Two conversations — one with a fellow journalist, the other with a voter — drove home these points for me.
In March, as Trump strengthened his grip on the Republican nomination, I interviewed CBS News anchor John Dickerson, who had recently moderated a GOP debate. We talked about why so many journalists had failed to anticipate the billionaire's political success, which seemed to be driven largely by an anger.
Reporters had not failed to identify the anger, Dickerson argued. “You could argue that anybody who’s on social media and watches Twitter would have an overly strong sense of the anger out there,” he said. Good point.
“We missed that [Trump] would be the place where all those votes went and that he would basically pay no price for his evolving views over time,” Dickerson continued. “The same people who have been the angry voters at the heart of the Republican Party — who fueled the tea party and gave so much support to Ted Cruz — their principal argument is that the leaders in Washington have not stayed constant, that they’ve shifted and changed once they got to Washington. So if constancy is the crucial quality, Donald Trump is not your candidate.”
Dead on. Constancy, it turned out, was not the crucial quality. The media did not understand voters' priorities. The media did not understand that many voters who complained about Republicans' waffling on conservative principles actually cared more about electing an outsider than a conservative. Conservatism was important to these voters, but another quality — a perceived ability to shake up Washington — was even more important.
Journalists might have known that — and seen Trump's rise coming — had they spent more time learning what really makes voters tick.
Voters have a role to play in promoting understanding, too. Three days after the election, I received an email from a man named Jon who was troubled by my word choice in a recent story. Writing about Megyn Kelly's claim, in her book, that the president-elect had been tipped off to the nature of a primary debate question, I had said that “Kelly's charge makes Trump look like a hypocrite,” because Trump had criticized Clinton for accepting primary debate questions from Donna Brazile.
“Is The Fix an editorial section of The Washington Post?” Jon wrote in his email. “I don't intend to be political or snarky; I'm honestly just curious. I see these type of leading statements in many articles today in a variety of publications and online news sources. To me, it seems as if you (and not just you, but maybe the media as a whole) are telling your audience what conclusions they should draw from the story.”
Jon genuinely did not understand what The Fix is or what I do as a journalist. So I replied: “The Fix is a news analysis blog. We interpret the news. A straight news approach to the same subject might have noted matter-of-factly that Trump's acceptance of debate question info is inconsistent with his criticism of Hillary Clinton for doing something similar. I would not use the word 'hypocrite' in a straight news story because it is, as you suggest, a loaded term. At The Fix, however, my job is to interpret the situation. Trump said you shouldn't accept information about debate questions. But he did just that. Sure looks like the dictionary definition of hypocrisy to me.”
Jon followed up with a kind thank-you note. Instead of reacting with fury and shouting “bias!” he had asked an honest question. You might say he had practiced good journalism.
The takeaway from this election year is that voters and the media often don't understand one another — don't understand what they think, do or value. More questions — calmly asked and answered on both sides — can help solve the problem.