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Why the media is still struggling with how to cover Trump

With President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden set to participate Thursday night in separate televised town halls on different broadcast networks, we take a look at how the media is covering the candidates during this highly unusual presidential campaign. Judy Woodward reports and talks to The Atlantic’s James Fallows and Susie Banikarim, executive vice president at Vice News.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Both President Trump and former Vice President Biden were originally supposed to be debating tonight. But, as we know, the Commission on Presidential Debates insisted on a virtual second debate online.

    Biden agreed, but Mr. Trump refused.

    Instead, both men are now participating in separate town halls airing on two different broadcast television networks at the same time.

    Tonight's dueling town halls sparked fresh criticism about how the mainstream news media are covering the election and whether or not they are being too deferential.

    Those concerns date back to the 2016 presidential election, when then-candidate Donald Trump was given a disproportionate amount of airtime, compared to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

    Mr. Trump drew attention for many reasons, but Democrats and other critics say his sheer shock and entertainment value, and the viewers they draw, higher ratings, fueled lopsided coverage and let him float through the primaries without enough scrutiny.

    The Tyndall Report found that Mr. Trump alone accounted for more than twice the 2016 election coverage on the ABC, NBC, and CBS evening newscasts as did Hillary Clinton and her campaign.

    A New York Times analysis found he secured roughly the equivalent of $2 billion in free media coverage during that campaign. That was more than 2.5 times the free coverage given to Clinton.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The fake news media.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president's supporters and many conservative voters have long argued the press is unfair to their candidate, a problem they say became much worse after Trump unexpectedly won.

    They argue much of the news media is obsessed with trying to take him down. But many journalists say it is the president's own headline-making statements, insults, falsehoods, and frequent distortion of the facts that precipitate such extensive coverage.

  • President Donald Trump:

    When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A number of studies show that immigrants and unauthorized residents do not commit crimes at higher rates.

    A new documentary titled "Enemies of the People" airing today on VICE TV takes a closer look at how the news media covered the president in the last election and sits down with news leaders, like CNN president Jeff Zucker.

  • Jeff  Zucker:

    Donald Trump would say outrageous things or say things that weren't true, and it just became accepted, all, well, that's what he does.

    Not calling that out more for what it was, and then holding the other side more accountable, that was probably a mistake.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another notable difference, a 2017 analysis from The Columbia Journalism Review found that coverage of Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server dominated mainstream news coverage more than any other topic during the 2016 election.

    This time, Republicans and some journalists say Joe Biden is the one not getting his fair share of scrutiny. Voters have one last opportunity to watch the president and the former vice president debate together one week from today in Nashville.

    Yet another story broke late today, adding to the controversy over the fall debates. Steve Scully, who is the political editor at C-SPAN, who was supposed to moderate tonight's debate, was suspended by C-SPAN for lying and saying his Twitter account was hacked.

    Scully made that claim last week after he exchanged messages with a former Trump spokesman who is now opposed to President Trump. Scully apologized.

    But the president tweeted that — quote — he was right. He said the debate was rigged and that the Trump campaign was not treated fairly by the Debates Commission.

    Let's take this moment to look at the news media's coverage of the campaign.

    James Fallows is a writer and author who wrote all about this for "The Atlantic." And Susie Banikarim, she is the director and producer of the documentary we just mentioned. She's the executive vice president at VICE News.

    And we welcome you to the "NewsHour."

    Jim Fallows, to you first.

    What do you make of the network's decision tonight? ABC had scheduled a town meeting with Joe Biden. Then NBC scheduled a town meeting with President Trump at the exact same time.

  • James Fallows:

    In my view, this was a very, very serious misjudgment by NBC, which I think — I don't know what this will have any lasting political significance, but I think it will be seen as a real miscalculation their part.

    The reason is, one of the lessons the news media, looking back four years ago, was just their attraction to the spectacle of Donald Trump, covering his rallies in 2015 onward. We have seen. We see it with the Coronavirus Task Force briefings, et cetera, the coverage of the helicopter from Walter Reed.

    The only reason to run these events head to head is for the spectacle value, see who's going to win the ratings battle, et cetera, et cetera.

    I think NBC could have given Donald Trump a time after Joe Biden, the next day or whatever. So, I think this was an unfortunate judgment on their part.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Susie Banikarim, what about that? I mean, you have worked at the networks. You know how these decisions are made. What do you think has happened here?

  • Susie Banikarims:

    I mean, look, I think this is incredibly disappointing, but it's not a surprise.

    What Trump's real skill is, is knowing how to draw attention away from a story that's not working for him. So, he didn't do well in the first debate. He really didn't want to do the second debate, and was getting criticized for that. And now all anybody's talking about is NBC and not him and the things that aren't working in his campaign, right?

    And when NBC agrees to do this, they just play completely into his hands. They let him control the narrative. And he's already talking about how they're fake news on Twitter. So, it's also just disappointing that they would give him this kind of opportunity to use them and also malign them at the same time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which does raise the question, Jim Fallows.

