Changing the media’s notions of failure and success

Media in the Age of Trump

Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally on October 26, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is a moral, intellectual and spiritual failure. He lies, he cheats, he insults, he practices the rankest hypocrisy. He manipulates the tax code to avoid paying taxes. He wields bankruptcy to avoid paying his creditors. And yet. He does not hide behind professions of virtue while practicing his vices. He falters, sins, fails in his obligations, falls prey to his impulses, gives vent to his rage, all in public view. He does not pretend to be decent while behaving indecently.

For millions of decent people, who nevertheless falter in the obligations, surrender to their impulses, make mistakes in the eyes of the tax code and the law, Trump is the antidote (at least up until the allegations of sexual assault) to the prim, priggish, self-congratulatory liberal code of virtues. Trump’s followers forgive his abusiveness, callousness and mendacity because it embodies, in the phrase made famous by Isaiah Berlin, “the crooked timber of humanity.” His failures of character allow them to forgive him his wealth and power.

What his followers cannot forgive is the liberal media’s smug enforcement of the straight and narrow path to happiness and success, a smugness and prescriptiveness often born in conditions of prosperity and privilege that are far removed from the way the majority of Americans exist. Most American define success in terms of their families, their work–if they’re lucky enough to be working, and at a job with dignity–and their attachment to their communities. For most of the media, success is the right school, the right style of parenting, the right cultural products, the right job, the right etiquette in every social situation, the right social attitudes, and the right workout. That difference between how the media defines success and failure and how much of the rest of the country does, is one of the great causes of the divide between the press and the tens of millions of Americans who have rallied behind the exceptionally flawed Republican standard-bearer. It is a reason most of the media never grasped the rise of Trump’s base of support. Unless it’s addressed, one of the legacies of the 2016 election will be a permanent, and deepening, mistrust of and alienation from the mainstream press.

Here is my idea of a newsworthy profile, in the form of a pitch to a magazine or newspaper editor:

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Dear Editor,

I would like to propose a profile of Duncan Bronteen. Duncan lives with his wife, Ellen, and their two children in Galesburg, Illinois. He works as a carpenter. His wife worked at a daycare center until she was laid off. They have a boy who is 15 and a girl who is 10. Both children attend public school. Duncan goes to work every morning and comes home every evening. Ellen stopped looking for work and now spends her days caring for her kids and working odd jobs here and there.

Duncan is overweight, verging on obese. As a result, he suffers from high blood pressure. Though he belongs to a union, and is paid union wages and has healthcare through the union, he barely has enough money to afford his blood pressure medication.

Ellen, in the meantime, has to keep the family going on Duncan’s modest income and the small, sporadic stream of money she is able to bring in. Some days she is so depressed that she sends the kids to a friend’s house for dinner. Duncan and Ellen’s son suffers from ADHD, but because their strapped school district does not have the funds to support him in the special program ne needs, they refused to consider him eligible. Duncan and Ellen had to ask a friend of theirs from church, a psychologist, to lie about certain aspects of their son’s condition to get him into the program.

What keeps Duncan, Ellen and their kids going is their attachment to their church, where they have developed a wide network of friends. Duncan and his son also hunt, a shared activity that is responsible for both the tight bond between them and Duncan’s son’s rising self-esteem. Their daughter is a natural-born dancer, but as of yet, the family does not have the money to enroll her in the dance classes she dreams of taking. Still, the joy Duncan and Ellen take in encouraging and nourishing both their children’s dreams bolsters their hopes for the future.

There is nothing glamorous or sensational or even very interesting about the Bronteen family. They live the way many, if not most, Americans live. I think this would make for a great piece.

I look forward to your response!

Of course, any journalist sending out a pitch like that would probably be waiting for a response for the rest of her life.

It is not fair to say that the media missed stories about people like the Bronteens. It is more accurate to say that the media is not interested in them.

