Islanders Write panelists ponder ‘The Media and the Making of a President’

Walter Shapiro expounds his views on the election season in relation to history. —Sam Moore

People were likely grousing about presidential politics back in 1859 when the West Tisbury Grange Hall was new, but last Sunday night a panel of veteran journalists gathered at the 155-year old post and beam beauty was hard-pressed to recall a modern presidential campaign as bizarre as this one.

“My gold standard for vicious campaigns used to be 1988 when George (H.W.) Bush savaged Michael Dukakis with ads showing convicts being set loose. But compared with this one, 1988 looks like it was run by Pericles” said Walter Shapiro, a political columnist for Roll Call, who’s covered 10 presidential campaigns.

It’s unsettling business and the reason for “Media and the Making of the President,” a discussion sponsored by MV Arts & Ideas magazine as prelude to the MV Times-owned magazine’s third annual Islanders Write conference, which was held on Monday at the Grange Hall.

In fact, it was unsettling enough for more than 200 people to overflow the second floor Grange meeting room on a Sunday night and nearly fill the first floor space where a video feed of the discussion was set up.

Moderator Charlayne Hunter-Gault managed a Q and A format with national journalists Mr. Shapiro of Roll Call, Jeff Greenfield from Politico, and Island resident Richard North Patterson of the Huffington Post, all of whom spoke plainly and critically about both the media and the campaigns.

“Well,” said national political savant Mr. Greenfield about this presidential race, “I suppose you could go back to John Adams against Thomas Jefferson in 1800 in which Jefferson was called a whoremonger and Adams a hermaphrodite.” Jefferson, the alleged whoremonger, took the presidency.

“Trump has pieces of Ross Perot, George Wallace, and Huey Long in him but we’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Greenfield said.

Differences and similarities between those early days and the 2016 campaign were apparent as the speakers outlined the current political landscape. The 1800 nominees used surrogates, including the print press, to sling some very nasty mud. What emerged on Sunday night is that today’s candidates sling the mud themselves, but also have surrogates — partisan cable networks, including Fox News, MSNBC and CNN — to help them.

Ms. Hunter-Gault presented panelists with a series of questions on the candidates and the media’s role in our perceptions of them before the audience peppered them with concerned questions for half an hour.

Among the audience was the Usher family, 20-year summer residents from Storrs, Ct. who have had an up-close-and-personal relationship with Dr. Ben Carson, an early GOP candidate.

“He had his hands on my brain,” quipped 20-something Beth Usher on Sunday night. Dr. Carson, now a retired neurosurgeon, once performed brain surgery on Ms. Usher. “We are Hillary supporters but we can’t say enough about Dr. Carson as a person and a surgeon,” mom Kathy Usher said. “In person, he is very compassionate, not like he shows up on TV,” added Brian Usher, Beth’s dad. “We are here for the writers conference tomorrow but we came tonight to learn about the presidential race,” Mrs. Usher said.

Both the audience and the panelists clearly favored the Clinton candidacy. It was not a Trump crowd. While the GOP nominee was often bloodied on Sunday night and Ms. Clinton took her fair share of criticism, the media, particularly cable networks, also took big hits from the journalist panel.

They agreed that the early Trump candidacy produced huge ratings and huge ad revenues for the television and cable networks who lavished coverage on him estimated to be worth three billion dollars to the exclusion of most other candidates, regardless of party affiliation.

“The president of CBS told a group that ‘It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS’” Mr. Shapiro said, quoting CBS president Les Moonves from a March 2016 speech. And when it became clear that Mr. Trump was a serious contender, he had built serious momentum with his base of true believers that offset his gaffes and lack of expertise in matters of state.

“‘It’s the money,’ Trump declared in June 2015, and went to the top of the polls. The first debate drew 24 million viewers, 20 million for Trump. CBS jacked its (advertising) rates by ten times for the second debate that in turn gave Trump more publicity,” Mr. Greenfield said. CBS hosted both Democratic (Nov.14, 2015) and Republican (Feb. 13, 2016) party debates.

Mr. Greenfield said the press turned critical on Mr. Trump late in 2015. “Cable news, which had let him in, began asking tough questions but it didn’t matter. That part of the Republican party had been told by Rush Limbaugh et al for years that ‘You can’t can’t trust what the media says. The media is corrupt.’ So holding Trump’s feet to the fire didn’t work,” Mr. Greenfield said.

