After the election, a media mea culpa

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.

Why not?

“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.

  • MrE85

    I felt the news media, including public radio, told me everything I needed to know before voting. I don’t believe in blaming messengers, even if they can’t predict where the voters are going. I certainly had no idea, either.

    Of course, I went to the same college as them..

  • Gary F

    What gets me with the ginned up hype over all this is that the media and political left, sorry to be so redundant, has really no concept of the way our government works and the separation of powers. We didn’t elect a king, though many thought Obama might have been a king in the eyes of many. THIS MAN WAS A DEMOCRAT just two years ago. Many Republicans in the House and Senate never endorsed and do not like this guy. He’s for gay marriage and has already said that the issue was decided, so why the wailing and gnashing of teeth?

    Is it just that your path to Utopia hit a roadblock?

  • Anna

    I think the main stream media needs to start REPORTING the news instead of trying to predict it with their particular “crystal ball” and that includes network TV and cable/digital news agencies.

    It’s like the quote from Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

    I think public media sources gave us pretty balanced information.

    And we were alerted back in June after the Brexit vote that it could be predictive of a Trump victory.

    The consumers of the news media will have a tendency to watch what reinforces their world view and listen and read what they want to hear.

    When I tried to tell my sister in Louisiana about the black man who was attacked by a police dog and kicked by an officer in a case of mistaken identity, she swiftly cut me off and said angrily, ” I don’t want to hear about that. Black people need to obey the law and do what the police tell them to do,” a bigoted statement if ever there was one.

    I told a friend in Florida I was dismayed by Trump’s broad characterization of Somali’s in Minnesota as terrorists. I said just because 9 people out of a population close to 30,000 tried to join ISIS you can’t assume all of them are terrorists.

    He said we couldn’t know that so we have to assume all of them are.

    When I told him that is the classic example of a stereotype, he proceeded to dismiss my assertions.

    I say again, you can’t control your bias if you aren’t willing to admit you have one.

    We have to fight the tendency to make assumptions based on limited information.

    • theotormon

      I am hopeful at least that people seem to be trying to talk with one another now. I hope it will last. The other night I talked with a friend who had voted for Trump. I wanted to find out what kind of mutual ground we could find. Right out of the gate he kept saying, basically, “I’m not a bad person. I’m not a bad person. I’m not a bad person.” And I tried to say that I never said he was. And his response, “But I’m not a bad person.” We have to find a way through the defensiveness.

      • Anna

        No your friend isn’t a bad person. He is probably just angry and tired of feeling left behind.

        Before we had large global trade agreements and high tech production, labor intensive, blue collar jobs were relatively secure.

        Unfortunately, it is cheaper and less costly to use robotics for auto and steel production so those labor-intensive jobs will not return.

        I would gladly pay more for American made goods but large manufacturing companies are focused on the bottom line and profits. They can pay foreign workers less so the jobs and the plants move overseas.

  • Gary F
  • guest

    BECAUSE reporting on the horse race is easy compared to rounding up experts to explain policy positions.

    • It’s not THAT hard; journalists have been doing it for years. It just requires getting off the campaign plane and going out and meeting people, finding out about their lives and concerns and then doing a piece on how those lives/concerns would fit in a presidency by Candidate A, B, or C.

      Political reporters shuttle from campaign stop to campaign stop… they’re put in a pen to cover the same stump speech they covered yesterday, they get a couple of minutes to grab some audio with someone whose life was such that they were able to go to a campaign rally in the middle of a work day, they file a piece, they get on a bus to go back to a plane and they repeat the process for about six or seven months.

      • wjc

        Maybe campaign reporters have the worst job in the world. Is it any better than those ship-hands you posted about last week? Both seem pretty soul killing.

  • Jerry

    I think my favorite description of the problems with the media is found in the intro to chapter 7 of America: the Book by Jon Stewart. I’d quote it but the language doesn’t meet Newscut standards.

  • Rob

    Saw a think piece on Slate site (sorry, no cite) suggesting that we now have a cosmopolitan party and a rural party. Zoe Chace is right on when she notes that part of why the mainstream media didn’t see the outcome coming is because they’re essentially sequestered in NYC, Washington DC and the larger cities on the West Coast, talking amongst themselves. It needs to be kept in mind that it wasn’t the rural areas that coined the term, “Flyover land.”

