Yes, the Media Got Trump Wrong. But What’s the Real Problem With That?

Even the winners of the horse race lose.

“12 of the most misguided media predictions about Donald Trump” is the title of Callum Borcherspost in The Fix this morning, highlighting the wayward prognostications of the pundit class.

Borchers’ list is presented with just a touch of comment, mainly a proscription against “feel[ing] too badly; almost everyone else was wrong, too—including three-quarters of the electorate, which in July believed that Trump was not a serious candidate, according to Gallup.”

Borchers is not the first to point out how many in the media had discounted Trump’s campaign. CNN’s Reliable Sources devoted a whole show to examining that idea back in March.

But let’s think about a counterfactual world in which all those predictions would have been correct, in which conventional, beltway wisdom bore out, and all those abundant examples of journalists and commentators attempting to speak with authority about the outcome of a future event were correct.

Does picking the right horse vindicate political media’s excessive horserace-style coverage? Hardly. The fact that there exists so much material from which to pluck out the choicest examples of failed predictions is the real problem, not that the predictions happened, in this case, to be wrong.

While there are valid criticisms of discounting Trump’s candidacy early on—especially in the failure to really examine the voters that were making his rise possible, and in highlighting the problems that come from too many in media sharing similar, elite backgrounds—the fact that a large chunk of the criticism coincided with a swath of significant Trump wins belies a bias toward rewarding winners and punishing losers, whether candidates or pundits.

Trump’s frontrunner status is, after all, a major argument many news outlets have relied on to defend obsessive Trump coverage.

Winning is not a moral act, nor does it change the inherent nature of the victor, but there is a tendency to forget that when covering winning is preferenced over other types of coverage. Here is how Isaac Chotiner, writing in Slate, described what he saw on TV last night when it became clear Trump was going to be the Republican nominee:

On MSNBC and Fox, the talk was similar [to CNN]. Would Trump debate Clinton? Could he win over female voters? By the time Cruz announced, less than two hours after the polls had closed in Indiana, that he was dropping out of the race, it had begun to seem like something out of a dream. This was really happening. But television’s acknowledgment that this indeed was happening did not affect anyone’s analysis of what “this” was. There was little talk of ideology, or racism, or bigotry, or fascist appeals. Instead, the conversation was about process; Trump had been fit into the usual rhythms of an election season. The closest thing I heard to open-mouthed shock came from Rachel Maddow, who wondered, correctly, why out of 330 million people the Republican Party had chosen this particular reality-television star.

As for for all those who correctly predicted Trump’s success, you get the great prize of, to borrow the phrasing of HuffPost boilerplate, “a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther” as the presumptive Republican candidate for president.