With your permission, let me take a stroll down memory lane. It is 1980 and I am enrolled in Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York City. Together with my classmates, I’m taking part in my first big time journalistic undertaking in politics: covering the Republican presidential primary race in New Hampshire.
Two leading candidates are dominating the GOP presidential fight. The first is George H. W. Bush, the former congressman, CIA director and U.S. ambassador to China, who is the Republican establishment’s favorite and who—according to the major media outlets—is almost certain to win his party’s nomination. He has the “Big Mo”—as in “momentum.”
Challenging Bush is Ronald Reagan, an aging former B-grade movie star who had served as the governor of California and who holds “extremist” right-wing views on domestic and foreign policy issues—calling for a return to the gold standard and for ending the diplomatic détente with Red China. Not surprisingly, Reagan has the support of the GOP’s conservatives.
In the midst of the New Hampshire campaign, I’ve joined my fellow students for a roundtable with several of the famous journalists of the age, including the legendary Theodore “Teddy” White, the author of a series of bestsellers on earlier U.S. presidential races (The Making of the President) that—like other young political junkies—I had devoured and regarded as the bible of political reportage. For me, the idea of meeting Teddy was akin to a young kid shooting hoops when Michael Jordan suddenly shows up in his backyard.
So you can understand that when Teddy asked us what we were thinking—would Reagan or Bush win the primary?—I hesitated to raise my hand. But then I did and Little Moi told the Great Man that, well, I had a feeling that Reagan would beat Bush.
Teddy was a gentleman so he did not respond to my words of wisdom by laughing out loud. I remember him giving me the sweetest, most grandfatherly smile, and saying, “Well, young man, I don’t believe that an elderly and mediocre Hollywood actor would win the Republican presidential nomination, and in the unlikely case that he does, I can predict now that he wouldn’t be able to win in the general election.”
Ouch! My ego is depleted as Teddy and the rest of the political experts and journalists on the panel explain that candidate Reagan is not very smart and lacks any basic knowledge of world affairs. He’s a “lightweight” and a “radical” whose candidacy would be rejected by the majority of Americans (as most opinion polls are showing) and who would eventually be recalled as a historical footnote, if not as “a joke.”
A few hours later, I’m sitting in a crowded high school gym in Nashua, where Reagan and Bush are set to debate. Reagan insisted on inviting the other four Republican candidates to participate and marches on stage with them. When the debate moderator instructs the sound technician to cut off Reagan’s microphone, the former California Governor roars: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” The audience erupts with cheers.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Reagan beat Bush and went on to win the presidential race and then to be re-elected in 1984 by a landslide. He ended up introducing major reforms of the American economy and presided over the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He is regarded today as one of the great American presidents of the 20th century.
I couldn’t help but think of my 1980 encounter with White as I followed the emergence of Donald Trump over the past 18 months. These days I reside in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where some of my neighbors include graduates of the Columbia School of Journalism and other members of Washington’s media class. They, too, had laughed off the idea of “President Trump” and predicted confidently that establishment favorite Jeb Bush—son of George H.W. Bush—would win the race in a walk.
In some ways, the response by the journalists and pundits at the New York Times and Washington Post to The Donald’s political rise echoed the sentiments expressed by the Times and the Post in reaction to The Gipper in 1980. But now, as then, the 24/7 negative coverage of the Republican candidate by the Times, Post, and other media outlets failed to affect the outcome of the presidential race. The Times and the Post demonized Trump, and the American people ended up electing him as president in spite of that.
One of the popular explanations for this phenomenon has been that the so-called Mainstream Media have been losing readership and viewership over the past decade or two as a result of economic and technological changes—notably the proliferation of cable and satellite television and the emergence of the Internet, social media, and online journalism, that undermined the information and opinion oligopoly that the Times and the Big Three television networks enjoyed for so long. Now people have Fox News and the Drudge Report, among other things. They don’t have to rely on Big Media for guidance anymore.
But this explanation is a bit ahistorical, since it fails to account for two other conservative Republican politicians who were loathed by the Washington media: Reagan and Richard Nixon. They were elected and then re-elected by huge margins at a time when the establishment media were at the height of their power in terms of circulation, viewership, and influence.
Then as now, the American voters weren’t buying into the spin provided by the Times and the Post and rejected the presidential candidates they had endorsed. But then, go through these two publications’ coverage of the Nixon and Reagan candidacies—with a focus on “news” as opposed to opinion—and compare it to their coverage of Trump and you’ll discover a major difference.
Obviously, neither the Times nor the Post ever endorsed Nixon or Reagan. From an editorial standpoint, their opposition was clear. But even though no one would claim that the papers’ news reporters were “objective” (whatever that means) in their coverage of the two conservative Republican candidates, they clearly made an effort to be fair and balanced, in a sense that neither the headlines nor the substance of the reporting reflected an intention to sabotage the Nixon or Reagan campaigns and destroy their chances of winning. They certainly weren’t demonized as Hitler or Mussolini or accused repeatedly of lying and cheating or projected repeatedly to lose the election.
