‘The Media and the Making of a President’ examines the 2016 election

Columnist Walter Shapiro will be part of Sunday's panel discussion —Nina Subin

We the people, now rendered nearly senseless by the characters, events, and media coverage of the bizarre 2016 presidential campaign, have a chance to regroup Sunday night at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury.

We are invited to watch an insightful, fast-paced, and humorous evening as three veteran, nationally known, and plain-speaking political columnists dissect the 2016 presidential race and its coverage by national media.

National political columnists Walter Shapiro and Jeff Greenfield will join the Island novelist turned national columnist Richard North Patterson and moderator Charlayne Hunter-Gault for a 7:30 pm panel discussion on “The Media and the Making of a President.”

The event is part of the Islanders Write annual event, which continues on Monday, also at the Grange Hall. Both the panel discussion and the conference are sponsored by Arts & Ideas Magazine. Both events are free and open to the public on a first-come first-seated basis; please note that Islanders Write is taking advance reservations for the Sunday-night discussion, and expects a capacity crowd. At this point the organizers cannot guarantee that there will be seats available; they note that they will be running a video feed of this event downstairs in the Grange.

Messrs. Greenfield and Shapiro are longtime national political observers who covered both the Republican and Democratic national conventions last month, at which Donald Trump became the Republican’s presidential nominee and Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee.

Mr. Patterson has spent nearly a year writing a weekly column on the presidential races for the Huffington Post, often from his home on the Island. Mr. Shapiro covered the conventions for Roll Call, and Mr. Greenfield for Politico.

The Times talked with Ms. Hunter-Gault and the panelists by telephone last week after the conclusion of the presidential conventions.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, an author and awardwinning journalist and broadcaster, has spent most of her life in the center of the storm, entering the national public consciousness as a teenager and the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Georgia in 1961.

“This race is among the most contentious in history, and we are looking for the impact of all of it from panelists who have covered lots of elections,” Ms. Hunter-Gault said. “They are columnists rather than reporters, so they are able to provide the context that reporters are not free to provide. As moderator, my hope is to help put the [election] process in historical context and to understand how the panelists are looking at the campaign and covering it.”

Based on conversations with the panelists, the forum will be chock-a-block with opinion, and it will not be a Trumpfest.

Mr. Greenfield is familiar with the liberal bent of Island politics. “Will anyone on the Island vote for Trump in November?” he asked.

Turns out that 686 did in the primary, driven by 224 voters in Oak Bluffs and 189 votes in Edgartown. Trump took the Island by 48 percent among nearly 1,400 Republican voters, fractionally less than his statewide winning percentage among Republicans. Bernie Sanders won among Democrats here, handily defeating Ms. Clinton by a margin of 10 percentage points among more than 5,100 Democratic votes cast. About 47 percent of Dukes County’s 14,342 registered voters turned out in the March primary.

Coming off a year of written observations and two weeks of immersion at the party conventions, the speakers have developed very specific GPS. Here’s a sample of what they told the Times last weekend:

Jeff Greenfield: “The conventions were as different as night and day — the stagecraft, the weird flip in which Hillary talked about America’s exceptionalism and Trump talked about barbarians at the gate. What we’re going to find out now is how much of that matters.

“One of my jobs on Sunday is to play the role of the independent mind — to answer why so many people find Trump attractive. One of Trump’s assets is that people mistrust the media and don’t care what Trump says. There will be hundreds of books and studies turned out on all of this, but Trump played the media like a violin. He dominated primary coverage 22 of 24 hours a day, and while there were many tough interviews, so many among the public disbelieve the media, and they don’t care what Trump said.”

Richard North Patterson: “I think being a novelist actually provided me with a good perspective on the characters and the plotlines. The conventions rewarded the viewing, and the cumulative effect was pretty powerful. I think the Trump phenomenon exposed fissures and tension in the GOP, with the potential to break it open. Trump broke the tension between Republican donor classes and the rank and file. He has broken it wide open.

“The role of media is huge and strikingly different [in this election cycle]. A Harvard College survey found enormous amounts of media devoted to Trump; I can’t think of a comparable situation. Trump and the media have had a mutually beneficial relationship.

“We have a lot of media that confirm our opinions. Fox is ideological; MSNBC is less so, but Rachel Maddow is a warm bath for liberals. In addition, there is constant media churn in a 24-hour news cycle that inflates the importance of news topics.

“The reputation of media today? Walter Cronkite was called America’s most trusted man.
During the Vietnam War debate, Cronkite said the war was not winnable, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to say, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ No more. There is much more scepticism [about media figures] today.”

Mr. Patterson would know about the clout that media once had. He was a legal newbie assigned by the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Watergate special prosecutor’s office in 1973 in the wake of a scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Walter Shapiro is a hoot. He is wise in the ways of the political world from covering 10 presidential races, and he written for more print media outlets than some of us have read. He scalds both Republican leadership and the media performance in election year 2016.

“The Republican leadership has failed to act like adults,” Mr. Shapiro said. “The [Nazi-backed] Vichy government in 1940 France acted with more resolve.” The Vichy government, established after Germany overran France during World War II, is generally regarded as an example of lack of political courage.

“Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, told a meeting [in March] that ‘I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us.’ Moonves said, ‘It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.’ Thank God the Hollywood Reporter was there to report it,” Mr. Shapiro said last week.

“At one point in the primaries, Donald Trump received 70 times the coverage that Bernie Sanders got. Not 70 percent more coverage, 70 times the coverage. I will never forgive cable networks for giving Trump time for his outrageous fantasies. You provide that for one hour every night and people will believe it. And at the CNN debate, Trump was typically awful. Wolf Blitzer gave him 20 minutes right after the debate to say what he should have said during the debate,” Mr. Shapiro said, noting that coverage will be more balanced during the run-up to the general election on Nov. 8, adding that the vetting of potential presidential candidates by the press is a bad idea.

In addition to covering politics, Mr. Shapiro spent years doing standup comedy — think Mort Sahl with real attitude — a skill which in itself will make the trip to West Tisbury worthwhile on Sunday.

“The people who show up on Sunday night won’t be the problem in this election. They read, they question. I think there will be a shocking amount of agreement on the panel; though Jeff [Greenfield] and I will probably disagree on a few things,” he said cheerily.

For more information, visit islanderswrite.com.