Can the press avoid another campaign train wreck in 2020?

Donald Trump is retweeting doctored “news” videos of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Republicans refuse to take any legislative action to protect the integrity of elections against outside interference, and the Department of Justice is now functioning as a partisan wing of Trump’s re-election campaign. Let’s face it: The ugly and corrupt 2020 electoral season is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen in American history. Yet there’s no indication that the Beltway press has a plan for how to deal with the pending onslaught of lies and dishonest Republican attacks. Coming off monumental journalism failures in 2016, the press seems poised to stumble through another campaign fiasco, and possibly help Trump get reelected in the process.

Following the 2016 media debacle, most in the press refused to concede mistakes had been made, let alone offer up much serious self-reflection. That’s dangerous because it’s simply not possible for news outlets to mess up as badly as they did in 2016, not deal with those public failures, and then expect journalism during the next Trump campaign to improve. What went wrong last time around? They treated Trump like a celebrity and let him essentially get away with running a substance-free campaign, while every Hillary Clinton utterance was dissected in an obsessive search for hypocrisy and bad faith. Conveniently for the Republican candidate, the press essentially eliminated policy coverage in 2016, in part because reporters were so busy obsessing over Clinton’s email. One study found that “In just six days, The New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.” (The Clinton coverage throughout the campaign was also flat-out sexist, while the press also promoted anti-Clinton Russian hackers.)

Meanwhile, the lessons that editors claim to have learned from 2016 are the wrong ones. Julie Pace, the Associated Press’s D.C. bureau chief recently insisted, “One of the lessons from 2016 is that news organizations didn’t pay enough attention to what voters outside of the coasts are saying.” In other words, the press has to play even closer attention to white voters in red states?

Even more disturbingly, we keep seeing campaign coverage that picks up right where the 2016 mistakes left off.

Last week, the Washington Post published a strange news article that suggested there was something odd about the fact that candidate Elizabeth Warren had done outside legal work while serving as faculty member at Harvard Law School. Under the accusatory headline, “While teaching, Elizabeth Warren worked on more than 50 legal matters, charging as much as $675 an hour” (the headline was later changed), the Post stressed that “Warren worked on more than 50 legal matters during her career as a professor at Ivy League law schools, charging as much as $675 an hour to advise a variety of clients, from people with asbestos disease to a corporation facing possible liability over ruptured breast implants.”

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