Ideological Wish Replaces Thought
Something different happened in 2016. The Times and the Post simply abandoned all pretense of objectivity and fairness. Instead, they emulated Europe’s left-leaning newspapers—the Guardian in Britain, for example, and Le Monde in France—and openly articulated in the news columns a contemporary left-of-center political ideology with its globalist and multicultural orientation. They were clearly determined to ensure the presidential candidate opposing their values would not win the election.
And unlike film critics who make a distinction between what film “should win” an Academy Award and the one that they expect “will win,” the Times and the Post insisted that the presidential candidate they wanted to win would ultimately win.
Old-fashioned news reporting—the kind I was taught in the Columbia J-School—was replaced with a coverage that reflected a mishmash of ideological bias and wishful thinking.
“Ideological bias” may actually sound like a compliment in this case. “Class consciousness” may be a more appropriate term, in a sense that the opposition to Trump and the support for Hillary Clinton exposed both the cultural values and socio-economic interests of the globalized elites at home and abroad.
A case at point is my own neighborhood in Chevy Chase, the home of a lot of highly paid federal government officials, lawyers, lobbyists, scientists, and many media types who all had one thing in common: they very much wanted Hillary Clinton to win the election and fully expected she would.
What brought most of my neighbors together, and overrode any consideration of political party affiliation or ideology, was their membership in the political and economic establishment. They have done very well in recent years and grew prosperous while the rest of the country endured a major recession and a sluggish economic recovery. Their professional careers, social status, and financial well-being all depend very much on maintaining the status quo. They were right to worry that a President Trump would challenge the system that has become so dear to them. They recognized that Clinton was a proud member of the establishment and posed them no harm.
Which explains why if you were walking in the streets of Chevy Chase the next day, you could get the impression that everyone—and “everyone” in this case relied on the Times and the Post for information—was mourning the death of a very close relative or friend and was preparing for the funeral.
As I ran on the treadmill at my neighborhood gym that next morning, I looked around and saw a lot of very sad faces staring into little television screens where journalists with very sad faces were reporting that Trump was the winner. They broadcast images of very sad Hillary supporters, some of them in tears, listening to their very sad candidate making her concession speech.
Suddenly, the very sad elderly woman walking on the treadmill next to me asked, “Are you depressed as I am?”
“I already had my five cups of espresso, so I am kind of okay, ma’am,” I replied.
Truth is, I haven’t conducted a scientific content analysis of presidential election coverage by the Times or the Post. But I do subscribe to these two newspapers, along with the Wall Street Journal and the London Financial Times. I’ve read them every morning since the start of the presidential campaign.
So I can report that when it came to coverage of Trump, the news pages of the Times and the Post, to say nothing of the editorials and op-eds, read very much like what I imagine the Soviet Pravda did in its coverage of Leon Trotsky when his nemesis Josef Stalin was in power. The difference, of course, was the editors of Pravda were under the threat of arrest and banishment to the gulag if they failed to follow the Communist Party line; the editors and reporters of the Times and the Post readily and happily trashed Trump. Which is kind of ironic when you consider the current rage against “fake news” by the editors of the Times and the Post.
A Savage Fight for Survival
The challenge Republicans and conservatives have been facing isn’t from an abstract liberal media. Fact is, the print press has been losing readers, forcing many local newspapers to close down, while television news media have been competing for a declining and aging population of viewers.
The reason that a breed of media organizations led by the New York Times and Washington Post continues to make a difference is that these two newspapers, together with a few other media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, have served in the role of communication conveyors for members of the political, media, and intellectual elite. They have helped set political and policy agendas and in the process have shaped the contours and the substance of the national political narrative. They determine what and who is “in” and “out.” They decide what is politically correct or not.
The influence of the elite media has declined in recent years. There was a time in the pro-cable news era when the nightly news programs of CBS, NBC, and ABC dominated the airwaves, and when the producers of these three shows tended to follow the news agenda set by the Times, which in turn reflected the interests and values of the elites in Washington and New York City.
Yet perception matters. And the perception among the elites is they continue to set the political and media agendas. So when they kept telling their readers that Trump wouldn’t be the Republican nominee and that he had no chance of winning the general election, these expectations dominated the national narrative.
One of Trump’s major accomplishments in this presidential election campaign has been the trouncing of this narrative that challenged its candidacy 24/7. When the elite media insisted Trump’s campaign was fatally wounded by the “Access Hollywood” tape or his clash with the former Miss Universe contestant—or the many other incidents that the Times and Post assured us heralded his demise—or when they assured everyone that Hillary had won the televised debates and would get the women’s vote and will win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, the danger was that the narrative they constructed would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And when those things didn’t come to pass, the elite media suffered a terrible blow. How could they continue to dominate the agenda? Any introspection seems to have been short-lived. Every tidbit is an outrage, every tweet an abomination. Like wounded and angry animals who fear for their survival, expect the Times of the Post to go even more savage with Trump. He has won most of the battles so far, but the war is far from over.