What does it mean for an election to be rigged? Ask Donald Trump or his legion of alt-right deplorables, and they will spin you a grand conspiracy consisting of voter fraud, the liberal media, the Clinton death list and probably some mention of deleted emails or Benghazi. Most of them sound crazy because they are just that, mindlessly playing back conservative talking points and raving nonsensically about issues they know nothing about. Lost in the noise, however, is a shred of truth that more educated Trump supporters have a legitimate beef with: media bias.
From the day he announced he was running for President, Trump has harped on the media for portraying him as a monster and a loon. With the possible exception of a few loud voices on the right, you would be hard-pressed to deny that the majority of national media in this country has embarked on a crusade to discredit the Donald. Sure, the man has made it pretty easy for them; Trump has said many ignorant, disrespectful or just plain dangerous things over the course of this campaign that I cannot and will not defend. However, through taking certain statements out of context and selectively ignoring real scandals and issues on the other side of the aisle, the establishment media has managed to craft a narrative about the candidates that attempts to drive the public’s opinions about them. Choose whatever word for that you so desire, but don’t say “rigging” is an inappropriate one.
Even when the rigged election is discussed in the proper context, however, the conversation is often too narrowly focused on the candidates themselves, and that is problematic in the sense that it creates the illusion that the problem extends only so far as this election cycle. The media isn’t so much biased against Trump as it is biased against the establishment’s choice for president, and this reveals the systemic and insidious role of the media as a puppeteer in dictating political discourse. If you want a concrete example, look at the total lack of effort by the print media to remain unbiased.
So far, more than 200 have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president while a mere six — only one of them an influential publication, the New York Post — have endorsed Trump. Now this screams liberal media bias to me, but in an effort to remain objective, let’s imagine that the numbers were reversed and the vast majority of papers were endorsing the Republican nominee. This would still be a problem, because the biggest issue here isn’t that they’re endorsing one candidate over another, it is that any of them are endorsing any candidate at all! Forget the polarizing party allegiances of 2016, the problem is about more than just who wins this election. It’s about ensuring that the public has the chance to hear what’s going on without having their views distorted and directed towards a particular position. And yet newspapers have a tradition of endorsing candidates going back at least 150 years when the New York Times threw its hat behind Abraham Lincoln. How this incredible conflict of interest has been sold to the American people for as business as usual for so long is beyond me.
There are some who will probably argue that these endorsements aren’t a big deal, and one could make two cases in support of this opinion: either that an official position of the paper does not prevent editorials being published with contradictory opinions, or that newspaper editors have the right under the first amendment to publicize how they feel about a particular candidate. Addressing the former point, I would say that even if a paper has a healthy dialogue in its commentary section and a relatively unbiased selection of stories to publish for its news pieces, an official position that it holds will lend automatic illegitimacy to any opinion contrary to that position. What is the point of publishing competing ideas meant to persuade the public’s opinion only to jump in and make the judgment yourself?
As for the issue with free speech, I am by no means suggesting that newspaper editors who endorse a candidate are malicious criminals, but there should be a recognition that when a newspaper endorses somebody, it is presented as a decision made by the paper as an entity, not by the people in charge of running it. This won’t matter as long as the precedent set by the Supreme Court decision on the Citizens United case stands (which allows for corporations themselves to be protected by the First Amendment) but if Hillary Clinton manages to introduce a Constitutional amendment overturning it, as she has pledged to do should she win the presidency, the way could be cleared for the introduction of legislation curtailing news media political endorsements without being in violation of the right to free speech. That is, if anyone really cared to make it an issue.
The sad thing is that most people don’t seem to pay too much mind to the ever-present conflict of interest in the media. Sure, everyone loves to harp on Fox News for its hilarious use of the tagline “Fair and Balanced,” but at this point it’s almost a lovable meme, and most people don’t care half as much about discussing the just as obvious establishment liberal bias on stations like MSNBC or CNN. And can you really blame them? With so many pressing topics on the table that have more visible and dire consequences — terrorism, climate change, the economy, etc. — worrying about the endorsements of newspapers or the political leanings of news anchors feels like a non-issue. But it is important, and if we can make a change and insist on at least a base level of journalistic integrity in our news, it will be a meaningful step towards the end goal of a better-informed and less divisive electorate. Until then, continue to be skeptical of your news and inform yourself of the political allegiances of your sources through some simple Google searches. Most of that information is out there and readily available for consumption if people are only willing to look. Ignore the inflammatory and counterproductive rhetoric of the nuts and remember that, yes, the system is rigged. Now let’s do something about it.