Ethics Alarms covered some of this topic years ago in a post about how the news media’s unceasing and uncritical fawning over Barack Obama made him a less effective, indeed a bad, President. (If someone can find the link, I’ll post it. I don’t have the energy this morning.) Now polling and stat guru Nate Silver has written an intriguing analysis of the 2016 election that argues that liberal news media bias—you know, that thing that doesn’t exist—perversely helped elect President Trump. In an earlier January essay, Silver wrote,
National journalists usually interpreted conflicting and contradictory information as confirming their prior belief that Clinton would win. The most obvious error, given that Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes, is that they frequently mistook Clinton’s weakness in the Electoral College for being a strength. They also focused extensively on Clinton’s potential gains with Hispanic voters, but less on indications of a decline in African-American turnout. At moments when the polls showed the race tightening, meanwhile, reporters frequently focused on other factors, such as early voting and Democrats’ supposedly superior turnout operation, as reasons that Clinton was all but assured of victory.
In his most recent article, Silver explains…
..Trump was pretty close to having an optimal Electoral College strategy as judged by our tipping-point calculation. Clinton made a couple of mistakes, meanwhile. So did campaign reporters, who usually lauded Clinton’s strategy while maligning Trump’s, making essentially the same errors that the Clinton campaign did….Like any other kind of organization, campaigns are subject to internal politics and potentially misaligned incentives, and their decisions can be influenced by outside groups, such as donors and the media. Making the technically correct decision may not be easy if it contradicts the conventional wisdom,7 and correct Electoral College strategy (i.e., not necessarily campaigning in the closest states if they aren’t near the tipping point) is often slightly counterintuitive….we should talk some about how the media covered Clinton’s and Trump’s Electoral College tactics. Being among the most technical aspects of the campaign, this was generally not a strength of mainstream coverage. For instance, on Oct. 30, The New York Times jabbed at Trump for “campaigning well outside the traditional band of states that decide presidential elections,” including in New Mexico and Michigan, “two solidly blue states where polling has shown Mrs. Clinton with a clear lead” — failing to recognize that they were potentially tipping-point states even if Clinton was ahead there. A few days later, on Nov. 3, the Times criticized Trump for campaigning in too wide a range of states…Rather than wielding data and turnout machinery as tools, Mr. Trump has instead battered at the political map in a less discriminating way, trying to shift the national race a point or two in his favor and perhaps find a soft spot in Mrs. Clinton’s support…This was, it would turn out, pretty much exactly the strategy that swung the Electoral College to Trump….To some extent, the media’s misconceptions about Electoral College strategy and Clinton’s errors may have reinforced one another.
To summarize, the news media was so determined to assist Clinton and make Trump look incompetent as well as foolish that it made the Clinton campaign over-confident and vulnerable to self-defeating distortions of reality. The media’s misrepresentation of the state of the campaign wasn’t merely conveyed to the public, who the news media had a duty to inform more accurately, but the Clinton campaign as well. The Clinton team was only reading biased accounts and analysis that pronounced its campaign strategy sound, well-considered and effective, and that began with the assumption that Trump was a buffoon who couldn’t possibly win. The campaign’s own confirmation bias made it vulnerable to the news media spin. In short, the news media’s bias made the Clinton campaign stupid.
The Trump campaign, in contrast, assumed that the media was attempting to boost Clinton (which it was), so it ignored mainstream media criticism of its own tactics. Is it really a surprise that the Trump administration is taking the same approach now that it is in power?
Silver is taking some legitimate criticism for trying to focus attention away from his own profession, pollsters, who also lulled Democrats into a false state of security. Nonetheless, he is correct about how media bias, and bias generally, often has unanticipated consequences. Objective, factual reporting by unbiased reporters and editors is in everyone’s interest. That’s what makes it ethical.
Funny, I thought journalists already knew that.