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A television reporter waits to do a live shot as preparations are made for Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's election night rally at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, Nov. 8, 2016. (MARK KAUZLARICH/REUTERS)
A television reporter waits to do a live shot as preparations are made for Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's election night rally at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, Nov. 8, 2016. (MARK KAUZLARICH/REUTERS)

SIMON HOUPT

Disenchanted with media, U.S. voters turn to alternative outlets Add to ...

On Monday night in Scranton, Pa., the audience at a Donald Trump rally broke into a raucous, full-throated chant: “CNN sucks!” they roared. Journalists sent a clip of the scene ricocheting around social media, as their colleagues cluck-clucked over how the Republican candidate had made hatred of the media a centrepiece of his run for the White House.

But it’s not just Trump supporters who have lost faith in the media. Even as record numbers of U.S. voters tuned in to TV and other coverage of the 2016 campaign, they have grown disenchanted with what they saw. Audiences on both sides of the political divide have embraced alternative outlets that feed them increasingly partisan views of the world, cut off from the blood supply of facts. Now, media executives at traditional outlets are trying to reckon with how they proceed after the adrenalin rush of the campaign has subsided and they need to reassert their legitimacy.

A recent survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center paints the industry’s disconnect with its audience in stark terms. In the 2008 election, 60 per cent of respondents said the media treated both Barack Obama and his Republican opponent John McCain fairly. By 2012, only 46 per cent of respondents felt the media had treated Mr. Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney, fairly.

Read more: Donald Trump elected U.S. president in stunning upset

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In the 2016 election, only 37 per cent of respondents perceived the coverage of Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton to be fair. (Twenty-seven per cent said the media were too easy on Mr. Trump; 23 per cent said they were too tough on him. Thirty-three per cent said the media were too easy on Ms. Clinton; 16 per cent said they were too tough on her.)

Perhaps the media should be pleased those numbers are still in the double digits. After all, by targeting the media in blistering attacks, including suggestions that he would weaken First Amendment protections if he became president in order to let people sue news outlets “and make lots of money,” Mr. Trump engaged in a canny bit of jujitsu, sidelining the strongest force that might have brought him and his manifold lies to heel.

Those that pushed back were restricted in how they could defend themselves, by the traditional requirement to appear objective. Already fighting rearguard battles against an array of disruptive forces (social media, a shrinking revenue base, leaner and faster digital upstarts), even legacy outlets such as the right-wing Fox News found themselves challenged in the 2016 campaign by relative newcomers that danced gleefully (and sometimes in a racist fashion) on the partisan fringes such as Breitbart News, the so-called alt-right venue whose president, Steve Bannon, became Mr. Trump’s chief campaign adviser in late August.

If those outlets often operate with little regard for facts, Mr. Trump was their platonically ideal candidate. He is not much of a reader, but his embrace of conspiracy theories and disdain for facts suggests he evidently knows his Mark Twain, who observed that “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (And that was before Twitter.)

If the media seemed biased against Mr. Trump, that may be simply because his whoppers were so much more voluminous, extreme, and easily fact-checked than most of Ms. Clinton’s carefully scripted statements.

But even as both candidates trafficked in fibs big and small, their armies of followers merrily shared the messages on social media. In an impressive bit of online sleuthing, BuzzFeed’s Canadian bureau recently led the reporting on a story about how sharply partisan political Facebook pages were spreading what the outlet called “false or misleading information.” But most stories only spread on social media if people share them. It may be that, while the legacy media outlets could certainly do better, regular people need to recognize the role that they now play as amateur publishers in the media ecosystem: Before they share something, they should verify it.

In an early pre-postmortem on Tuesday morning with the radio host Diane Rehm, CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter said that elections are supposed to be a “cleansing moment” for the United States, when the nation takes stock of what it has just been through and resolves to do better next time.

He hoped that news consumers might look at the results of the election and try to square them with what they had been told by the media in the runup to the vote, that people might ask themselves: ‘Was the information I was getting, reliable?’ And if it wasn’t, he suggested, perhaps they should seek out different sources.

The campaign for the White House may be over. But the fierce campaign for audiences is only getting started.

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Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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