Did the mainstream media help get Donald Trump elected in 2016? And will they help him again this year?
Canada’s National Observer discussed what’s happening with the American media with Jill Abramson, 66, the first woman executive editor of the New York Times (2011-14) and author of a well-received book on the media industry, Merchants of Truth, published last year.
Abramson has had a storied career at the highest levels of mainstream journalism. Educated at Harvard, and after stints at American Lawyer magazine and at the Wall Street Journal, Abramson joined the New York Times in 1997. She soon became the paper’s Washington bureau chief, and was eventually promoted to executive editor — the first woman to hold that post in the 160-year history of the Times. In 2012, Abramson was ranked fifth on the Forbes list of most powerful women. Today, she is a senior lecturer at Harvard University.
This interview has been edited for length.
Q: Every day with Trump, there seems to be new revelations, the latest being with Bob Woodword’s book Rage. In regards to affecting the election, do these revelations have any impact?
A: Not much, I don't think there are that many undecided voters left that any one of these revelations would persuade, “Oh, now I see the light. I'm going to vote against President Trump.”
Maybe it’s an aggregate that it becomes so smelly altogether that a segment of voters who would consider voting for Trump won’t. But I think they merge into each other and that the scandals one after the other become like tweets – here today and gone tomorrow.
Q: If you go back to the 2016 election, one of the things from the post-mortems was the media was surprised there was a large portion of the population that clearly responded to Trump.
A: At the New York Times, (executive editor) Dean Baquet and (publisher) Arthur Sulzberger Jr., published that letter to readers admitting that, saying, “We'll make all these new efforts to cover the people who constituted this wave of angry white voters that elected Trump.” And I don't want to single out the New York Times, but I don't think that the news media has really fulfilled that promise. I don't feel I have a better intellectual understanding of Trump voters than I did in 2016.
Q: Would you agree that support for Trump came from blue-collar workers impacted by globalization and the impact of deindustrialisation?
A: Right, and hatred of elites.
"It used to be you're entitled to your opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts. But now it is you are entitled to your own facts. It's terrible. And corrosive to democracy." @JillAbramson
Q: And has their perception of the media changed?
A: No, journalists and the establishment news organizations like the Washington Post and New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CBS News, no, they're still perceived as part of the elite — that part of the country which they still despise.
Q: And so nothing in that respect has changed in the past four years, that's what you're saying?
A: No, I don't think much has changed.
Mainstream media overlooks power and influence of Fox News
Q: What about in regards to the impact of Fox, because the network seems to be the propaganda arm of Trump and the Republican Party.
A: It’s Trump’s Pravda.
Q: Again, do we really appreciate the impact of Fox in the United States as a force?
A: I don't think so. Yesterday I had a long drive from New York back to Boston, and I actually listened to Fox News on the radio and listened to Sean Hannity’s program because I want to know what Trump voters are being told about voter fraud, which is, you know, something that’s been made up. But it really was eye-opening to listen to his show and (hear) about the supposed 1,000 cases of voter fraud that the Heritage Foundation documented. I mean, it sounds very persuasive if you’re a listener and think Fox News is a purveyor of the truth.
But I don't think most political reporters at the places I previously named, I don't think they spend any time listening to Fox radio or right-wing talk radio — which may be more influential than Fox News channel on TV. I don't think they listen to it, they don't know what's being said. They're pretty out of touch.
Q: In regards to the media at this time, do you feel it has any real influence on how people vote or how they think?
A: Well, I guess that tracks back to what is the point of journalism? What is the mission of journalism? And the mission is to provide reliable, important information to the public, which should help them make decisions like how to vote.
And I think that journalism in many ways still fulfils that mission, but because of technological change and the bitter partisanship that has riven the country — the information they get is very different and polarized.
And so on both the left and the right, you have a situation of the news media providing information to an audience that already thinks in line with the kinds of, in the case of liberals, the kinds of critical stories that have been investigations on Trump, or on the right, the defenders of him, like Fox.
Q: If you go back 30 or 40 years, we had a handful of networks, you didn't have the internet, you had large, rich newspapers in most metropolitan areas that tended to be mostly centrist. How would you describe the media landscape today?
A: I would describe the landscape as much more polarized, and this is because there's never been a president like Donald Trump. He defies all of the norms of both human and political decency, and that has meant that the formerly centrist establishment media has — I think by force of the rank evils of this administration — been forced to cover him and the administration in ways that would strike (former New York Times executive editor) Abe Rosenthal, if he came back to life, as being very slanted and opinionated.
Q: And this raises the issue of what's happened to truth, what's happened to a verifiable fact now?
A: It used to be you're entitled to your opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts. But now it is you are entitled to your own facts. It's terrible. And corrosive to democracy.
Public trust in media is low
Q: But would you say that partially the reason people are now questioning what is a fact is that the mainstream media has had its own scandals over the last 20 years about facts?
A: I don't think it's the scandals. The important thing here is the perception of political bias, I really do. And the facts I could cite to back that up are the recent Gallup/Knight study that shows, again, the erosion of trust in news media. The percentage is like 80-something per cent of the public believe the news media is biased, and that number has really grown.
