Did We Fail?

Like many journalists, I am having a crisis of the soul.

In the days since November 8’s election a form of self reflection has become very popular among newsrooms of every stripe. Writing for the New York Times, columnist Jim Rutenberg put it on display when he called the results “A ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ Lesson for the Digital Age.” Slate’s Isaac Chotiner laid into us with the more succinct “Journalists Failed in 2016,” and while these are just two examples it’s a point they’re absolutely right to raise.

While journalists debated whether Republicans could even keep the House, voters quietly planned to hand over their largest majorities in modern history.

To a certain degree we absolutely failed the public in this year’s election.

Leading up to Election Day it was common to see major newspapers predict Hillary Clinton’s nearly-assured triumph over Donald Trump. We were as certain of her victory as we were of Trump’s loss in the Republican primaries (a bit of history that, perhaps, should have been instructive).

In retrospect, “Clinton’s ground game” will go down in history alongside such pearls of wisdom as “what iceberg?” and “such a lovely horse, come right on in.” While journalists debated whether Republicans could even keep the House, voters quietly planned to hand the party its largest majorities in modern history. Yet as thoroughly as we got the results wrong, I’m reluctant to throw my hair shirt on just yet. In fact, I’m most partial to Jennifer Rubin’s analysis in the Washington Post: “Trump Voters: We Did Hear You; We Just Thought Better Of You.

We journalists did take Trump and his nomination seriously. It’s just that every piece of data going into the election said he would suffer a well-earned defeat.

Watching this election unfold was like watching my pen roll off the table and miss the floor; I don’t assume the effects of gravity, I’ve spent a clumsy lifetime watching it do its thing. Similarly, when journalists claimed a near-inevitable Clinton victory, it had less to do with bias than an industry’s-worth of polling data.

We journalists did take Trump’s nomination seriously, and every piece of data going into the election said that he would suffer a well-deserved defeat.

Clinton led in almost every major poll from the summer conventions until that Tuesday morning. The best Trump ever did was catch up briefly before falling behind again, and this was true even on Fox News. He never once took the lead. While a poll can be wrong, and a week of polls can be wrong, no one has ever trailed for the entire fall and come back to win the election. It simply hasn’t happened.

Arguing for a Trump victory going into Tuesday morning would have meant arguing against both the data and the historic reliability of polling, and that would have taken some pretty extraordinary evidence. We obviously have that now, but anyone sitting on it before the voting certainly didn’t speak up.

It was also reasonable to assume that any of Trump’s many scandals would sink his campaign because, historically, American voters have shown a strong sense of decency. Past candidates have seen political careers destroyed by misdeeds far less foul than Trump’s. Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” remark dogged his entire campaign, despite being taken out of context. Obama’s similar quip that “you didn’t build that,” despite referring to roads and bridges, literally became the theme for an entire Republican convention.

So when Trump’s supporters argue that the media dismissed their candidate for being politically incorrect, there’s a kernel of truth to that. Trump’s many scandals were not only more shocking but also more revealing in their honesty than gaffes that have burned down entire campaigns. From the beginning we in the media assumed that Trump’s overt vulgarity, his lies and his many acts of racism would lose him this election.

At the end of the day journalism is an act of… deep faith

that when lies are exposed or wickedness uncovered the reading public will give a damn.

To say, as some journalists have, that we ignored the issues cherry picks from this history. Thanks to the work of earnest, dedicated journalists America knew much about Trump’s shortcomings as a businessman, the implausibility of his proposals and the fluidity of his policy positions. The New York Times dedicated days of space above the fold to a few pages of one state’s tax returns, and papers from coast to coast filled daily copy with questions about Trump’s plans on subjects like taxes, immigration and foreign policy.

If reporters did focus more on his outrageous behavior it’s because historically voters have cared quite a lot about questions of character. It was reasonable to conclude that’s where they would want newsrooms to dedicate limited resources, and the coverage was legitimately newsworthy.

Issues such as Trump’s exhortations to political violence, his endorsements by the neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and his fondness for Vladamir Putin and Tiananmen Square Massacre all got saturation coverage because no candidate for President has ever behaved in such a way, and few voters have historically wanted to find themselves standing among such company. It was fair to believe that Americans would care more about this than his frequently-changing position papers.

And it was not arrogant or ignorant to assume that these behaviors would cost him the presidency. To paraphrase Rubin, it simply means we thought the best of our fellow citizens.

As an industry we will spend years figuring out how we got the 2016 election so badly wrong, but we weren’t nuts. Trump’s campaign was covered honestly, if imperfectly, and would have torpedoed another candidate. So why are we so shaken by what should be a basic recap of evidence and outcome?

It’s because at the end of the day journalism is an act of faith.

To be a journalist is to believe in your readers. We reporters don’t have money, we don’t have guns. We don’t run businesses and as individuals have so little power that CEO’s happily tell us to fuck off when feeling ornery. What we do have is a few inches of space every day to tell some stories, and a deep faith that when lies are exposed or wickedness uncovered the reading public will give a damn.

This is our religion. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning and keeps us going late at night. There’s not a single beat writer making it today who couldn’t get more money and better hours doing something else but we stick it out because of our faith in the reading public.

The 2016 election questions all of that.

