story had been badly covered from the start. Here are a few items that got little over the years:

  • She was the first First Lady to almost be indicted according to one of the special prosecutors
  • Nine Hillary Clinton fundraisers or major backers were convicted of, or pleaded no contest to, crimes
  • On one occasion, Hillary Clinton, providing testimony to Congress, said that she didn’t remember, didn’t know, or something similar: 250
  • Three of her close business partners of Hillary Clinton who ended up in prison. In one case Hillary Clinton was mentioned 35 times in the indictment.
  • In the 1980s, Hillary Clinton made a $44,000 profit on a $2,000 investment in a cellular phone franchise deal that took advantage of the FCC’s preference for locals, minorities and women. The franchise was almost immediately flipped to the cellular giant, McCaw.
  • Hillary Clinton and her husband set up a resort land scam known as Whitewater in which the unwitting bought third rate property 50 miles from the nearest grocery store and, thanks to the sleazy financing, about half the purchasers, many of them seniors, lost their property.
  • In 1993 Hillary Clinton moved to oust the White House travel office in favor of World Wide Travel, Bill Clinton’s source of $1 million in fly-now-pay-later campaign trips that essentially financed the last stages of his campaign without the bother of reporting a de facto contribution. The Travel Office director, Billy Dale, charged with embezzlement, was acquitted in less than two hours by the jury.
  • HRC’s 1994 health care plan, according to one account, included fines of up to $5,000 for refusing to join the government-mandated health plan, $5,000 for failing to pay premiums on time, 15 years for doctors who received “anything of value” in exchange for helping patients short-circuit the bureaucracy, $10,000 a day for faulty physician paperwork, $50,000 for unauthorized patient treatment, and $100,000 a day for drug companies that messed up federal filings.
  • Two months after commencing the Whitewater scheme, Hillary Clinton invested $1,000 in cattle futures. Within a few days she had a $5,000 profit. Before bailing out she earns nearly $100,000 on her investment. Many years later, several economists will calculate that the chances of earning such returns legally were one in 250 million.
  • Hillary Clinton supported the appointment of Rudy Giuliani’s buddy, Bernie Kerick, to be secretary of homeland security,. Kerick subsequently withdrew and not long after was indicted.

I had learned the journalistic hazards in the 1990s when I began exposing the real story of the Clintons and their role in Arkansas. Twice, when invited to appear on CPAN, the invitation was revoked by network higher-ups. And I was also permanently banned from a  leading program on Washington’s public radio station. This was not an ideological conflict – which had, after all, greatly disappeared post Reagan. You didn’t mess with the Clintons and in this campaign, close as it was, you didn’t mess with Trump either.


What drove the media in both cases was not politics but power. When I started out as a reporter less than half of all journalists had a college education.  Now they are part of the American elite and, like liberals in this last election, fail to identify with the dreams, fears or problems of a vast part of America. There are now, for example, only two or three labor reporters for major newspapers in the country.

Entertainment vs. News

As I watch TV news these days, I realize that I would have a much harder time becoming a journalist now. For starters I’m not handsome enough and I don’t know how to wave my hands endlessly as I speak. News has become an entertainment business. Which is one good reason Trump beat Clinton. He’s an entertainer.

The last time we had an entertainer as president it almost did us in. As Robert Lekachman put it: “Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000…If there is an authoritarian regime in the American future, Ronald Reagan is tailored to the image of a friendly fascist.”

A few other things you don’t  hear about Reagan in the media:

“By the summer of 1992, just 24 percent of Americans said their country was better off because of the Reagan years, while 40 percent said it was worse off — and that more Americans (48 percent) viewed Reagan unfavorable than favorably (46 percent). – Slate

During the Reagan administration the number of families living below the poverty line increased by one-third.

The Reagan administration was one of the most corrupt in American history, including by one estimate 31 Reagan era convictions.

If Reagan should have taught us anything it is the danger of having an entertainer running the country.

But with television, we have instead learned to confuse the difference between someone acting as president and actually being president.

Before television politicians rose to power because they had constituencies that appreciated what they had accomplished and done for them. You needed to organize people, not fundraising for TV ads.

With television it no longer mattered what you had actually done because now it was a matter of advertising and interviews to display what you thought people wanted. And trained by several thousand commercials a day – on the street, in publications and on TV – truth steadily came to matter less.

Simon Usborne in the Guardian describes the situation well:

Reality TV has normalized outrageous and inappropriate behavior,” [USC scholar Mark Young] says. Viewers demand it, meanwhile, “since they are primed for this type of entertainment and stimulation.” Young identifies a comparable feedback loop of outrage in Trump’s presidential campaign. “He didn’t have skills in the political arena so … he was able to keep himself ‘fresh’ by being outrageous,” he says. He calls Trump’s victory “the greatest ending to any reality TV show in history”.

The Apprentice was a rehearsal room for Trump’s speaking style. Short sentences. Repetition. Meanness. Pauses. You’re fired. … Off camera, it exposed an obsession with ratings and approval, insiders say in Trump Revealed. On camera, it normalized an oft-ridiculed businessman. If he was already a household name, thanks to a profile confined to New York tabloids and gossip rags, primetime television repackaged his image and placed it inside millions of American homes (the first season of The Apprentice peaked with an audience of 28 million). He sat behind a big desk. He was a commander. At times, an American flag sat behind him.

Trump said the show made Americans realise that he was “highly educated”, according to Trump Revealed. “Until The Apprentice, most people didn’t know [this]. They thought I was a barbarian,” he said.

In 1980, Trump lamented the damage television was doing to politics. “It’s hurt the process very much,” he told NBC. “Abraham Lincoln would probably not be electable today because of television. He was not a handsome man and he did not smile at all.” Almost four decades later, Trump’s then campaign manager Paul Manafort was asked what plans the candidate had for the Republican National Convention in July. “A reality show of some kind?” asked MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “This is the ultimate reality show,” Manafort replied. “It’s the presidency of the United States.”

I have lately proposed a rather simple reform: that politicians be held to the same standards on TV as pharmaceutical drugs with a statement such as “Most common Trump side effects include falsehood infection, fiscal uncertainty, loss of job, nonpayment of contracts, bankruptcy, indecent opinions of minorities, and death.”

Since this reform will unlikely gain ground soon, we are left with a political society increasingly run by the same sort people, rules, money, and policies that have cursed us with the Kardashians, albeit so far Kim has not been asked to join the Trump cabinet.

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