“I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
So said former Congressman Charles Brownson, a Republican from Indianapolis, in 1964. It was good advice then; it is still good advice for anyone who spends time in the public eye. If you are running for president of the United States, it is especially good advice.
This reminder of Brownson’s quip probably comes too late for the GOP nominee, Donald J. Trump. His polls are in free fall, the electoral college map, with its current demographic advantage for Democrats, is looking insurmountable, with a possibly electoral college vote landslide between 325-355 votes. As more women come forward with accusations of groping, a GOP loss of the Senate looks increasingly probable and a once unthinkable loss of the House has become possible.
While there are a laundry list of factors to blame, I believe that people have underestimated the significance of good old fashioned print reporting and investigative journalism.
Newspapers killed the Reality TV star. 1
How did this happen? How did a man who spent much of his adulthood in the media, including being ever-present in newspapers, magazines and tabloids, so totally misjudge what journalists were capable of?
This is the same Donald Trump mastered the Tweet, conquered reality TV, and with all due respect to Howard Stern, rose to become (however briefly) king of all media. How did he totally misjudge the capability of dedicated journalists to ferret out the truth, no matter how hidden it was believed to be?
Blame Television. During Donald Trump’s primary campaign, his success was a product of television, not print. He was so compelling in that format that Matt Taibbi called the rest of the field “the most dishonest, bumbling and under-qualified pack of presidential candidates in history” (GOP Clown Car). They stood no chance as Trump’s mastery of electronic media sucked all of the air out of the room, depriving every other candidate of needed oxygen a/k/a media coverage.
For certain, Trump is a wildly improvisational candidate who always seems one misstep away from disaster. But it never caught up with him, and if anything, his supporters loved the change from politics as usual. From Mexican Rapists to McCain getting captured (“I don’t like people who get captured“), Trump constantly uttered phrases that would have disqualified a lesser candidate. But his compelling television appearance and brilliant use of Twitter propelled him forward. Steamrolling through the primaries, defeating all challengers, he was looking competitive heading into the general election.
Where did it all go so wrong?
I am not discussing the details of 3500 (make that 4000) lawsuits, the fake philanthropy, the phony foundation, the non-payment of federal taxes. Long before his lewd conversation with Billy Bush of NBC’s access Hollywood was heard (“locker room talk”), the entire campaign was heading for trouble.
You see, Trump had pissed off, I mean really fucking pissed off, the print media. This normally accessible candidate who adores the limelight knew he was a hot ticket. But in response to perceived slights, however minor, led to the selective withdrawal of access to various individual reporters and their media outlets.
He was ratings gold for television during the primary season, and no one could get enough of him. Websites strained to get his name into clickable headlines. The more outrageous his behavior became, the greater the media reward was. Some estimates put the value of the free publicity at $2 billion dollars. FoxNews’ Sean Hannity alone was estimated to have gifted The Donald over $31 million in free airtime, according to calculations made over the summer. So great was the deluge of free media, that as recently as August, Trump had spent exactly zero on television advertising. The press reports were mostly glowing. Politico put together a list of the 12 Best Donald Trump Stories From 2015, and they were all positive.
Less than a year later, the wheels were coming off the campaign bus. The Atlantic summed it up with The Many Scandals of Donald Trump: A Cheat Sheet.
Hillary Clinton has also had a long and adversarial relationship with the media. She has not held very many press conferences, and has not had a press pool flying in her plane with her. But she is not banning specific organizations or reporters as the Trump campaign has.
That list of terribles detailed above was in no small part a result of Trump’s challenge to the media. Dig up all the dirt on me you want, he practically dared the press. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump said at a campaign rally.
This hubris led him to tickle the dragon’s tail to show just how much he could get away with.
First he began banning individual reporters; then entire press organizations. In January, his campaign ejected The New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel. This was 6 months before Trump revoked the credentials of reporters from the Washington Post on June 13. He also banned the National Review, Univision, Daily Beast, HuffPo, Buzzfeed, Politico, The Des Moines Register, Mother Jones, and Gawker among with others. The catalog of the banned got so long that Gawker began keeping a running list of papers and reporters of whom the campaign had revoked credentials.
What was so offensive to the media wasn’t the loss of credentials of any specific reporter. Nor was it the ignominy of having your entire organization banned. That was practically a badge of honor in certain circles. Rather, it was Trump’s dismissal of the entire fourth estate as a crucial component to Democracy. If you do not understand what the role of the press is in American politics, how could you ever hope to fulfill the role of President of the United States?
Unbeknownst to Trump, he had awoken a sleeping giant:
Blockbuster reporting from (mostly) old school print journalists:
1. Unpaid Contractors and litigation: Trump’s 3,500 lawsuits unprecedented for a presidential nominee (Nick Penzenstadler and Susan Page, USA Today) see also Donald Trump: Three decades 4,056 lawsuits.
2. Philanthropy: Trump promised millions to charity. We found less than $10,000 over 7 years (David Farenholdt, Washington Post) see also How Donald Trump retooled his charity to spend other people’s money.
3. Taxes Donald Trump Tax Records Show He Could Have Avoided Taxes for Nearly Two Decades, The Times Found. (By David Barstow, Susanne Craig, Russ Buettner and Megan Twohey, New York Times)
4. Trump: A True Story (By David A. Fahrenthold and Robert O’Harrow Jr., Washington Post) 2007 deposition reveals Trump admitting lies under oath.
