One night in March, after yet another pair of primary victories, Donald Trump took to a stage in the ballroom of his Mar-a-Lago resort. After hawking his various products (Trump Steaks!), he took questions from the media. Almost all the queries were about the horse race: Could he win the general election? What was his message to Marco Rubio? Would he be able to bring the party together? This allowed Trump the opportunity to boast that he is a winner, to insist he is “more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln,” and to proclaim, “I am a unifier.”
There was not much probing going on. The one policy-related question came from Jeremy Diamond of CNN, who asked Trump what he would tell consumers if, as president, he imposed high tariffs on China and Mexico and the cost of goods skyrocketed. Trump tried to cut off the question, saying, “Nobody is listening to you, Jeremy.”
This one campaign moment was a snapshot of media failure in a primary season that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Entertaining? You bet. But vetting a candidate for one of the most powerful positions in the world is serious business, and for that we need serious journalism.
That’s why I’m asking you to make a tax-deductible donation to Mother Jones during our spring fundraising drive—and I hope that my observations regarding the coverage of the race will make for a compelling pitch. I don’t usually ask for donations—I’m a reporter, not a pitchman—but I think what we do is pretty damn important. And since we’re a nonprofit, we need to raise $175,000 from readers like you by April 30 to maintain the level of reporting you expect from us (and won’t find with most other media).
I could probably leave it there: I could point to the most bizarre election we’ve ever seen and make the case that our democracy needs the type of reporting you get from Mother Jones. But here at MoJo, we’re moving away from the standard fundraising appeals, the dire pitches, and the shopworn gimmicks. Instead, we’re applying the values that drive our reporting—substance, facts, and transparency—to our fundraising efforts. It worked last December, and I hope it does now.
At the start of 2015, conventional wisdom said we’d be looking at a snooze-fest of an election, dominated by the unexciting Jeb Bush and the too-well-known Hillary Clinton. They had the experience, the party backing, and the support of the megawealthy donors. But a year later, the Republican contest resembles a professional wrestling match far more than the Lincoln-Douglas debates (no coincidence: Trump used to be a business partner of World Wrestling Entertainment, after all), and Bernie Sanders’ improbable rise has taken most insiders by surprise.
Early on, the cable networks discovered that airing Trump’s ranting and raving—at rallies or elsewhere—was a boon for ratings. Not many thought Trump would be a viable candidate once people started voting, so he wasn’t treated like one. Each time he said something outrageous he received more coverage, and he and the networks won a bigger audience—ad infinitum. Meanwhile, many in the media ignored Sanders early in the campaign; they didn’t think there was a big audience for his “political revolution.”
CBS president and CEO Les Moonves explained it like this: “[It] may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald, go ahead, keep going.”
He’s right: What’s good for advertisers or networks or publishers isn’t always what’s good for the public. That’s why we do things differently at Mother Jones. We don’t rely primarily on advertising dollars. Our support comes from readers. That’s how we’ve been able to turn out independent, spin-busting investigative reporting for 40 years that challenges demagogues and the status quo.
Don’t get me wrong. There has been some great, in-depth reporting during this campaign. The New York Times revealed Rubio and his family’s cozy relationship with a billionaire auto dealer with a political agenda. The Huffington Post, scrutinizing Bush’s emails, probed his record on the death penalty. The New Yorker explored how white nationalists embraced Trump’s xenophobic campaign. The Washington Post chronicled the rise of the Clinton Foundation.
And I don’t want to come down too hard on the journalists embedded on the Trump campaign. Some political reporters are tasked with chronicling the crazy, nanosecond by nanosecond—sorting out what the candidates, strategists, donors, and even the voters are doing. It is not a big part of their job to dig into the past or policy stances of the candidates.
But when so many of the questions directed at Trump from the reporters who have the most access to him are about politics as sports—so, slugger, how did you do out there today, and are you worried about the playoffs?—the public loses. Of all the massive media attention Trump has drawn, only a small percentage has focused on substance. And even when the media fixates on a serious matter—say, Trump’s call for banning Muslims from entering the United States—the subject can be blown away by the next headline-capturing insult du jour.
