Dan Walters

Political media did their jobs in a very difficult year

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, left, accompanied by traveling press secretary Nick Merrill, center, departs after speaking at a news conference at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 28, 2016.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, left, accompanied by traveling press secretary Nick Merrill, center, departs after speaking at a news conference at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 28, 2016. The Associated Press

While cable television’s talking heads, radio’s yakkers and digital pranksters have had a fine old time this year, spewing out supposition and misinformation, it’s been a trial by fire for those of us who practice serious political journalism.

Despised and belittled by those seeking office, from the two presidential candidates down, the “mainstream media,” as we’ve been dubbed, have done yeoman’s work in filtering the deluge of charges, countercharges and almost daily revelations and presenting coherent reports of what is happening.

The challenge was most evident, of course, in making some sense of the duel between two media-hating, habitually prevaricating presidential aspirants, but certainly was not confined to them.

Many contests for legislative and congressional seats – and even minor local offices – had the same vitriolic tone in a year that exposed deep social, cultural and economic divisions that some have compared, albeit hyperbolically, to those of the pre-Civil War era.

As demonstrated in a heated congressional campaign in suburban Sacramento between two fundamentally decent men, Democrats accused Republican rivals of being racist or anti-woman, while Republicans labeled Democratic foes as elitist or weak on terrorism.

The charges and countercharges, whether leveled in person, in a television ad or in a mailed hit piece, had to be explored and weighed for truthfulness or the lack thereof. And to make the task even more daunting, many barrages were fired by so-called “independent expenditure” organizations for which the candidates would piously shun responsibility.

Meanwhile, campaigns for and against ballot measures – 17 alone on California’s state ballot and hundreds more at the local level – often were exercises in deliberate misinformation, fueled by many millions of dollars in special interest spending, about what they would or would not do.

They challenged the media to not only report on and analyze what their advocates and opponents were saying about them, but to delve into the measures themselves and attempt to capture their essence for voters.

Some, such as Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure to loosen up parole standards, are so brief that predicting how they will be implemented in real life is almost impossible. Others, such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to legalize recreational marijuana, are so lengthy and complex that fully grasping their effects could take decades to sort out.

It should be noted, too, that the heavy burden of explaining the inexplicable required a heavy commitment of reporters, photographers and other journalistic professionals – plus their travel and other operating costs – at a time when mainstream media are facing daunting economic challenges themselves.

All in all, conscientious readers, viewers and listeners of mainstream media reportage and analysis received what they needed to understand their ballots’ choices.

Although not all voters are as conscientious, their votes also count. And whatever the outcomes may be, we in the media did our jobs under very trying circumstances.

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