The media’s failure of massive proportions on Trump
It was downright embarrassing. It was a failure of epic proportions. Almost everyone got the result of the US presidential election wrong, including pollsters and pundits.
But no one paid a higher price for the mistake than the media.
“Newsweek” was forced into an embarrassing recall after it sent out 125,000 copies of its souvenir “Madam President” issue to commemorate Hillary Clinton’s win.
Topix Media had the foresight to prepare a Donald Trump version, but thought it safe enough to dispatch its alternative edition with “Hillary Clinton’s historic journey to the White House” emblazoned on the cover.
“Like everybody else, we got it wrong,” Tony Romando, chief executive of Topix Media, told the New York Post.
A major soul-searching exercise has erupted in the US media since the November 8 election. The massive failure wasn’t just about a malfunction in polling. It was, as one analyst put it, “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”.
One commentator called it “the unbearable smugness of the press”.
Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, was blunt about the journalistic profession when he wrote, “Its inability to understand Donald Trump’s rise over the last year, ending in his victory Tuesday night, clearly stand[s] among journalism’s great failures ... This is our anti-Watergate,” he said. “[T]he views of Trump’s followers – which is to say, the people who just elected our next president – were dismissed entirely by an establishment media whose worldview is so different, and so counter, to theirs that it became chic to belittle them and wave them off.”
And it wasn’t just the American media that got it so wrong. A few months earlier, the majority of European media had also failed to foresee that Britain would vote to leave the European Union. For most political reporters, then, Trump’s win was America’s very own Brexit.
The apparent decline in quality reporting has been blamed on several factors: Mass media’s worsening business models, the rise of personalised social-media news feeds, and the hollowing-out of reporting jobs.
The New York Times went as far as confessing – though not apologising for – its failure to detect the seismic shift in the American political landscape. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr admitted in a personal note to subscribers that the paper had failed to appreciate Donald Trump’s appeal. In a way, it was also a thinly-veiled defence of the paper’s campaign coverage.
“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?”
While insisting his staff had “reported on both candidates fairly”, he also vowed that his staff would “rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favour.”
In the end, as NPR’s Scott Simon suggested, the real problem for news people today is that a lot of journalists, whether they realise it or not, live in a bubble:
“Part of the promise of social media platforms was that we would feast on a diversity of ideas from around the world and across a spectrum. But instead, algorithms and our own choices have enabled us to seek out new ways to ratify the ideas we already have. Conservatives follow conservatives, liberals follow liberals, and the algorithms ask, ‘Wouldn’t you like to follow someone else like you?’”
Like-minded people can “Like”, retweet, and repeat each other’s thoughts over and over, telling each other, “You’re right! Just as I thought, too!”
Simon added: “Do you believe 9/11 was a hoax, or that the moon landing was faked? Social media platforms and YouTube will lead you to all the misinformation you need to make those delusions seem real. Then you can say, ‘I saw it somewhere.’”
Between tweets, posts, text messages and websites, the amount of information we take in seems to swell by the day – but it may narrow in scope. People want to be warned against ideas that may upset them, and to be chaperoned towards opinions that reassure them.
But the best journalism also needs to be willing to challenge and unsettle an audience, Simon argued.
Modern technology may have opened a window for us into the whole wide world. But how many of us use it just as an echo chamber, he asked.
Perhaps Will Rahn of CBS News, who wrote about the “unbearable smugness of the press” the morning after Election Day, summed it up best when he advised his fellow journalists:
“Our theme now should be humility. We must become more impartial, not less so. We have to abandon our easy culture of tantrums and recrimination. We have to stop writing these know-it-all, 140-character sermons on social media and admit that, as a class, journalists have a shamefully limited understanding of the country we cover.”