Covering Donald Trump was not normal, though CNN national politics reporter MJ Lee came to that discovery very gradually.
As Lee writes in the new CNN coffee-table book “Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything,” she started the marathon 2016 presidential sweepstakes in constant proximity to Trump’s campaign. Rally after rally, flight after flight, there was Lee — chatting up Trump supporters and trying to make sense of a phenomenon that almost none of her counterparts in the punditry pen had managed to foresee. And that includes CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod: “I could not have been more smugly self-assured,” writes Axelrod in “Unprecedented,” in reference to his early opinion that Trump wouldn’t secure the Republican nomination.
Lee was central to a massive CNN report under the headline “Why I’m voting for Trump,” a January 2016 story that stemmed from interviews with more than 150 people in 31 cites. It’s just the type of story that’s forgotten — or was never espied in the first place — by all those who claim that the mainstream media never paid attention to the Trump phenomenon.
In any case, Lee would discover that she understood the movement all too well. In May 2016, she received word from her editors that she’d be moving to cover the campaign of Hillary Clinton. She bolted out to California to cover the primary race there. “Maybe because I was so preoccupied with my work — trying to source up quickly, poring through previous months of Clinton coverage — it took some weeks for this realization to hit me: I felt, quite literally, like a new person,” Lee writes in “Unprecedented.” Before that, she writes, she’d “ceased to realize how deeply his events disturbed me.”
Whereas she once “worried about being booed or yelled and cursed at” in covering Trump events, there was “no threat of violence” at Clinton events. “CNN had hired private security for journalists covering Trump, to keep an eye on us just in case things ever got too rowdy. They were often ex-police officers, always kind and never in the way,” writes Lee. “As glad as I was to have them there, they were also a nagging reminder that something bad could happen.”
That wasn’t all: As she followed Trump around the country, she would find herself “surrounded by thousands and thousands of white faces” at rallies. Cue up the clumsy statements about Lee, who was born in South Korea, grew up in Hong Kong and became a U.S. citizen in September. In her reporting rounds, Lee encountered “one man [who] said that ‘new Americans’ were hurting the country, and said he was referring to people like me. Another man asked if I was Connie Chung, a Chinese-American journalist forty-one years my senior.”
Oh, but “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.”
To put it the whole shebang in a tidy package: Reporter covers Donald Trump, gets taunted, insulted, hated upon; election takes place and Donald Trump wins; reporter and peers get hammered for either giving Trump a “pass” or for being implacably biased against him. Journalism!