To be frustrated with the news media’s pursuit of “sexy” and profitable stories over substantive issues is understandable. In fact, it seems the problem has gotten worse in recent years.
But it's also worth remembering that the natural tension between actual news and "if it bleeds, it leads" is not a new phenomenon for media. It's also worth remembering that newsrooms alone are responsible for what they choose to cover.
It's a bit silly, then, to read Vox’s Matt Yglesias allege this week that the press’ pursuit of “shiny objects" over policy is the result of newsrooms being overly sympathetic to conservative and Republican narratives. But to believe there’s a “hack gap” wherein Democrats suffer because conservative voices control the news cycle — well, it's actually too silly for me to finish that sentence. Major newsrooms, whose reporters mostly support left-wing positions and candidates, are far more likely to pursue stories that hurt conservatives.
“The essence of the hack gap is that when [Hillary Clinton] was in the crosshairs, conservative media made a huge show of being sincerely outraged by her misconduct, which forced the topic onto the national media agenda,” Yglesias writes.
He adds, “Reporters, meanwhile, simply tend not to jump on left-wing talking points. And progressive media is more infused with the values of actual journalism, and pretending to think something unimportant is actually critical is not journalism. Consequently, while many left-of-center pundits, including me, have noted the Trump email issue [a story about White House staffers using personal email accounts], we normally do it in an ironic or second-order way. … Meanwhile, there is simply no institution on the left that has anywhere near the institutional clout — to say nothing of the value system — of conservative broadcast media.”
Yglesias’ strongest support for this theory is his claim that reporters spent too much time during the 2016 presidential election covering Hillary Clinton’s use of an unauthorized email server to conceal her work communications when she served as secretary of state. The “hack gap,” he writes, “explains why Clinton’s email server received more television news coverage than all policy issues combined in the 2016 election.”
Setting aside his lack of interest in the extent to which the former secretary of state exposed top State Department secrets to foreign intelligence offices and hid her work from congressional investigators and the Freedom of Information Act, this claim lacks necessary context.
First, Trump was easily the most-covered candidate of the 2016 election. Indeed, by the end of the campaign, the Republican nominee had earned an estimated $5 billion in free advertising, according to mediaQuant. In contrast, Clinton earned a much smaller $3.24 billion.
And of the coverage that Trump received, the overwhelming majority of it was negative, according to a study by Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. The report showed that 77 percent of Trump’s coverage was negative, while only 23 percent was positive. Clinton’s numbers were slightly better: Sixty-four percent of her coverage was negative, while 36 percent was positive.
Clinton was indeed dinged with unflattering coverage during the election for the email scandal. But the negative headlines she got were nothing compared to what Trump weathered during the same period. If it seemed like reporters focused on Clinton’s email scandal, it’s because that was the go-to scandal for the Democratic nominee. In contrast, Trump was an all-you-can-eat buffet of 24-hour “gaffes.” Things were tough for Clinton, sure, but for Trump, there was no action he could take that wouldn't result in a relentless hurricane of unflattering coverage and commentary.
Newsrooms spent anywhere between 12- and 24-hours obsessing over his comments about women, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, his taxes, former models, Latinos, etc., before moving on to the next negative story. It became a somewhat tiresome and predictable pattern for newsrooms.
Yglesias would have us believe that 2016’s Clinton email coverage is proof that newsrooms are beholden to conservative voices, even as the data shows the opposite — that the 2016 presidential news cycle was dominated by negative coverage for the Republican nominee.
But let's get at the heart of the matter: His chief complaint is that the press doesn’t talk more about issues he cares about because it’s too busy covering conservative "shiny objects," including a fatal Justice Department-led gun-running scheme and the murder of a U.S. ambassador. If we want to talk about "shiny objects," then let's do it. Newsrooms absolutely chase after distracting, garbage stories, but it's rarely for the benefit of conservatives.
Conservatives are not, for example, responsible for the New York Times, Politico, USA Today, and Time magazine dedicating serious news coverage to the first lady’s choice of footwear when she was en route to a hurricane disaster site. Conservatives aren’t responsible for the feeding frenzy over gossip blogger Michael Wolff’s extremely dubious White House "tell-all." Conservatives aren’t responsible for cable news networks rewarding celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti with an average of two on-air appearances per day between March 7 and May 15. Conservatives aren't responsible for the news cycle wherein reporters speculated about whether the first lady had disappeared following her kidney surgery. No one forced liberal reporters to spend an entire weekend of their lives yelling at the Newseum’s gift shop. If we're to take Yglesias' argument seriously, then what are we to make of the uncritical, wall-to-wall news coverage of the unverified allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Justice Brett Kavanaugh? Was that just another example of the media's supposedly sympathetic approach to conservative viewpoints?
If Yglesias is annoyed that members of the press focus on issues he thinks are unserious, he has no one to blame but members of the press. To believe that newsrooms' love of oftentimes anti-conservative nonstories is the result of conservative influence? Come on.