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.