Panel debates role of media in the 2016 presidential campaigns

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“If you will accept first of all that, like most pundits, I don’t really know anything about anything, I can take on that question,” said NPR media critic Bob Garfield, simultaneously lambasting his own profession and establishing the tone for the ensuing discussion at the “Aiding & Abetting: The Media and the 2016 Campaign” panel on July 27.

Garfield, political journalist Susan Mulcahy, and Charles Musser, Yale professor of American studies, film & media studies, debated the role of the media in the 2016 presidential election cycle in front of a crowd of over 100 people at the Whitney Humanities Center. The panel was sponsored by Yale Summer Session, the Film & Media Studies Program, and the Whitney Humanities Center, and hosted by Greg Johnson of the Yale Summer Film Institute.

The panel began with a screening of an episode of “The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth,” a Showtime series that reveals the intimate details of events behind election headlines, illuminating the process by which the news goes from its origins to the front pages of major media outlets.

The panelists — veterans of the process shown in “The Circus” — discussed topics like the tension between covering the news responsibly and keeping viewers engaged; manipulation of the media by presidential candidates; and the staggering variety of political news outlets that cater to every audience on the political spectrum. To elaborate on these points, the panelists drew examples primarily from the campaign of Donald Trump, as well as a few from Bernie Sanders and President Barack Obama.

Johnson began the discussion by asking the panelists about the circus-like qualities of the 2016 election cycle. “Is the media … vetting the candidates in order to give us the best view of them possible, or are they aiding and abetting the candidates’ campaigns?” he asked. “Have we reached the point where the function of news and the function of entertainment have become hopelessly blurred?”

“Yes,” said Garfield simply, to laughter from the audience. He criticized the media for being “suckered into” covering the daily doings of candidates, especially Trump, regardless of their newsworthiness. “The press’ job is to report fresh outrage — that’s why they call it news,” he said, “but what [Trump] does is set his little brushfires, and sure enough the media come rushing out to see what all the uproar is … and lo and behold we are where we are today.”

Johnson agreed that not all news is worthy of coverage, but pointed out that the media is obliged to report on Trump, as he is the candidate of a major party. “From the media standpoint, where is the line between news coverage and exploitation?” Johnson asked.

The advent of curated social media presences for presidential candidates has thinned this line, the panelists agreed. Near-constant updates from candidates has changed the political landscape — a fact that Trump is not the first to exploit, argued Musser. “[In 2008], Obama was so far ahead of Clinton and John McCain in terms of social media, and I think that was decisive for him,” he said.

The media should respond to this new landscape by operating with a code of ethics that best serves the democracy as a whole, not just their ratings, Garfield argued. As an example, he expressed disappointment that the media responds to Trump saying things “that would have gotten every other presidential candidate in the last 100 years disqualified” not with condemnation, but with coverage that amounts to millions of dollars of free exposure and publicity. “We have to think how best to serve our audiences for the health and well-being of our democracy … rather than just feeding the appetites of the audience,” he said.

Mulcahy pushed back against this by noting the financial difficulties such a decision would bring. Because media outlets have to fill a 24-hour news cycle, social media pages, websites, and more, covering the news becomes a fight to not lose audiences, she argued. “I’ve had to write about some dry topics over the years and you have to figure out how to make them enticing to your reader, or forget it,” she said. “Is the media supposed to get together and say, ‘We’re just going to be really serious now and stop paying attention to Trump’s tirades’? It’s just not going to happen.”

Adding to this difficulty, the panelists said, is the sheer number of political news outlets — from established papers like The Washington Post and the New York Times to millions of smaller webpages and blogs.

“Whatever your worldview is, there’s a media outlet that’s just right for you by validating your existing worldview,” Garfield said, lamenting that the number of people considering various perspectives on political topics is “vanishingly small.”

This expansion of news media could partially explain the rise of non-traditional candidates like Sanders and Trump, Mulcahy said, noting that because they could simultaneously cite news sources that reported on them favorably and denounce sources that criticized (as Trump did) or ignored them (as Sanders did), they created legions of diehard supporters. “[Sanders] was a little Trump-like,” Mulcahy said, because both candidates could shake their fists at “the evil media people!”

At the end of the panel, Johnson and Musser answered questions from the audience. One woman, who had taught English at local public schools for 20 years, asked the panelists for advice on how to teach students to grapple with these complicated issues of politics and media.

“The one thing that the vast majority of American voters have in common is that they went to a public high school,” she said with a hint of exasperation in her voice. “So what can we do differently?”

Mulcahy nodded in agreement, noting that even Trump doesn’t understand that many of the things he says he plans to do would be breaking the law. “So you have to try to make politics and civic government interesting,” she said. “You have to … to Donald Trump-ize them, if you will,” she quipped. The audience laughed.

Media Contact

Karin Shedd: karin.shedd@yale.edu, 203-436-8920