5. Trump wanted to fire women who weren’t pretty enough, say employees at his California golf club (By Matt Pearce, L.A. Times)
6. Donald Trump masqueraded as publicist to brag about himself (By Marc Fisher and Will Hobson, Washington Post)
7. Donald Trump Said A Lot Of Gross Things About Women On “Howard Stern” (Andrew Kaczynski, Nathan McDermott, Buzzfeed)
8. Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic (By Michael Barbaro, New York Times)
9. The Art of the Upsell: How Donald Trump Profits From ‘Free’ Seminars at Trump University (Tom McNichol, The Atlantic)
10. Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005 (David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post)
Especially noteworthy was last month’s Trump announcement / hotel informercial / claim it was Hillary who created the birther movement. The press had been somewhat stymied in how they should respond to the unique quantity and quality of lies coming forth from the GOP nominee. The front page New York Times coverage essentially created a template for the rest of the media in responding to this.
Perhaps Trump (like many others) assumed newspapers were dead. It certainly felt that way to many people in the industry. The print sector had fallen on hard times, its business model supplanted by the internet. Craigslist was cheaper, eBay was more comprehensive, and Google News was free.
But the existential threat of a candidate who does not care much for the First Amendment and often threatens litigation against journalists was too much to take. If newspaper and magazines were going to go down, it would be fighting. Print quietly returned to its roots of investigative journalism and deep dive reporting. The Washington Post assigned two 20-person teams to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with orders to look into every phase of their lives. Other newspapers have similarly put reporters to work beyond the campaign trail.
However, there is a significant difference between the public figures of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. She had been a government figure for decades: starting in Arkansas when Bill Clinton became governor, then in the White House as First Lady, then New York’s Senator, and eventually Secretary of State. The FBI had done repeated background checks on her – that was before the endless Benghazi hearings and email investigation and other witch hunts that so far have found politically damaging soundbites but little in the way of criminality. Decades of that so-called “vast right wing conspiracy,” now known as alt.right media, had dug into every little tidbit of her life, creating a parade of conspiracy theories (HILLARY KILLED VINCE FOSTER!).
At this point in her very public career, there are few if any skeletons left in Hillary Clinton’s closet. Trump, on the other hand, has not been vetted in great detail prior to winning the nomination. As Mojo reported and Bloomberg news echoed this week, Trump’s political advisers wanted to put him through the usual vetting process but the GOP nominee said no. The lack of opposition research by the his GOP competitors has been called “political malpractice.”
This is hard to fathom. The standard background check – hiring a professional to investigate his past, doing opposition research on your own candidate that you know the other candidate and the media are doing – was vetoed according to sources with direct knowledge of the campaign.
Any billionaire with nothing to hide who wanted to be President would surely spend $250,000 or so to ensure you knew what might get dug up. Someone who isn’t that wealthy or (apparently) had something to hide would not.
Prior to his nomination, despite his being a celebrity and reality television star, Donald Trump had mostly experienced only superficial tabloid coverage. There were a few exceptions: A 2005 excerpt from the book Trump Nation published in the New York Times describes the problem Forbes had figuring out his net worth. He lobbied furiously to be included on the Forbes 400, even though he at best barely qualified. 2 Trump Nation author, Timothy O’Brien, quoted people with “direct knowledge of Donald’s finances who had worked closely with him for years” – they thought his net worth was somewhere between $150 million and $250 million. Trump sued O’Brien for slander, but the case was tossed out of court. (O’Brien is the Editor in Chief at Bloomberg View where I write about investing). 3
This dichotomy between two public figures – one thoroughly vetted, the other only superficially – created an opportunity for the print media. At the risk of jumping the gun before November 8, the key media player in this election has not been social networks or online sites or television, but rather the not quite dead yet newspaper sector. Just about all of the scoops this campaign have been broken by old fashioned reporter-driven newspapers and magazines.
What struck me about the campaign coverage has been the fierce and relentless reporting by old school print reporters covering the campaign. 4 The past three months have been revelatory. While its business model may have been decimated by the internet, newspapers remain the gold standard for reporting. Actual journalism by print newspapers is what is likely to determine the outcome of the Presidential election and impact control of the Senate and of the House.
This is despite the headcount reduction and budget cuts. It’s the sort of reporting that newspapers excel at, and the perfect storm for The Donald. Online outlets 5 and social networks served to amplify the work of gumshoe journalists at newspapers. 6
Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part. Maybe I am ignoring some of the earlier online reporting — much of which was terrific — because it came so early in the cycle, and did not seem to resonate. It simply appears to me that print has been monumental at a time when voters are (finally) paying attention. That might be why all of this outstanding reporting has become so meaningful.
Without a suitable business model or well-heeled benefactors to fund ongoing reportage, we should be concerned what this might mean for our republic in the future. For now, we should appreciate how newspapers are fulfilling their obligations in our democracy to keep the public informed.
2. Most extremely wealthy people studiously avoid the publicity and security issues the Forbes list brings.
3. Disclosure: I am an active participant in the media as a content producer, curator and consumer. For the past 5 years, I have been writing a column on investing and personal finance for the (print and online) Washington Post; I write for an institutional investors at Bloomberg View (online). I also host a weekly radio interview show at Bloomberg with people who have “mastered” finance and business.
4. The dirty secret of a lot of online content generation is that it is derivative, with very little of it original reporting. ProPublica stands out as a notable Pulitzer prize-winning exception. Sure, there is plenty of opinion, commentary, discussion, debate, bloviation and repurposing – I do all of the above – but there in terms of election moving original investigative reporting, the old school newspapers are dominating.
5. BuzzFeed has been strong (see #7 above) as has Pro Publica. I also enjoy reading Politico for the “inside baseball” stuff, it is always a good read.
6. Perhaps most relevant to our discussion, I curate a daily set of reads here as well. I have been doing this every morning forever. Doing this every morning starting at 4:30am, and even though I do this from all online material, the recent domination of print has become terribly obvious.