Have Print Newspapers Risen From the Dead to Defeat Trump?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Chey Cobb, a reader in San Diego, writes:

I’m just tuning in to your time capsule of Donald Trump and I’m finding the commentary from Fallows and your readers to be insightful instead of frightful. Thank you.

“The Media” seemed to have been too polite at the onset of Sir Trump’s parade of hate and lies. It seemed like the major networks were all too afraid of rocking the boat; they were afraid to call Trump out too strongly. The Media worried too much about ad revenue if they didn’t give live airtime to empty podiums and feature the latest Trump statement in their crawlers. Besides, it was Real Reality TV! And it was Free! Life imitating artifice.

We, the public, got very little reporting of substance because that doesn't sell well during prime TV viewing periods. There was very little of what I call “true” journalism being done on TV. I saw very little of the Walter Cronkite, Edward Murrow, Orla Guerin, and Christiane Ananpour type of journalism. Does the journalistic code of ethics not matter anymore? Will excellent reporting end up being an oxymoron? I’m glad The Media have finally founds their spine, but I fear it may be too late.

There may not be much “true” journalism on TV this election, certainly not on cable news, but there has been a ton coming from legacy papers. The finance blogger Barry Ritholtz has an excellent post this week making the case that print newspapers—those dinosaurs we thought were going extinct, starting with the Craigslist meteor—could turn out to be the deciding factor in defeating Trump. And of course that defeat would be just deserts for a man who has ignorance and contempt for a free press and routinely threatens journalists and their institutions. Here’s Ritholtz:

Print quietly returned to its roots of investigative journalism and deep dive reporting. The Washington Post assigned two 20-person teams to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with orders to look into every phase of their lives. Other newspapers have similarly put reporters to work beyond the campaign trail.

However, there is a significant difference between the public figures of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

She had been a government figure for decades: starting in Arkansas when Bill Clinton became governor, then in the White House as First Lady, then New York’s Senator, and eventually Secretary of State. The FBI had done repeated background checks on her—that was before the endless Benghazi hearings and email investigation and other witch hunts that so far have found politically damaging soundbites but little in the way of criminality. Decades of that so-called “vast right wing conspiracy,” now known as alt.right media, had dug into every little tidbit of her life, creating a parade of conspiracy theories (HILLARY KILLED VINCE FOSTER!).

At this point in her very public career, there are few if any skeletons left in Hillary Clinton’s closet. Trump, on the other hand, has not been vetted in great detail prior to winning the nomination. As Mojo reported and Bloomberg news echoed this week, Trump’s political advisers wanted to put him through the usual vetting process but the GOP nominee said no. The lack of opposition research by the his GOP competitors has been called “political malpractice.”

Ritholz also lists 10 examples of “blockbuster reporting from (mostly) old school print journalists.” One of them, of course, involves The Tape—the Access Hollywood footage showing Trump bragging about sexual assault in the foulest ways. If you’re interested in the backstory of The Tape, this piece from CNN describes how the footage got into the hands of David Fahrenthold, the future Pulitzer winner at the WaPo who had already been digging deep into Trump’s charity charade. A producer at NBC, which runs Access Hollywood, dug up the footage and brought it to the other producers, who were all set to air their own footage when they suddenly got scooped by Fahrenthold. Badass. And a big win for newspapers over tabloid television.

Back to our reader:

Maybe true journalism was missing because The Media never gave themselves permission to seriously think about the real-life repercussions of a Prez Trump. They never thought to point out the very real dangers of letting hate spew for entertainment’s sake.

The U.K. made the same mistake with their “Leave/Remain” vote that resulted in Brexit. Their media and promoters of the “Remain” camp never clearly stated the true consequences of leaving the EU—like, that their money will be worth less because other nations won't trust them anymore, or that mass deportations won't happen overnight. Their media just continually said Leave would be bad and Remain would be good while fascists spouted hate and fear and made promises of a golden future. Everyone underestimated the power of riling up the masses by appealing to their ignorance. The ultra-positive Remain polls probably lulled some voters into just sitting on their sofas on election day.

This election makes me wonder if we all underestimate the amount of ignorance and hatred in our countries (UK and US). I sometimes fear that there are far more of “them” than we care to even consider. They have been there all along: our neighbors, our workmates, our employers, and so on, but no one else gave them such a large and engaging voice before. They seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and they have been emboldened by their numbers. They believe that theirs is a true and just cause, and they have the fervor of fanatics. Their concerns have been legitimized now, so they must be addressed—no matter how ignorant. I fear it will take decades to undo this mess, no matter who wins.

If you have any thoughts on the battle between Trump and the press, drop us a note. Update from a reader, Kevin:

Credit snobbery? I remember [David] Broder’s staggeringly idiotic comment that after the Clintons left, the grownups were back in charge. That sort of Washington insularity is, I’d posit, much more a characteristic of the press, which likes to imagine itself the true inheritors of the First Amendment and distance itself from the electronic upstarts (from radio on). Trump is, of course, a creature of television (all image, celebrity, and fevered claims) with policies supplied from the sensationalist world of Breitbart. I imagine Broder sputtering at the prospect of covering Trump, worse than at the prospect of the young upstart from Illinois upending the insider pal of the serious, John McCain, in 2008.

But history is a boomerang, as Ralph Ellison argued, and after two-dozen years Hillary Clinton is the grownup. She burnished that image against a Sanders campaign that was often covered—and sometimes saw itself—as an idealistic children’s campaign. Willy Loman might say that she’s liked, but not well liked.  In 2016, that’s good enough.

Another reader, Daniel:

I think those who bemoan the lack of serious reporting on Trump’s rise early in the campaign and the awful real-world consequences of electing him once he became the nominee ... miss the larger point: The people who support Trump do not lack information about who he is, what he is done, or what he represents. These folks have heard it and read it all and they DON’T CARE.

WHY they don’t care is a subject for another piece entirely, but suffice it to say, earnest editorials in the mainstream press during the primaries were not going to sway Trump supporters away from their chosen champion.

But such editorials are probably having some effect on the swing voters in the general election. Not a single major newspaper—roughly half of which endorsed Romney in 2012—has endorsed Trump. (Well, unless you consider The National Enquirer a major paper.) Here at The Atlantic, we did our small humble part on behalf of Not Trump.