To follow the news of the 2016 presidential election was to be caught in a tornado of information flying from all directions, some of it truthful, some of it skewed, and much of it deliberately false.
Veteran journalist Kathleen McCleery, who was a producer on PBS’s NewsHour for 18 years, is among the many media critics trying to make sense of it all and figure out ways for the profession of truth-seeking journalism to adapt after an election in which misinformation and propaganda played such a large role.
McCleery, who recently taught a seminar at Princeton University on “Politics and the Media: Covering the 2016 Campaign,” will speak at the Princeton Public Library on Wednesday, January 11, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. For more information on the free program, visit www.princetonlibrary.org or call 609-924-9529.
McCleery is grappling with the question of the media’s performance in the election. Did journalists unwittingly help Trump’s rise to power? Did they do a good job questioning and investigating both candidates? “If the question is ‘watchdog or lapdog,’ the answer is it’s not one or the other, it’s a little bit of both,” she says.
There’s no doubt that some reporters did outstanding work covering the election. David Farenthold, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote a series of articles investigating the Trump Foundation and Trump’s charitable giving and discovered that the candidate had falsely boasted to have donated millions in charity when in fact he had only given $10,000 since 2008. He also discovered that the Trump Foundation had been retooled into a charity that mostly spent other people’s money. The story resulted in the state of New York investigating the foundation. There was good reporting to be found on TV also. McCleery cited an in-depth two-hour PBS Frontline special that examined who the candidates were as people and what shaped their worldviews.
But all that reporting failed to move public opinion much. “I don’t think the public watched it or believed it,” McCleery says. “Overall, if you look at trust in the media, it’s at an all-time low, and some of that was driven by Donald Trump himself. He would harass, insult, and ban the media from his rallies.”
Among the many questions for media outlets is why most of them underestimated Trump’s chances of winning. Opinion polls showed Clinton leading by a small margin, so many news outlets were blindsided when Trump eked ahead at the finish line.
McCleery lives in New Mexico where she works as a freelance producer for NewsHour and covers stories on a project-by-project basis. This job gave her a brief but intense glimpse into the front lines of election coverage when Trump came to Albuquerque for a rally.
McCleery decided to go at the last minute and talked her way into the event, where she spent about an hour-and-a-half interviewing people. What she discovered could have given her reason to second-guess the polls.
“I interviewed people who were Hispanic, and young, and even a gay couple who were there, and they all gave me reasons why they were Donald Trump supporters,” she says. “They were smart, articulate people who had come there to be part of that crowd, and I think I didn’t see that either. I think even after that I felt convinced that they were to some extent the exception. Reporters really missed something.”
The election also saw an explosion of “fake news” passed around on sites like Facebook and Twitter. The proliferation of news sources both real and fake has broken the monopoly on the news once held by the major newsgathering institutions, which at least aspire to notions of fairness and accuracy. “The number of news sources that are out there seems practically limitless,” she says. “You have all these various sources to watch, and it’s hard to decide which ones to trust.”
A second factor is the increased speed of the news cycle, McCleery says. “We’re talking about news being delivered in nanoseconds of when it happens. People aren’t waiting for Uncle Walter Cronkite at 6 o’clock to tell them what happened during the day. You’re looking at your phone at a stoplight to see the headline from an event that’s still happening.” The context and fact-checking provided by a team of reporters often came after the fact or was ignored.
McCleery says the overall media environment has tilted towards spectacle over style. One study by Andrew Tyndall, who monitors nightly newscasts, showed that between the beginning of 2016 and October, the three network newscasts added together devoted a grand total of 32 minutes of airtime to coverage of issues. By comparison, the three networks spent 333 minutes on Donald Trump in the Republican primary season alone.
For coverage to improve, and for the media to regain the trust of the public, McCleery believes that journalists will have to figure out a way to get people to watch, read, and listen to the existing good journalism. She also believes journalists will have to “turn the other cheek” and do their jobs despite the insults being hurled their way.
McCleery grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where her mother was a teacher and her father sold furniture to schools. She was around 10 years old when her father gave her the idea of putting together a neighborhood newspaper. Together with her siblings, McCleery used a mimeograph machine to distribute stories on subjects like the death of a local squirrel.
Later, as a student at Princeton, McCleery joined the college-run radio station, WPRB-FM where she rose through the ranks to become its first female news director. She graduated in 1975 with a degree in art history, but says she really majored in broadcast news.
She spent the majority of her career, 18 years, as a producer for NewsHour, leaving in 2014 to be a freelancer. Along the way she worked on many important stories of the day as well as documentaries. One of the most memorable programs she worked on was a 1988 documentary about the Dewey vs. Truman election of 1948, one in which she sees many parallels to today’s situation. The image of Truman triumphantly waving the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline from the back of his train car has gone down in history as an example of the media getting an election wrong.
“In 1948 everybody got it wrong. Nobody thought Truman was going to win,” McCleery says. Nobody except for Truman, anyway. McCleery interviewed a former Truman staffer who recalled sitting in the train with Truman during a cross-country trip and listening to the president list off the states he predicted he would win and how many electoral votes they gave him. He even showed McCleery the piece of paper where he had taken notes from that meeting. McCleery had the staffer travel to a rail museum in Florida so he could be interviewed in the same seats in the same train car where he and Truman had conversed 40 years before.
Besides that story, McCleery considers the 2016 campaign to be the most important story she has covered in her career.