Panel Examines Media, Public Distrust in 2016 Election

During this year’s unconventional election season, the media is subject to a barrage of public distrust, according to a panel event organized by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and the School of Continuing Studies on Monday.

Moderated by independent journalist and Professor Linda Kramer Jenning, the panel featured GU Politics Executive Director Mo Elleithee (SFS ’94), The Washington Post’s Deputy National Political Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand (COL ’99), former Senior Policy and Political Adviser to the Jeb Bush presidential campaign Michael Steel and The Daily Beast’s Washington Bureau Chief Jackie Kucinich. Sinderbrand and Steel are GU Politics 2016 Fall Fellows, and Kucinich is a 2016 Spring Fellow.

The event began with the four panelists giving a grade to media coverage of the current election. Elleithee gave the media a C, while Sinderbrand gave a B, Steel a C and Kucinich a B+.

According to Elleithee, it is difficult for the media to operate amid a shifting political landscape.

“I’m going to start by saying I am not one of those political hacks who just throws bombs at reporters all the time. I actually like the press,” Elleithee said. “The age of communications that we live in right now is so rapidly transforming, and I think the press as an industry itself is also so rapidly transforming that it’s struggling to keep up. I don’t think you need much greater evidence of that than public opinion polls that tell you people trust the media just a hair more than they trust politicians.”

Sinderbrand praised the efforts of The Washington Post, which has been subject to a revocation of press credentials by Republican candidate Donald Trump’s campaign.

“I feel The Washington Post is doing a pretty good job this election,” Sinderbrand said. “We have a very good team, very dedicated journalists. I think we’ve done a good job of balancing different areas of coverage.”

Steel claimed the media was ill-equipped to cover the unique candidacies of Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

“What my grade reflects is a bifurcated opinion. There are individual reporters and institutions doing an incredible job covering this campaign,” Steel said. “The media as an institution has failed to successfully grapple with the challenges posed by the candidacies of Donald Trump and Secretary Clinton. Donald Trump is covered as an entertainer. Secretary Clinton has used the sideshow that is Donald Trump and the coverage around him to insulate herself from the press to a remarkable degree.”

Kucinich said her publication, The Daily Beast, managed balanced coverage but stressed it was difficult to assess the media as a whole.

“I write for a small publication, and when I see big publications publishing stories that we wrote a year ago, I think that we did a pretty good job,” Kucinich said. “It is hard to judge us as a monolith. These are very hard people to cover. Every election feels important, but for some reason this election feels more important.”

When Jenning asked whether there are certain strategies journalists should be implementing given the obstacles in this current election, Steel called for equal air time between the candidates.

“I would make one modest proposal particularly to cable news: some modicum of equal time,” Steel said. “Donald Trump’s every carnival show is broadcast in full. I don’t think Secretary Clinton has gotten anything like that wall-to-wall coverage.”

Elleithee reflected on how social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are increasingly impacting voter outlooks.

“What the press used to be able to do in presenting the world with at least a set of facts. Now we don’t even agree on that,” Elleithee said. “People are consuming information differently, and the way they’re consuming information is putting them in information silos.”

Steel also addressed the importance of fact-checking in an era when candidates repeatedly go back on their statements.

“Usually, if you get the fact checked enough on the same lie, you stop saying the lie,” Steel said. “Donald Trump’s just impervious to it this year.”

Elleithee anticipated a confrontational relationship between the White House and the press regardless of who assumes office in January.

“I don’t see a time in the immediate future where you’re going to have a comfortable, open relationship between whomever occupies the Oval Office and the press,” Elleithee said. “I want more access. I don’t see it happening any time soon, no matter whom is elected president.”

Steel further emphasized the vital role of the press in maintaining government transparency.

“I worry about honesty and truth,” Steel said. “Both for practical and idealistic reasons, if you are a presidential candidate, except on matters of actual security where perhaps there are many reasons not to, you tell the truth.”

The floor was then opened to questions from the audience, which ranged from the safety of reporters to objectivity in journalism. Sinderbrand described how The Washington Post attempts to stifle displays of partisanship in reporting.

“In my own news organization, you can get fired for a Facebook post, or a t-shirt, for going to an event that has a political tinge and you didn’t even realize,” Sinderbrand said. “People think about this constantly, and I work and have worked with some journalists in this town for years and could not tell you what their own personal political views are. To a certain extent, it’s a formula; you’re looking to break the news, you’re not rooting for anyone, you’re rooting for ‘I want to get this story right.’”

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