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How the mainstream media missed Trump’s momentum

November 9, 2016 at 6:30 PM EST
Pollsters, pundits and many journalists seemed confident that Hillary Clinton would clinch the win. Steve Deace of the Steve Deace Show, Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post and Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times join Judy Woodruff and Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how the media failed to fully grasp the dynamics that propelled Donald Trump to the White House.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In the wake of last night’s huge upset, there are many questions about what the pollsters, the pundits and many journalists may have missed.

To tackle this, we are joined by Margaret Sullivan. She is the media columnist for The Washington Post. Steve Deace, he is a popular conservative radio talk show host in Iowa. And Jim Rutenberg is a media columnist for The New York Times.

And we welcome all of you to the “NewsHour.”

Margaret Sullivan, you’re sitting here next to me. I’m going to start with you.

We heard J.D. Vance say in that previous discussion in the program we saw the news media, he said, lying about what was going to happen in this election based on the polls. And I pointed out that we depend on the polls, but we don’t do the polls ourselves.

But how good a job or poor a job did the media do this time?

MARGARET SULLIVAN, The Washington Post: Well, I don’t think that the mainstream media was lying about what was going to happen.

I think we missed the overarching story to a large extent. And that is a failure on our part. But it wasn’t the result of, you know, a plan or a lie or anything as — quite as venal as that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Steve Deace, I want to ask, how much of this is a disconnect between the people who write the stories and the people who are out living them in the middle of the country?

STEVE DEACE, Steve Deace Show: I think it’s a massive disconnect.

And I’m someone who used to work at a major city newspaper which is considered mainstream or liberal media. I have done a lot of work with USA Today and MSNBC, which are considered the same, because I like to engage people that have different ideas than me and maybe even persuade them.

But how many people in the newsroom here right now at PBS, how many that work here, how many are pro-life? How many of them go to church or to mass once a week? How many of them voted for Trump?

And I think there is a lot of talk of the lack of diversity. There is a huge lack of ideological and cultural diversity in our newsrooms. And I think that’s creating a massive disconnect nationwide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Rutenberg, connect those two things. We just heard Margaret Sullivan speak about how the press missed the story, and we hear Steve Deace saying how disconnected we are from the rest of the country. How do you see all of this?

JIM RUTENBERG, The New York Times: Well, I kind of, in a way, agree with all of the above, in that it’s indisputable that America’s newsrooms, especially its mainstream newsrooms, are not diverse with ideological opinion.

But a lot of journalists are not — don’t consider themselves ideological, though much of the country doesn’t believe that these days. So — but I do believe that we need people with different backgrounds.

But mainstream newsrooms aren’t going to go looking for people with ideological viewpoints. It’s not what we do. Our editorial page issue should. But you do want people who at least grew up or kind of are immersed in the kind of thinking.

The one thing I want to argue here, though, is that this isn’t about geography. It’s not about the middle of the country. And I wrote this today, that it’s a state of mind. And so there are people on Long Island who are hard-core Trump voters who I don’t think are understood by most mainstream news reporters who live amongst them. Right? So, it’s a psychology, as much as it is about geography.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret Sullivan, what about the idea that there is an affirmation bias in the press, that perhaps we went along with the polls because it was more palatable or whatever — the prediction was more palatable, and that we didn’t dig into the numbers on how the polls got to the way they were, especially considering there was such uniformity?

MARGARET SULLIVAN: This was the year of magical thinking on the part of a lot of journalists.

We thought that it would be — it was unthinkable that someone who was insulting people, saying racist and xenophobic and sexist and misogynist things could become the president. And so we didn’t really — many of us didn’t really deal with the idea that this could the case.

And the polls were close enough and the election forecasts were often saying that Hillary Clinton would, you know, win, and you know, she was probable by 85 percent or something like that. So, there were a lot of factors working for us.

I think that we did get out into the different parts of the country and do some reporting. Did we do enough? Did we listen hard enough? I wonder about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Deace, you brought up a moment ago journalists, the whole disconnect point.

