I was expecting the usual rounds of postmortems in the weeks and months to come no matter who winds up winning tonight. (And as of this writing I still couldn’t make a prediction with any degree of certainty.) But I wasn’t expecting the process to begin among network news figures before the voting even began. Yet that’s what happened when Chuck Todd took to the pages of NBC News’ website and began to deconstruct not only what “went wrong” over the past two years, but who was to blame and what they would need to do in order to prevent “a mess” like this from taking place again.
Todd begins by declaring that it’s time to “get to the hard task of cleaning up after this near-catastrophic storm.” I’m going to take exception to this characterization in a moment, but let’s first look at who is to blame in Chuck’s mind and what should be on their to-do list. And to be honest, I don’t disagree with all of it. First up, Chuck points the finger at (surprise, surprise) the entire Republican Party.
What [the GOP] didn’t do was figure out exactly what its base expected from the party.
Donald Trump stumbled into the answer and he didn’t need a party autopsy to figure that out. But if there is a bigger challenge for the GOP, it’s the growing echo chamber where those rank-and-file voters increasingly isolate themselves in — an alternative media universe where beliefs are reinforced at the expense of facts. If the party’s leaders and members can’t agree on the same set of facts, how are they going to communicate a potential winning agenda in an election year?
This is the usual nonsense we hear from cable news talking heads. A rough but more accurate translation would be to say that conservative voters don’t buy into the liberal echo chamber of the mainstream media and that upsets journalists quite a bit. But interestingly, Todd seems to directly contradict himself when he grudgingly places some blame at the doorstep of the media. Read this part carefully. (Emphasis added)
The media made the same mistake as the 16 other GOP presidential candidates when Trump rode down the escalator in June 2015 by focusing too much on Trump himself and too little on the Trump supporter. And no entity collectively deserves more criticism on this front than we in the media. Journalists who got it first were the ones who don’t inhabit the Northeast Washington-New York City corridor.
Reporters outside the bubble who spent time with friends and family in the part of America that’s been left behind, had a leg up in getting the Trump phenomenon. Bottom line: there was never enough early reporting about what was happening on the ground.
Trump is an intoxicating figure and his magnetism may have clouded the judgment of some, but he was a vehicle for actual frustration in parts of the country that was hit harder by the Great Recession and has taken longer to recover.
This is only a smidgen of what the media really needs to be apologizing for, but it does include a grain of truth which contradicts what Todd said when diagnosing the illness in the GOP. He should probably be focusing on the mountain of Wikileaks emails which demonstrated how cozy the supposed news room press (as opposed to opinion journalists) were with the Clinton campaign all along and the help they actively sought to provide her. (Take John Harwood for starters, but it’s a long list.) But Chuck is correct when he notes that rather than simply writing off Trump supporters as a pack of racist, woman hating demons, the media should have taken the time to answer one question: you keep saying that Trump voters are all angry, as if that disqualified them from having a valid opinion. But you never thought to ask them why they were angry.
I could break down more of Todd’s arguments here, but I’d rather close by focusing on why the original question is itself flawed, leading to no chance of a useful, coherent answer from anyone. Chuck begins by describing the election as, “this near-catastrophic storm.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made more than my fair share of (poor) jokes, both here and on Twitter, expressing similar sentiments. I’ve described the race as a dumpster fire of an election more times than I can count. (And that bit of irony is why I included the phrase in the title of this piece.) But I’m a blogger who trades in snark and sarcasm. If I’m exhausted and exasperated from the Trump v. Clinton showdown that’s on me, not the rest of the nation.
This is the point I was driving at in the beginning. How is it that we’re all accepting that the results of the primary and the conduct of the candidates during the general are somehow “wrong” and it must be somebody’s “fault” that we wound up in this situation? We may all wish for improvements or at least changes in the rules for how the primaries are conducted, but this is the system we have for the time being. People went to the polls and the caucus locations and they made their choices. In the end, after all the wrath and acrimony, the vote totals weren’t really even close. Clinton and Trump were the overwhelming favorites when compared to the support garnered by any of their primary opponents. To imply that either the media or either party’s national committees should have somehow “done more” to ensure we didn’t wind up with these candidates is not only insane, but it reveals the general attitude which clearly lurks in the mind of not only Chuck Todd but too many people inside both the media and major party establishments. You unwashed peasants picked candidates we don’t approve of so we must have failed in our jobs of telling you who to support.
Here’s a news flash for a news man. That’s not your job. That’s not the job of the parties. It’s never been your job. The media was supposed to just present the facts and give the candidates a space to put their views and plans on display so the voters could choose. The DNC and RNC were supposed to be referees in this match, not babysitters who shepherd us toward a preordained destination. I’m sure that I, along with more people in the new and old media around the nation, have more than my fair share of complaints about both of these candidates. There’s no need to list them all here. But the system worked. People voted and we got the candidates we deserved.
This election certainly may have looked like a mess when you follow the conventional wisdom of the modern era, but it’s the mess that the voters wanted. Besides, at the risk of invoking a quote from the Iraq war debacle, sometimes democracy is messy. Nothing went “wrong” here unless you consider it an indictment of the process we use to select candidates. And if you want the cable news networks to go into a huddle with Reince Priebus and Donna Brazile and just come out and tell us what are choices are without all that muss and fuss of voting, just say so.