Friends tell me the media are to blame for building up Donald Trump — and for tearing him down, too. Liberals and conservatives, it turns out, can agree on one thing: The world would be a better place if the media would just stop getting the story wrong.
Never mind that my friends’ respective views of how the political news should be reported could not be more different.
My friends are not alone, of course. In the most bizarre election season in memory, every political conversation seems to morph into review of the news media’s performance. Some say no one would vote for Donald Trump if the press would only tell truth about him. Others say no one would vote for Hillary Clinton if the press would only tell the truth about her.
When New York magazine asked news people what they don’t like about their own industry, the author concluded: “At times, the survey’s answers read like the minutes from an anonymous group-therapy session.”
For the news media, the weirdness and angst of this presidential campaign come at an unsettling time. Technology is revolutionizing how information is gathered and shared. Once upon a time, there were three television networks and a hometown newspaper. Now there are hundreds of TV channels, talk radio and podcasts, newspapers in print and online, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs and all the rest.
Thus, when some friends blame the media for building up Trump and others for tearing him down, they may not be wrong. Both things can be true.
At Vox.com, Ezra Klein argued as much last week, suggesting the press waited too long to take Trump seriously and now finds itself busy with the fact checking that seems to become necessary every time the candidate opens his mouth.
Trump’s accusations of media bias follow a familiar pattern. He says something outrageous, news outlets quote what he says, and then he claims he was misrepresented.
After the Republican nominee’s latest attack on press freedoms, the Economist magazine last week was moved to declare that a President Trump’s attempts to impose censorship on news organizations would not succeed.
All these months later, it’s still worth remembering that Trump remains a product of the same celebrity culture that gave us Kim Kardashian. Kardashian for president? Before you laugh, recall you laughed when someone said Trump was running for president. You thought to yourself, it’s just another of his publicity stunts.
In an era in which people can tap into countless sources of information, consumers of news ought to be moving beyond their tendency to generalize about the news media. But it hasn’t happened yet.
When Michele Obama noted that slaves built the White House, a guy at Fox News was moved to add that the slaves were well-fed. The provocation was meant for a specific audience — read older, white, male and conservative. (The median age of Fox News prime time viewer is 68 years old.)
Do the Fox News channels of the world create echo chambers that allow people to hide from the opinions of others, or even fact-based reporting? Sure. But in a free society, that genie is not going back in the bottle.
As audiences (and ad revenues) disperse, life hasn’t gotten easier for the traditional sources of news, newspapers included. These days, more young people get their news on smartphones.