And I think that's the major contributor.
I'm not discounting the scandals. That may be a factor, but I think the perception of bias is the driver to why public trust has been going down.
Q: But does the bias stem from the fact that the media is corporate-owned, funded by advertisers, and reflects a narrow ideological perspective itself?
A: Yes, I do think concentrated ownership, the fact that local newspapers in the U.S. have died at such an alarming way, and they tended to be the most trusted sources for the news. So that the concentration of ownership and big media companies has contributed to the erosion of trust, for sure.
Q: The internet has had multiple effects, one of which was to undermine the economic foundations of the legacy media. But it's also, as you wrote in your book Merchants of Truth, introduced new forms of media like VICE, Buzzfeed, Vox, etc. How good a job is the new digital media doing?
A: It figures in because the two places I wrote about, Buzzfeed and VICE, are doing some really good political investigative pieces and are producing some worthwhile journalism. It’s just they don't have the kinds of newsrooms and size or experience to cover the political landscape as broadly and deeply as a place like the New York Times can. So their coverage is episodically good, but not comprehensively good.
Q: And they are also having problems sustaining themselves.
A: Yes, their economic model is digital advertising, which is crumbling away and not worth all that much.
New digital media is less impactful
Q: In regards to the new digital media, is it less impactful than, say, the old days of the legacy media?
A: It’s less impactful. I'm not sure it matters whether it's new media, old media, but the atomization of how news is delivered — there are so many different new sites on the web means that the impact of any one place is lessened. And then the technology has disaggregated the news so that it exists in individual stories spread on social media rather than by organizations and by acquired credibility of these organizations.
Q: In respect to the election coverage today, how would you characterize it?
A: I think, unfortunately, it's been inhibited by COVID-19 in many ways because it's much harder now to get in touch with and get the real reflections of voters, which is important in scandal-saturated and controversy-saturated news. Real voters can be ignored except for their cameo appearances on televised town halls and the like.
I wish I felt the coverage was a truer reflection of the people in the country, and I don't once again.
Q: How good a job has the media done covering the issue of race in the United States? Has it not been a stellar subject for the media, or does it really vary?
A: It varies. I would say one of the main issues that was under covered during my career in journalism is the still incredible wealth gap between Blacks and whites in the United States.
That the spotlight on that issue was episodic and the lights would turn on when there were big controversies and tragedies like the George Floyd murder or the Rodney King beating — then you'd see more stories about that aspect of race in America. But everything does eventually rest on economics and economic well-being, and that disparity is as bad as it was in the 1950s.
Q: The other aspect of Trump is his demonization of the press …
A: And I'm surprised that there hasn't been a journalist killed, quite frankly.
Q: Well, it's early days yet. Is that just him or does he touch into a vein of hostility towards the media that is very prevalent?
A: Well, he definitely taps into the distrust, growing distrust, that we were discussing earlier. But again, it's an effort on his part to undermine democracy itself, and I'm not going to give you a long turgid lecture on the First Amendment, but the press was the very institution the founders of the country trusted to keep over-centralized authority in check.
And what Trump wants is over-centralized authority, and so he is systematically undermining the role and legitimacy of the press to carry out its long spelled-out role in American democracy.
Q: In regards to the state of the occupation of journalism, how would you characterize it in 2020?
A: The state of the profession, if you're looking at the big concentrated companies that are left, like the New York Times, has never been stronger. They have so many more subscribers now than when I was executive editor, with all of the digital subscribers.
So they're reaching a bigger readership than ever, they're economically much better off than when I was there. So the survivors are fitter than they were, but the small local and regional parts of the press that are closest to the people are in terrible shape.
Trump has done wonders for media's bottom line
Q: The irony is that Trump has been fantastic for the media.
A: Yes, it's the Trump bump. He’s great for business.
I don't think that that is incidental to the fact that if you go on any (web) page of any major news organization there are like a dozen or more different Trump stories. Like leading stories. They get big audiences and those audiences mean more money.
Q: Is it a bit of a myth about America, the idea of a free press and democracy going hand in hand? Because you have a political system that has revealed itself to be terribly dysfunctional in terms of dealing with the problems American face.
A: Which seems despotic rather than democratic.
Q: Increasingly oligarchic and increasingly influenced by the vast sums of money flowing into the system. So is the American media doing a good job of keeping what's left of democracy going — or is it actually part of the problem?
A: No, I think it’s part of the solution and without it, we would be in very desperate shape.
Q: The fact that someone like Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, bought the Washington Post, even though the Post has done very well under him, does that sort of reality concern you?
A: It depends. Having Jeff Bezos owning the Washington Post is a lot better than the late period under the (former owners) Grahams when the Post was in desperate financial shape. So I'd rather have the Washington Post with more reporters than not.
Q: But now we have a situation where some of the most prominent media outlets are owned by the super rich?
A: In some ways, they were always owned by those people. It’s just the level of billionaire is different now and the cost structure of these places is different.
Q: It’s ironic that when wealth inequality is one of the burning issues of our times that some of the biggest media are owned by the richest people in the world.
A: Yeah, but it's better than if they were struggling to stay in business.