Political journalism is broken

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My eyes are sore from reading the copious analysis that poured in after the election of Donald Trump to 45th president of the United States. Jim Rutenberg, a media columnist for The New York Times, earns my respect for his self-flaggelating account of why political journalists failed to understand the American electorate.

From “Criticism of the New Media Takes on a More Sinister Tone”

We can debate whether the “corporate” news media is as left-leaning as critics claim. The answer, as I see it, is more than they’ll admit to themselves and less than conservatives claim.

But there is little question that it is out of step with Mr. Trump’s die-hards on the issues upon which Mr. Trump won them over, especially immigration and trade. And this tracks across the ideological divide in the mainstream media.

For all their many differences, the right-leaning editorial board of The Wall Street Journal and the left-leaning editorial boards of The New York Times and The Washington Post share the beliefs that global free trade is generally beneficial and that the United States needs to create ways to legalize the undocumented immigrant work force.

The newsrooms of The Times, The Journal and The Post operate independently from their editorial pages. But their coverage certainly does not start from the premise that an immigration overhaul would unduly reward the original sin of illegal border crossing or that free trade deals threaten our national sovereignty.

Then there are big attitudinal differences that come from the fact that the biggest American newsrooms are in major cities.

“One of the reasons the national media initially missed the rise of Trump was because so much of it is based on the coasts,” said Joanne Lipman, editor in chief of the USA Today Network, which Gannett formed in December, in part, to combine the sensibilities of the 110 newspapers it owns throughout red-state and blue-state America.

There also tends to be a shared sense of noble mission across the news media that can preclude journalists from questioning their own potential biases.

“The people who run American journalism, and who staff the newsrooms, think of themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and, culturally speaking, on the right side of history,” Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, told me. “They don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t care to know it.”

Mr. Dreher lives in Louisiana and has worked at five major city newspapers across the country. He does not support Mr. Trump but says he understands why his supporters are so frustrated. As far as he’s concerned, mainstream journalists are “interested in every kind of diversity, except the kind that would challenge their own prejudices.” Those include, “bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks and bigotry against working-class and poor white people.”

It’s a pretty sweeping generalization. But a considerable percentage of the country believes it. An even larger percentage of Mr. Trump’s voters do.

No matter what happens on Nov. 8, the notion isn’t going away. American newsrooms will be making a big mistake — and missing a huge continuing story — if they fail to adjust their coverage to better illuminate the concerns of Mr. Trump’s supporters well beyond Election Day.

Doing so might begin to build up trust in the news media, which the Gallup Organization reported as hitting a new low in September.

From “A ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ Lesson for the Digital Age”:

All the dazzling technology, the big data and the sophisticated modeling that American newsrooms bring to the fundamentally human endeavor of presidential politics could not save American journalism from yet again being behind the story, behind the rest of the country.

The news media by and large missed what was happening all around it, and it was the story of a lifetime. The numbers weren’t just a poor guide for election night — they were an off-ramp away from what was actually happening.

No one predicted a night like this — that Donald J. Trump would pull off a stunning upset over Hillary Clinton and win the presidency.

The misfire on Tuesday night was about a lot more than a failure in polling. It was a failure to capture the boiling anger of a large portion of the American electorate that feels left behind by a selective recovery, betrayed by trade deals that they see as threats to their jobs and disrespected by establishment Washington, Wall Street and the mainstream media.

Journalists didn’t question the polling data when it confirmed their gut feeling that Mr. Trump could never in a million years pull it off. They portrayed Trump supporters who still believed he had a shot as being out of touch with reality. In the end, it was the other way around.

It was just a few months ago that so much of the European media failed to foresee the vote in Britain to leave the European Union. Election 2016, thy name is Brexit.

***

The unexpected turn in the election tallies immediately raised questions about the value of modern polling: Can it accurately capture public opinion when so many people are now so hard to reach on their unlisted cellphones?

“I think the polling was a mess,” Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, told me Tuesday night. “But I think a lot of it was interpretation of the polls.”

Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, said on MSNBC, “My crystal ball has been shattered into atoms’’ because he predicted the opposite outcome. “Tonight data died,’’ he added.

Regardless of the outcome, it was clear that the polls, and the projections, had underestimated the strength of Mr. Trump’s vote, and the movement he built, which has defied all predictions and expectations since he announced his candidacy last year.

And that’s why the problem that surfaced on Tuesday night was much bigger than polling. It was clear that something was fundamentally broken in journalism, which has been unable to keep up with the anti-establishment mood that is turning the world upside down.

Politics is not just about numbers; data can’t always capture the human condition that is the blood of American politics. And it is not the sole function of political reporting to tell you who will win or who will lose. But that question — the horse race — has too often shadowed everything else, and inevitably colors other reporting, too.

***

What’s amazing is how many times the news media has missed the populist movements that have been rocking national politics since at least 2008. It failed to initially see the rise of the Tea Party, which led to the Republican wave of elections of 2010 and 2014, which was supposed to be the year the so-called Republican establishment regained control over its intraparty insurgency.

Then, of course, there was Mr. Trump’s own unexpected rise to the nomination. And after each failure came a vow to learn lessons, and not ever allow it to happen again. And yet the lessons did not come fast enough to get it right when it most mattered.

In an earlier column, I quoted the conservative writer Rod Dreher as saying that most journalists were blind to their own “bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks, and bigotry against working class and poor white people.”

Whatever the election result, you’re going to hear a lot from news executives about how they need to send their reporters out into the heart of the country, to better understand its citizenry.

But that will miss something fundamental. Flyover country isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind — it’s in parts of Long Island and Queens, much of Staten Island, certain neighborhoods of Miami or even Chicago. And, yes, it largely — but hardly exclusively — pertains to working-class white people.

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