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Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Biggest loser of 2016 presidential election? The media

We are still days away from knowing the winner of this election. But we already have a loser.

We are still days away from finally knowing the winner of one of the ugliest elections in modern history, but we already have the biggest loser: the media.

From cable news employees sharing questions with Democrat Hillary Clinton in advance of TV town halls and debates, to executives making their airwaves endlessly available to Donald Trump for phone "interviews" that the Republican candidate controlled, the media have never performed less responsibly in a modern-era presidential election.

And that perception is not simply the result of WikiLeaks giving us an unvarnished, drip-drip-drip look at the incestuous groveling and information-sharing that reporters at some of the nation's top news outlets engaged in with Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta the past 18 months. It's the result of my daily reporting on an industry that appears to have largely lost a clear sense of civic direction and purpose, while simultaneously becoming cozier with the powers that be and more dishonest with audiences.

It's a deadly combination that has dark consequences for democracy as the press fails in its primary job of giving citizens accurate, trustworthy information they can use in choosing who they want to lead the nation. Instead, as we have seen in two CNN events in March, candidate Clinton was secretly given information intended to skew the event and, therefore, the vote in her favor. That's the opposite of serving democracy — and it feeds Trump's dangerous rhetoric of the election being "rigged" against him.

The degree of confusion among media outlets as to how they should be covering Campaign 2016 has been staggering from day one. Nor is it limited to cable TV — not by a long shot.

Start with the Huffington Post deciding in July 2015 that Trump did not warrant political coverage.

"Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section," Ryan Grim, the website's Washington bureau chief, and Danny Shea, its editorial director, wrote. "Our reason is simple: Trump's campaign is a sideshow. We won't take the bait."

Skip ahead to June 2016 and Emmett Rensin, an editor at Vox, inciting his readers to violence should Trump appear in their cities.

"Advice: If Trump comes to your town, start a riot," Rensin wrote on Twitter.

"Let's be clear: It's never a shame to storm the barricades set up around a fascist," he wrote in another tweet.

And then in September, The New York Times decided it was going to use the word "liar" to describe Trump in news stories.

That might seem like small matter and a far more reasonable choice compared with an editor telling readers to start a riot. But it launched a torrent of words and all sorts of conflicting opinions on the use of that word because it involved the "paper of record" departing from a long-held norm associated with fairness in covering news.

"The challenge for the media is in defining what makes a lie," the Columbia Journalism Review wrote. "An expletive that used to be confined to op-eds, blogs and partisan screeds … is now being deployed in the world of straight-down-the-middle, 'mainstream' journalism."

So what about Hillary Clinton's claim that FBI Director James Comey said her statements on the emails were "truthful"?

The Washington Post gave her four Pinocchios for that. Should the Times now be calling her a "liar" as well?

Not that all the bad choices went against Trump. Besides unlimited cable TV time for the GOP candidate with show hosts largely letting him go unchecked, CNN hired Trump's former campaign director, Corey Lewandowski, as a featured analyst. And even as Lewandowski was being paid by CNN to essentially serve as a Trump surrogate, he was still on the candidate's payroll.

I thought CNN analyst Paul Begala, who serves as senior adviser to the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA, defined conflict of interest. But the hiring of Lewandowski raised CNN's game to a new level in this realm of media muck.

How did so many in the media get to such questionable journalistic places during this tumultuous and troubling election?

One answer involves the widespread acceptance by many top media professionals of a highly questionable argument and conclusion about covering Trump.

The argument rests on the premise that Trump is a presidential candidate unlike any we have ever seen.

He's remarkable in some respects, no doubt about that. I wrote several times during this election cycle about Trump being a watershed media candidate — better in his use of media than even Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy.

I based that claim on this 70-year-old businessman finding a sweet spot in this time of media transition that combined skilled use of free TV with the creation of a credible voice in social media. Win or lose Tuesday night, Trump has rewritten the book on media use in primaries, during which he spent almost nothing and vanquished more than a dozen opponents through the mix of free TV and social media platforms with 23 million followers.

But many took the exceptionalism premise as fact and then argued that since he is a candidate without precedent, we must find new ways to cover him. Old rules no longer apply.

Once you accepted the need for new ways to cover Trump and bought into the logic of abandoning legacy standards, anything was possible — from calling him a liar on the front page of The New York Times to telling readers it's never a shame to storm the barricades set up around a fascist.

Make no mistake: Trump is a vile character. The claims of sexual assault he made in the "Access Hollywood" video are dangerous and disgusting — and they are just one of many things he's said that warrant those adjectives, particularly when it comes to women.

But George Wallace, who ran in the 1964, '72 and '76 primaries as a Democrat and in the 1968 general election as the candidate of the American Independent Party, was also a vile character. As governor, he stood in a schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to protest integration. In his inaugural speech as governor, he vowed "segregation forever."

And is Trump a bigger liar and more dangerous to democracy than Richard Nixon? Has he committed the crimes Nixon did with the full powers of the presidency?

And how was Nixon forced to resign if not through the old-school, legacy standards of dogged investigative journalism?

In times of crisis, most tribes turn to their elders for advice. One of the journalistic elders who brought Nixon down, Carl Bernstein, has consistently advocated old-school investigative reporting and deep biography to show voters how dangerous he thinks Trump is.

And some did heed his advice. David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post was textbook in his investigative reporting on the Trump Foundation, while Times reporters Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer were clinical in cataloging the influence Roy Cohn, of Joe McCarthy infamy, had on Trump.

But too many in the media bought into the argument offered by Vox editor Ezra Klein in a July piece headlined: "This election isn't just Democrat vs. Republican. It's normal vs. abnormal."

Once you define Trump and the entire Republican Party as "abnormal" the way Klein did, all old-school legacy bets about fairness and balance are off.

I totally disagree with the license given to ditch bedrock values. But I can understand how so many of my colleagues got there, given how many boundaries of acceptable behavior Trump transgressed.

And though they disgust me, I can even live with the accounts of media folk like CNBC chief Washington correspondent and New York Times contributor John Harwood and Politico reporter Glenn Thrush shamelessly seeking approval and sharing information with Podesta in emails published by WikiLeaks.

But the tipping point for me were the Wiki-revelations of Clinton getting questions in advance on two events that aired on CNN in March. One was a town hall co-presented by CNN and TV One, the other a debate. Leaked emails show Donna Brazile, who was then a CNN contributor and is now interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, tipping Team Clinton off to questions the candidate would be asked.

The emails leaked Monday about a debate question led to CNN announcing that it had severed ties with Brazile two weeks ago.

Questions being fed to Clinton are well beyond the pale of simply poor press performance. And neither CNN nor TV One has treated the matter with the transparency and seriousness it demands.

This is a snapshot of how bad journalism harms democracy, and we should all be outraged.

Earlier this month, when I heard conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh comparing what happened on CNN and TV One to the TV quiz show scandals of the 1950s, I dismissed it as ideologically driven Limbaugh overkill. After all, I thought, the practice of quiz show producers giving answers in advance to favored contestants had gone on for years and was institutionalized at NBC.

But then I thought about the goals and ultimate impact of the quiz show rigging: Candidates who were likely to draw larger audiences got longer runs and won more money. The producers and the networks were trying to load the dice in favor of better ratings for their shows.

In 2016 on CNN and TV One, the dice were loaded in favor of a preferred presidential candidate. And nothing less than who would lead the country the next four years was at stake.

You tell me which is more serious and disturbing.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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