The 2020 Republican National Convention might’ve made history as the party’s first (mostly) virtual political convention, but the event’s unusual format wasn’t its only differentiating factor from prior conventions.
Even the most measured of political conventions are full of spin and suggestive claims, but the four-day RNC, which centered on re-nominating Donald Trump and Mike Pence, was less a traditional political convention and more an extension of the president’s myriad rallies and press briefings over the last few years that have been rife with misleading claims and outright lies. Though covering such an unusually-formatted event posed unique obstacles for news organizations, TV journalists’ prevailing challenge of the week was ensuring that they were not merely providing a platform for the Republican Party to spread lies to their viewership.
It was a challenge that news organizations grappled with during every night of the convention. RNC speakers’ misinformation ranged from nonsensical claims — the husband and wife who went viral for aiming guns at Black Lives Matter protestors from their St. Louis mansion in June spoke at the RNC on Monday and falsely stated that Democrats want to “abolish” suburbs — to falsehoods about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, such as when Pence discussed immigration and lied that “Biden is for open borders.”
While all of the major TV news channels and print publications dedicated ample resources to covering the RNC — political parties’ national conventions are traditionally considered newsworthy no matter the level of misinformation — most news organizations took measures to debunk the weeklong event’s most egregious falsehoods, according to CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy. Darcy argued that journalists have become less willing to allow Trump to lie unchallenged during press events over the last few months and noted that media organizations applied the strategies they’ve learned from covering the Trump presidency to their RNC coverage.
“I think journalists are a lot more aggressive in confronting Trump’s lies and deception with facts in real time,” Darcy told IndieWire in an interview. “What you often see during press briefings is if Trump is misleading the public, anchors might cut in and offer fact checks while journalists in the room are fact checking the president. This can be applied to the RNC to some extent, such as when anchors on MSNBC and CNN were doing fact checks for the audience.”
While most cable and print news organizations took steps to push back on the most outrageous lies from RNC speakers, some noteworthy misinformation and other controversial elements of the RNC were broadcasted or reported without adequate context or debunking. For example, the headline for the New York Times’ report on Trump’s Tuesday naturalization ceremony at the RNC, which government ethics experts said violated federal law, read, “At R.N.C., Trump Uses Tools of Presidency in Aim to Broaden Appeal.” (The headline was later changed to the similarly-vague “Trump Leverages Powers of Office as He Seeks to Broaden Appeal.”)
In other cases, news organizations highlighted blatant lies in their RNC summaries, such as MSNBC’s headline for its video of Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) speech, which read “Rand Paul: Trump will fight ‘socialists poisoning our schools and burning our cities.” (Socialists are not poisoning schools or burning cities.)
It’s crucial for news outlets to avoid merely recapping political conventions such as the RNC, as that makes them little more than amplifiers of misinformation, according to Gordon Stables, the director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism. He argued that the media’s resources would’ve been better spent on digging into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s RNC speech from Israel — which was done while on a taxpayer-funded trip and could’ve violated U.S. Department of State guidance — or highlighting the controversial nature of the aforementioned naturalization ceremony.
“News organizations should not summarize live events,” Stables said in an interview with IndieWire. “When news organizations are covering these events live, such as the immigration ceremony that took place live on Tuesday, journalists need to contextualize that with the status of the nation’s overall immigration policies. ‘Here are the policies that make immigration ceremonies less likely and here’s the context for this immigration ceremony at the RNC.’ Interpreting how the immigration ceremony will be perceived is not constructive. Describing the event and putting it into context is the value people need, and people need it more than ever.”
Of course, if news organizations were to fact check and debunk every falsehood and subjective claim from political conventions — Democratic, Republican, or otherwise — there’d be no time to air the actual events. Political conventions, especially the virtual Democratic and Republican National Conventions of 2020, are essentially lengthy infomercials for politicians that are rife with biased and speculative claims. Darcy stated that news organizations should give their viewers credit to discern for themselves if elements of a given convention are opinionated, racist, or feature subjective claims about the opposing political party. That said, when political speeches feature blatant lies or aim to mislead their audience in bad faith, journalists have reason to interject, according to Darcy.
“Anytime you have a political party doing a convention they will be doing general political spin to make their party look good,” Darcy said. “I think networks are trying to really only fact check when there are blatant falsehoods told by the people speaking. People don’t need to have spin necessarily corrected in real time but if someone is going on air and telling a lie and misleading your audience you have a duty as a news network to inform your audience about what is not true.”
Though both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions featured a plethora of subjective claims and other forms of spin, the coverage of the latter convention boasted significantly more frequent interjections for fact checks and debunking. While the shift in coverage was derided by conservative media organizations such as Fox News, the differences in reporting were due to the frequency in which RNC speakers lied; CNN reporter Daniel Dale, one of the news media’s most prolific fact checkers of the Trump administration, stated that the first night of the RNC featured more dishonesty than the entirety of the Democratic National Convention.
Stables noted that part of the RNC’s goal was likely to incentivize fact checking, as the news media pushing back against a variety of RNC speeches plays into the party’s narrative that journalists are biased against conservatives. Anti-journalism sentiment is one of the core tenets of the Republican Party in the era of Trump and was one of the RNC’s dominant themes — the majority of RNC speeches throughout the week included bits that directly insulted the news media or questioned the value of the industry.
Given the Trump administration and conservative media’s disdain for journalists, Darcy argued that news outlets were correct to avoid “both-sideism” in their convention coverage and rightfully interjected in their RNC coverage more frequently due to the event’s higher volume of misinformation.
“I think the people dismissing journalists largely as biased hacks are going to do that no matter what journalists do,” Darcy said. “No matter what happens Fox News will say the media is biased against the president. It’s pre-written into the script. I’d worry less about that and more about relaying to audiences the best version of the story that’s possible to relay.”
As the 2020 presidential election inches closer, the news media’s coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions served as something of a preview for the industry’s coverage of the final stretch of Biden and Trump’s presidential campaigns. While the upcoming presidential debates are certain to generate considerable media buzz, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic makes it difficult to predict what kind of campaign events — and the media coverage that typically follows — will occur in the next two months.
Stables said that the last two weeks of convention coverage could be a learning experience for the news industry as it works to relay future political events to its viewers and readers. He noted that though the 2020 national conventions lacked much news value — the RNC’s roll call, which could have generated as much interest as the DNC’s, was done hours before primetime — politicians still needed the news coverage to generate interest in their campaigns. As the news media enters the final stages of the 2020 presidential election, it’ll be key for them to look past the unimportant spectacle of other glitzy political events and focus on the key issues that their audiences need to know about, according to Stables.
“Political conventions used to need to be in-person gatherings where a political party would agree on a nominee and a platform, but the reality for both parties now is that they are predetermined in advance,” Stables said. “These are coronations of prior decisions and there’s a question of how much newsworthiness the networks should be attaching to these. The campaigns need the media to amplify components of these speeches and generate buzz and traction and the conventions are designed to be a spectacle and overwhelm whatever substantive questions they might raise. The press’ coverage is best when they detail and clarify the substantive policy issues.”