The Media, On What Went Wrong With the Media

A lot.

In the necessary process of examining what, and how, and why the media got wrong what it got wrong, there are a lot of angles to consider. Here are a few:

Politico’s Hadas Gold looks at the problem of media as an establishment institution:

The election was a repudiation not only of the political establishment and Clinton, but it was also of the media.

He claimed he knew more than the experts. He claimed he had taken the pulse of the “silent majority.” The media scoffed, and he scoffed back, banning outlets he didn’t like, not letting them travel with him, not releasing his tax returns that the media rattled for.

But Trump was right. And the media — except for a few outlets like Breitbart, shunned by the mainstream — was stunningly wrong.

New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg focuses on how the media failed to capture the part of the electorate that voted Trump into office:

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.

The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan looks at the nature of red state America coverage:

Journalists — college-educated, urban and, for the most part, liberal — are more likely than ever before to live and work in New York City and Washington, D.C., or on the West Coast. And although we touched down in the big red states for a few days, or interviewed some coal miners or unemployed autoworkers in the Rust Belt, we didn’t take them seriously. Or not seriously enough.

She adds later, “Although many journalists and many news organizations did stories about the frustration and disenfranchisement of these Americans, we did not take them seriously enough.”

But Katy Tur, speaking on MSNBC, reminds us that there are under-explored stories in blue state America as well.

There was an underestimation of rural America and how the working class American was feeling. The question now thought is, what about the Americans who did not find his message appealing? The minorities in this country, about half the country, and the ones who are scared about his policies. That is still very much an open question.

Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone looks at the arc of coverage from Trump’s announcement to the Republican nomination to the end of this campaign. While coverage in the later stages, was aggressive, the damage was done in those early stages, when what was a curiosity was treated largely uncritically as such:

History will not be kind to the news media for its uncritical obsession early on. Trump was treated for too long as a reality star and TV pitchman rather than contender for the most powerful position in the world. Journalists with access and opportunities to challenge Trump often failed to do their jobs, and he exploited the priorities of news executives motivated by ratings.

Television networks, most notably, propped up Trump’s candidacy during the Republican primary with a hugely disproportionate amount of attention, unprecedented accommodations, and little scrutiny as he uttered falsehoods in interviews and in evening rallies carried live as breaking news events. Hosts failed to question Trump’s shaky business record, and network executives treated bigotry as just another political position to hash out among commentators.

And then there’s the data, which deserves its own treatise. Rutenberg writes, “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.”

And much as the media is too vast and complex for a comprehensive treatment in 700 or so words, so too is its shortcomings in this election, hence the diversity of the takes, and diversity within the takes, and the weighting of the relative importance of one shortcoming over another.

We’re left with a lot of questions.

What exactly did the media get wrong? Is it the story? Because there were many warnings, and by warnings we mean stories, that the media was missing the story. There were many examinations into likely Trump voters across the country, many takes on disaffected whites. But for some critics, these examinations came from reporters who–by fact of geographic location, upbringing, education–were too removed from their subjects to capture it effectively.

What the media got wrong without question, what it missed more than anything, was the prediction, in cold, hard, statistical terms.

But relying on the horserace, covering campaigns and candidates through the lens of winning and losing, compulsively tracking who is ahead and who is behind, obsessing over polls, this too was wrong, even if the result had ended up being right.

And what of that result? Although irrelevant for the purposes of being elected president, Clinton is currently leading the popular vote by almost 200,000. It is the electoral college that she lost, a system whose origin, original purpose and ill-fitting place in contemporary politics is rarely explained, as if the only thing that matters is tallying up the electoral votes, state by states.

We bring this up to pose a counterfactual. If the result had been reversed, with Clinton winning the electoral college and Trump the popular vote by a narrow margin, would the criticisms, at least as applied to red state coverage, look the same? Would we still be focusing on what was missed there? Or would a loss, even if by those same tiny margins, negate the need to do so? Is the story of the winning side the only one that matters? After all, isn’t part of the reason some believe the coverage in the white, rural, working class spaces of America was lacking was because we thought their candidate didn’t have a chance?