Unfiltered free publicity for Donald Trump. A near-coronation for Hillary Clinton. Paid pundits in the tank for candidates, right and left. False equivalency that put one candidate’s lack of news conferences on a par with another’s racism and misogyny.
Yes, we the media have done all this and more over the past 18 months.
American journalism – unloved and distrusted to begin with – will emerge from the presidential campaign with its reputation more tarnished than ever.
But there were moments that stand out in a positive way, too. In some instances, the media held candidates and their surrogates accountable, dug deep for information that citizens need, and told the truth in ways that people could hear and remember, including with much-needed humor.
Here are 13 (what, you’re superstitious?) of the best, in no particular order:
1. Katy Tur’s glorious pushback. When former congressman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., appeared on MSNBC to try to dismiss Trump’s birtherism claims as unimportant, Tur – who has been covering the Republican nominee for many months – wasn’t having it. Kingston looked stunned at her impassioned retort. The NBC reporter made the case that Trump’s followers had taken the conspiracy theory very seriously indeed.
2. Susanne Craig’s mail call. The New York Times reporter picked up her snail mail one day, and – well, hello! – there was part of Donald Trump’s 1995 tax return. With other Times reporters, she turned this into a huge scoop about how the candidate apparently avoided paying taxes and lost nearly $1 billion in a year.
3. John Oliver’s raisins of false equivalence. The HBO comic commentator used small shriveled fruit to show the difference between Hillary Clinton’s foibles and those of her foe: a small pile versus an avalanche. The sight gag made a powerful argument.
4. David Fahrenthold. The Washington Post journalist broke story after story about Trump’s claims of giving to charity. Then he got the tip leading to the “hot-mic” story revealing Trump’s bragging about his ability to sexually assault women – one of the most galvanizing news stories of the entire cycle.
5. Andrew Kaczynski’s audio discovery. The BuzzFeed reporter, now at CNN, found a recording of Trump on Howard Stern’s show in 2002 saying he thought the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a pretty good idea – giving the lie to Trump’s claims of opposing it from the beginning.
6. PBS “Frontline’s” “The Choice 2016.” Utterly fair and completely riveting, this two-hour special provided a nuanced biographical look at both Clinton and Trump. High quality all the way, as so many of these “Frontline” pieces are.
7.Michael S. Schmidt’s email scoop. Back in March 2015, the Washington-based reporter for the New York Times broke a story for the ages about Hillary Clinton’s email practices while secretary of state. It provided the underpinning of the entire case against the Democratic nominee, and continues to resonate almost two years later. To put it mildly, this story had legs.
8. Chris Matthews’s abortion interrogation. In March, the MSNBC anchor kept pushing Trump on his hazy stance, forcing the candidate to come out and say what he’d been hinting it: That he thinks women who have abortions should be punished. (Trump later tried to say that he didn’t really mean it. It was a textbook example of persistent follow-up questioning.
9. NPR’s live debate fact-checks. Fact-checking is a necessary growth industry in journalism, as The Post’s Fact Checker has ably demonstrated throughout the campaign. NPR’s website did its audience a big favor by continuously integrating and annotating the presidential debates with fact-checks on a live transcript.
10. Tom Brokaw’s essay on Trump’s Muslim ban. In a thoughtful and provocative December commentary, the veteran NBC newsman called the idea of a religion-based immigration policy “a dangerous proposal that overrides history, the law and the foundation of America itself.”
11. Brian Stelter’s showdown with Jason Miller. After Trump bizarrely maintained that the NFL wrote him a letter complaining about the debate schedule, the CNN “Reliable Sources” host – who had done some actual checks on this claim – forced the campaign spokesman to admit on-air that no such letter existed.
12. Megyn Kelly’s tough debate question. Unexpectedly combative in a Republican primary debate, the Fox News star held Trump’s feet to the fire about how he had described women as dogs, or worse. It put the theme of Trump’s misogyny on center stage, where it has remained, day after painful day.
13. Martha Raddatz’s School of Foreign Policy. The CBS News global correspondent’s hard-won knowledge was on display in her aggressive questioning in the second presidential debate. CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Fox’s Chris Wallace also had no-nonsense moments in the second and third debates, respectively, but Raddatz set the pace.
Finally, I’ll note that, when asked recently by the Poynter Institute, I gave low grades to the overall campaign coverage: a D in the early days, and a C for the past few months when we all seemed to toughen up, push back and dig deeper.
I’ve been writing about the low moments for months. Given that, these high points (and others like them) are especially welcome. Imagine what the grades would be without them.