Covering Trump: An oral history of an unforgettable campaign

By Shelley Hepworth, Vanessa Gezari, Kyle Pope, Cory Schouten, Carlett Spike, David Uberti and Pete Vernon

This series was reported in partnership with Guardian US. Sign up to be a Guardian Member, or follow Guardian US on Facebook or Twitter

The election of Donald Trump has upended much of America — not least the establishment press.

Reporters, their editors, and the owners of the outlets that hired them have spent the last two weeks in an unprecedented bout of hand-wringing, trying to understand how they so misread the American electorate and how they should cover a US president who has made no secret of his contempt for journalists and their profession.

From the beginning of the Trump candidacy, in the summer of 2015, the press has played a central, and not always comfortable, role: as a foil to the candidate, as a target of derision and threats by his supporters, as a stand-in for the ridiculed establishment.

For the last three months, the Columbia Journalism Review has been interviewing dozens of the journalists covering one of the most extraordinary moments in American politics. We have talked to bloggers and TV anchors, blacklisted reporters and opinion columnists. The result is this oral history, our first draft of a momentous moment, one which continues, daily, to unfold.

June 16, 2015: Trump announces his candidacy for president at Trump Tower in Manhattan, beginning a process that would see him eliminate more than a dozen better-established contenders in the Republican primaries.

 

 

Susan Page, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today: One thing Donald Trump deserves credit for is that during the primaries, not so much now, he was available. He was more accessible than any leading candidate I’ve ever covered, and more willing to take questions when he had a bad story, not just a good story.

Olivia Nuzzi, Political Reporter, The Daily Beast: I’m 23, so I don’t have anything really to compare it to. During the primary process, before it became evident that basically nobody knew anything anymore about American politics, I was deferring to all of the so-called experts about what was likely to happen, and it became overwhelmingly clear midway through the primary that the experts had been rendered obsolete by Donald Trump. Whether they’re obsolete now forever or it’s a special case for Donald Trump, we don’t know. But to realize that the inmates were completely running the asylum was sort of a jarring moment for me during the primary process.

Andrew Kaczynski, Senior Editor, KFILE, CNN (formerly Political Reporter, BuzzFeed):  If people had known that he was for real they might have covered him differently in the beginning. A lot of the criticism was that people were just airing his coverage live and were giving him so much attention. I think people did that because they just thought that he would be gone soon and that he was entertainment.

 

August 25, 2015: Univision anchor and journalist Jorge Ramos is ejected from a Trump press conference in Iowa. So begins an antagonistic relationship with the press that would go on to see some media organizations banned from covering Trump events.

 

 

Jorge Ramos, Anchor, Univision and Fusion: In that press conference only two journalists defended me: Tom Llamas from ABC and Kasie Hunt from MSNBC. All the other journalists didn’t say anything. I think that the way we covered Trump at the beginning of his campaign was seriously flawed. The New York Times, The LA Times, Politico and The Washington Post [in September] called Donald Trump a liar. [But] it took 13 months for them to do that. At the beginning, it was seriously inappropriate.

Steven Ginsberg, Senior Politics Editor, The Washington Post: When we got banned by the Trump campaign, we had to chase him on our own through commercial flights [and] go in through public entrances. It wears on you. Normally you would have one person on the plane and they get to stick with the campaign and they’d chronicle it. In our case, we had to have one person in one city and one person in the next city. 

Hadas Gold, Reporter, Politico: It’s always frustrating when your outlet is banned from the site. You always want campaigns to at least talk to you. A lot of times you would email the Trump campaign and it would go into an abyss that never came back. Hillary Clinton’s campaign would do that as well, but they tended to be at least a bit more responsive off the record and they would explain why or try to talk you out of doing your story. 

Kaczynski, (CNN and BuzzFeed): They never responded to a single one of my comment requests for something like five months. My emails were just like 40 unanswered emails to Hope Hicks, his spokesperson. That was something I never encountered from a professional political campaign in Congress, the Senate, at the presidential level, anywhere. The Trump campaign basically just blacklisted any press they didn’t like.

Gold, Politico: The summer of 2015, when I talked to [Trump], he decided to call out one of my colleagues specifically because he didn’t agree with something he wrote about crowd sizes. He was like, ‘Are you an honest reporter, because Daniel Strauss is a horrible reporter,’ or something like that. ‘Are you better than Daniel Strauss?’ Asking me questions like that.

Jacob Weisberg, Editor in Chief, The Slate Group: You hear him talk for five minutes and understand that he does not believe in free and independent media. We know how threatening that is, not just to journalists, but to the idea of having accountability and the idea of democratic governance. That’s part of what we all react to viscerally.

Related: Q&A: Chris Arnade on his year embedded with Trump supporters

 

October 2015: Trump begins railing against the ‘crooked media,’ leading to questions about perceived media bias and filter bubbles.

 

 

Chris Wallace, Host, Fox News Sunday: The reasons Fox succeeds are because there are millions of people out there—and sure O’Reilly is popular and Hannity is popular and Kelly is popular—but I don’t think that is why Fox news succeeds. It’s because people think that the mainstream media has a single focus, and there are multiple foci on what’s important in the world.

