The Media's Flawed Relationship with Anti-Establishment Candidates
media ethics, electoral politics, media consumption
This paper was written for a Law, Public Policy, and Human Behavior course I took as an undergraduate at Northeastern University. It explores how the pressures on newsrooms during the social media era lead to a questionable relationship between the media and anti-establishment political candidates.
After the 2016 presidential election, many news organizations admitted that their election coverage over the previous two years had been flawed. From the New York Times, to Poynter, to POLITICO, opinion writers and editorial boards have presented their own perspectives on what went wrong, leading to election of Donald Trump. Many writers say the media didn’t understand the American public, especially working-class Americans in overlooked areas, while others posited that the media treated Trump too seriously (Hare & Mantzarlis, 2016; Pompeo et. Al). As we move into the Trump era, one could argue that both phenomena continue.
While journalists have written story after story about young and disillusioned white men in the “heartland,” there are still plenty of demographics that aren’t being heard. With women of color making up less than five percent of American newsrooms, biased perspectives continue to dominate the American news diet (Abbady, 2017). In a now-deleted Tweet, freelance writer Josh Jordan wrote that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was “underwater” with everyone except women, people of color, and those 18-34 years old, referring to current Gallup polling on her popularity (Ocasio-Cortez, 2019). Practically, this suggests that Ocasio-Cortez is popular among much of the population, but she is missing a group that has historically held the most power in our society. This perspective among writers impacts the news content produced, and it continues to frustrate readers.
Additionally, the media continues to love untraditional candidates. From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Beto O’Rourke, news publications seem focused on pushing out the latest quote that breaks all the regional norms. One Washington Post columnist wrote that Ocasio- Cortez has one thing in common with Trump – her comfort with rejecting the establishment, including traditional media conventions (Farhi, 2019). Anti-establishment candidates are interesting and new, which prompts news media to cover them.
For this reason, the news media inherently favors candidates that are anti-establishment and polarizing. With digital media overtaking print, the audience’s interest in each individual story becomes much more important, and the media sees these candidates as a guarantee that the audience will care. A focus on anti-establishment candidates is certainly interesting, but it also encourages polarization and the election of figures based on their rhetoric rather than their policy.