CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — “Ready to rumble,” someone shouts from a crowd of presidential campaign staffers and journalists in an auditorium at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
On Wednesday November 30, almost every campaign strategist from the 2016 election — most unsuccessful — were in one room, listening to CNN president Jeff Zucker’s attempt to explain why one of the United States’ leading broadcast news outlets played wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump for more than a year.
It wasn’t going well.
“To our credit, we learned pretty early on that something was resonating with Trump,” Zucker said. “Look, we must have been doing something right” if both the victors and the losers from the presidential race are mad, he said; “CNN was able to cover both sides.”
Zucker wasn’t simply saying that Trump was good for ratings (although he conceded it was CNN’s best year in history, across the board). Instead, he made the case that Trump answered CNN’s calls and the other candidates did not. Trump made himself available to the media. “We asked him to do interviews, and he did them,” Zucker said.
But that was apparently the wrong answer and said in the wrong room.
“Bullshit,” Jason Johnson, Sen. Ted Cruz’s chief strategist, whistled through his teeth, next to me. “I can tell you for a fact that we requested a call and we were denied,” Johnson said. “And that’s on the record.”
“You aired an empty podium!” Todd Harris, Marco Rubio’s campaign strategist, shouted from the back table, joined by a cacophony of disgruntled Republican campaign managers and strategists. “You showed hours of unscrutinized coverage of Trump!”
The anger is easily understood: Trump’s revolution was televised — and they weren’t. Trump won. They didn’t. And for two days, at a Harvard University conference debriefing the 2016 election — an event that brings together political operatives and the press that followed them around — it was clear that everyone was mad at the media. Explosively furious.
“Trump was the entire market. When we were asked to go on, we were asked to comment on what he said,” Jeb Bush’s strategist David Kochel said.
They weren’t given the opportunity to share their message, they said. There was no airtime to convince the nation they had solutions. The media stopped them from beating Trump. These were the people on the frontline of the media’s scramble to cover Trump — and they were apoplectic.
The media has had a hard time covering Donald Trump
Trump has posed a unique challenge for the media. How do you write about speeches filled wild and vague insinuations? How do you report on Trump’s baseless statements without just giving them a wider audience? What’s the responsible way to fact-check Donald Trump? Are the tweets of a main Republican candidate — now president-elect — however erratic in substance, newsworthy?
Some would argue that you simply don’t cover some of it. Others say you can’t ignore a phenomenon clearly sweeping the nation; journalists must keep a record — but that’s problematic too, Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, said.
“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” Lewandowski said. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
This is the same argument Trump ally Peter Thiel made. And of course, oftentimes the role of fact-checking Trump can give the impression that journalists are biased. “Fact-checkers have to weather pretty vicious responses, because they are taking a side,” University of Wisconsin professor and fact-checking expert Lucas Graves told me during the campaign.
Trump’s way of manipulating media had caused a dilemma with journalists; if baseless allegations about Hillary Clinton’s health — or emails — have become a central talking point of a presidential campaign, it’s hard to ignore it, no matter how much it plays into Trump’s strategy.
Trump, his campaign managers and strategists confirmed their belief that free coverage helped Trump to victory. Trump might have been unpredictable, but the media was predictable; CNN capitalized on the public’s insatiable appetite for all things Trump, and Trump’s campaign banked on the coverage.
The Republican and Democratic strategists who got beat by Trump are right — time and time again, the Trump campaign duped media into covering events billed as press conferences. This certainly wasn’t the only factor behind Trump’s rise, and it’s important to note that the information era also makes it easier for people to ignore the information that does not support their beliefs.
Undoubtedly Trump has ushered in a new era of fact-checking in journalism. But it has also ushered a period of self-reflection for those in the media. For the teams of the losing candidates, it’s a conversation that is happening too late.