A British journalist on Weekend, the BBC World Service’s hour-long program of news and commentary noted that none of his American colleagues had ever met or spoken to a Trump supporter.
For an American observer this is not surprising. Journalists were initially convinced that Donald Trump was no more than a circus act. As his campaign drew more and more supporters, instead of objectively investigating the phenomenon to find out what was behind such a popular movement, they sought to justify their earlier conclusions. They had said that Trump was a clown, a buffoon, and a hilarious joke; and they were committed to perpetuating that image.
As Trump drew even more crowds, journalists, once again in defense of their initial presumptions but now concerned that the Trump campaign was gaining strength and force began to criticize him not only for his vaudeville act but for his character. Influenced by progressive demands to look at him exclusively through the lens of race, gender, and ethnicity, they quickly obeyed and began to cover his assumed sexism, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia.
They left journalistic principles aside, followed the piper, and played his tune. They ignored historical context – when, where, and with whom Trump made his comments. They dismissed socio-cultural context – the milieu of high-stakes real estate, Hollywood, and New York television in which he operated. A review of both would have at lent nuance and perspective to the candidates views, statements, and public persona.
Most important of all, they took what he said verbatim. They did not, as did his supporters, deconstruct his texts and identify memes and signifiers to interpret meaning from language. Journalists were convinced that Trump’s words did not only express his political convictions but his true feelings. Listening to his words journalist were convinced they could track policy, moral and ethical character, and political conviction.
Most of the sixty million voters who opted for Trump did no such thing. There was none of the presumptive conflation taking place in journalism. They took hyperbole for what it was – the same inflamed campaign rhetoric that has always characterized American primaries and general elections. The knew that he had no intention of keeping all Muslims out of the country; or of rounding up all illegal aliens and deporting them; or of conducting pogroms on gay clubs and transvestite cabarets; or of returning America to the predations of laissez-faire capitalism. The listened, cheered, and loved his histrionics and showmanship; but kept only a few essential take-aways.
The progressive juggernaut of race, gender, and ethnicity had infringed on religious rights, had encouraged civil disorder, and had eroded academic objectivity. Government regulation and punitive taxation had stifled small enterprise, they very locus of economic development closest to those who were struggling. The arrogation of legislative and judicial authority had infringed on individual rights. The culture of entitlement was deferring if not inhibiting the re-socialization of the inner cities and impeding progress towards true integration. Trade laws and globalization did more to enrich wealth investors and multinational corporations who cared little were jobs were being created and more about shareholder profits.
Few Trump supporters believed the progressive narrative that Trump was a woman-hating, gay-baiting, racist pig. How could he be with so many admiring women in his life and businesses? With clearly inclusive policies at his hotels? Of course he talked dirty. Of course he used his power, wealth, and allure to attract women. Didn’t Henry Kissinger say that power was the greatest aphrodisiac? How else would this little ugly man have such sexual prowess?
For most Trump supporters none of this mattered. For those voters who felt alienated by the political process and the economic system and were angry, resentful, and frustrated by it, Trump was the only answer. Nothing else had worked, and it was worth taking a chance on an unpredictable man with a volatile personality. Neither they nor their candidate were the hateful, ignorant, backward, and violent people described by by both Democratic and Republican Establishments and the media which supported them. They were ordinary Americans working hard to get by and seeing nothing come of it.
So harshly indifferent were the media to the condition of largely white, working class Americans in middle-America, that convinced of their righteous cause and seeing their sentiments echoed throughout the world of journalism, they began to pile on. Both in the selection of news items and on the editorial pages, Donald Trump was portrayed not so much as a politically unfit candidate but an unfit person. Everything he did, filtered through the universal lens of political correctness, was evil, backward, and dangerous. Journalists couldn’t let up, and a feeding frenzy followed.
Then came the election, Donald Trump won overwhelmingly with the support of over 60 million Americans. How could we have been so wrong, journalists naively asked? No matter where the media looked for culprits, the investigation always came back around to them. They were guilty of arrogance, presumption, and ignorance. They did not simply pick the wrong candidate but chose to destroy one by any means possible. Fine and dandy for the radical fringe who hang out in odd corners of the Internet; even understandable for the partisan mainstream like Fox News and MSNBC, but for those news organizations which have prided themselves on objective journalism, there was no escape.
The New York Times has for years been considered America’s paper of record. “All the news that’s fit to print” did not only been thorough reporting but fair and accurate reporting. Americans had come to respect the Times for both comprehensive investigative reporting and fairness. Yet in this election the Times pulled up anchor. Trump was a vile enough person and political candidate for them to pull out all stops. The ends justified the means.
Now, realizing what it had done, the Times issued an apology from its publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Of course he didn’t come right out and say that the Times had been guilty of emotional journalism, but he implied it in no uncertain terms. In a public letter he said:
After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome? Most important, how will a president who remains a largely enigmatic figure actually govern when he takes office?
As we reflect on this week’s momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you.
“Rededicate ourselves to…report American and the world honestly’ can only mean that they failed to do that during the “erratic and unpredictable election”. Sulzberger admits that the paper underestimated Trump’s support; and by implication contributed to “the forces and strains…[that] drove this divisive election…”
This journalistic irresponsibility was shared by many in the bi-coastal liberal establishment, for they all refused to accept the fact that any American, let alone millions, could back a flawed and dangerous candidate like Donald Trump. Had they looked objectively at the reasons why Trump supporters were turning out in great numbers rather than make a priori judgments about their political ignorance and thuggery, they might have been more fair and reasonable.
It is not stupid to want jobs created here and not in China, to be concerned about the impact of immigration on economics and culture; to be worried about the intervention of Washington in what should be private, personal decisions. Being ill-informed about the dimensions of an issue or its alternative solutions is a legitimate target for criticism; but to attack emotional, visceral reactions is another altogether.
Highly-educated, well-off, secure bi-coastals believe that ‘objectivity’ should be the only measure of analysis in electoral campaigns. There only facts and untruths with nothing in between. There is no room for visceral reaction, personal sentiment, and convictions which result from faith and belief.
While protests against Trump continue, at least the Establishment is reflecting on what they got wrong and more importantly, how – as Sulzberger suggested in his letter – that they might have contributed to the viciousness and divisiveness of the country itself.
At least the Times was honest; but the media have a lot of catching up to do. Let’s see if they can cover the Trump presidency with more objectivity and equanimity. Doubtful but possible.