In late 2015, Donald Trump proposed banning all Muslims from entering the US after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California.
It was a reaction that took advantage of our fears, and a religious test reminiscent of America’s worst mistakes — notably the Japanese internment camps that incarcerated 110,000 innocent Americans during World War II. This picture is haunting. But this wasn’t the driving narrative we told ourselves about Trump.
I looked at the lead story during the past two years from the websites of the New York Times and Fox News around noon (using the Wayback Machine), and then charted out when certain stories were covered. Here’s when Trump’s anti-Muslim proposal led these sites:
This short burst of focus on the Muslim ban is also reflected in Google search data. The only times it reemerged was when Trump attacked the Muslim judge and the Khan family — but those, too, went away quickly.
Yes, Trump was admonished in the media and his logic debunked, but his anti-Muslim plans didn’t disqualify him. In fact, Trump supporters pretty much agreed with his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country — and it actually tapped into a white nationalist backlash.
So what did we focus on instead?
From looking at two years of front pages, it seems we couldn’t stay focused on his racist policy proposals, but rather we kept coming back to the way powerful people reacted to them. It was as if we needed them to tell us it was wrong, rather than just showing what exclusionary policies look like and realizing it was wrong on our own.
Now, to be fair, looking at newspaper lead stories isn’t a perfect measure. And it shouldn’t be an indictment of these specific newsrooms, especially because less comprehensive analyses of other websites, like CNN and NBC News, showed similar things. (I’m sure Vox.com would have similar trends too.) But it’s a proxy to measure what we, as media and political participants, focused on — and where we took our eye off the ball.
Instead, we talked about #NeverTrump, i.e., how powerful white men felt about Trump after these proposals
Trump’s egregious proposals and stories came and went — the Muslim ban, the border wall, his business dealings, his treatment of women, and even his insistence that the election was rigged. It doesn’t mean they weren’t being covered, or even that they weren’t being covered well. Rather, the stories didn’t consistently hold our attention as the “news of the day,” largely because there were few new developments in the coming months after the initiating event.
In short, there wasn’t a larger storyline. If there was, it implied that Trump was ill-equipped for the job, not that his plans were destructive.
Where we did get an overarching narrative was when prominent people, specifically top Republicans, opposed Trump for what he said or did — essentially the #NeverTrump storyline:
It’s important to explore exactly what the NeverTrump movement was: a pattern of established Republicans — almost always white men — saying they would not support Trump because of something egregious he did or said. This also meant it was a big story when someone eventually changed their mind and endorsed Trump, like Paul Ryan or John McCain.
I want to be crystal clear: When Trump said he would ban Muslims from this country, that didn’t get long-lasting attention. When Trump proposed an irresponsible tax plan or espoused dangerous climate change attitudes, that didn’t either. It just became an accepted part of Trumpism.
But when powerful men reacted to those things and changed their minds — or not — that became the story. So when they okayed his candidacy, it was normalizing, as if what he had done was forgivable and what he planned to do was acceptable.
Meanwhile, the story around Hillary Clinton was about one thing: emails
Let me first show you this astounding chart, because it illustrates why some people believe the media was irrationally obsessed with Clinton’s emails:
It was covered far more than Trump’s Muslim proposal. In fact, on televisions it was covered far more than all policy issues combined.
From the beginning of 2016 to late October, the three major networks — CBS, ABC, and NBC — spent 100 combined minutes of their newscasts covering Clinton’s emails. They spent 32 minutes on every other policy issue, and no time on climate change, health care, poverty, and trade. This focus on her emails made it relevant throughout the election, peaking right before Election Day. Often, it was a small development that provided little new information, like FBI Director James Comey sending a letter to Congress saying the bureau had more emails to look at — and then saying it didn’t change the original decision that she hadn’t done anything criminal.
Let’s rehash what this “scandal” actually was: It started from allegations that she mishandled the Benghazi attacks in 2012. An investigation found no wrongdoing. It did find a private email server — which was also investigated — and at the end of it, her mistake was sending classified information on systems that weren’t approved for it. But the investigation found she wasn’t criminally responsible. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes, this is a bullshit scandal.
So it’s absurd for Clinton’s emails and Trump’s racist proposals to be put on the same scale of morality. But it’s even more absurd that Clinton’s emails were somehow a better indicator of how she would change people’s lives compared with Trump’s actual plans. It was absurd that at only a single point in this election was the Muslim ban Googled more than Clinton’s emails, and media is responsible for some, if not most, of this. We were more interested in what Clinton was doing on her BlackBerry than in how Trump was going to ban people from this country based on their religion.
We knew what was at stake. But it wasn’t the biggest news.
This analysis doesn’t necessarily prescribe a fix, because these signals are likely the results of many factors, including the rise of social media, increased political polarization, and an evolving media landscape.
But keep this in mind: We already knew of Trump’s health care plan, which could cause 22 million to lose insurance. We knew of his attitudes toward climate change, which will be a disaster for our efforts to prevent mass human suffering. We knew of his tax plan, which will hurt the poor (especially children) and help the wealthy. And we knew of his proposed Muslim ban, which is both terrifying and possible.
Yet I don’t think many of us started focusing on this until after Election Day. And perhaps this explains why so many people feel helpless. We went through this election trying to decide who was good and who was bad, using the judgment of well-known people as a shorthand. But we didn’t do a good enough job of communicating what would happen to us under a Trump presidency and a Clinton one.
It’s the reason surgeons explain their procedures to their patients and the reason you open the closet and rifle through it when your kid is scared of monsters.
The way we cover democratic politics is often about how voters react to what a candidate says, rather than providing proper information to help a voter contextualize what the candidate has said. We see it after debates all the time, with much of the punditry being about how certain moments will play to voters. And we’re seeing it now as we sift through the data trying to figure out what happened. That often means we talk about voters in the third person, as if we’re predicting how millions of ants will crawl through a nest, and not as if we are collectively making decisions.
Use this tool to see what was covered over the past two years.