If the Press Were Any Other Business …



Modern management practices focus on continuous improvement.  Every year a company from small business to worldwide conglomerate strives to improve its customer service, its financial performance, its efficiency, and other hard metrics of success. In great companies management and employees that fail are relentlessly counseled, retrained, reassigned, and eventually if wrongly hired weeded out.

But, apparently not in the US mainstream press (defined as national media television, print and their online related sites).  The metrics of the latest election coverage are stunning:

  1. The Press overwhelming reported Secretary Clinton’s impending victory;
  2. The Press overwhelming accepted polling, polling aggregation, and polling modeling that predicted Secretary Clinton’s victory; and
  3. Donald Trump won a substantial if not historically large electoral college victory.

In any other modern business these metrics would lead to management changes, employee retraining, and a reduction in variable compensation (annual bonus) for anyone responsible for reporting #1 and #2.

It is easiest to understand in one of the many examples from the months immediately preceding the election.

Brianna Keilar, a prominent CNN news anchor, in a widely reported interview of Michael Cohen, one of Donald Trump’s campaign officials, claimed as fact that “all polls” showed Trump as behind.  The Washington Post  in an article headlined “CNN Host Totally Owns Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen” was actually giddy at making fun of the interview.

The problem is Cohen was right. And because of actual reporting after the election instead of Ms. Kielar’s triumphant sarcasm, we know Mr. Cohen was correct. The Washington Post to its credit apologized later.

We know that the Trump campaign was taking the public and private polling, making adjustments to turnout assumptions and other modelling variables.  And those assumptions generated different results than Ms. Keilar’s superficial acceptance of the public polling and conventional wisdom.

I last had formal journalistic training in high school working on the Highland Park High School Bagpipe.  But my memory is that a reporter was required to leave their assumptions behind, fade into the background, and ask questions without expectations of a particular answer.  Then, to follow those answers wherever they led.  By the point of the interview that caused the Press such giddy self-righteousness Ms. Kielar was not even asking questions. She was issuing definitive answers as if she was the subject of the interview.

And it was an important missed opportunity in the campaign. Ms. Kielar could have begun a serious line of inquiry.

“Mr. Cohen, are you making some basically different assumptions about demographics of the electorate?”

“Yes, we believe the turnout electorate will be substantially more rural and include elements of the old Reagan coalition.”

“And if you plug those assumptions into the public polls, your private polls, and models are you showing a pathway to victory for Mr. Trump?”

“Yes, and that pathway we anticipate will grow over time as Secretary Clinton focuses on disqualifying Mr. Trump instead of the issues that concern the turnout electorate.”

Perhaps that is too idealistic in today’s media age. An age in which media executives see the newsroom a source of revenue through clicks and links.  I am imagining a 1950’s era of a search for facts leaving revenue to the entertainment divisions.  Perhaps today sarcasm is more profitable than truth.

And stunningly, to my knowledge not a single network, cable, or mainstream print news or editorial personality has suffered a bonus cut, a demotion, or retraining.  Instead of analysis of whether bias, groupthink, or some other factor led to a completely distorted view of the election we have Russian conspiracy theories and other excuses.  It is the same talking heads on every network and cable show and the same bloviators in print today as if there is not even a need for accountability and change.

If any of the mainstream media had actually pursued the truth, Secretary Clinton might have faced different electoral data, run a different campaign, and we might have had a different result.  Worse, that failure generates a country that no longer believes the Press reports the truth, but rather what the individual reader wants to hear.  And without any commitment to Edward R. Morrow accountability in the Press, why not trust Facebook, Breitbart, or The Huffington Post?