TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Have journalists learned nothing from 2016

in Media & Journalism by

Oprah gave a dope acceptance speech at the 2018 Golden Globes ceremony. The fact that we now have a national conversation about her fitness for the Presidency says more about the news media than it does about her.

I suppose it was a welcome diversion from obsessing over Donald Trump’s latest confounding utterance or chronicling the buckling of our democratic norms.

I get it — political journalists were late in recognizing that Trump could win and they don’t want to repeat the error in 2020. But their bigger error in 2016 was the press’ role in creating the myth of Donald Trump as a plausible president.

For example, the conservative watchdog Media Research Center reported that NBC promoted Trump as a successful businessman and expert on the economy for more than a decade before his 2015 entry into the presidential campaign, while failing to be transparent about its business ties to Trump.

Harvard’s Shorenstein Center found that in 2015, when Trump’s polling numbers were low and other Republican candidates looked stronger, news coverage focused on his polling gains and he “received far more ‘good press’ than ‘bad press’” – boosting his poll numbers.

Like Trump, Oprah has a business empire that is difficult to investigate because it is privately owned. Her eponymous cable network is a joint venture with Discovery Communications, which owns, among other properties, the Advance/Newhouse publishing company.

Donald Trump got outsized press coverage in 2016 because, as CBS president Les Moonves infamously said, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Similarly, an Oprah candidacy would be a media free-for-all fraught with potential conflict. That may be good for ratings, but there’s no reason to think that it will be good for America — especially black America.

It would be far more helpful to center political coverage around the issues that affect voters most, and to consistently report on the actions or inaction candidates take. Jay Rosen advocated this approach nearly 20 years ago in his book, What Are Journalists For? While news organizations ignored Rosen’s plea, let’s hope other publishers step in and fill the gap. Who knows, maybe we can make that kind of reporting go viral.

Kim Pearson is a Journalism and Writing Professor at The College of New Jersey. She researches computing diversity and civic engagement and writing about race, religion, and sexuality have appeared in many outlets and in her weblog, Professor Kim’s News Notes.

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