We are now 20 days from the 2020 presidential election, and, thanks in large part to his historical mishandling of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed 215,000 American lives and counting, President Donald Trump is trailing his Democratic opponent Joe Biden in the polls.
One other reason is that the media—in particular the cable-news media—has learned some valuable lessons from the way they covered candidate Trump versus Hillary Clinton in 2016.
A new documentary, Enemies of the People, dropping on YouTube this afternoon and airing Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on VICE TV, examines the role the media played in tipping the scales toward Trump in 2016, offering the former game-show host round-the-clock coverage of his rallies, where he’d spew one outrageous lie after another, while excessively vilifying Hillary Clinton over the emails missing from her private server. Produced by Retro Report and directed by Susie Banikarim, VICE Media Group’s executive vice president and head of global newsgathering (and formerly of The Daily Beast), it’s a valuable history lesson featuring some of the biggest names in media.
“In many ways, the 2016 election was the culmination of a pattern in political media that had been developing for years—that elections and campaigns were being covered as sport and entertainment,” says Banikarim. “The focus was so often on horse-race coverage and what crazy thing Trump had done or said that it obscured a lot of important policy questions and differences. That’s especially amplified on cable news, where you have to fill 24 hours, 7 days a week and decisions are often driven by ratings. You’re going to automatically be drawn to the candidate who is pulling all the attention in a race.”
And nowhere was this sensationalist coverage more evident than on CNN, which would seemingly air every Trump rally from start to finish, and featured a rotating crew of pro-Trump talking heads on its program—including Corey Lewandowski, who was still being paid by the Trump campaign while spreading its gospel on CNN.
In Enemies of the People, CNN chief Jeff Zucker owns up (somewhat) to the way his network failed to cover the 2016 presidential election appropriately.
WATCH JEFF ZUCKER IN ‘ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE’:
“Donald Trump would say outrageous things, or say things that weren’t true, and it just became accepted as, ‘Oh, that’s what he does,’” Zucker says in the film. “Not calling that out more for what it was, and then holding the other side more accountable, that was probably a mistake.”
Later on, speaking of the way CNN granted an extraordinary amount of attention to Hillary’s emails, granting them far more importance than the looming existential threat of a President Donald Trump, he offers, “The Hillary Clinton email story was an important story, there is no question. Do I think it got a disproportionate amount of attention? I do.”
Unfortunately, we’re seeing similar false equivalences plague much of the mainstream media’s 2020 election coverage.
“So often in journalism, there’s a push to create a sort of false balance by paying equal attention to both sides, and Donald Trump completely used that to his advantage,” explains Banikarim. “But sometimes two things aren’t equal and they don’t deserve equal weight, and the job is to just say so—to help people process and contextualize the news. That’s the lesson you hope most journalists took away from 2016, but these patterns persist.”