With a week left in the seemingly interminable 2016 election, reporters and industry watchers on the front lines of this often tawdry battle suggest that Trump v. Clinton may alter the face of American politics, and the way it’s covered, for years to come. While Donald and Hillary have been scrutinized from every conceivable angle, it remains paradoxically possible that the electorate still doesn’t know where they stand on key issues. Exactly who’s at fault for that—the candidates, the journalists who cover them, the public that watches the journalists cover the candidates—is a matter of opinion.
Bill Hemmer, co-anchor of Fox News Channel’s America’s Newsroom, says one could make a case that neither candidate has yet been fully vetted. “That may be the story Nov. 9,” he said. “I don’t think we know how either one of them would govern. Generally speaking, we do not know their policy positions.”
Andrew Tyndall, editor of the news analysis-focused Tyndall Report, says 2008 ushered in the modern era of the personality-driven presidential campaign, with then-political wunderkind Barack Obama facing off against steely war hero John McCain. That dynamic has dominated the 2016 bout, he believes. “People say it’s a horse race,” says Tyndall. “But it’s Survivor, not Seabiscuit. It’s a reality TV race more than it’s a horse race.”
Issues? What Issues?
Tyndall has been crunching the numbers on issues coverage on the evening newscasts at ABC, CBS and NBC, and notes a massive decrease over the years. In 2008, he says there were 220 minutes dedicated to issues on the Big Three nightly newscasts year to date (through Oct. 21), with ABC at 41, CBS at 119 and NBC at 66. That total was essentially halved in 2012 (ABC 13, CBS 70 and NBC 32 for a total of 114), and drastically slashed again in 2016. Tyndall measures just 32 minutes dedicated to issues coverage in 2016: ABC at 8, CBS at 16, NBC at 8.
He attributes fault to both the candidates and the network news outfits. “It has turned into a referendum on the candidates’ fitness for office, hinging on attributes such as honesty, trustworthiness, judgment, temperament, stamina, good health, comportment and boorishness,” Tyndall writes in a report titled “Issues? What Issues?” “If the candidates are not talking about the issues, the news media would be misrepresenting the contest to do so.”
With their sheer tonnage of air time, the cable networks have focused both on the personalities and on the less sexy issues. Jake Tapper, chief Washington correspondent at CNN, speaks of seeing a “real hunger” among the public for meaty discussions. “There’s an appreciation for non-partisan questions for both Democrats and Republicans,” he says. “It’s real and it’s appreciated a great deal by viewers.”
No one watching from the front lines—or from home, for that matter—has a clear read on the degree to which political discourse has been permanently disfigured. Will future coverage return to an issues focus? Will low blows thrown during debates begin to represent the new boundary for what’s acceptable in that forum? “The wild accusations to fellow Republicans during the primary season, the insulting nicknames, going after candidates’ spouses—does that live on?” Tapper wonders of Trump’s stagecraft. “I don’t know.”
Regardless of who ends up on the long side of Nov. 8’s verdict, Tapper says neither Trump nor Trumpism—his populist appeal to those fed up with the status quo—is going away.
The media is frequently cited for giving rise to Trump the candidate, but Hemmer notes how Fox News Channel had a standing offer to GOP candidates during primary season to come on its air, and most not named Donald J. Trump repeatedly declined the invitations. One aspect of coverage he says will be questioned the next time presidential hopefuls hop onto the hustings: if and when phone-in interviews will be permitted. “That’s a fair question for the media,” Hemmer says.
Hemmer is quick to list critical issues—the status of Obamacare, the nation’s debt, its tax policy—as ones getting short shrift amidst the noise. Tyndall adds climate change, drug addiction and gun control to the list.
Tapper, for his part, notes how Trump raised valid issues about government reform Oct. 17 (“It’s time to drain the swamp in Washington,” the plan began), only to overshadow his message with talk of suing women who claimed he’d assaulted them. “I worry that, if Trump does not win, people in Washington will ignore that message,” Tapper says, “that Washington isn’t working for the people, that Washington isn’t about serving the public [right now] but serving special interests, moneyed interests.”
The race has tightened thanks to an increasingly disciplined GOP frontrunner, and the FBI’s announcement Oct. 28 that it is taking a new look into Clinton’s personal emails. Statistical analysis platform FiveThirtyEight.com has Clinton with a 72% chance of winning and Trump at 28% Tuesday afternoon, with Trump’s figure climbing throughout the day. (Coincidentally, the Indians and Cubs, respectively, hover near the Clinton-Trump win percentages.) While the polls still favor Clinton, most everyone agrees that we won’t have seen the last of Trump if the election doesn’t go his way.
Hemmer says he spent more than a month in Tallahassee in 2000, when the hanging-chad drama around Bush-Gore lasted well past Election Day. With Trump talking frequently of rigged elections, things may remain unsettled even after Nov. 8. “We need to be prepared for that part of the story,” says Hemmer.
And if Trump does ultimately come up short, it appears increasingly likely that the real estate mogul and political star has a future in media beyond shaky Facebook videos. What shape that takes—cable news, cable opinion and news, OTT platform—remains to be seen. Hemmer suggests Trump Inc. think long and hard about such a move. “What we do is difficult and incredibly nuanced,” he says. “The suggestions from those on the outside who believe they can replicate it—it’s a much bigger challenge than they realize.”
Tapper thinks Trumpism is well enough established to convert a movement into a media brand. “He has tens of millions of followers, and a brand of Republicanism that’s very different from what’s out there,” says Tapper. “I don’t know why he wouldn’t.”