Related: 7 photos that capture the absurdity of this election season

Obama famously complained in 2008 about people living in small towns in Pennsylvania and the Midwest who “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” That statement has had a remarkable, and politically momentous, after-life.

 

That difference between how the media defines success and failure and how much of the rest of the country does, is one of the great causes of the divide between the press and the tens of millions of Americans who have rallied behind the exceptionally flawed Republican standard-bearer.

 

To be sure, some of the people Obama was describing make up Clinton’s “deplorables.” Others, though, are decent people under pressure who sometimes yield to their fallible natures.

But the establishment media sees the Bronteens in Obama’s terms. They ignore them. Turn to or tune into any prestigious media outlet and you will read or see story after story about optimal ways of living, best places to live in, best houses to buy, best colleges to attend, best investment advice, best –and most expensive and time-consuming–recipes, and, above all, the best attitudes to have. Not long ago, I read an op-ed by Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the media’s favorite advice-dispensing physicians (and the brother of Obama’s former chief of staff), arguing that an annual physical examination was a waste of time. That is true if you are going to the gym regularly, eating healthy food, avoiding stress, and staying away from self-destructive behavior. But for the majority of Americans, who have no time to work out or money to join a gym, are stressed out, and thus stumble helplessly into self-obstructive patterns of behavior, an annual physical examination could save their lives.

Last summer, I heard a bartender in a hard-scrabble corner of Maine refer to tourists from New York as “you know, people with those gym bodies.” I think of that remark every time I watch a Vice episode featuring a Brooklyn hipster, slim and stubbled, talking with calm detachment to, say, a Pakistani who has just lost his entire family to a political disaster. When it comes to covering the Bronteens, an exotic voyeurism that looks right past them is also the order of the day. 

A little over a year ago, I published an op-ed in The New York Times about how, at a certain point in my life, struggling to survive as a writer, drowning in debt, I walked away from what I considered–and still consider–the almost-criminal affliction of crushing student loans.  The outcry was an eye-opener in terms of how the media responds to economic struggle when the portrayal of it falls outside their accustomed categories of struggle.

My motive in writing the essay was to try to get the issue of student debt onto the national agenda in an election year. Student debt is choking millions of young and not-so-young people, who cannot find work that is equal to their talents, buy a home or start a family. Some people, driven to despair by student debt whose interest accumulates year after year, along with increasing collection-agency fees, have committed suicide. And, unlike other kinds of debt–Trump’s business debt, for example–student debt cannot be relieved through bankruptcy.

What I wanted was to draw attention to the fact that if you are rich, you go to the college of your choice and graduate without debt, or with debt that your family pays off for you, and that if you are middle-class, you don’t go to college, or attend a college unsuited to your talents, or graduate from a worthwhile college with debts that will hang over your head possibly for the rest of our life. At the end of the op-ed, I suggested that for people who have nothing to lose, walking away from their debts might trigger a chain of events that would lead to affordable quality higher education for everyone.

Throughout the article I made it clear that I came from humble circumstances, in which my father declared bankruptcy and I had to leave college for a while and work in a menial job. I made it clear that I tried to repay the loans but finally reached a point of despair at which either I walked away from them, or would lose any hope of living a fulfilling life.

The response to my op-ed was rage and outrage, with someone even calling my home and threatening to assault me. I expected some outrage, but not to that extent. What really took me by surprise, however, was the fact that the most virulent response came from the liberal media.

Related: What Trump could (and couldn’t) do to restrict press freedom if elected

From the heights of their virtuous aeries, my liberal peers  accused me of using the loan money to indulge myself with the luxury of obtaining not one, not two, but three degrees: a B.A., an M.A. and an M. Phil (the last not so much an actual degree but a sort of consolation prize for not completing the Ph.D). I was lambasted for having the audacity to go to graduate school — I had envisioned an academic career — and thus taking out additional loans. I was called “feckless” for majoring in literature in the first place, a branch of the liberal arts that I loved, rather than going into a field that might have made it possible for me to repay the loans. I was charged with being irresponsible for not repaying my loans when, so the accusation went, so many journalists did repay their loans.

