• Matthew C. Mai

Watch the Media's 2020 Election Meddling

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

There is a unanimous consensus among the intelligence community that the Russian government attempted to interfere in the 2016 election. The most common tactic was the use of “bots” who fed fake news stories into people’s social media feeds that played into narratives of both the left and the right on issues like gun control, race, and immigration. However, as the Mueller report shows, Russia’s various election inference activities did not equate to cooperation between the Trump campaign or its affiliates with the Kremlin. It goes without saying however, mainstream television networks and newspapers dedicated a considerable amount of time to the story of election interference. Yet what is almost never talked about is the media’s role in attempting to influence the 2016 election.

In the run-up to election night 2016, the CNN showcased polls in late October (the Access Hollywood tape was over two weeks old at this point) that predicted a double-digit Clinton victory. The Washington Post ran editorials with titles like “The 2016 Election is already decided. History says Hillary Clinton wins” and “Donald Trump’s chances of winning are approaching zero”. Every major pollster, political correspondent, and talking head confidently predicted a strong Clinton victory and humiliation for the Donald. Coverage of Trump during the election and immediately after was overwhelming negative, more so than his predecessors Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Even as of late 2018, 92% of news stories about President Trump were negative. Not since Harry Truman’s 1948 re-election had pundits and commentators been so wrong about an election.

Anyone outside of American politics looking in would reasonably suspect that the mainstream media pushed an agenda on stories about the election that should have been presented objectively. News at a nascent stage is not inherently biased, however, news stories can become outlets for expressions of political opinion when the facts are morphed with preconceived narratives and the details are used to contribute to aimless theoretical speculation. A nonpartisan, apolitical take on coverage of the 2016 election by CNN, MSNBC, FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS, and the major newspapers would conclude that each of these outlets, evident by the overwhelmingly negative coverage of one candidate, were pushing an agenda of some sort. If this is the case, then what made the American media any different from the Russian government in 2016? Both attempted to influence the outcome of the election by filling people’s media feeds with slanted takes on the news of the day. The Russian government has rightly been labeled as electoral meddlers but what about the media? As aforementioned, there is no way to know the degree to which Russian accounts on social media platforms influenced the election and the same applies to the television networks and newspapers. Yet, with all of the deliberate, agenda-driven, negative attention towards then-candidate Trump, it is reasonable to assume that their attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election had an impact on the American public.

Freedom of the press does not eliminate the responsibility of media outlets to cover news objectively. However, because they are facilitators of information that affect people's lives, there is not only a professional expectation but a societal necessity that they relay the news in a pure, unadulterated way. CNN and FOX, networks both criticized for their partisanship, are both equally obligated to give their audience facts without spin. They need to tell the truth because it is their responsibility as conveyors of information to do so. In the same way, Toyota has a responsibility to make cars that run well, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times need their product to be clean and objective, untainted by the agenda of their editorial boards.

To have a clean political process, the media must serve as relayers of facts, not interpreters of them. It is possible to have objective coverage of the news and still maintain a partisan editorial section. However, there must be a clear distinction between the two, not a blending of the pages. The degree of negativity to which the mainstream media covered the 2016 election raises serious questions as to whether or not the subsequent polling data was affected as a result. After all, every major outlet’s polls turned out to be wrong. The constant pushing of the same, agenda-driven message will inevitably have an effect on how voters frame issues. This impact should not be disregarded and as the 2020 election heats up, it is important to be mindful of the stories you read. The partisanship of TV networks and major newspapers will drive their attempts to shape news stories in order to influence the outcome of our next presidential election.

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