As his rallies grew, the coverage grew, which made for an odd dynamic. The candidate nobody in the media took seriously was attracting the most people to his events and getting the most news coverage. Newspapers got in on the game too. Trump, unlike most of his opponents, was always available to the press, and could be counted on to say something outrageous or controversial that made a headline. He made news by being a spectacle.
Despite the mockery of journalists and late-night comics, something extraordinary was happening. Trump was dominating a campaign none of the smart money thought he could win. And then, suddenly, he was winning. Only when the crowded Republican field began to thin and Trump kept racking up primary and caucus victories did the media’s tone grow more serious.
One study estimated that Trump had received so much free airtime that if he had had to buy it, the price would have been $2 billion. The realization that they had helped Trump’s rise seemed to make many executives, producers, and journalists furious. By the time he secured the nomination and the general election rolled around, they were gunning for him. Only two people now had a chance to be president, and the overwhelming media consensus was that it could not be Donald Trump. They would make sure of that. The coverage of him grew so vicious and one-sided that last August I wrote a column on the unprecedented bias. Under the headline “American Journalism Is Collapsing Before Our Eyes,” I wrote that the so-called cream of the media crop was “engaged in a naked display of partisanship” designed to bury Trump and elect Hillary Clinton.
The evidence was on the front page, the back page, the culture pages, even the sports pages. It was at the top of the broadcast and at the bottom of the broadcast. Day in, day out, in every media market in America, Trump was savaged like no other candidate in memory. We were watching the total collapse of standards, with fairness and balance tossed overboard. Every story was an opinion masquerading as news, and every opinion ran in the same direction—toward Clinton and away from Trump.
For the most part, I blame The New York Times and The Washington Post for causing this breakdown. The two leading liberal newspapers were trying to top each other in their demonization of Trump and his supporters. They set the tone, and most of the rest of the media followed like lemmings.
On one level, tougher scrutiny of Trump was clearly defensible. He had a controversial career and lifestyle, and he was seeking the presidency as his first job in government. He also provided lots of fuel with some of his outrageous words and deeds during the campaign. But from the beginning there was also a second element to the lopsided coverage. The New York Times has not endorsed a Republican for president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, meaning it would back a dead raccoon if it had a “D” after its name. Think of it—George McGovern over Richard Nixon? Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan? Walter Mondale over Reagan? Any Democrat would do. And The Washington Post, which only started making editorial endorsements in the 1970s, has never once endorsed a Republican for president.
But again, I want to emphasize that 2016 had those predictable elements plus a whole new dimension. This time, the papers dropped the pretense of fairness and jumped headlong into the tank for one candidate over the other. The Times media reporter began a story this way:
If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalist tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?
I read that paragraph and I thought to myself, well, that’s actually an easy question. If you feel that way about Trump, normal journalistic ethics would dictate that you shouldn’t cover him. You cannot be fair. And you shouldn’t be covering Hillary Clinton either, because you’ve already decided who should be president. Go cover sports or entertainment. Yet the Times media reporter rationalized the obvious bias he had just acknowledged, citing the view that Clinton was “normal” and Trump was not.