America is changed. Politics is transformed.
But how much has Big Media adjusted?
Not nearly enough.
On Tuesday night, many major news organizations were caught flat-footed as 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in years, unseating powerhouse Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary in a New York City congressional district.
Not only was media coverage sparse at her jubilant headquarters, but many national newsrooms struggled to tell the stunning story even from a distance. “Incredibly,” wrote Harry Siegel of the Daily Beast on Twitter, some wire services had “zero pictures of her as of Election Day.”
Across the country, in Los Angeles, an exultant Cenk Uygur was pounding the table in his network’s studio.
The Young Turks, the politics-oriented web network that calls itself “home of progressives,” had seen her success coming for many months — and worked to promote it.
“We had an excellent sense of what was going to happen,” Uygur told me Wednesday. He also credited the Intercept, particularly Ryan Grim, the digital news site’s Washington bureau chief, with being on top of the story early.
Uygur wasn’t the only one to make that observation, though some did so with more of an edge than others.
New York Times political reporter Jonathan Martin referred on Twitter to the election being Grim’s and the Intercept’s “first big scalp,” comparing it to Breitbart News’s role in the surprise 2014 defeat of Virginia Republican Eric Cantor.
It brought a rebuke from Columbia University professor Bill Grueskin: “It’s reporting. Not scalping.”
That wasn’t the only criticism of the Times — former executive editor Jill Abramson reacted strongly to a headline on Tuesday’s home page that asked (with more than a hint of reasonable appeal to the search engines), “Who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?”
“Kind of pisses me off that @nytimes is still asking Who Is Ocasio-Cortez? when it should have covered her campaign,” Abramson tweeted. The Times had included her in stories during the campaign but had not devoted a profile to her; in addition, its editorial board took Crowley to task for sending a Latina surrogate to debate Ocasio-Cortez.
Abramson added, “Missing her rise akin to not seeing Trump’s win coming in 2016.”
Assuming a Crowley win was understandable when seen from a traditional media perspective. He was a 10-term member of Congress who had repeatedly cruised to victory with big margins. And he reportedly had raised a million dollars (though not much of it was available for the primary).
In old-school terms, there was no reason to think he could be successfully challenged by a political newcomer who was still tending bar part time a year ago, as The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel (quicker than many reporters in understanding her potential) observed.
But the fundraising emphasis is part of what ticks off Uygur.
“The traditional media pay attention to one metric — money — but there should be other considerations: number of volunteers, social-media engagement, small-dollar donations,” he said. In high numbers, they indicate voter energy and loyalty.
“And she was through the roof on all of those metrics,” he told me.
Abramson is right: There are echoes here of the media’s failure to see Trump’s win coming.
Reporters have tried to make up for that blindness with many after-the-fact explorations of how Trump’s red-state supporters haven’t changed their minds. I call it the Endless Diner Series.
Granted, any comparison of the two campaigns is a crude one. Trump won the presidency (while losing the popular vote, of course) for a multitude of reasons that have little to do with this New York congressional primary. We can all recite them together now in unison.
A closer comparison is the long dismissed and disdained popularity of Bernie Sanders — a Democratic Socialist like Ocasio-Cortez, with high readings on Uygur’s alternative metrics of small-dollar donations, passionate volunteers and social-media engagement.
As the nation changes, politics will follow. And vice versa.
And undoubtedly, the news media will continue to adjust. But journalists need to drastically pick up the pace, so they never again have to face an election night where prepared stories are tossed out like gum wrappers and palms hit foreheads in thoroughly avoidable shock.
In short, they need to get closer to what voters are thinking and feeling: their anger and resentment, their disenfranchisement from the centers of power, their pocketbook concerns.
There’s been progress made in that direction since Nov. 8, 2016. But too much of the reporting involves looking in the rearview mirror, trying to finally get a handle on what was missed or understated two years ago: trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Looking ahead is more important — not just with polling numbers and financial calculations but with deeper reporting at the grass-roots level.
And most of all, with wide-open minds.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan