Donald Trump’s claim of election rigging may be just the desperate excuse of an almost-beaten contender for the U.S. presidency. As a journalist who watched the 1996 presidential campaign in Russia, though, I can see reasons to think seriously about his charges that seem invisible to many Americans.
The “rigging,” according to Trump, is largely the media’s fault, although he’s already claiming voting fraud and will probably complain of counting irregularities, too.
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump Election is being rigged by the media, in a coordinated effort with the Clinton campaign, by putting stories that never happened into news! Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter
Indeed, major U.S. media are not impartial in this race. That’s been applauded by some analysts who don’t think ordinary standards of journalistic balance should be applied to an extraordinary candidate like Trump. But it’s an unpleasant surprise to me — after all, I work for a U.S. news organization and I believe the U.S. has a much stronger tradition of objectivity than my home country.
And it’s not just the opinion pages, which have endorsed Hillary Clinton. The news pages of mainstream publications have struck me as unbalanced. Trump throwaway lines are covered with a deadly seriousness. If Trump says he wants Vladimir Putin to do more hacking into Democratic National Committee servers, he’s not just being loose-tongued, he’s flirting with treason, calling on a hostile state to intervene in the election process. If he mentions the Second Amendment in the same sentence with Clinton’s name, he’s all but encouraging murder.
Then there are all the traces of the Democrats’ collusion with big media outlets to be found in the e-mails stolen from the account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and released by WikiLeaks: The story a Politico reporter sent to the DNC before publication and other interactions with the “friendly press” that Trump supporters have gleefully laid out. (U.S. officials say Russia hacked Podesta’s account, presumably to help Trump.)
The news organizations deny any bias, but that’s not how it looks to some Russians like me. Tatyana Malkina, one of Russia’s most prominent political reporters in the 1990’s, wrote on Facebook:
I wonder if, by the end of Hillary’s first term and all the mistakes she makes, journalists at The Washington Post and The New York Times will tell each over a strong drink, “You know, old man, perhaps we shouldn’t have taken sides this way? Maybe we should have let this bozo win, to keep it honest, to let every last redneck find out the truth for himself, no matter how high the price?”
I heard numerous Russian journalists say things like that after the 1996 presidential election, in which President Boris Yeltsin defeated Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov. Yeltsin started far behind in the polls, but his campaign, run by his family and a group of oligarchs afraid that a Communist president would dispossess them, managed to convince most journalists that they had to help Yeltsin win.
Natalia Rostova, a Russian media expert, used a Kennan Institute grant to investigate that story. Alexander Loktev, then editor of Russia’s top business paper, Kommersant, told Rostova how he and the editors of all major publications and TV news programs, up to 30 people in all, had been invited to a meeting with five billionaire bankers:
At that meeting, we were told if we didn’t support Yeltsin, the country could turn red again. So in this situation, we should all compromise on certain principles but act in Yeltsin’s support.
All the editors agreed. One, Mikhail Berger, who ran the daily Segodnya in 1996, told Rostova he wouldn’t publish any stories unfavorable to Yeltsin or his administration until after election day. “Perhaps they were true,” Rostova quoted him as saying, “and we should have checked it. But my answer was, ‘Come after July 4.’ It’s a professional sin I don’t regret for a second.”
This resulted in wildly skewed campaign coverage. According to the European Institute for the Media, which observed the what it called “thoroughly unfair” campaign coverage, Yeltsin received 53 percent of the airtime devoted to all candidates on national TV, while Zyuganov had to make do with 18 percent. Almost all of Yeltsin’s coverage was positive, while reports of the Communist candidate had a negative tinge. TV and the printed press alike failed to report Yeltsin’s sudden disappearance from sight before the run-off vote (he’d had a massive heart attack). Yeltsin won.
“Was press coverage of the campaign ‘fair and free’? In a word: no,” Harvard political science professor Graham Allison and his co-author Matthew Lantz wrote in an analysis of the election.
I know a few editors and writers who, like Berger, consciously participated in bringing down Zyuganov. Their motivation was a lot like that of Clinton supporters in the U.S. today. The alternative to the establishment candidate, tarnished as she may be by scandal and failure, is much worse: A boorish, buffoonish, unpredictable, emotional, inexperienced populist. It’s easy to go into a “save the nation” mode and fight him to the detriment of abstract objectivity. It’s just as easy to give way to one’s disgust. Both things happened to my colleagues in Russia in 1996.
In the U.S., that motivation may be compounded by guilt. A study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, published in July, showed that coverage of Trump was “positive in tone when the Republican race was still being contested.” That’s not because journalists liked him, but because he was interesting and newsworthy. It’s the least they can do to destroy their own Frankenstein monster.
Did the Russian media rig the 1996 election, though? “Most international observers gave the Russian presidential election passing marks,” Allison and Lantz wrote, adding that “many distinguished between the fairness of the campaign on the one hand, and the vote count on the other.”
An unfair campaign can still lead to a free election. When a certain agenda is important to voters, they will listen to those media that reflect this agenda. Zyuganov had the means to deliver this message through the Communist press, which had print runs in the millions, and through a broad grassroots campaign. But most Russians didn’t want a return to Communism, so they voted against Zyuganov.
In the U.S., there are many more media voices that helped Trump get his views across — Fox News, conservative talk radio gurus with their enormous audiences, websites such as Breitbart, armies of social media supporters. What Trump supporters call the mainstream media, admittedly, has more firepower. Yet if a majority of the American people agreed with Trump, that probably wouldn’t be enough.
We in the media tend to overestimate our power and, as a consequence, the value of our impartiality and bias. Trump, the media-made Golem, is falling into the same trap, or perhaps consciously making it look as though he is. The campaign coverage this year certainly looks unfair to me. But if Trump said “unfair” instead of “rigged,” that would be far less incendiary and far less likely to bring his base out in force on election day.
Trump’s use of the harsher word is unlikely to help him win an anti-establishment rebellion. Yet we shouldn’t dismiss what’s behind it. We aren’t doing ourselves any favors by taking sides, as Russian journalists realized after Yeltsin resigned to give way to Putin. He didn’t take long to start rolling back press freedoms — and those who fought in Yeltsin’s corner in 1996 weren’t spared.
I’m not saying something like that will happen in the U.S. anytime soon. But where the media get into the habit of playing rather than observing the political game, rules do eventually cease to apply.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owner