You know, we have strived, I think, in newsrooms for years to become, as we like to put it, more like America, to be more diverse. But I hear you saying we have missed a whole chunk of the country in our effort to be diverse.

STEVE DEACE: I don’t think there is any question about this.

I read something an L.A. Times film critic said a year ago, when “American Sniper” was the number one movie. And he said, listen, the only people surprised this is the number one movie are the people that live in the two coasts and haven’t visited the 47 states in between.

You know, what Margaret said about some of the things Trump said, I mean, that’s why I was #NeverTrump. I was disturbed by those things.

But you know what also disturbed me? To hear Hillary Clinton say that I am her — quote — “enemy,” the comments that were made in the previous segment from the WikiLeaks e-mails calling Christians backwards, the fact that those of us who think that we shouldn’t have men in bathrooms next to our young daughters are called bigots, when we used to just call them parents.

Those things create a backlash as well. So, I don’t fault the media for thinking that Trump couldn’t get elected because of his incendiary comments. The fault, though, comes in the fact that an equal light was not shed on Hillary’s incendiary comments and the backlash that created against her, which we saw in the vote total last night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Rutenberg, what about that?

JIM RUTENBERG: Yes.

I think — and I think that what we learned from the lack of reaction, I think this is where we see the disconnect, how we ask ourselves, and including some never-Trump Republicans — did the incendiary comment from Mr. Trump not create a backlash, and how did he get elected in spite of it all?

And I think that goes to, again, not understanding the level of anger in other parts of the country and, to my point, certain people everywhere. And they care much more about the ills that Mr. Trump was promising to cure than they cared about whatever personal traits we were writing about in our coverage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret Sullivan, what about this potential of almost an observer effect, having Jim’s paper, The New York Times, or The Washington Post, having these predictions on a daily basis seeing that Hillary Clinton is going to win by 92 percent probability or 85?

Does that end up having kind of a confirmation effect over time, saying, well, maybe I don’t need to go out there and vote or this is really the narrative anyway? Am I countering that? Am I challenging that narrative with a different type of story?

MARGARET SULLIVAN: I think, when you walk into the voting booth, it’s a very emotional issue.

And I believe that, for many people, the idea of the Clintons back in the White House was something that, when they actually walked into the voting booth, they just didn’t want to countenance, and that you can talk about experience or inexperience or incendiary comments or stronger together, make America great again, but a lot of times, it’s a purely emotional issue.

And it speaks to how you feel about your life and the direction of the country. And I think that’s really what we saw happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Deace, it’s such a big subject to look at how the media and a president interact.

But if there were mistakes made in the campaign, how can the media, shall we say, be closer to the mark in how we approach covering the Trump presidency?

STEVE DEACE: I think one of the big things, people misunderstood FOX’s original appeal when it was launched 20 years ago.

Its original appeal is that it looked at institutions of America, the military, churches, the family. It didn’t look or view them with instantaneous suspicion, because most Americans do not. And, frankly, a lot of people that live in more progressive enclaves do.

So I think, for example, treating those institutions, a lot of what you like to call flyover country, or, as the other guest pointed out, Long Island, would consider to be Americana, but to deal with them objectively, I think that is key.

And I also fear that the media has maybe made a mistake with Trump that we conservatives made with Bill Clinton in the ’90s, where we were so over the top, so hysterical in our condemnations and conspiracies and the like, that, when something serious came along, like a president lying under oath to a federal grand jury, a lot of Americans just sort of waved their hand, Judy, and said, oh, you guys are always the boy who cried wolf.

In many respects, you guys have almost insulated Mr. Trump from any legitimate criticism he may have as president, because they are just going to roll their eyes and say, there goes the media again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there’s much more to discuss here.

And, again it’s the first day after this election. These are all conversations that will continue.

But thank you very much, all three, Steve Deace, Jim Rutenberg, Margaret Sullivan. Thank you.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Thank you, Judy.

Thank you, Hari.

JIM RUTENBERG: Thank you.

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