Are Journalists Making the Same Mistake Twice?

There’s an entire genre of journalism that emerged following Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016. Every story or TV segment of this genre goes something like this: New York- or DC-based journalist goes to a diner in a mid-sized town in a middle-America swing state, talks to Donald Trump supporters, learns barely anything of value, and pats themself on the back for connecting with everyday people. 

These articles have become a meme and a punching bag among those who closely follow mainstream media and politics. As an example, the satirical news site McSweeny’s ran a piece last year titled “I am a New York Times Reporter, and I Have Been at This Midwest Diner Since 2016”: 

The patrons of this central Iowa institution aren’t paying much attention to the latest Twitter feud between Beltway insiders, or the most recent squabbles between senators. No, these folks are far more concerned about real issues. Issues like the recent cold snap, the price of grain, and an out-of-town reporter who has been occupying the corner booth at Hal’s on a continuous basis since the summer of 2016.”

On a more serious note, Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti critiqued this as “drive-by journalism in Trumplandia,” writing that “if the immediate critique after the election was that political reporters didn’t get out into the heartland and listen to people drawn to Trump, the pendulum has since swung in the opposite direction.”

There is of course something fundamentally important about journalists physically going to meet voters outside their bubbles and talk to them about their politics. The problem is how reactionary this type of journalism can become. 

It wasn’t until after Donald Trump defied conventional wisdom that mainstream media decided to do a little soul searching in their relationship with the “average American.” Then, readers were inundated with endless articles, all hitting the same note, and most likely overrepresenting the niche opinions of 55-year-old white men named Rusty.

Now, we have good reason to fear that the same thing will happen, and is happening, again. Senator Bernie Sanders has emerged victorious from the first three contests in the Democratic presidential primary, and could even be on track to wrap up the nomination in the coming weeks. No matter how you feel about the candidate, most would agree that a Bernie Sanders nomination, and especially a Bernie Sanders presidency, would be outside the conventional wisdom. And once again, beltway pundits and serious journalists alike seem to be more interested in reactionary coverage of Sanders than attempting to understand Sanders’ broader appeal among “average Americans,” which increasingly includes young people, people of color and independents

That reactionary coverage features intense focus on the ‘Bernie-Bro’ phenomenon, chronic downplaying and underestimating of his chances, and a constant flow of establishment backlash to his campaign, most of which ignores the fact that about 75 percent of Democrats and almost 60 percent of all voters have a favorable view of Sanders.

Of course, journalists’ jobs aren’t to cheerlead candidates by favoring their supporters and surrogates in news coverage. They must always hold candidates like Sanders accountable for their words and actions, and for the most part they do. But it is also their job to at least try to be in touch with the electorate about which they cover and all too often make grand predictions.

If mainstream outlets were committed to understanding the average Trump supporter after he broke the mold for the GOP, why shouldn’t they be committed to doing the same for Bernie and the Democratic Party? 

Perhaps we’ll wake up on November 4th with President-elect Bernie Sanders, and a fleet of New York Times journalists will be sent out to interview every 20-something Brooklynite with a podcast so they can better understand why Bernie won. But I would argue it’s much better to understand a candidate and their supporters as the moment is being made, rather than in a disproportionate way well after the fact, as we saw with Trump.

The left-leaning journalist and book author Anand Giridharadas appeared on MSNBC following Bernie Sanders’ victory in Nevada and made the case that the mainstream media should take a breath and try to square their conventional wisdom with what voters are actually saying:

“Something is happening in America right now that actually does not fit [mainstream journalists’] mental models…and there is no curiosity. Why is this happening? What is going on in the lives of my fellow citizens that they may be voting for something I find it so hard to understand?… It’s time for all of us to step up, rethink, and understand the dawn of what may be, frankly, a new era in American life.”

MSNBC has played an outsized role in this story. Longtime host Chris Matthews faced widespread criticism over the weekend when he compared the big win for Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust, to the Nazi’s winning control of France in World War II. CNN analyst Brain Stelter (not exactly a known ‘Bernie Bro’) authored an article just yesterday titled “What is MSNBC’s problem with Bernie Sanders?” in which he offers that cable news’ awkward reckoning with the Sanders campaign may be “the big media story of the 2020 race.”

Outside of media critique, there is no moral or political equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. But when it comes to journalists’ misunderstanding the public’s attitude about politics, the two are very alike. 

With the lessons of 2016 visible in the rearview mirror, there needs to be a bigger commitment to humility in reporting, especially when making predictions, because we know how wrong the conventional wisdom can be. As columnist Jamelle Bouie so elegantly tweeted, “Donald Trump is president of the United States and people are still out here absolutely certain that they know the outcome of any given political choice.”

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