The Columbia Journalism Review published an interesting piece today titled “Sleepwalking into 2020.” The concept is simple. CJR spoke to a number of reporters and editors about where the media went wrong in 2016 and then asked particular questions about how things would be different in 2020. The piece is lengthy and covers a lot of territory but it opens with a section about what went wrong last time. And here I thought NY Times editor Dean Baquet had a simple but pretty accurate answer:
In 2016 I think the media got the country wrong. I don’t think we got Trump. We didn’t understand how much the country was angry at elites, upset about the fallout from the economic crisis. And I don’t think we understood quite how much the country just wanted to shake things up. We covered it as usual, the way we always cover elections, as a clash of two ideologies, and I think it was much, much deeper.
In another section of the piece on polling, Baquet added, “All of us in the media were just so convinced Trump couldn’t win. But he was outside of the paint-by-numbers game we have developed.” And that leads to an obvious question about 2020: Can reporters do a better job understanding Trump’s voters in the middle of America better than they did in the last election. On this point, many of the reporters questioned seem quite down on their fellow reporters, particularly the “parachute mentality” of some journalists:
Sarah Kendzior, author of “The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America”: National media is making the same mistakes as in 2016. The midwest has become the sort of stand-in region for what the national media think of as the “forgotten voter.” What a lot of these coastal outlets are doing is parachuting in here with the narrative pre-written trying to find people who fit their preconceptions of what people in the midwest are like. None of this authentically captures what’s going on, and it really does a disservice to this whole region. It’s diverse demographically, racially, ideologically. Honestly the best way they could fix this problem would be to hire people who actually live in these states.
Al Cross, director, University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues: It’s not just boots on the ground. You can’t have a parachute mentality. You have to have some rural sensibility or an appreciation of rural sensibility. You deal with them as people and you have an appreciation for how they live their lives, and be respectful of that. And if you show that to them they will show that to you.
Kara Swisher, tech journalist and founder of Recode: I think everybody’s a regular person. That’s one thing I hate when reporters go, “we’re going to talk to regular people now.” I’m a regular person. It’s weird that that’s the way [journalists] think of these people, like creatures in a zoo or something.
Olivia Nuzzi, who writes for New York magazine actually had a personal suggestion for how journalists could try having more honest conversations: Admit your bias.
Generally speaking, I haven’t found there to be much room for changing hearts and minds on the subject of media fairness—from people who are skeptical of the media and distrust the media—if we’re defensive about it. Totally anecdotally, the only times that I’ve had any luck talking to people who are skeptical of the media about whether or not they ought to be is when like I’ve been honest—’Yeah, I definitely lean to the left on issues that are important to voters. And I would never endeavor to hide that. But obviously I’m not motivated by any kind of partisan objective in my work.’ That shouldn’t be controversial to admit. And I think most people in newsrooms—by virtue of being from the coast or living on the coast, or coming from elite universities—kind of share a similar world view. But I feel like when people don’t feel like you’re like bullshitting them, at least in my, again, very anecdotal experience, I’ve been able to have more honest, less confrontational conversations than when I’ve been like, ‘No, the media’s fair! What are you talking about? Everyone’s objective! Nobody’s biased!’
This makes a tremendous amount of sense and yet I don’t see it happening very often. How often do left-wing journalists (which is nearly all of them if we’re talking about journalists in New York and DC) open a piece about Trump voters with a transparent admission of their own contrary perspective? That lack of transparency has an impact on their work because you can’t expect people across the country to really open up about their political views when you’re an Ivy League progressive pretending to be a neutral arbiter. Trust me on this, the people you’re talking to can literally feel the waves of smugness radiating off coastal elites. It’s why so many people on the right laugh at Trump’s slaps at the media. For many people, the media, with its absurd insistence that it has no bias, has become the butt of the country’s biggest joke. And yes, there’s a bit of anger behind that laughter, because the media’s refusal to admit (to self-report) the most obvious truth about its own inner-workings suggests they think everyone else is an idiot.
The solution to that, if there is one, is something like what Olivia Nuzzi suggests. If media bias is the elephant in the room and part of the reason for the media’s failure in 2016, then the way out of that is honesty, transparency, and a dash of humility. Left-wing reporters who can’t get real about their own political biases aren’t likely to produce good work about other people’s political biases in a culture they don’t know and clearly despise. Finally, for editors and publishers who really care about this problem, there’s another solution: Hire some conservative reporters. Diversity of thought matters in reporting more than in most jobs. Having a 90-10 progressive newsroom in a 50-50 country is always going to be a recipe for failure.