Jonah Goldberg, Senior Editor and Columnist, National Review: When you talk to conservatives out there and you ask them, ‘How many Americans do you think watch Fox News on a regular basis?’—they think that because they all do, that the number is 20, 40, 60 percent of America. Then you tell them that a really good hour for Fox News is two million people, which means that about 308 million Americans aren’t watching it. One of the [ways] that conservatism got into trouble was by self-ghettoizing and not making this effort to reach out beyond our own institutions. Everyone wants to start another Hillsdale College, this great conservative college in the Midwest, but what we really need are more conservatives at Harvard. This desire to disengage, to cocoon, which is completely consistent with larger social trends in this country, is a big source of the problem. Another problem is that we have been locked into this Reagan mythologizing. I love Reagan. I mean, what has two thumbs and loves Reagan? This guy. But this effort to say that if you disagree with Reagan on anything you’re not a conservative, we’ve turned him into Joan of Arc or Jesus.

Jane Eisner, Editor in Chief, The Forward: It was really difficult for us to find solid opinion writers who were pro-Trump. I did my due diligence, starting last year, and made sure that I recruited people who were likely to take a different point of view than, say, we would. We’re not-for-profit, so we don’t endorse, but we certainly have in our editorial policy a kind of liberal leaning, based on our roots. We went around and made sure that we were going to line up people who were going to present different points of view, and they did, but none of them favored Trump.

 

The press increasingly becomes a character in the election, particularly as a target for abuse by Trump. Journalists are publicly singled out for harassment.

 

 

Weisberg, Slate: Trump is going to respond to the press with the instincts of a dictator. We’ll see if he follows through and what that means, but things that I would watch for include his saying that only certain news organizations can cover him, which he tried to do during the campaign; not following precedent and norms around not holding press conferences; not giving journalists access to the White House; vilifying news organizations and journalists in a way that encourages supporters to troll them or threaten them, something that’s happening in other countries. It would be insane for him to do what’s happening in Turkey or Russia, where people in power actually bring civil lawsuits against individual journalists. It would be insane for him to try to initiate criminal action against journalists. It would be insane for him to try to push restrictive press laws. But I don’t put any of that past him.

Ginger Gibson, Reporter, Reuters: You had candidates that got up and insulted you everyday. They told everybody that you were liars, that you were making everything up. Those are the things that challenge you when you’re at your desk and you’re talking about stories with your coworkers. You have to sort of talk through and be like, ‘How do we know we’re not dismissing something because the thing that got said is, You’re a liar and you make things up and you’re trying to throw the election?’ 

Nuzzi, The Daily Beast: For a lot of my time covering the Trump campaign, I was not in the media pen because we were blacklisted, so I would go in with the general public, not wearing a press badge, sort of just keeping my head down and trying not to have anybody notice me at all because I was afraid I was going to get kicked out. In those instances, when he would tell the audience to turn around and say mean things to the media, I never knew what to do. I’m obviously not going to take part in that exercise, but also if I just stand there and continue to face forward there’s a chance someone could say, ‘I saw you on CNN, you commie.’ So I would just look down and off to the side and hope that nobody noticed I wasn’t yelling at my friends.

 

December 7, 2015: Following the San Bernardino shooting, Trump calls to ban all foreign Muslims from entering the country. Trump’s campaign surprised many with the intensity of vitriol it inspired against minority groups across the spectrum. 

 

 

Ramos, Univision and Fusion: We’ve never had a candidate who’s made openly racist remarks and sexist remarks as part of his campaign. We’ve never had a candidate who wants to ban 1.6 billion people simply because of their religion. So it would be a mistake to equate Trump with any other candidate. We cannot go back to the ‘he says, she says’ kind of journalism. It is not the way to do it nowadays, and it is not the way to cover Donald Trump.

Sopan Deb, Reporter, CBS News: I’ll never forget being in the room when Trump read the Muslim ban in South Carolina. Initially when it came out, a lot of us assumed it would be a death knell to his candidacy. He had a lot of criticism coming at him from both parties. It was an unexpected proposal, and it received a lot of backlash, or so we thought. When he read it in South Carolina, he got a prolonged standing ovation. That was something unexpected for me. It was telling. It was a learning experience, and that has always stuck with me.

Sabrina Siddiqui, Reporter, The Guardian: I was in South Carolina covering Rand Paul. We were in a more conservative part of [what] is already a conservative state, in Rock Hill. One of the voters actually told me that he was concerned about national security. He said the ‘biggest problem in this country is Muslims and I think it’s time we either force them to leave or we take matters into our own hands and we start exterminating them.’ This was a situation where I didn’t identify myself as Muslim. I just said, ‘OK sir, why do you feel that way? Did you hear anything from today that helped address those concerns [or] have you heard anything from another candidate where you’ve been impressed [on] national security?’ I was very uncomfortable and I didn’t know what to do. Luckily he didn’t ask me about my background. But I was by myself in a rental car driving around the state. I don’t know how angry this individual is. I don’t know if he’s going to follow me if he figures out that I’m Muslim. I don’t have any sense what to do in that moment other than to just finish my interview with the voter and then just say, ‘Thank you for talking with me, and have a nice day.’

