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The Media’s Obligations in the 2016 Election

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On Wednesday Donald Trump hired Stephen Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News, to be the chief executive of his campaign. The move raises questions about how media outlets — even nontraditional, antiestablishment ones like Breitbart — interact with candidates during a campaign. On the latest Keepin’ It 1600 podcast, Jon Favreau spoke with Alex Wagner, senior editor of The Atlantic, about this campaign shakeup and the media’s role in fact checking in the election.

To listen to the full conversation, check out the podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Jon Favreau: You’ve got now a good portion of the right-wing media [with Trump]. Not all of it, because there’s now a division between National Review, Weekly Standard, the [Paul] Ryan wing of the party, and the Breitbart–[Roger] Ailes wing, which is now running the Trump campaign. So I think the rest of the media would see themselves as having an obligation to two things: One, obviously, to the truth, to reporting accurately, and two, to offering some sort of balance where you have to make sure that viewers hear from Trump supporters but then you also have the other side. But what do you do in the media when the Trump supporters’ view is constantly false and you’ve got Corey Lewandowski spouting birther conspiracies? What’s the responsibility from the media’s perspective on balancing the need for truth and accurate reporting with the need for some kind of even-handedness and balance?

Alex Wagner: By nature, I think it devolves into a really combative season of coverage, just because of what you’ve said. I think the media has come under great scrutiny. … I think some of [the] reasons are valid and others are not. But, I think the media … believes it is now incumbent upon it to fact check, [and] maybe incumbent upon it earlier this year and last year. Even that Corey Lewandowski birther stuff got really strong pushback fairly immediately after he said it. … I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon in terms of allowing some of these things to be said unchallenged.

I think you have to have Trump spokespeople and Trump supporters on the air, but because so much of their support and their reasoning is based on falsehoods and paranoid conspiracy theories, a reporter, a host, or an anchor or [whoever] has to challenge that. So, like I said, I think the next couple months [will be] a pretty combative process.

I think there’s also a sense of: How has this happened? How has this whole world of conspiracy-theory based conservatism sprung up and become so powerful in an age of rapid communication, transparency, and so forth? And there’s real concern about that. I think there are certain journalists that feel like, “What have we done wrong?” That there exists this sort of alternate universe where facts and figures are totally negated by paranoid theory.

J.F.: How do you push back on that without appearing that you’re in bed with the Clinton campaign or the Democratic party, right? That seems to be the big challenge for media going forward.

A.W.: And that’s a really dangerous development in American politics. That the world of facts and reason — that that world is partisan. When you no longer have partisan agreement on reality, how do you legislate?