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How The Media Have Covered The 2016 Campaign

This week, the Elections podcast team looks at the challenges the press faces in covering the 2016 campaign. With new reports on the dealings of the Clinton Foundation, liberal commentators in particular have accused the media of falsely equating Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses with Donald Trump’s. The gang also takes stock of the tightening in recent national and swing state polls.

We have two live shows coming up this fall in New York and Chicago. More details here.

We’re also experimenting with adding a transcript of a portion of the podcast here each week. Here’s some of our conversation about how the media has handled the challenge of covering an unconventional race. The transcript begins at 29-minute mark and has been lightly edited for breadth and clarity.

Jody Avirgan: Let’s dive into the state of the media coverage, and I know that that phrase is problematic — the media. We will parse out exactly what we mean there, but let me just frame it a little bit. Over the weekend, Nate, there was a discussion about how newspapers and cable are trying to balance coverage of Clinton and Trump. And lots of more liberal commentators, including Paul Krugman at The Times, are pointing out that the coverage of the Clinton Foundation is a little fast and loose with phrases like “casts a cloud” or “raises questions” and this sort of innuendo, but there isn’t actually much there there. And then you can actually point to real moments of corruption and pay to play and bribery and all these things in Donald Trump’s past, so I just wondered, Nate, what you think about the impulse to scrutinize both candidates, but also whether you think there’s an emerging “got to hit both sides” impulse in the media.

Nate Silver: So, let me preface this by saying: I don’t choose the topics for this show. I definitely have a lot of thoughts. I spend my life — at least in election years — reading every article about politics, pretty much. I know a little about how it works to produce content for a mass audience, so I have strong opinions about who is doing a good job at it and who isn’t. I do think though that it’s become problematic to talk about “the media” because there are some news organizations — for example, The Washington Post; Politico — who I’ve gained a lot of respect for over the course of this election cycle and there are some that I’ve lost respect for, at least in terms of their campaign coverage. And so I think maybe it’s time to talk specifics.

Jody: So a lot of people were criticizing The New York Times, including Paul Krugman at The New York Times … I don’t know if he actually named The Times, but very, very clearly to at least the people who watch the media landscape, called into question a lot of the reporting specifically about the Clinton Foundation…. Clare mentioned the AP story [by Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan], which tried to investigate whether people who met with the Clinton Foundation then got favors and didn’t really find anything, but it still wrote this long piece. I don’t know who it was, but someone wrote a really interesting piece about publication bias, meaning that if you do all this work and do all this investigation and don’t find something, you still have this incentive to publish the piece, and maybe there’s some of that. People are digging into this and not finding that much.

Nate: And we have that, too. You devote a lot of resources to a story and it turns out not particularly to bear fruit, right. So for that reason — like the Associated Press story, I think they did a lot of FOIAing, they did a lot of records searching, and so I’m a little bit more sympathetic to that. But for me, the worst characteristics — the Times politics desk at its worst is when it’s lazy about trying to tell a narrative that doesn’t really fit the facts. I thought an example of this was the immigration day, where first of all, they were bending over backward to say that this speech Trump had given in Mexico was a grand gesture — even though it was kind of an awkward press conference where he kind of mumbled his way through it. It was fine, but later on that day, he got contradicted by [Enrique] Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, and The Times had pre-written the story as though it was going to be this grand pivot on immigration and then, in Arizona, instead Trump did the opposite of pivot. He kind of doubled down.

Jody: Well, if you pivot twice, you’re facing in the same direction.

Nate: Yeah, he kind of doubled down on very bellicose rhetoric and The Times — without attaching an editor’s note or anything else — totally changed their story. That happens when you’re running on deadline, but the point is that the first story was so badly overwritten based on very limited information. One characteristic I don’t like about The Times’ political coverage is they are always trying to tell you what it all means and get ahead of the facts, which other news outlets, like The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal, haven’t done this cycle. They’re so obsessed with the narrative of the campaign that you see what happens when they get way out ahead of themselves. Secondly, I think, is kind of this obsession with gossip. One story I thought they handled poorly was Anthony Weiner — which, if you want to report on that, that’s fine. I find it interesting. But they kept trying to use phrases like this “casts a shadow” over the Clinton campaign. If you’re going to write about it as gossip, just write about it as gossip, but don’t try and elevate it, and don’t use terms like “casting a shadow.” All this passive voice, weasel worded stuff — any intro to journalism teacher would say: You should never use phrases like these because they obscure, they obfuscate the truth from the reader and they deny agency to whoever committed the act, or if it’s the reporter’s opinion. They’ve gotten in the habit for reasons I don’t really understand.

