The clear message of the midterms: the press is out of touch with the public
After shifting to the right in 2016, 2018, and 2020, will the press course-correct? Don't count on it.
Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of The Present Age, a newsletter about media, politics, and culture in a time of hyperconnectedness. I’m your host Parker Molloy. A quick housekeeping note: with the state of Twitter being… a bit shaky, and given that most of my non-subscriber traffic comes from Twitter, I’m asking you to please consider subscribing to the newsletter so you don’t miss out on updates.
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When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, mainstream news organizations looked inward, asking, “How did we get this wrong?” Michael Barbaro of The New York Times made that the title of the November 9, 2016 edition of The Run-Up, and his Times colleague Jim Rutenberg offered a similar sentiment in that morning’s edition of his Mediator column.
And the Times was far from the only outlet to ask this question in response to Trump’s upset win over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. There were plenty of lessons to take away from 2016, but the mainstream U.S. press seemed to land on just one: a belief that they needed to do more to “understand” Trump voters. And that may very well have been an important lesson!
However…understanding Trump voters is actually pretty easy. He ran an openly xenophobic campaign and tens of millions of people liked that. Yes, he attracted the admiration of open bigots like Richard Spencer, Jack Posobiec, and David Duke. No, that didn’t mean that everyone who supported him shared the same values. That said, when Clinton tried to make the distinction between the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it” people she called “the basket of deplorables” and the people who “feel that government has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they are just desperate for change” who “don't buy everything he says but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different” and “feel like they’re in a dead-end” who “we have to understand and empathize with,” the collective reaction from Trump supporters was basically, Hey, that lady called me ‘deplorable!’
There was a lot of Well, she shouldn’t have said “half!” type of argument made in response to that, but “half” actually seems about right! Between March and June 2016, Reuters/Ipsos polled supporters of the four remaining candidates (Clinton, Trump, Cruz, Kasich) on their feelings toward Black people, and well, the results speak for themselves. Another 2016 poll found that Republicans were also more significantly more likely to “strongly” (48% of Republicans, 31% of independents, 13% of Democrats) or “somewhat support” (28% R, 21% I, 13% D) implementing a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Those are, frankly, deplorable views, and they were widely held among Trump’s supporters.
Attempts to “understand” Trump voters that didn’t center xenophobia (instead, news outlets like to say that Trump voters were simply “economically anxious”) were little more than attempts to find a palatable reason tens of millions of Americans threw their support behind a failed businessman who rehabilitated his public image by starring on a reality TV show that reportedly had to be heavily edited together in order to make his decisions about who to “fire” make sense.
But rather than journalists acknowledge the reality that yes, a solid chunk of Trump supporters really were “deplorable” and maybe even ask themselves about the weight they gave to certain topics (Clinton’s emails, the DNC hacks) compared to Trump scandals, or how they determined to make immigration and Islam the two most widely covered “substantive issues” of the 2016 campaign, the press settled in on the “economic anxiety” narrative and set out to get more in touch with Trump and his supporters.
And, since honest introspection was out of the question, apparently, that meant journalists set out to write hagiographies of Trump supporters in diners who bought into all the phony culture war nonsense (war on Christmas, “anti-conservative bias in media/tech”) being pushed by Trump. This resulted in a bunch of extremely embarrassing stories like The Washington Post’s “In a pro-Trump town, they never stopped saying ‘Merry Christmas.’” (Spoiler alert: nowhere “stopped saying ‘Merry Christmas,’” you weirdos!)
Entire news organizations moved to the right.
The New York Times, which had a reputation for its center-left opinion pages, took big steps to the right when it hired Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss away from the right-wing Wall Street Journal opinion section. Other outlets followed suit. MSNBC hired right-wing commentator Hugh Hewitt and George W. Bush White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace to host programs on the channel. NBC brought on Megyn Kelly to host a primetime newsmagazine program and gave her the entire third hour of the Today show.
The “we went to a diner in Trump country…” stories became ubiquitous. Were there ever any great insights from these dispatches? Not really. It was a lot of, “Trump voters still like Trump” and “Trump voters don’t care about the latest scandal.” Great insight! Amazing stuff, journalists! It was an easy genre to parody, as the McSweeney’s post “I Traveled to a Diner in Trump Country to Write Another Article on Whether the President’s Supporters Still Want to, Quote, ‘Smash My Libtard Face In,’” demonstrated.
What’s even more frustrating about the lurch to the right that happened following Trump’s 2016 win is that it ignored the role the press played in giving him that win. It was a media environment that helped him win, and the response to his victory was to make it even more favorable.
So when 2018 rolled around and the Democrats had a wave midterm election, retaking the House, news outlets responded by… moving even more to the right. CNN went so far as to hire Sarah Isgur Flores, who was the Justice Department’s spokeswoman during the first two years of the Trump era (a job she reportedly had to swear a loyalty oath in order to obtain in the first place) to “coordinate political coverage for the 2020 campaign.” Oh, and she didn’t have any prior experience working in journalism! Backlash led to Isgur being relegated to the role of being an on-air contributor rather than making managerial decisions about how CNN should cover the 2020 election, thankfully. Still, it’s a frustrating point.
