Journalists, stop beating yourselves up over Election Day

November 13, 2016
Category: Newsletters

The press should take a break from its post-election self-reproach and watch last night’s opening to “Saturday Night Live,” where Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton dispensed with her Wacky Aunt Mabel essence and instead sang Leonard Cohen’s hymn “Hallelujah.”

“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”

You might say some of same about the press second-guessing its campaign performance. Many Americans believe (errantry) it tried to fool them. A smaller group of the press seems to concede it might have gone overboard in displaying animus toward Trump and, certainly, in missing the Trump mini-revolution Tuesday.

And then there’s the oddity of the elite press apparently declaring, “We promise to do our jobs.”

Self-analyses verging on self-flagellation are rampant, going well beyond the obvious disaster of much media polling, especially state-by-state polls, and now include declarations that can be construed as self-doubts about what’s just passed.

The New York Times, Fusion, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast have all felt compelled to say something about their coverage. The air of self-regard is vivid.

The Times, despite expansive and often terrific coverage, responded to criticism of a decided anti-Trump turn in recent months to pledge to cover him fairly — via a note to the troops from the publisher, no less.

HuffPost said it would scrap an editor’s note at the end of stories, calling Trump a despicable creep (actually a serial liar xenophobe, racist and misogynist). The Daily Beast combined a declaration of being “the loyal opposition” with one of being nonpartisan and independent.

“We have to pick up the pieces and get to work,” said Fusion, as if it were a hazardous materials unit beckoned to the scene of an accident.

Somewhere in the criticism of the press, and what will be a smidgen of self-examination, is the inflated premise of its impact. Somewhere is forgotten that the public already held it in perilously low respect. The notion that it grievously erred, by in some cases “piling on” Trump, carries the notion that it really mattered.

It’s sort of like a reverse Leonard Cohen. The husky-voiced songwriter crafted a body of work that was more revered than actually purchased. Journalism is widely disdained, and many Americans seem wary of shelling out for quality work. So many citizens complain about what they don’t know and fail to draw any link between a vibrant, profitable local media and upholding the basic tenets of a democracy. Ignorance seems bliss — and can help fuel ballot box anger.

The shots at Trump mattered less than the press itself imagines. They could in no significant fashion dent factors that led to the Trump victory: a deepening rural-urban divide; a sense of economic dislocation for Trump supporters that made his deceits almost superfluous; the dramatic gulf between many Trump supporters and the political-media-cultural elite; the shortcomings of Hillary Clinton; and subpar polling in many individual states that led to consensus about a Clinton victory in the Electoral College.

Were there press versions of fourth-quarter makeup calls in the form of anti-Trump stories? Probably. Did those same stories spawn rationalizations for their being published? Probably. Like, “Well, he denied ever mistreating women so we can set loose around the world the uncorroborated tales of anyone we can track down. He opened the door!”

TV gave Trump far too much free time. It went overboard on Clinton’s emails. And while there were those who disbelieved Trump’s bombast would propel him to victory, there were those (like Fox News) who appeared to be Trump campaign arms, certainly among show hosts like star prime time hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, as well as its cheerleading morning fixture, “Fox & Friends.

The campaign will launch 1,000 academic, think tank and journalism post-mortems, essentially on what went “wrong.” Perhaps they will also include some words to the wise in dealing with a president-elect whose campaign abused the press, such as those offered in a Newsweek piece by Craig Aaron, the president of the U.S. advocacy group Free Press.

“Don’t normalize; scrutinize,” he says. “Don’t be a stenographer. Stay away from the press conferences and golf courses and dig into the documents, appointments and policies — including policies that will shape journalism, the internet and the media business.”

“What else? ‘Stand up for those asking President Trump hard questions. Show solidarity with everyone committing acts of journalism even if they don’t have fancy credentials. Get a good lawyer on speed dial. And encrypt everything.'”

One more thing about the press.

They were obsessed with the candidates this year to the frequent exclusion of understanding the country.

Yes, fine, commit to cover “fairly” a man probably most in the press think is unfit for the job.

But also spend a few bucks to both cover and understand the country — rather than just rely on Big Data survey consultants.

It won’t magically rebuild an unfairly low public image. But it will at least offer a better sense of what folks not trapped in the New York-Washington-Boston media echo chamber might actually have on their minds. Capture that next time, then perhaps sing out, “Hallelujah” in self-praise.