By the way, our reporters—including me—have been banned from Trump’s campaign events. In more than 30 years of covering elections, national and local, I have never been barred from a campaign event open to the press—until this season. The Trump camp apparently has concluded that independent media coverage is harmful. But being shut out of the scripted Trump events has not stopped us from producing revelatory articles (see below) about the tycoon whose campaign of extremism has thrived within the politics of hate that for years has been encouraged and exploited by the Republican establishment.
This isn’t just about Trump. Not many reporters have combed through Ted Cruz’s pre-Senate record. Where’s the digging into John Kasich’s days at Lehman Brothers? Sanders’ intriguing history was largely ignored for months. And for a long stretch, though Clinton’s ties to Goldman Sachs and other Big Finance firms were part of the political discourse, not many media outlets were exploring the details of those connections.
If you’ve read this far, I’d venture to say you want smart, probing journalism that avoids the sound bites and explodes the spin with facts. That’s the type of journalism Mother Jones can produce, thanks to contributions from readers like you.
In a world of ratings and clicks, financially pressed media outlets frequently zero in on the shining objects of the here and now. Merely covering Trump’s outrageous remarks—did you see his latest tweet?!—has become its own beat. Even the best reporting that does happen can become lost in the never-ending flood of blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, and stories that appear in increasingly shorter news cycles.
At Mother Jones, we try each day to sort out what to cover—and where to concentrate our kick-ass reporting in order to make a difference. Yes, we need to follow the daily twists and turns. But we recognize it’s important for journalists to get off the spinning hamster wheel and dig where others do not. This is how we got the 47 percent story in 2012. And it’s what we’re doing these days.
When we dig, we find stories that expand the frame of the campaign and get to the bigger issues: Trump’s deal with a controversial oligarch in Azerbaijan and his phony claim that he predicted the rise of Osama bin Laden; Cruz’s surprising record as a corporate lawyer and the extreme fundamental beliefs of his chief campaign surrogate, his father; Ben Carson’s embrace of a “nutjob” conspiracy theorist and his real estate deal with a convicted felon; Bush’s involvement with a company that swindled Nigerians; Rubio’s reliance on hawkish neocon advisers; Kasich’s war on abortion providers in Ohio; Clinton’s promotion of fracking overseas when she was secretary of state; Sanders’ complicated and controversial history.
We aim to hold all the powerful accountable. When Trump claimed he relied on a former military official for foreign policy advice, we contacted this retired colonel, and he told us that he had never discussed policy with the mogul. That is, we caught the GOP front-runner in a blatant lie. In Iowa, one of our reporters discovered that the Cruz campaign was spreading false information to potential voters to scare them into voting for Cruz. We published a cover story on Sanders’ early political career, explaining his unlikely rise, long before most journalists took his presidential bid seriously. And we explored the spread of Islamophobia in South Carolina and how Trump was exploiting this phenomenon.
Why am I telling you all this? It’s simple. I hope that if I explain how the shifting media landscape threatens watchdog journalism, you will be moved to contribute to Mother Jones. At times, our political and social problems can seem big and intractable, but it’s important to remember your own power. By helping the journalists who ask the tough questions and dig for the truth, you can hold politicians and the powerful accountable.
And, sorry, we’re not going to try to coax you with a coffee mug or tote bag. We’re putting every dollar back into our top priority: reporting. But anyone who donates $50 or more before April 30 will get a free one-year subscription to our award-winning magazine. (If you’re already a subscriber, thanks! We’ll add a year on the house.)
The deal here is straightforward; you’ve seen what we do and you know what’s on the line. If you want more fearless and independent journalism, please make a tax-deductible contribution today. And I promise you this: We’ll ask the important questions, and we won’t stop pursuing the stories that need to be told.