Jill Abramson is a journalist and author of the new book “Merchants of Truth.”
The news media’s collective shock that Donald Trump won in 2016 was evidence of how out of touch most reporters were with the less affluent, less educated, rural parts of the country, where white voter rage galvanized into votes that made him the 45th president. In the days after the election, there was anguished self-examination in many newsrooms and vows to cover the parts of the United States that had been mistakenly overlooked.
But more than two years later, the same question bedevils journalism: Can our tribe cover their tribe?
The president does have his amen corner on right-wing talk radio, Fox News and Breitbart, megaphones that help keep his base rock solid and reticulate his warped version of the facts and truth. But in the rest of the news media, there is little evidence that reporters have fulfilled their pledge to report on and reflect the interests and values of the people who voted for him. There have been some good dispatches from the heartland, but too often what is published amounts to the proverbial “toe touch in Appalachia.”
I was powerfully moved by a recent article in the New Yorker about journalism by LBJ biographer Robert Caro. He described how he couldn’t really understand President Lyndon B. Johnson’s native Texas Hill Country until he and his wife actually moved there from New York City for three years. The locals had a derisive name for the reporters who parachuted in and out: “portable journalists.” There are great reporters who defy this description.
The rhythm of the Internet has made spending a week reporting a story a rare luxury. But our cocooning on the liberal coasts has intensified because of other factors in the past decade. One is the virtual disappearance of local newspapers, their business models irrevocably broken by the disappearance of print advertising. The Cincinnati Post shuttered in 2007, the Kansas City Kansan two years later — just two of hundreds of local papers in Red America that have merged or closed. Researching my book “Merchants of Truth,” I interviewed reporters from the Denver Post and St. Paul Pioneer Press who were protesting outside Alden Global Capital, the Manhattan vulture firm that had acquired the papers and gutted their newsrooms.
With the possible exception of the Wall Street Journal, the most influential national papers reflect the values of the cities where they are headquartered, New York and Washington. Politico published maps of the ideological clustering of the top newsrooms. In the same article, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver pointed out, “As of 2013, only 7 percent of [journalists] identified as Republicans.” Does this contribute to groupthink? Sure it does.
The rise of all digital news organizations has actually intensified the clustering. Almost all are in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Some reporters never leave their screens to do on-the-ground reporting. But other outlets, including Vice News, do bring their audience up close to the different and difficult realities of life in rural America.
Reporters who have contracts with MSNBC and CNN sometimes appear on panels, wedged between Democratic partisans and prosecutors who have already judged the president guilty of grave crimes. They blend and create an appearance of bias. It’s hard for viewers to keep them straight. Twitter is just an open invitation for politically inflamed hyperbole.
On the whole, enterprise reporting on President Trump has been excellent. To cover him, reporters need to be smart about politics, policy and international affairs, but also students of criminal law and procedure. It’s a harder job than it’s ever been. Think how much less we would know about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian meddling in 2016 without the deep investigations published by the Times and The Post.
The president is a master at media manipulation, a talent gained on “The Apprentice.” So determined to dominate each news cycle, he seamlessly abandons his preference for “Fox & Friends” to give occasional interviews, such as the one he did Thursday with the Times, to the very places he has criticized in more than 1,000 tweets, including using the term “fake news” hundreds of times.
Although editors have pledged to dial back the reactive coverage that revolves around the president’s words and tweets, they remain addicted. After all, they are swimming in Trump-generated revenue, clicks and ratings. “I remain astonished by the ability of this former reality TV star to be our assignment editor,” bemoaned Kyle Pope, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.
One way out of the reactive cycle is to report the story from the places where the pro-Trump and Trump-curious live, to cover the facts and truths of their lives. The Caro approach offers a way forward for news organizations to find contributors from, or place correspondents in, the communities that support the president, to soak up the sense and sensibility of under-covered America. That way, we mix with the other tribe. The 2020 campaign, already upon us, offers a great opportunity to fulfill the pledge we made after the last election.