And in 2020, when Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump and the Democrats retook control of the Senate, news outlets responded by… moving even more to the right. NBC hired former Weekly Standard editor-in-chief Stephen Hayes, National Review editor-in-chief and author of the book Liberal Fascism Jonah Goldberg got a job with CNN, Trump aide and former writer at World Net Daily (an outlet best known for spreading right-wing conspiracy theories about vaccines and Obama’s birth certificate) Alyssa Farah landed at CNN and ABC’s The View, and former acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was hired by CBS to “make sure that we are getting access to both sides of the aisle” and calling Mulvaney’s hiring “a priority because we know the Republicans are going to take over, most likely, in the midterms,” and adding that “a lot of the people that we’re bringing in are helping us in terms of access to that side of the equation.”
No matter how things go, the answer is the same: move to the right. I’ve written about this before.
Looking at the way the 2022 midterms were covered, it’s clear that the press is less in touch with the public than it was in 2016. It’s time they course correct (but they won’t).
Check out some of the below articles by CNN’s Chris Cillizza in the run-up to the midterms. “The bottom is dropping out of the 2022 election for Democrats,” “5 very scary numbers for Democrats in the new CNN poll,” “The Senate playing field is moving toward Republicans,” “Joe Biden’s head-scratching democracy speech,” “Did Democrats place a losing bet on abortion?” and “Why the midterms are going to be great for Donald Trump.”
There’s nothing particularly new or noteworthy about the observation that a solid chunk of the American mainstream press desperately want to see Republicans succeed and not-so-secretly pine for the days of Donald Trump giving their celebrity a bit of a boost with a bit of briefing room kayfabe about them being the “enemy of the people.”summed this up in his Substack: "Mainstream Media Misses Trump, And They Want Him To Win." They see Biden as "boring," they miss the attention, they miss the revenue, and they miss being treated like heroes for doing the bare minimum amount of work.
On July 11, 2021, the Times published a piece by Michael Shear, a White House correspondent for the paper, titled, “Voters Chose Boring Over Bombast. They Got Biden’s Penchant for Pontificating.” Shear, you may or may not recall, was the same guy who used the occasion of Jen Psaki’s second official press briefing to complain that Biden had not offered a “fig leaf” to the Republican Party by agreeing to leave some of Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ executive orders in place.
Mainstream media outlets want Republicans to win, and they’re very upset that they weren’t able to will the likes of Blake Masters and Kari Lake into elected office. As I write this, there’s an expectation that Trump, a man who tried to use the various levers of government to overturn an election he lost in a plot that was described by a federal judge as obviously illegal, is going to announce another run for president, perhaps even today. Politics reporters are absolutely giddy. Just watch as they inevitably treat Trump’s announcement as a totally normal political event and not itself a threat to American democracy (again, keep in mind that he tried to illegally seize power after “joking” for years that maybe he’d just be president for life). Why? Because they love it. They want Trump pointing at them and saying, “YOU are fake news!” even as the outlets he calls “fake” work overtime to help him.
The mainstream media has been consistently moving to the right. If outlets like NYT, WaPo, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, NBC, and NPR don’t take deliberate steps to correct the right-wing bias they introduced following Trump’s 2016 win (and reinforced after 2018 and 2020), then they will have indisputably ceased to be news organizations at all and will instead function simply as corporate infotainment vectors — more than they already are, that is.
I’ve watched in recent years as left-leaning columnists have been pushed out of jobs at places like NYT and WaPo. I’ve seen left-leaning contributors let go from their on-air contributor gigs at CNN. I’ve watched in horror as the outlets that baselessly get described as “liberal” have turned into center-right content factories. Oh, cool, another Pamela Paul NYT column where she sits around inventing a trans person to be mad at? Great! Super cool! Gee, would sure hate for actual trans people to have a voice in the paper of record!
It’s exhausting. After the 2020 election, I felt like I was in a good position to make a jump from the job I had at Media Matters to a place like WaPo or NYT. After all, I was one of the first media critics to shine a light on how “Stop the Steal” was being deployed to sow doubt and confusion over the 2020 election results (my piece was filed on election night and published the next morning). I’d written countless articles about how candidates like Trump use the press to spread false information. Months before they were elected to office, I urged journalists to prepare for candidates like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. My work at Media Matters was an accurate, insightful glimpse into the near future.
But the election ended, the people who got things wrong kept their jobs, and CBS went out and hired a guy who referred to media coverage of the novel coronavirus as the “hoax of the day” in February 2020, told the press to “get over it” after openly admitting that Trump tried to extort Ukraine into opening a sham investigation into Biden’s family, and even wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “If He Loses, Trump Will Concede Gracefully,” after the 2020 election. Being right, apparently, doesn’t matter. Being on the right does.
But hey, that led me over here to start my own thing, which has been going pretty well (thanks to all of you who subscribe).
There’s a really good piece byabout the post-midterm failure of the press at his Substack called “The Political Press Needs a Time Out.”
And just… look at this absurd framing NYT had in the early edition of it’s day-after-election-day paper:
Come on, now. If the press wants to avoid losing what’s left of its credibility (which only remains because people on the center-left and left haven’t entirely abandoned it yet), it’ll need to make efforts to undo this absurd rightward bias it’s embraced in the aftermath of 2016.
Hard to forget, reading this, that not a single Very Serious Commentator involved in W-era war cheerleading faced any professional consequences for it.
Great read. I'll admit I even got caught up in the right wing praise fest this time, because I truly believed all the polls suggested republicans were going to wipe the floor with the Dems on election day. I couldn't even watch the results, because I was so sure of this. Turns out, that was all punditry I was reading and the polls largely got the eventual results right. It's scary to know that I'm probably more engaged with the news than the average person, and still getting steered like this on occasion. Our national press is broken.