The sharpest accusations had to do with my expectations of a better life for myself than the one I was born into. Why, my outraged liberal detractors cried, after thoroughly Googling me, did I have to go to Columbia? Why didn’t I settle for a state school? Several writers suggested that people in my situation, no matter their talents and aspirations, get the idea of going to a distinguished college that they couldn’t afford out of their heads, and attend a trade school.

 

I do not find it difficult to understand why there are people who want to see Donald Trump–or a horse, or a fire hydrant, or a spatula: anything but a blinkered, cloistered liberal–as president.

 

The people who made these arguments, some of whom I knew, some of whom I learned about, all came from privileged and, in some cases, rarefied backgrounds. They went to colleges that recognized their talents, challenged and cultivated their gifts, and, when they graduated, gave them lines out into important places in the world where they could make the life and the living that they wanted. Why, I asked myself, should I and people from circumstances similar to mine, if we had the talent to build careers in the liberal arts, have to settle for an inferior college, or for a trade school when my detractors didn’t, simply because their families had more money than ours?

Recalling the media’s outrage that I ran up against on account of an essay I wrote calling for making high-quality education available to every young person, no matter their economic circumstances, I do not find it difficult to understand why there are people who want to see Donald Trump–or a horse, or a fire hydrant, or a spatula: anything but a blinkered, cloistered liberal–as president.

Ronald Reagan’s reduction of the top marginal tax rate to 28 percent changed everything in this country, from the cost of healthcare and housing to the price of a college education. One of the other significant changes it wrought was to raise the salaries of journalists to unprecedented levels. It was in the late 1980s when the media began to make the media one of its subjects, and when journalists found themselves striving for social status alongside the powerful social actors they had once held to account. A list of liberal journalists who now routinely lay into Trump but who once supped at his table would need its own website.

I’m not normally a silver-lining sort of person, but that complacency and insulation might change now that incomes and livelihoods in the media industry are in free-fall. To make a life as a journalist these days, you have to want it with all your heart. In a way, we are experiencing a return to the old days of the beat reporters who, because they were as materially hard-pressed as so many of their subjects, didn’t just instinctively side with the underdog, but instinctively understood the underdog, too. One of the most heartening and inspiring stories I’ve read in a long time was the recent article in CJR about Barbara Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which pays economically struggling journalists a living wage to fulfill their professional destinies. These are people who know where to find society’s hidden truths.

In the midst of the backlash to my student loan op-ed I was sitting in an armchair in my office in a funk. My daughter, five at the time, came over and sang “Over the Rainbow” to me. My son, then ten, hugged me. I usually cook dinner but that night my wife stepped in, and a warm, comforting aroma rose from the kitchen. We might struggle financially, I told myself, but I have a book coming out, a contract to write another one and, hey, I had just been on TV a few times. The Sanders campaign had linked to my op-ed on its website, and the subject was becoming a prominent issue in the campaign. A friend of mine told me that she had been at a dinner party with some bankers, who expressed concern that some student debtors might follow my example. I had worried the bankers! But most important of all, I had my family. We had little money, but not only had I achieved my youthful dream of becoming a writer, I had fulfilled my adult aspiration to be someone, though fallible, capable of generosity and love.

Just then, the phone rang. It was another friend, who happened to be both very wealthy and a prominent liberal journalist in the establishment media. My friend asked me how much I owed in student loans. I related the amount, which was substantial. There was a pause. “How could they expect you to pay that?” my friend said. “You are barely successful.”

Changing the establishment media’s notions of failure and success so that the entire country comes into view, and not just a sliver of it, is not going to be easy.

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Lee Siegel is the author of five books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. His forthcoming book, The Draw: A Memoir, will be published in April.