The challenges to keeping politics focused on facts rather than superficialities has a long history, but it would be fair to say that our current election has favored gossip over substance in wholly new ways.

As we contemplate a November ballot with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as headliners, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they are more like prom king and queen than real candidates.  If you had the sensation that these two were like high schoolers who were “fake” but still weirdly popular, here’s new proof to explain why.

It helps that both Trump and Clinton seem to be able to say almost anything based on the winds of public opinion. Their ability to constantly shift gears and appease the crowd is notorious.  Trump flip-flops on what he thinks of Mexican immigrants. Clinton advocates for worker rights while supporting trade agreements that will decimate them. They are like the high school kid who will say anything to your face so that you like them, but then talks smack about you behind your back.

It’s a popularity contest, not a political campaign.

But let’s face it.  This election isn’t really about the substance of the candidates anyway. It’s about the mainstream media’s spin of the candidates. I’ve already written about three key ways the media failed us this election. Now a new report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy shows us that it is even worse.

The core conclusion of the study is that media coverage of the 2016 presidential primary races focused on the horse race over the issues – to the detriment of candidates and voters alike. They further prove that the coverage affected the candidates’ chances of winning the nomination.

They show that the main media story was whether the candidate could win, not what the candidate stood for. And that’s why we are back at prom.

Throughout the primary season we watched with disgust at how the media ogled over Trump, but there is now clear proof that that practice had serious consequences for the other GOP candidates. According to the study:

“Week after week, Trump got the most press attention. There was not a single week when Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich topped Trump’s level of coverage. During the time that Rubio was an active candidate for the Republican nomination, he got only half as much press attention as Trump. During the time they were still in the race, Cruz received roughly two-thirds the coverage afforded Trump while Kasich got only a fourth.”

Clinton also claimed far more coverage than Sanders. The report explains that:

“Sanders’ coverage trailed Clinton’s in every week of the primary season. Relative to Trump, Sanders was truly a poor cousin. He received less than half of the coverage afforded Trump. Sanders received even slightly less coverage than Cruz, despite the fact that Cruz quit the race and dropped off the media’s radar screen five weeks before the final contests.”