Mr. Patterson said “The media tried to normalize the abnormal, said Trump was crazy like a fox and never got to underlying problems until later, when voters the GOP had been telling for years were being alienated from America were now alienated from the GOP.”

The media is in a pickle that was years in the making, Mr. Shapiro recounted. “The three national networks and four or five major newspapers took over vetting the presidential candidates in 1972 and vetting was pretty much done by the press until 2008 when two things happened. First, public confidence in media hit lows with right wing radio encouragement, and second the economic underpinning of (the) newsgathering (industry) was lost.”

Both candidates have high unfavorable ratings, which they have earned, the panelists noted.

Mr. Trump’s issues with facts are well-documented and he is being painted as having a serious personality disorder. Ms. Clinton appears to be unable to be open with the press or to admit mistakes, panelists agreed.

A panelist pointed to a website called Politifact, which has fact-checked all of Trump’s speeches and found that 65 per cent of what he says is not true. “He lies so often that our sense of reality is spun around” Mr. Patterson said.

In answer to an audience question about a recent New Yorker magazine story that alleged Mr. Trump lives in a disordered mental state but has psychiatrists shying away from pronouncements on the Trumpian state of mind, Mr. Shapiro said the American Psychiatric Association was burned a long time ago on the same issue and will not allow member psychiatrists to comment on people who aren’t patients. “We are not qualified [to give medical opinions] but I’m comfortable saying he’s a wacko,” Mr. Shapiro concluded cheerily.

Panelists cited frustration with what they see as Mrs. Clinton’s inability or unwillingness to answer questions directly so issues such as her current email furor get put to rest.

“The whole churn of media is one small issue at a time, presented as simply as possible. It’s unfortunate every time Ms. Clinton feeds it. I would say ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake’ and never talk about it again. Otherwise it’s a gift that keeps on giving,” Mr. Patterson said.

“It’s ok to say you changed your mind, as she did on gay marriage. She can’t admit it’s political. It has to be the angels of her better nature descending,” Mr. Patterson said. “Of course it was political and people understand when that happens. I think if Donald wasn’t nuts, she’d be in trouble.”

“Hillary’s inability to deal with public life is the worst aspect of her campaign. She can’t take a bad day. She’s worse than Bill in that her fear of openness is so ingrained that if she’s elected as I hope she will be, the White House will be locked down,” Mr. Shapiro said.

It was not the balm the jittery audience wanted to hear and they peppered the newsmen with questions about the outcome and strategies that could be employed.

The panelists said that mainstream media provides unbiased information that citizens can use in the growing clutter of social media. “You have forwarding devices on your laptops and iPhones for good journalism to be passed on. That can have a multiplier effect. It’s a powerful instrument,” Mr. Patterson said.

Mr. Greenfield noted earlier that the three top cable channels (Fox, CNN, MSNBC) have about six million viewers. “There are 300 million TV sets in the country. Most people are not getting their political news from cable,” he said.

The speakers described an environment replete with a torrent of social media claims in which objective reporters are obligated by journalistic standards to report what candidates say, though they can offer perspective and counter-claims.

“We can’t write ‘Donald Trump, the sociopathic, narcissistic liar and GOP presidential nominee, said today’ but there are ways to put context into (candidate claims),” Mr. Greenfield said. As the debates approach, “There will an army of fact-checkers (at work),” he predicted.

“I can read (Mr. Trump’s) symptoms and as a columnist I have no need to censor myself. We’ve been observing this man. If we don’t take into account the reason he is the way he is we’re making a big mistake,” Mr. Patterson said to applause.

The planned debates could level the playing field, according to the panelists. “Chris Wallace (Fox News) did a good job with a one on one Trump interview. Trump has been on the stage with 17 candidates in the primary debates. How well will he do by himself for two hours?” Mr. Patterson asked.

“The thing I can’t figure out is what these debates will be like. Donald Trump won’t prepare, but predicting a Clinton blowout is premature. If he thinks (about the debate) for an hour, he can make some points. Will he prepare? No, he won’t” Mr. Greenfield said.

“We don’t know what the debates will be like or even how many there will be,” Mr. Shapiro said. “If (Libertarian Party candidate) Gary Johnson gets enough polling points to be on stage, will Donald walk out?”

If the panel had one theme, uncertainty about the process, a hallmark of this race, was front and center.

To read more about Islanders Write, see “In its third year, Islanders Write came of age on Monday.”