In the wake of the 2020 election, Columbia Journalism Review editor-in-chief Kyle Pope (11/4/20) lamented “how little we seem to have learned” since media underestimate Donald Trump’s chances of success in 2016. Pope noted that polls were again “overhyped and under-scrutinized,” and argued that while journalists pointed out Trump’s “infinite faults,” they spent too little effort “probing the country.”
“Remember the post-2016 pledges to ‘go out into the country’?” Pope asked. “We seem to have forgotten.”
The piece elaborated:
We’ve kept too big of a distance from too much of America, nearly half of which has voted for an administration that downplayed a deadly pandemic; exacerbated the climate crisis; emboldened racism, xenophobia and gender-based violence; and embraced an authoritarian’s handbook on misinformation. In 2016, the press determined that our inability to grasp Trump’s rise ranked as one of our deepest failures. To repeat that mistake—as it appears we have—is somehow worse. Our task now is to report on the fact, ugly as it is, that Trump won more than 67 million votes. That story is only partly about the president’s odious tweets and lies. Voters who support him know about most, if not all, of his flaws—thanks in no small part to some great journalism—and yet pulled the lever for him anyway. Now is our time to focus on the America he has laid bare.
It’s an assessment that feels stunningly divorced from the last four years of corporate media coverage, which has subjected us to a never-ending stream of reporters traveling to red states or red districts to seek out Trump supporters to ask them how they feel about Trump (FAIR.org, 2/15/17, 7/14/19; PressRun, 11/12/20). The tautology of the Trump-supporters-support-Trump story is nearly always lost on corporate reporters, who somehow never managed to find anything newsworthy in Obama supporters supporting Obama policies (FAIR.org, 2/15/17).
The self-flagellating argument, then as now, seems to be that if reporters would just spend more time excavating the psyches of Trump supporters without judgment, they might not underestimate his ability to turn out huge numbers of votes, even in the midst of what a casual observer might judge to be a catastrophic and abominable presidency. At a deeper level, it suggests that understanding and empathy can lead us out of this mess in some way.
But if the point is to not misjudge Trump’s popularity, the solution is not to single out Trump supporters in your reporting, but rather to seek out a cross-section of voters—including Biden supporters and the substantial segment of the electorate to Biden’s left.
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And if the point is to lead us out of this mess, these stories, with their palpable fear of coming across as disrespectful or condescending, only make things worse by creating an uncritical echo chamber for racist and xenophobic perspectives and conspiracy theories that scarcely need echoing, given that the president and the vast right-wing media network spout them without pause.
Take a recent NPR recent story, “Ohio Trump Supporters on What They Think Biden’s Presidency Might Bring” (All Things Considered, 11/9/20). Reporter Andy Chow went to interview residents in an Ohio county where 66% of voters supported Trump. He found three Trump supporters to put on air to say things like, “They’re ready to tax the crap out of us—the Democrats are,” and noted that all “[made] it known that they’re not convinced Biden will end up in the White House on January 20.” One Biden supporter was interviewed. With no effort made to evaluate whether Trump supporters’ convictions or proclamations have any basis in reality, what is the function of such a report besides to reinforce them?
Meanwhile, notice that in Pope’s account, reporters have nothing to learn about the Black, brown and immigrant America that overwhelmingly voted for Biden, that is under direct attack by Trump’s policies, and that does not have the privilege of having its perspectives promoted incessantly, either by the most powerful person in the country or on television, radio and social media. Nor do they have anything to learn about the working-class white America that does not support Trump, or about the nearly one-third of the voting-eligible population that doesn’t vote at all.
The whole framing of the problem is wrong here. We already know plenty about “the America [Trump] has laid bare.” Journalism’s deepest failure hasn’t been its lack of attention to Trump supporters; it has been its inability to stop normalizing Trump and Trumpism—of which the uncritical Trump supporter stories are part and parcel.
Every time a news outlet writes gently and inquisitively about “the Nazi sympathizer next door” (FAIR.org, 11/1/19), or waters down Trump’s racism and xenophobia (CounterSpin, 7/19/19, 8/23/19), or paints his unprecedented weaponization of the powers of government against his opponents as a spat between Trump and his cabinet (FAIR.org, 10/15/20), or deems his press briefings newsworthy, no matter how much misinformation they contain or how much credibility they unjustifiably confer on him (FAIR.org, 4/13/20), or insists on an “objectivity” that must conjure an equivalence between “both sides” no matter how extreme one side might be (FAIR.org, 11/22/19), the media reinforce the idea that Trump—and support for Trump—simply fits into the usual narratives of political contestation under democracy.
By repeatedly conferring legitimacy on a fundamentally antidemocratic president and his actions, media have paved the way for the dangerous place we find ourselves in today, and hobbled their ability to protect our democracy.