I avoided social media for most of last week. I knew my feeds would be full of hot takes about Trump’s rise. How could the media possibly play such a big role helping him to the nomination? I was one of the few people who wasn’t surprised. I predicted this media cycle over a year ago at the end of my dissertation. I posted my prediction and what led me to it on this blog in December. The one time I logged on last week to read non-sports tweets, I was surprised to see someone else’s predictions for the general election continue to pop up in my Twitter feed:
Among all these classes of professionals, all these institutions, that whole superstructure of US politics built around two balanced sides, there will be a tidal pull to normalize this election, to make it Coca-Cola versus Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola versus sewer water.
The US political system knows how to play the former script; it doesn’t know how to play the latter. There’s a whole skein of practices, relationships, and money flows developed around the former. The latter would occasion a reappraisal of, well, everything. Scary.
So there will be a push to lift Donald Trump up and bring Hillary Clinton down, until they are at least something approximating two equivalent choices.
This comes from a longer post from David Roberts of Vox. Roberts starts his essay with the position that “Almost irrespective of what you think of Clinton’s politics or her policies, she is manifestly more prepared to run the federal government than Donald Trump.” Regardless of the qualities of the candidates, research has shown a bias to favor the underdog and make campaigns look more competitive. Roberts argues the imbalance between candidates is the “elemental fact about the election,” but mainstream media organizations will be unable to address it. Roberts’ essay draws from a common complaint on the left: as Republicans have drifted further right, they are no longer equivalents of the Democratic Party. Roberts tries to argue it is media norms, not reality, that puts the two parties on equal footing. The “false equivalence” complaint is most common in Roberts’ beat of climate change, where there is only one acceptable side within the scientific community.
What would it look like if a major media company actually followed Roberts’ suggestion? Facebook may give us some insight. Back in 2014, Facebook implemented a “trending topics” window to try and compete with Twitter’s specialty. The company never fully specified how decisions were made. Over the last week Gizmodo has published several stories about the former journalists hired to pick out Facebook’s trending topics. I recommend both. Here is a key quote from the first story:
“I got the sense that they wanted to keep the magic about how trending topics work a secret,” said another former news curator. “We had to write in the most passive tense possible. That’s why you’d see headlines that appear in an alien-esque, passive language.”
A former employee came forward today alleging political bias. A few directives allegedly came from the corporate office. However, those directives mainly listed a set of preferred media outlets (New York Times, Time, Variety) to verify a topic is trending and less prestigious sites to avoid (World Star Hip Hop, The Blaze). Exclusion of conservative political topics was up to the whims of who was working a particular shift:
“I’d come on shift and I’d discover that CPAC or Mitt Romney or Glenn Beck or popular conservative topics wouldn’t be trending because either the curator didn’t recognize the news topic or it was like they had a bias against Ted Cruz.”
“It was absolutely bias. We were doing it subjectively. It just depends on who the curator is and what time of day it is,” said a different curator. “Every once in awhile a Red State or conservative news source would have a story. But we would have to go and find the same story from a more neutral outlet that wasn’t as biased.”
Facebook goes to great lengths to present itself as one of the few neutral pipelines for media content. The company has aggravated progressive critics in the past by claiming their goal is to give the audience what it wants. One of the few times Facebook publicly admitted failure was in the early days of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Ferguson protests trended on Twitter while the Ice Bucket Challenge trended on Facebook. Some of these differences come from different user bases with different interests. However, Facebook has been relatively open about needing to have their thumb on the scale to make breaking news trend faster on the site to avoid future embarrassment.
Putting Facebook’s conundrum side-by-side with Roberts’ essay illustrates the fundamental problem of providing news content. True neutrality makes media companies look like they don’t care about anything but eyeballs and the least common denominator. People rely on journalists to do the hard work of putting a thumb on the scale, separating important stories from everything else. However, many people in the audience distrust that thumb on the scale. Audiences that care deeply about political news are like Roberts – they always imagine a better way to balance the news whether or not it is viable.
Most people assume objectivity is mainly a normative commitment to treat multiple sides equally. Roberts and the Gizmodo stories naively repeat this assumption. In practice, journalistic objectivity is more about deflecting accusations of bias (Tuchman 1972, link to JSTOR gated). When the president gives a press conference, the next day’s news stories do not try to give an equal balance of the president and the opposing party. In my study, the most common situation was only quoting the president. Readers don’t protest when a minor press conference leads to completely one-sided coverage. They don’t even notice! I found that the balance between quoting the president and other sources was largely a function of how much news coverage a conference received. Mainstream journalists care more about providing balance and objectivity when people are more likely to pay attention and complain about imbalance.
Now lets think about a presidential election. Large sections of the American population pay attention. News organizations do not want one side claiming they are biased. Partisans get very angry if you tell them their candidate had no shot. Republican activists argued the polls were “skewed” and tried to “unskew” them to show a competitive race. Sanders supporters have tried to cherry pick poll results all year to try and make him look like he was doing better than Clinton. Partisans are the most likely to feel that the media is biased against them. Imagine the next 100 polls said Clinton is favored by 20 points. If a reporter writes this story, Trump’s core supporters are more likely to believe the story or polls are biased than to believe their candidate is deeply unpopular.
All the hand-wringing about “false equivalency” and Facebook reminds me of the weirdest thing I ever saw in journalism. When I interned at a local television news station, the correspondents started most interviews with the camera off. Then they turned the camera on and asked the exact same question. I was shocked. How could this lead to good journalism? The most serious, grizzled correspondent at the station explained “if you get a bullshit answer, then they are stuck on camera giving a bullshit answer.” People react so badly to the image of a journalist with their thumb on the scale. Even people like Roberts who want more activist journalism seem convinced that reporters would never get it right. One of the best ways for a journalist to show a politician is manipulative and self-serving is to take their thumb off the scale. At a certain point you have to trust the audience’s judgment.