In 2003, it was the Iraq war. In 2008, it was the financial collapse. Now, it’s the election of Donald Trump that has blindsided the press. Three times in 13 years, American journalism has suffered a massive institutional failure. In contrast to the earlier cases, journalists this time are engaging in anguished soul-searching. The fact that these debacles keep recurring, however, suggests the existence of deep structural problems, which, if not fixed, ensure more of the same.
Of those problems, two stand out. One is the pack mentality. For a profession that prides itself on its independence, journalists are a remarkably conformist lot, reluctant to stray too far from what their peers are saying. In the months before the Iraq invasion, they froze out dissenting voices. During the Wall Street boom, they hailed bankers and industry titans. During the recent presidential campaign, they became one big anti-Trump echo chamber.
The pack mentality is most evident on the nation’s editorial and op-ed pages. Reading them during the campaign, I was astonished at their near-unanimous condemnation of Trump and hostility to his supporters. At the New York Times, it was not uncommon to find two or three pieces on the same day denouncing him for his bigotry and ignorance. The columnists at the Washington Post, while more ideologically diverse than those at the Times, were no less uniform, with conservatives such as Jennifer Rubin and George Will sometimes outshouting their liberal peers. Personally, I agreed with much of what they said, but as a reader I became disgusted with the mind-numbing monotony and lack of alternative voices.
Which brings me to the second fundamental problem: elitism. In the days since the election, the insularity of the national news media has received much attention, with journalists coming forth to confess their out-of-touchness. My favorite sackcloth-and-ashes performance was by Fareed Zakaria, who said on CNN that he was so surprised at the size of the rural working-class vote that he decided to “talk to my friends who work in that world.” From them, he learned that “the post-industrial revolution” has left many behind. Looking at the employment numbers, he found that while 8.5 million college graduates have gotten jobs since 2008, only 80,000 with high school diplomas have. This was stunning news to him.
What most struck me about these mea culpa segments was how many featured members of the elite interviewing other members of the elite about the mood in middle America. On “Morning Joe,” for instance, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski discussed the state of the Upper Midwest with such Acela-corridor regulars as Mike Barnicle, Michael Steele, John Podhoretz of the New York Post and Sam Stein of the Huffington Post. “Your tweets during the campaign were priceless,” Brzezinski told Stein. “I didn’t even know you followed me,” said Stein, brightening. Brzezinski did not ask him about the Huffington Post’s presidential forecast, which put the chances of a Hillary Clinton victory at 98%.
“Morning Joe” did have on one representative from middle America: J. D. Vance. The author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir about his journey from an addiction-torn Appalachian family to Yale Law School, Vance was for months a fixture on Sunday talk shows. He became a sort of national oracle, speaking on behalf of tens of millions of overlooked Americans. On CNN the day after the election, he patiently described the world of the coastal meritocracy and its flyover attitude toward the rest of the country. But Vance (who now works at a Silicon Valley investment firm) confessed that he, too, had been surprised at Trump’s victory, making him realize that he himself had become part of the bubble.
In the wake of the election, reporters have flocked to the nation’s diners, interviewing Trump voters over eggs and toast. Many enlightening pieces have resulted. CNN profiled Florida Latinos who voted for Trump. “The World” interviewed the mayor of Monesson, Pa., who explained why so many residents in that struggling steel town went Republican. The Washington Post ran an op-ed headlined, “I’m a Muslim, a woman and an immigrant. I voted for Trump.” At the end of the piece appeared this statement: “Did you vote for Donald Trump? Tell us why.” So, after months of chorus-like condemnations of Trump, the Post’s editors finally decided to seek out alternative opinions.
In their defense, editors and reporters have pointed out that many solid on-the-ground stories about middle America did appear during the campaign. They’re right (and certainly newspapers did a much better job in this regard than TV). Why, then, did those stories have so little impact? To an extent, they were drowned out by the flood of anti-Trump vitriol on the opinion pages. Similarly, the polls were so unrelenting and mesmerizing that they affected the reporting itself.
Trip Gabriel of the New York Times spent a year in Iowa covering the primaries there. Looking back over his stories, I found them consumed with polls, focus groups, caucus rules and the “ground game”; rarely did he break away from the campaign to cover Iowa itself. In one “Times Insider” report, Gabriel wrote that he was chosen for the assignment by an editor who said to him: “You seem a little Midwestern. I’m sure you’ll fit in.” In fact, he wrote, he had never lived anywhere between the Hudson River and the Rocky Mountains. He nonetheless “decided to embrace the difference, or, in the slogan of the Exile brew pub here, `Enjoy your Exile.’”
Exile: That says a lot about the attitude national journalists have toward the hinterland. Since Nov. 8, editors have universally agreed on the need to send more reporters to middle America. But dispatching brownstone-dwelling urbanites to the nation’s midsection is like having Western anthropologists study the natives of Samoa. Rather than send out journalists to report on the other America, why not bring the other America into newsrooms? News organizations could hire people with roots in the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt, the Muslim and evangelical worlds, who could report on their communities from a non-exile perspective.
Michael Moore, who in July predicted a Trump victory (based on his knowledge of his home state, Michigan), has proposed a more radical solution: “Fire all pundits, predictors, pollsters and anyone else in the media who had a narrative they wouldn't let go of and refused to listen to or acknowledge what was really going on.” That’s impractical; it would leave the nation’s newsrooms half empty. Some dramatic action is needed, however. The nation’s editorial pages routinely decry the fact that that none of the bankers responsible for the Great Recession has been held to account. Surely it’s time for national news organizations to be held accountable for their own substandard performances. A good place to begin would be with pundits. Newspaper columnists have become like Supreme Court justices, enjoying virtual lifetime tenure. It’s time for a thorough housecleaning.
I’m not optimistic, though. The mea culpas are already fading, and the fit that journalists threw on Tuesday when Trump ditched the press pool to dine at the 21 Club shows a troubling level of self-absorption. If the lessons of this fiasco are not learned, it won’t be long until the next one.
Michael Massing is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of “Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.”
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