The media want a presidential horse race. They always do. It drives traffic, and thus revenue. And when the reality of who the candidates are doesn’t fit the narrative, they simply manufacture it. The last week has been a case study in how our public discourse is manipulated by major media players to fabricate a horse race between Trump and Hillary.
Hillary’s general election rollout was outstanding, and her team has only continued to move forward in a similarly deliberate and disciplined fashion, placing one foot in front of the other without any notable missteps.
To her critics in the national media who have spent decades subjecting her to the most despicably unjust coverage, her lack of major errors must be deeply frustrating. Even after they’ve hammered away at her emails every day for more than a year, 63% of voters are in agreement with Bernie Sanders, who famously said back in October: “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about her damn emails!”
Since Hillary has refused to be the disaster the media want her to be, and since they’ve failed to turn her emails into a campaign-derailing scandal, many of them have decided to simply take their cue from Team Trump, breathing the guise of credibility into whatever right-wing conspiracy theory he’s trying to mainstream.
Prominent reporters such as MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and the New York Times’ Patrick Healy have jumped on the “Hillary’s health” bandwagon, while the AP and Wall Street Journal have led the charge on mendacious scandal-mongering about the Clinton Foundation.
Trying to bring down Hillary is, however, only half the story.
The media have also gone to extraordinary and embarrassing new lengths to prop up Trump and his faltering campaign – placing their thumb on the scale in a way that would be shameful in any election, but is particularly appalling in this one, which pits a historic woman candidate regarded as the most qualified contender ever, against a man who hasn’t served a day in office and is now openly running a white nationalist campaign.
And yet, with precious few exceptions, the corporate media have been exceedingly reluctant to meaningfully explore Trump’s embrace of white nationalism. Instead, they have largely ignored the implications of his hiring Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon, content instead to focus on Trump’s cynical ploy to make Kellyanne Conway the new face of his campaign.
Conway, whose elevation is clearly part of Trump’s new strategy of appealing to white women who are running to Hillary in droves, has been very critical of Trump in the past, but readers wouldn’t know it if they read, for example, this glowing Bloomberg profile, which positions her as the “Trump Whisperer.”
There is no hint that Conway’s prominent new public profile is a cynical ploy to appeal to white women – though every move that Hillary makes is framed as another Machiavellian ploy from an inauthentic candidate ruled by her monstrous ambition.
Further, there is no indication in this fluffy and flawed profile that it is part of a new PR strategy openly discussed by the campaign – which my colleague Sarah Kendzior detailed in her piece about the AP running a similarly “stupefying and egregious piece of political propaganda” on the Trump family, which was also “full of lies and omissions.”
There is seemingly no level to which most corporate media outlets won’t stoop to accommodate Trump’s new strategy. CNN humiliated itself yesterday with this absurd spectacle:
Note the careful — and justifying — language about how the Clinton Foundation “became” a campaign issue, distancing themselves from responsibility. The Clinton Foundation didn’t “become” a campaign issue all on its own, but because media outlets like (and especially) CNN have been treating it like a campaign issue rather than the smear campaign that it really is.
The corporate media want a horse race. But Hillary is such a strong candidate and Trump such a terrible one that there can’t be a horse race unless they endeavor to fabricate one.
They want Hillary to have a scandal, and so they are doing their utmost to try to generate one, whether it’s emails, her health, or the Clinton Foundation. Create enough smoke with a smoke machine to make people believe there’s a fire. As the Washington Monthly’s Nancy LeTourneau observes: “That is basically what most every drummed up ‘scandal’ against Hillary Clinton comes down to: from the perspective of the people judging her – it looks bad. Welcome to the world of optics as scandal.”
And they want Trump to pivot, and so they are doing their utmost to try to manufacture a pivot out of whole cloth, ignoring that he’s doubled down on white nationalism and instead they seize on the most observably deceitful promises to “soften” his bigoted rhetoric as evidence that his long-awaited presidential reinvention has finally arrived.
Trump entered this campaign with an announcement address in which he declared undocumented immigrants to be rapists, and has only escalated his offensive rhetoric with each passing day in the interceding 18 months. Only someone with zero critical thinking skills and not even a passing acquaintance with human behavior – or someone with an agenda – could believe that just over two months away from the election, Trump was changing his most fundamental ways.
Or that it could possibly matter if he did. Too little too late.
Nonetheless, the media greet every wink and shrug from Trump with the same fervor with which they greet his amplified right-wing conspiracy theories about Hillary.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent is one of the few reporters valiantly pushing back on the uncritical stenography of whatever the Trump campaign says, reminding his colleagues that they are empowered with the agency to make choices about the tenor of their coverage.
It’s become patently evident that there are an enormous number of members of the media who aren’t unclear on that point; they simply choose to side with Trump in ways that appreciably benefit his electoral prospects – either because they want a horse race, or because they support him and dislike her. Or both.