Jody: Well, I guess my question is, does it come from this urge to feel like you have to scrutinize both sides of the campaign? Donald Trump is just always presenting such an easy target, to be perfectly honest, and the Clinton camp requires a little bit more bending over backwards in order to feel like there’s a there there. We’ll talk in a second about what actually needs to be scrutinized around Clinton, but do you think that’s where that impulse comes from, Nate? Just this restlessness about needing to cover a candidate?

Nate: Look, no one — certainly including FiveThirtyEight — is coming out of this election cycle between the primaries and the general with a totally clean bill of health. Every news organization has things they would do differently in retrospect. I think the kind of Timesian way of looking at the world meshes oddly with a phenomenon like Donald Trump. The vocabulary to describe what’s going on sort of doesn’t exist if you’re a traditional news outlet, whereas conversely, BuzzFeed, Politico, The Washington Post, which — obviously, The Washington Post has been around a long time — but all have some younger DNA in them.

Jody: Talking Points Memo has been strong.

Nate: Talking Points Memo — and a lot of sites on the right, by the way. They just seem to be a lot more adept at dealing with this. As someone who reads every darn story, I notice this over time.

Jody: So, Clare, let’s get you in here, and I want to just get your sense of what feels like legitimate scrutiny of the Clinton camp, because I do think that there are some real questions about the Clinton Foundation to be asked. It’s a huge, influential organization, and it also — I know I may be engaging in a little bit of murky language here, but I think there are important questions to be asked and important inquiries into how power works. These large foundations and the way that people traffic in these elite circles and the way that people turn social arrangements into political advantages and all that stuff, which the Clintons are really good at — and most politicians are good at it. That’s kind of politics, but there is a little ickiness there for me, so how do you feel it’s responsible to engage in this? And then also, the email scandal — does that feel like a more legit story to engage in?

Clare Malone: Sure. I think both the Clinton Foundation and the emails are legitimate stories. I think Hillary Clinton had every expectation when she — for many, many years — teased about running for president and finally did, she had every expectation to know that her finances, her personal ties, everything would be looked into. I think the fact that from the email point of view, there seems to have been some stuff that wasn’t quite above board or perhaps she exercised poor judgment — all that is fair game. The Clinton Foundation, I think, is also fair game, and proposes an interesting dilemma for a lot of us. There’s been a lot of calls in recent days for them to shut down the foundation, which is politically expedient because it takes care of the problem — though I think that ignores the fact that these people set up this foundation ostensibly to do a greater good in the world. Now, I think you can go to the next step of that which is — they want to do this for the greater good of the world, how well are they doing it? I’ve heard some people say, eh, not that well in some places, given all the money that they’ve brought in, maybe they should be doing better things. I think I heard Adam Davidson say something like this on Slate’s political podcast last week, and that’s fair.

He also talked about something that I think a lot of people have talked about, and Jody, this gets to your point about how does power operate in these higher echelons, the kind of world where Wendi Deng dates both Vladimir Putin, allegedly, and Rupert Murdoch. These people who live in these rarified circles, who go to Davos, they are parlaying personal relationships ostensibly for the greater good. They’re also doing it for personal gain, to perhaps not just have some influence with the charitable foundation but also influence with U.S. policy. That happens. That’s the way that power is wielded. And to the AP’s credit, they were trying to sort through who are these private individuals. So I think that’s our responsibility, trying to suss out for people what is the way this world works — and take what you will about the way this world works — but what is, if anything, wrong, illegal, corrupt, not good. And I will say — the Clinton side of the reporting is more complicated. The Trump stuff is easy. It’s low hanging fruit. It’s tee balls. You hit the tee ball. Tweets — we know what racism is, we know what sexism is. We know what all that stuff is. It’s harder to figure out the Clinton stuff, if there is anything, and that’s, I think, the problem — the massive imbalance in the narrative of this race.

Harry Enten: I don’t have very much to add, mostly because I don’t tend to follow this type of stuff. I’m much more interested in the numbers than in the narratives created by major newspapers, but I can say I agree with Clare. The Trump stuff is very, very easy. Taco bowls, “my African-American” — very easy to figure out. You don’t have to be a genius to understand what’s going on, and I do know, there may be more liberals in the media than conservatives, but the overwhelming bias isn’t towards the left or right, it’s towards a horse race — trying to create excitement and equivalency. I do think we see some of that sometimes by trying to equate what’s going on with Clinton with what’s going on with Trump.These are both flawed candidates. I think the people think of both of these candidates as flawed, but I think one candidate has said many more things that are offensive, at least to me, than another candidate.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button above or by downloading it in Apple Podcasts, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.