Thursday’s New York Times, the first print edition to actually deal with president-elect Donald Trump’s Wednesday morning victory, wasn’t exactly elated, judging by the banner headline: “Democrats, Students And Foreign Allies Face The Reality Of A Trump Presidency.” The headline to the day’s lead story? “Grief and Glee as an Administration Once Unthinkable Becomes Real.” Yes, it’s a liberal nightmare come to life.
Randy Hall noted that the muted headline even made it onto MSNBC’s Morning Joe program.
Jim Rutenberg’s Mediator column on Thursday’s front page, “News Outlets Wonder Where They Stumbled,” dealt with an angry backlash from hostile readers after Donald Trump’s shocking victory. (That's the same piece of real estate from which Rutenberg unleashed his notorious August 8 column saying the media had a duty to be oppositional to Trump.)
The country’s major news organizations, as surprised as anybody by Donald J. Trump’s ascension to the presidency, faced a question from their audiences on Wednesday that was laced with a sense of betrayal and anger: How did you get it so wrong?
The question came in letters. (“To editors and writers of The NYT,” one reader wrote, “you were so wrong for so long. You misled your readers and were blinded by your own journalistic bigotry.”) It came in Facebook posts. (“You were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans,” the filmmaker Michael Moore wrote in a post shared more than 100,000 times.) Most ominously, it came in the form of canceled subscriptions, something that will surely be monitored.
After projecting a relatively easy victory for Hillary Clinton with all the certainty of a calculus solution, news outlets like The New York Times, The Huffington Post and the major networks scrambled to provide candid answers.
Data journalism in particular, including websites like The Times’s Upshot and The Huffington Post’s Pollster, was under fire after guiding audiences -- often through visually appealing speedometer-type graphics that forecast the probability of winning -- to the conclusion that Mrs. Clinton would prevail in electoral votes. On Tuesday, the meters went haywire. The Times’s Upshot graphic, for instance, moved from a high probability favoring Mrs. Clinton to a huge advantage for Mr. Trump, with readers left to guess what the dancing needle really signified.
Rutenberg issued a provisional, mild mea culpa, while bringing Fox News in for retrospective blame.
The news media’s self-reflection on Wednesday brought to mind the awkward position Fox News found itself in four years ago, when it was criticized for creating an insular information bubble that led some viewers to believe Mitt Romney would defeat President Obama.
That raised questions about Fox News’s objectivity. Now it is mainstream news outlets, which Fox News so often portrays as liberally biased, that are facing a wave of skepticism. In some cases, the questions come from people at Fox News.
Credit Rutenberg for quoting a Times critic at Fox.
“A lot of media outlets made a decision sometime after the convention that Donald Trump was beyond the pale and they no longer had to observe the normal rules of journalism and objectivity,” Chris Wallace, a Fox News anchor, said in an interview on Tuesday. “I thought The New York Times was one of the worst offenders,” but, he added, “we were all guilty -- myself included -- of kind of writing him off.”
After talking to journalists with various opinions on how badly out of touch they were with Middle America:
....there was a widespread feeling that the coastal and Beltway sensibilities of many mainstream reporters left them unable to relate to the sense of anger and resentment of the core Trump voter, which led them to miss Mr. Trump’s groundswell of support, some of which appeared to have been lost by polling, too.
And it left them blind to the fact that the political rules to which they adhered no longer seemed to apply.
Experience told them that Mr. Trump’s misstatements, flaws and gaffes would prove disqualifying, which at times led them to present their journalism with a knowingness that only served to convince a large subset of voters that reporters, at best, didn’t get them.
Also on the front page, left-wing economics writer Peter Goodman’s “news analysis,” “Populist Fury May Backfire.” The online headline was more partisan: “Trump Rides a Wave of Fury That May Damage Global Prosperity.”
In the midst of the Times post-election angst, the paper’s Public Editor Liz Spayd had a radical suggestion in an online column: “Want to Know What America’s Thinking? Try Asking.” Spayd also faulted the paper’s Upshot polling feature, which on Tuesday afternoon had forecast an 84% chance of a Hillary Clinton victory.
Readers are sending letters of complaint at a rapid rate. Here’s one that summed up the feelings succinctly, from Kathleen Casey of Houston: “Now, that the world has been upended and you are all, to a person, in a state of surprise and shock, you may want to consider whether you should change your focus from telling the reader what and how to think, and instead devote yourselves to finding out what the reader (and nonreaders) actually think.”
But as The Times begins a period of self-reflection, I hope its editors will think hard about the half of America the paper too seldom covers.
The red state America campaign coverage that rang the loudest in news coverage grew out of Trump rallies, and it often amplified the voices of the most hateful. One especially compelling video produced with footage collected over months on the campaign trail, captured the ugly vitriol like few others. That’s important coverage. But it and pieces like it drowned out the kind of agenda-free, deep narratives that could have taken Times readers deeper into the lives and values of the people who just elected the next president.
In other words, The Times would serve readers well with fewer brief interviews, fewer snatched slogans that inevitably render a narrow caricature of those who spoke them. If you want to further educate yourself on the newly empowered, check out the work of George Packer in The New Yorker. You’ll leave wiser about what just happened. Times journalists can be masters at doing these pieces, but they do them best when describing the lives of struggling immigrants, for example, or those living on the streets.