Today I had the opportunity to attend a stimulating post-mortem discussion held by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism of the presidential election which effectively ended last night with the election of Donald Trump. Many students were in attendance as well as faculty members, all anxious to hear what predictions were held about the future of our government, college students and most importantly the media to which we all belong. While there was a tangible somber tone in the room about the new direction the country had effectively voted to take, the discussion swayed more to what exactly had happened during the course of the almost two year long campaign to get us to this point.
Many interesting points were raised early on about how the media helped contribute to the phenomenon that was Donald J. Trump. Dan Kennedy, professor of journalism at Northeastern University explained it best here:
“I think that in the early coverage, especially there was this amazing amount of free media given to Donald Trump on the part of cable news in particular, broadcast news to a lesser extent but still pretty amazing…The TV media did this at a time thinking that there weren’t going to be any consequences to pay.”
It’s something that I had heard a lot about from fellow colleagues and non-journalists alike – the press’ collective decision to exhaustively cover every little scandal Trump perpetrated in the beginning of his campaign, while good television and certainly helping to boost ratings, undeniably helped to only further spread his message to likeminded voters across the country. By giving his racist rhetoric, his bizarre nonfactual claims and blatant Twitter insults a mass audience, the media helped to only increase Trump’s popularity and poll numbers.
Head of the School of Journalism Jonathan Kaufman had another intriguing take on it – it wasn’t as much that there was too much coverage, but rather that the depth of coverage was at fault. As he explained it, “everybody wanted to be a pundit” on network and cable news. A lot of the traditional good ‘shoe leather’ reporting was lost in this election to political speculation, reporting poll numbers and related scandals. In a sense, journalists simply got lazy this election, content to cite the top stories while not delving further into the meat of the issues. He did observe that print sources did seem to have more long form in-depth investigations, but that the television networks didn’t generally tend to pick up those stories as much, thus limiting the audience they were reaching.
The professors also asked the students in attendance about other possibilities for Trump’s shocking win: would Bernie have fared better, should third party candidates have received more press attention, was it the media’s tendency to bias in coverage that influenced votes? Kaufman had a salient warning to make about that latter point:
“The media, I don’t think, elected Donald Trump. If you looked at all the anchors…the look of shock on every anchor and every pundit was obvious.”
So what is in store for the media now that Donald Trump is the president-elect of the country? Professors like Laurel Leff conceded that while the likelihood was low that Trump would actually bring about defamation suits against ‘the media’ or change libel laws (which is very difficult to do), it was likely that he would probably restrict press access heavily, and use intimidation as a tactic to affect the message, because Trump takes a very dangerous position that the media just “lies” about everything without abandon.
All in all, not a very optimistic outlook for the future of the press, but it will remain to be seen just how Trump will treat the media going forward as Commander in Chief.