For every time a journalist caught Donald Trump in a lie, the public seemed to trust him more. We covered his advocacy of war crimes, and the audience cheered. A majority of Trump’s voters falsely believe that he will raise taxes on the rich, and no number of articles could convince them otherwise.

This is the business of Edward R. Murrow, Helen Thomas, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Pulitzer, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They may be legends, but just like those of us with dust on our shoes their work only mattered because of readers who cared about the stories they told.

There’s not a single beat writer making it today who couldn’t get more money and better hours doing something else but we stick it out because of our faith in the reading public.

And now? Behind every byline analyzing middle America there’s a frightened writer who sees the public increasingly sorting facts by political preference rather than evidence or honesty. For every industry “mea culpa” there’s an after-hours bar where we’ll admit that most of our pissed off e-mails come from readers told something they didn’t want to hear. The incompetent and the lazy aside, no serious journalist sees him/herself as infallible but we have always been united by faith in our readers.

It’s what makes this job worth doing, and the 2016 election shook that faith badly.

So, did we fail? We certainly did not stop the election of a man who sees the world as a dominance game and us as an irritant in his way, but no. I don’t think journalists failed.

We will have to do a much better job moving forward though.

Eric

Eric Reed may be the only living travel writer who's afraid to fly. A freelance journalist, reformed lawyer and accidental expert on economic policy, he launched Things Dangerous as a place to tell the ups and downs of a beat writer's life on the road.

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2 Comments

  1. Steve August 29, 2017 at 7:13 am - Reply

    “This is our religion” says it all. You believe you hold “The Truth” and everyone must believe the same way as you. Journalists have become so monolithic and biased in their thinking, the public looks at with deep skepticism. You rank right up there with used car salesman.

    I didn’t vote for either candidate. While I wasn’t thrilled with Trump winning, I was ecstatic with Hillary losing. She was horribly corrupt and the main stream media seemed to want to ignore that fact.

    As far as missing the outcome of this election, you missed it because you relied on raw data. If you’d have traveled to Michigan and Wisconsin and seen huge Trump signs along the road (while virtually no Hillary signs, it may have given you a clue that there may be more to the story than your religion told you.

    • Eric August 29, 2017 at 3:56 pm - Reply

      Hi Steve,

      I’m afraid you misread the piece. What I said was that we put our faith in our readers. We have to believe that our readers, like you, will care about the difference between truth and lies because everything after publishing a story is up to you. So when we write, for example, that there is no evidence of voter fraud, all we can do is have faith that you will read that, take it to heart, and hold politicians’ feet to the fire if they say otherwise.

      That’s our religion: the belief that people will care about the difference between fact and fiction, truth and lies.

      So I would urge you to be careful about conflating bias and disagreement. While I won’t try to argue for the skill and professionalism of every journalist everywhere, most colleagues I’ve met hold themselves to a very high professional standard. Just because someone writes an article that you dislike or disagree with doesn’t make them biased, but I worry that many people have a tendency to assume exactly that.

      This election is an instructive example. Most major news outlets have responded to Donald Trump’s win with self-criticism, analyzing their own approach to coverage to figure out how they got this wrong. That’s not the action of a used car salesman, it’s what professionals do to figure out how they can do their jobs better. In this case, our job is to find the truth and tell it as best we can. That’s often difficult, and honestly requires acts of ever-evolving judgment.

      But here, I worry that you might be falling victim to the same habits you criticize. For example, you urge that journalists should have traveled to midwestern states to see all the Trump signs, where indeed there were many. I passed plenty of Illinois barns completely repainted for Trump/Pence. But I wonder how much time you spent in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Kalamazoo, South Haven, Detroit or any other cities and large towns where they had almost nothing but Hillary signs in places where a few blocks can house as many people as entire upper peninsula towns. (Indeed, contrary to popular impression, reporters actually spent an enormous amount of time in the midwest and plains states.)

      That’s not to say that one community’s message matters more than another, but I worry that that’s exactly what you’re unintentionally suggesting. Not to mention that we could flip this argument after every electoral cycle. The people who missed Obama’s win didn’t spend enough time in Lakeview. The people who missed Trump’s win didn’t spend enough time in Bad Axe. That’s what happens when presidential elections swing by such narrow margins, and Trump’s substantial loss in the popular vote made this one particularly complicated.

      I would also suggest that you re-read the coverage of Hillary Clinton during the campaign. While, again, I don’t want to be interpreted as saying that everyone got everything right, to suggest that the mainstream media ignored her flaws as a candidate is simply wrong. The e-mail story (broken by the New York Times), the Clinton Foundation and her health dominated all coverage of her campaign.

      Reporters are not some monolithic group, nor do I know any who claim to be infallible. We’re just people trying to do a difficult, sometimes dangerous, job. When someone makes a mistake, it doesn’t speak to professional corruption any more than it would if a plumber accidentally used a desiccated o-ring.

      Ultimately, I will share the best advice I’ve ever gotten about dealing with these situations: Assume good intent. When someone makes us frustrated or angry it’s easy to assume the worst. It’s easy to create a story about us vs. them, and to cast them as incompetent at best or an enemy at worst.

      The world rarely works that way though. Most people are just doing the best they can, and I’ve found that they become much more easy to understand when you assume that they meant well and work backwards from there. After all, even when it comes to the media, it’s usually true.

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