    As we mentioned, there's so much criticism of what the media did to enable Donald Trump in 2016. How do you see coverage this year?

  • Jim Fallows:

    I think that the two big problems I tried to write about in "The Atlantic" from the previous cycle's coverage — one was this attraction to spectacle, as Susie Banikarim was just saying and that you have — that you just were doing in the setup piece.

    The other was the — the difficulty of the media in dealing what I call with bothsiderism. If one person is saying something that's true, and somebody else is saying something that's simply beyond the realm of reality, like that the U.S. is doing fine with the pandemic, et cetera, it is difficult for the media to try to have our standard pose of centrism while having these two conflicting views.

    I think more of the media have been trying on this second front to deal with bothsiderism than have been trying to resist the spectacle of Donald Trump. So I think it is an evolutionary process. But, basically, I think Donald Trump has played the media more than the media have been aware of being played.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Susie Banikarim, what about that?

    I mean, it's something that all of us in the media struggle with, of course, not wanting to take sides, wanting to cover fairly. But you're covering a candidate the likes of which we have never seen.

  • Susie Banikarim:

    Yes, I think there's just an incredible push to balance. It's just naturally how we're taught to think about things as journalists.

    But the reality is, is, sometimes, two things are just not equal, and it's our job to contextualize that for people and help them process it. And when we don't do that, when we sort of just give equal weight to everything, they don't have any way of understanding that, at the same time as Trump is saying that he wants Amy Coney Barrett confirmed so she can weigh in on the election if it goes to the Supreme Court, that the media is spending a lot more time asking Biden about court packing.

    And those things aren't equal. They're really different issues and really different from erosions of democracy. And when we play into that, when we sort of push to balance, just because we don't know another way to seem objective, we're doing a disservice to the audience.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jim Fallows, talk for just a moment about, what are the values that come into play here?

    I mean, there's no more equal time provision for television, for broadcast networks to have to abide by. So what are the standards that journalists should be thinking about?

  • Jim Fallows:

    So, I think, back in the earlier days of journalism, when I was getting a start, there were certain norms that we could expect politicians to operate within.

    There were, as you say, the legal requirements of the Fairness Doctrine, where broadcast networks had to put on things from opposing parties. And most journalists could assume that most politicians would try to avoid saying things that were provably untrue.

    As we move into different terrain where those norms don't apply in the same way, I think there's a new movement that is necessarily under way in journalism to say, our two loyalties should be to the process of democracy, democracy, small-D democracy, and to observable truth.

    And, sometimes, this puts us in a difficult position of saying we think this side is saying something that is true, and this side is not. But our larger, longer-term loyalty is — should be to democracy and to the truth, as we can best determine it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Susie Banikarim, that does take — as Jim is suggesting, that does take journalists away from what many journalists were taught.

    And that is, you try to give as equal, as fair treatment and time to all candidates as you can.

  • Susie Banikarim:

    Yes, but I think it's just time to evolve the thinking, right?

    There's a certain sort of pattern that we have established that Donald Trump just doesn't adhere to, right? He's unwilling to adhere to these norms. And he uses them to manipulate the media.

    So, when you see that you're being played or manipulated, it's time to change the playbook and adjust to what's happening. And, to some degree, I think what Donald Trump really took advantage of in 2016 is that political journalism had become very akin to entertainment and had become very sports-like. People just constantly talked about who was up and who was down.

    And if we just continue in that same pattern, we're going to just continue to have elections where people aren't getting good information, right?

    And I think this is the moment, as we go into what's going to be a very difficult election week, and where a lot of information is going to be coming in, and we're going to have to be processing it and helping people understand it, to really take a step back and ask, what is the role we play in making sure people get the best information, the information they need to really assess things accurately?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Jim Fallows, what is it that viewers, consumers of news who care about this election, and want the best possible coverage, what should they be demanding right now from the news media, and especially from television?

  • Jim Fallows:

    So, I think it'll be awkward for me to say this right at this moment, but I personally appreciate the effort that your program makes to try to say — to represent different sides and arguments, but to say, at this moment, we think certain sides are more grounded in reality.

    I think for readers, viewers, listeners, there is a tremendous array of material available now. And I guess the main thing that the public can do is similar to what we in the media can do, which is to try to avoid just the distraction of the spectacle minute by minute by minute, that, if we find ourselves, as citizens or as reporters, being in the mode of a cat chasing a laser dot, we're — it's exciting in that instant, but we're not deciding about the things that matter in the long term.

    So there's a lot of material out there to listen to watch and to read, so seek it out.

  • Judy WoodruffF:

    We're going to have to leave it there. And we thank you both so much.

    Jim Fallows, Susie Banikarim, we appreciate it.

  • Jim Fallows:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Susie Banikarim:

    Thank you.

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