  • Gary F

    I guess its gotta be tough. You can’t even write an article about Sting coming to town without spewing some bad bile.

    • Jerry

      It’s Citypages. Did you expect anything different?

  • KTFoley

    Could not fail to notice how much of the morning-after analyses on “how Clinton lost” and “why Trump won” seemed to be buttressed by material that was available long before the polls opened.

    And yet … Allan J. Lichtman, the professor who has correctly called every presidential election since 1984 and who declared back in September that Trump would win, also predicted a Trump impeachment. He says it’s from his gut rather than his predictive tools. Nevertheless, the very fact that I’m writing this probably betrays human nature, that we seek whatever will tell us we were right all along.

    • theotormon

      We all have to be better about that.

    • JamieHX

      There seems to be a lot of questioning in a lot of venues of the news media’s election coverage in terms of the polls – how they were so inaccurate, etc. There’s some mention of the horserace-type coverage (thank you, Bob; you’re absolutely right), but that needs to be expanded to why didn’t they cover that which we really needed to know: THE TRUTH? As in, fact-checking the hundreds of lies told about Hillary Clinton by everyone from disillusioned Democrats looking for a reason, to almost all conservatives gullibly, eagerly swallowing all the fake news, to the Republican candidate himself and his spokesperson (KA Conway) who said last week that the lies were working for them and they would do whatever they had to do.

      The news media, including NPR and MPR, just let most of the lies and innuendo run amok and even did their part in keeping them alive. How many dozens of times did you hear them breathlessly reporting over and over and over again that there were more e-mails leaked (and usually using the incorrect term “scandal”), even when those e-mails contained absolutely no pertinent info and even showed that she was doing nothing wrong? And that’s just the e-mails. There were rampant reports of all kinds of ridiculous corruption that Clinton was supposedly guilty of, some of which came from fake-news websites about Clinton’s so-called corruption set up by foreigners just to make money, and some of which came from other biased and fake-news websites controlled by Republicans in the U.S.

      The only fact-checking I heard about on NPR’s news shows was about SOME of the claims made at the debates, and then one late-campaign story about Clinton having to defend a rapist early in her career – not only too late to do any good, but just serving to bring the subject up again, and also didn’t do a very good job of dispelling the lies in that case.

      If the news media had reported the truth from the beginning of the
      campaign, I think the outcome would have been different. Most of the
      reasons people were giving for supporting Trump that I heard or read about were related to those fake-news stories and misunderstandings about such things as Benghazi and the e-mails and about the Clintons “stealing” from the White House as they departed in 2000, and on and on (too many to remember). Instead of dispelling these myths and reporting the truth, the news media reported on the horserace. THAT is where they really went wrong in reporting on this election.
      John Oliver talks about this a little here:
      10 minutes in

  • Tyler

    I think it’s worth recalling that about half of the eligible US population didn’t vote, and of the half that did, it’s statistically neck and neck.

  • theoacme

    To start, ban the Commission on Presidential Debates, give the debates back to the League of Women Voters, require 17 nationally over-the-air televised and radio broadcast live debates in prime time…

    …not these McLaughlin Group WWF-style brawls of incivility and ignoring the softball questions, but real, substantive, three-hour Intelligence Squared style debates, and require all candidates on enough state ballots to possibly win 270 electoral votes to be included in all debates (and if Republicans and Democrats refuse to participate in the debates, they lose all political civil and financial rights for the next four years, and all contributions to their parties / candidates are 100% taxable to the party / candidates without any exemptions).

  • JamieHX

    Bob Garfield’s quote: “How can we do the job of reporting truth without being dismissed as polemicists?”

    The news media shouldn’t be concerned with being dismissed as polemicists if they’re reporting the truth. This concern shows that they’re afraid (or at least, Garfield is) of upsetting conservatives, as news people HAVE been since prominent conservatives started trying to demonize the media in about the 1980s because they didn’t like the truth that was being told by the news media. The media have been bending over backwards ever since then so as not to receive that criticism. That’s part of why the so-called “left-wing media” is a myth, now more than ever.