A week before the highly anticipated first presidential debate between GOP candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, CNN’s lead political anchor Wolf Blitzer moderated a lively discussion Sept. 19 in the Newseum’s Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater about the issues involved in the unprecedented 2016 election and the media’s coverage of it.
But Blitzer and his panel of fellow CNN correspondents found themselves in the hot seat when a few audience members questioned the media’s apparent reluctance to question Trump’s veracity, wondered if the media had been “taking sides” in the election, and thought coverage was “based on personality and not issues.”
“Isn’t it true that … because of yours and all your colleagues’ belief in fairness, false equivalency and objectivity, you won’t call [Trump] a liar? You won’t point out the false equivalency?” asked one questioner, to much applause.
Chris Moody, senior digital correspondent, said many people in the news media realize that “we’re playing by different rules than we have before. I think our fact-checkers have been on overdrive.”
Another woman said she felt the media have taken sides in this election.
Blitzer explained that the media’s role is to report the news factually and honestly, and to be fair and responsible. “We try to do it every single day at CNN, and I think we do a very good job,” he said, also to applause.
One woman expressed frustration with the media’s use of “soft language” when describing the “really awful things” Trump has said.
“I have no problem calling the harassment I receive racist or disrespectful,” said politics reporter, Eugene Scott, who acknowledged he had been trolled on Twitter. “I and some of us may try to be charitable and respectful to people in ways that they have not shown us, but I don’t think we have shied away from fact-checking,” he said.
The reporters also talked about accessibility to the candidates on the campaign trail.
Brianna Keilar, senior political correspondent, said access to Clinton “has gotten better,” and added that reporters now fly with the Democratic candidate on her campaign plane instead of on a separate one.
“For a long time, it was incredibly frustrating covering Hillary Clinton,” Keilar said.
Juana Summers, politics editor, described a “stunning lack of access” to Trump and the number of restrictions imposed on reporters by his campaign. Reporters, she said, “didn’t have room to roam, to get out to do your job.”
Moody will be traveling in CNN’s political camper to each of the four debate cities and to “places where reporters and candidates don’t always go” to give voters the opportunity to speak their minds on the issues.
“People are anxious and not incredibly excited about the choices they have,” he said.
Since May, the Newseum has partnered with CNN Politics on an interactive exhibit that connects visitors to the 2016 presidential campaign in real time. Called “CNN Politics Campaign 2016: Like, Share, Elect,” the exhibit allows visitors to explore the ways digital and social media have transformed how candidates campaign, how journalists cover elections and how the public participates in the process.
One audience member wondered if millennial voters’ constant access to the candidates through social media and polling data had been beneficial or detrimental to the candidates and resulted in a “lazy voter.”
Scott, a millennial himself, said instant access to information gave millennials the power to circumvent journalists.
“I don’t think it makes them lazy,” he said. “We see people wanting to hear directly from their candidates in ways they haven’t in the past.”
Additional partners in “CNN Politics Campaign 2016: Like, Share, Elect” are Facebook, Instagram, Pivit, Zignal Labs and Fox Tales. The exhibit will close Jan. 22, 2017.