Perhaps you’ve noticed in the last seven days that, despite not having a shred of specifics from the new president, reporters have had no trouble telling the story of what a Trump presidency means for everything and everybody. Like this. And this. And this. And even this.
They could have spent the last year doing those same stories for all of the candidates who wanted to be president, but they didn’t; they were too busy regurgitating the stump speeches and rehashing the horse race, which relies on the polls that were completely inaccurate.
They should have known better and, indeed, they did know better because people were clamoring for more intelligent campaign coverage and less play-by-play of a cafeteria food fight. Here’s the thing: People have been saying this for decades.
But this is the age of journalism in which page views, circulation figures and ratings have never been more important and despite what people say they want, what they choose is often something else. New tools make it easier and faster for newsrooms to identify what that something else is. It’s often the food fight.
Last week, a group of public radio journalists got together to analyze what they did wrong, Current, the public media website, reports.
“We did not understand the level of unenthusiasm that existed among traditionally Democratic voting blocs,” NPR’s Sam Sanders said.
“We don’t have the right people in the office, and I think that’s a big problem,” Zoe Chace, of This American Life said. “A lot of people in these offices went to the same college.”
Current says when the discussion turned to what panelists could have done differently, the tone in the room turned combative.
When Sanders spoke to the necessity to both warn listeners of the unique threats posed by Trump’s presidency while simultaneously remaining open-hearted and compassionate to all voters, Garfield retorted, “How did that work out for you?”
Chace leapt to Sanders’ defense. “That’s not Sam’s job to make the next president,” she said. “We’re covering America. We’re not deciding what America is.”
And when Garfield probed how journalists should respond to the country’s new “state of emergency,” the room pushed back, pointing to populations where that state has been a reality for a long time. Hinojosa noted that many immigrant families already face daily threats of deportation. Others pointed to similar climates of fear in other populations in America; when audience members asked questions of the panelists, a black public radio reporter “thanked” Trump for making other Americans understand the fear she already experienced every day.
Despite the dire mood, Garfield’s repeated calls for media “not to be calm” in the face of extraordinary circumstances were met with skepticism.
“I don’t have to scream to have a sense of urgency,” Sanders said. “I think we mistake loudness for effectiveness sometimes, or paranoia for urgency.” He received a round of applause for that comment and added, “I walk around every day as a six-foot-tall black guy with no hair on his head and a beard, and I can’t walk into every room and yell.”
“Maybe a lot of us should be using our white privilege to do the yelling that you don’t get to do,” Garfield said, to which Sanders yelled, “No!”
The criticisms about the news media’s fixation on the horse race would be valid even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, although it’s unlikely such a panel session would’ve been so emotional in diving into perceived failures.
Bob Garfield, of On the Media, said the problem is that he and his colleagues failed to persuasively “explain sh** to folks.”
In other words, they didn’t do their jobs, the solution to which seems pretty obvious.