The Media and the Pursuit of Truth in the Presidential Election

(THE PICKET)  During Monday night’s first presidential debate, in a flustered response to Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton’s accusation that he once described global warming as a “hoax perpetrated by the Chinese,” Republican nominee Donald Trump denied the claim outright:


“I did not – I do not say that,” Trump stammered.


But perform a brief Twitter search and the results will yield a tweet from November 2012 in which Trump very openly dismisses global warming as a conspiracy “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  In another tweet, published in December 2013, Trump refers to global warming as a “total, and very expensive, hoax.”


In the days leading up to the debate, much was made in the media of debate moderator Lester Holt’s proclivity for fact checking. So much so, in fact, that the Trump camp was on the defensive before he even took the stage. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, Trump accused Holt of being a Democrat and described the debate set up as an “unfair” and “phony system.” Holt, it should be noted, has been a registered Republican since 2003, according to Time Magazine.


While he attempted several times to hold Trump accountable for comments he made in the past, including false statements about his opposition to the Iraq War and his perpetuation of the Obama “birther” conspiracy, Holt sat silently as Trump denied his dismissal of climate change in front of a record-breaking television audience of over 80 million people.

Holding Donald Trump to the truth has not only been a problem for Holt, but for the media at large throughout this entire election season. A recent report by Politifact showed that over 50 percent of recent remarks made by Trump are false, compared to Clinton’s 12 percent. How has the Republican nominee gotten away with so much fabrication? And how much of his success can be credited to the leeway he’s received?


“The environment for journalists right now is a tough one,” said Dr. Matthew Kushin, associate professor in Shepherd University’s Communications Department.


“There is a lot of finger pointing aimed at the media and a lot of name calling around the idea that the media is biased towards particular candidates, ideas, or entities. I do think many media outlets are conscientious of the perceived bias and that it likely affects their reporting,” Kushin said.


Arend Holtslag, assistant professor in Shepherd’s Political Science Department, has also noticed changes in the media’s coverage of political candidates over the last couple of decades.


“I do think the media is in a downward slope over the election cycles I have witnessed since 1992…it seems to me that the media are more and more reporting on the candidates and not the issues and positions the candidates stand for,” Holtslag said in an email response.


However, Dr. James Lewin, Professor of English at Shepherd, remains hopeful that voters can see past through the candidates’ attempts at concealing the truth.


“Give Donald J. Hairspray credit for his manipulation of reality television and Twitter. But he cannot fool all of the people all of the time,” Lewin said.


Lewin added that, even so, “The electorate should demand more from themselves,” and remarked on the dangers of voter apathy.


“Not casting a ballot means letting somebody else decide for you. If the citizens are not serious, we just may get the leaders we deserve,” Lewin said.


The next presidential debate takes place on Sunday, Oct. 9, and will be moderated by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

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