SMPA Panel Examines Role of the Media in 2016 Election

The discussion was led by Meet the Press moderator and former GW student Chuck Todd.

September 13, 2016

Chuck Todd

The SMPA event 'Decision Time: What Are Trump and Clinton Doing to Politics and Media? was hosted by Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

Less than 60 days before the 2016 presidential election, media experts and pollsters gathered in Jack Morton Auditorium to debate the role of the press during an election cycle and what each presidential candidate will need to do to win in November.

The School of Media and Public Affairs event, “Decision Time: What Are Trump and Clinton Doing to Politics and Media?” was hosted by Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, who attended George Washington University in the early 1990s.

During a discussion about candidate transparency, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said it’s important for journalists to continue pressuring Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to release his tax returns and to continue inquiries about Mr. Trump’s and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s health records.

“Just to let that sort of shuffle by is not a good idea,” she said.

Ms. Sullivan was one of six panelists Monday, joined by Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, progressive political strategist Cornell Belcher, SMPA data journalist in residence and NBC News contributor Dante Chinni, CNN Washington, D.C., bureau chief Sam Feist and GW SMPA professor Steven V. Roberts.

Capturing certain demographics in the voting population has been integral in recent elections, and this cycle has so far seen an important shift. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won over white, college-educated voters in 2012, a group that have favored Republicans for several decades. This year, however, some polls show that demographic is overwhelmingly supporting Ms. Clinton.

Mr. Chinni said white, college-educated voters will be the group to watch leading up to Election Day to determine which candidate will prevail. Mr. Roberts said gender is important when considering the white, educated voter as well because polls show that white, college-educated women are more likely to support Ms. Clinton over Mr. Trump compared to their male counterparts.

“They are attracted to this moment with Hillary more than anything else,” he said.

Mr. Belcher said the groups of young minority voters who supported President Barack Obama en masse are less excited about the Democratic Party’s 2016 nominee and have a level of cynicism that wasn’t present four years ago. If this population doesn’t show up on Election Day, it will have a drastic impact, he said.

“You’ve got to let go,” Mr. Belcher said to young voters. “We’ll always have South Carolina, young people.”

Over the last few weeks Mr. Trump’s campaign has been doing well, said Mr. Feist, who attributed the pattern to teleprompted speeches and improved campaign management. The election could turn in his favor if he can avoid making inflammatory statements and by performing well in the upcoming debates.

Mr. Roberts said if Mr. Trump gains credibility with the electorate he could find a path to victory, particularly if Ms. Clinton’s credibility continues to erode over issues with her private email server, donations to her family’s foundation and reports of ill health.

Meet The Press moderator Chuck Todd speaks with GW students during his visit to Foggy Bottom for 'Decision Time: What Are Trump and Clinton Doing to Politics and Media?.

During a portion of the event where audience members were invited to ask questions, panelists were asked about the importance of a strong ground campaign. Ms. Anderson said in the last several elections the Democratic Party has built a legacy of strong ground support, and it makes her nervous that the Republican Party has been unable to match or exceed their efforts.

“I’d rather be them than us,” she said. “You cannot underestimate how important infrastructure is.”

Panelists were also asked about what the media’s role should be in performing real-time fact-checking. NBC’s Matt Lauer was criticized recently for failing to correct Mr. Trump when he misrepresented his previously stated views on the U.S. invasion into Iraq during a presidential forum focusing on national security.

With the quick dissemination and amount of content on the internet, Mr. Roberts said the “entry for misinformation” is higher today than it has ever been before, and it’s important for journalists to correct the record in a careful and fair way.