September 21, 2016

How to Rig an Election: The 2016 Presidential Election

presidential election 2016
In Part I of this series, I looked at the 2016 Democratic primary and how our mainstream news media provided Hillary Clinton with an unfair advantage over her competitors by labeling her "the presumptive nominee" and pushing the narrative of her inevitability even before we new who might run against her. In Part II, I considered the 2016 Republican primary and how our mainstream news media provided Donald Trump with an unfair advantage over his competitors by devoting far more coverage to him than all his competitors combined. In both cases, we had the luxury of being able to examine the entire span of time from when the first candidate entered the contest until both parties held their conventions. We do not have that advantage here because the 2016 general election is not yet over. Thus, this post is going to have to be more speculative.

Once Trump secured the Republican nomination and Clinton locked up the Democratic nomination, the primaries were over. It was no longer necessary for anyone in our news media to pretend that they needed to cover any of the candidates who were not nominated. The story they had worked so hard to engineer was the one they got. That chapter is over, and it is time to move on. And yet, one would do well to remember that there are other candidates in the general election contest (e.g., Jill Stein and Gary Johnson) who are receiving virtually no coverage from our mainstream news media. In other words, we are continuing to see clear evidence that our news media are influencing the general election much as they influenced the primaries. They are still providing Trump and Clinton with an unfair degree of coverage, only now this is working to the detriment of third party candidates.

Why does this matter? Just as in the primaries, it matters because it is unlikely that voters are going to support candidates who have received so little coverage. "Who is this Jill Stein person? She must not be a serious candidate or I would have seen her on the news." When third party candidates receive virtually no coverage while we hear about Clinton and Trump every day, it is almost impossible for them to poll high enough to make it into the debates. And if they are not included in the debates, most voters will not regard them as viable options. So one consequence of the biased manner in which the mainstream news media have been covering this general election is to virtually guarantee that third party candidates have little chance.

Remember, this is precisely what happened to Bernie Sanders at the beginning of the Democratic primary. His candidacy was ignored until his campaign caught fire with voters. And when it could no longer be ignored, it was actively derided and dismissed. Unfortunately, the odds of one of the current third party campaigns catching fire like that in the time we have left before the debates does not seem particularly high. By ignoring these campaigns, our news media are dooming them to irrelevancy.

Now let's set aside the third party candidates, just as our news media has, and focus on how Clinton and Trump are being covered. Is there a difference in the amount of coverage these two candidates are receiving such that one has a clear advantage? I'm not sure there has been a big difference, but it does seem like we are hearing more about Trump than Clinton. As to whether this continues to benefit him like it did during the primary is less clear. I suspect that Clinton is actually benefiting to some degree from her relative lack of coverage. She seems smart to lay low and let Trump self-destruct in the spotlight, especially if the alternative is to address her various scandals.

If it seems strange that I am suggesting that unfair media coverage benefited candidates during the primaries but not necessarily in the general election, I think it is important to remember that the primaries are where we are first meeting the candidates. With the exception of the third party candidates our media refuse to cover, we already know the candidates by the start of the general election contest.

Aside from the amount of coverage each candidate is receiving, what else has stood out about the coverage? We have been told again and again that both candidates have higher negatives than we've ever seen at this point in a presidential election. For Trump, we've been told that this is mostly about his offensive public statements and the few outrageous policies he's offered so far (e.g., deporting 2 million people within an hour of taking office). For Clinton, we've been told that this is mostly about lack of trust, the chronic effects of Republican attacks throughout her career, and sexism. It seems that the message, while admittedly subtle, is that Trump is fundamentally a bad person while Clinton is largely misunderstood and not being given a fair shake.

Perhaps Trump is a bad person. The question is whether we really want various pundits on our cable news trying to convince us of this before our election? Is this really what we want from our news media? Personally, I'd prefer more facts and far less editorializing (especially when it is rarely identified as such). Tell me what Trump said, and let me judge it for myself. Better yet, show me him actually saying it in context and let me evaluate it. By presenting pundit after pundit to denigrate Trump, aren't the news media doing exactly what they claim Republicans did to create Clinton's high negatives? And even if there is nobody pulling the strings with the goal of discrediting Trump, I'm not sure how to view this as anything other than undue influence.

Perhaps some of Clinton's negatives are due to the decades of Republican attacks she's weathered and sexism. But what about her record? She has a tremendous advantage over Trump in the form of her political experience; however, the flip side of having so much political experience is that she has a record of votes we can examine. To anticipate how she would govern, we can look at how she has governed. Could it be that some of her high negatives are due to her record and how some parts of it seem wildly inconsistent with some of what she's saying now? Again, I'd far prefer our mainstream news media provide fact-based news and skip the opinion-based analysis. Attempting to persuade voters that Clinton has gotten a bad rap stinks of undue influence even if there is some truth to it.

We do not yet know how the 2016 presidential election will end, although we have certainly heard a great deal about how it will be a lopsided affair in Clinton's favor. What strikes me as difficult to deny at this point is that our mainstream news media have exerted an undue influence on the process and are continuing to do so. Their influence need not be systemic and coordinated to matter. I'm not alleging that there is a puppet master guiding the entire enterprise or that it is as simple as the entire news media having a goal such as "elect Clinton." I'm sure some will disagree, but I do not think it is that simple. More to the point, I do not think media influence has to look this way before we become concerned about it. I think it is legitimate for us to become concerned the moment we realize that giving far more coverage to one candidate over another affects how the public will evaluate candidates.

What the heck do we do about this sorry state of affairs? Before we can do anything meaningful, I think we have to reach the point where enough of us agree that we do not want our corporate-owned mainstream news media to have such an influence on our elections. I do not believe we have reached this point yet. Not even close. Far too many people seem to be content with (or at least resigned to) what has been happening. Frankly, there is not nearly enough outrage about the manner in which our news media influence our elections. If that changes, we can get solution-focused. There are plenty of reforms that could help. But until the public becomes sufficiently fed up as to demand change, I'm not sure there is much we can do.