Sam Sanders, Reporter and Podcast Host, NPR: I’ve been aware of who I am and what I am in various environments. There have been Bernie Sanders events when I’m the only black guy there, and there have been Trump events when that’s the case. I will say that I’ve never felt personally, physically threatened at a campaign event. I always feel safe. With all types of supporters, what I find is that people will open up to me about race in a way that they don’t with people in their lives. I’ll never forget, I was in Iowa ahead of the caucuses, and a man living in West Des Moines was talking to me about certain things that Trump said that appealed to him. He said, ‘Well, Trump says it like it is: This country isn’t for everybody, we’ve got too many immigrants coming in from this country, that country.’ He goes on, and he says basically, ‘This country was made for European immigrants.’ He says this, and then he sees me looking back at him as the descendent of slaves here in America, and he stops, and he goes, ‘Ah, well, it’s here for European immigrants and the descendants of slaves, and we’re here together, and that’s awesome.’ He keeps talking some more, and we end up having a pretty thoughtful conversation about race that I’m guessing he has been afraid to have with anybody else. All throughout the campaign I’ve had these conversations where I hear people and see people saying things they’ve never said out loud, having realizations they’ve never had themselves, in front of me. My role as a journalist is to hear them. I have to turn off my offense meter and say, ‘It is good for these people to have this catharsis, it is good for me to hear what these people are thinking, and I want to be here to hear it.’

Jamelle Bouie, Chief Political Correspondent, Slate: In 2012, I never saw open declarations of hatred, of misogyny, or bigotry. And those things are completely common at Trump events. They’re arguably even encouraged; it’s part of the festival atmosphere. And that’s different. And it’s left me, in the course of covering these events, feeling just like a little uneasy about being there not only as a journalist but also as an African-American. My coverage has been weighted towards the big picture and specifically towards the idea that what we’re witnessing in the United States is a kind of white racial backlash, and the Trump phenomenon ought to be understood in those terms.

Deb, CBS News: In Reno, I was repeatedly asked by a man, in front of a group of Trump supporters, if I was a member of ISIS. That came a couple weeks after a rally in Las Vegas, when a man interrupted an interview I was doing to tell me to go back to Iraq. With that said, the vast majority of Trump supporters I met were not like that. That’s an important point to make. The vast majority were very kind and willing to share their views, and wanted to be heard.

Eisner, The Forward: I’m concerned about the anti-Semitism and I hope that my concerns will be overblown, but a couple of days ago—this was actually after the election—one of my younger staff members walked into my office because he had gotten some very nasty messages on Twitter and he just said, ‘I’m scared.’ That really worries me and I can’t, as a leader, give into those worries, but that’s not happened to me before.

Laura McGann, Deputy Managing Editor for Politics and Policy, Vox: The thing that I’ve been reflecting on is how much this election has been driven by emotional issues and deeply personal issues. Whereas I would have guessed a year and a half ago, looking forward, that 2016 might have been a battle about economic world view or how the American tax system should make America more fair, what’s happened is that so much of the conversation has been about issues like anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and sexual assault, and when you’re an editor running political coverage, this is not the type of daily territory where I find myself, where I’m grappling with these really sensitive issues and thinking about how do I thoughtfully assign? How do I take into account how reporters might be feeling? I work with professionals, of course. But these are not run-of-the-mill topics.

 

Related: ‘The goal is not to fear Trump, but for Trump to fear you’

 

July 19, 2016: Trump becomes the Republican nominee for president, changing him from a sideshow to a key player in the election. Media coverage adapts.


Sanders, NPR:
I was covering Ted Cruz the night of the Indiana primary that he lost. Over the course of the evening, news began to trickle out that Ted Cruz was about to drop out. So by the time he comes out for his concession speech, he gets to this moment in the speech when he basically tells the crowd, formally, ‘I’m leaving the race.’ And the moment that he does that, in this room of a few hundred people, you hear this audible gasp. There are screams, people are yelling ‘No!’ and then people start crying. Not just tears down the cheeks, but like chest-heaving sobs, like church crying, make-up running down the face. The kind of crying where you just want to hug a stranger. It was so intense. So I’m watching this outpouring of emotion about this man that I had been cracking jokes about the past few months. The night wears on, Cruz has lost, but no one wants to leave. They all stay there, mourning together. It’s like the reception after a funeral. So towards the end of the night, this gaggle of about two dozen Cruz supporters goes up to the front of the room. In front of this row of USA flags they start singing the national anthem. It was quite literally the saddest moment I have ever seen in politics. My big takeaway from this is, no matter the politician, no matter what side of the aisle, someone loves him or her with all their heart. My job as a journalist covering this stuff is to respect that emotion. That’s what we’re here for. We are here not just to bring the facts and the analysis and cover the horse race, but to respect the emotions of a campaign and the emotions of our audience, and the real feeling of Americans dealing with this stuff every day. That was the moment I was most proud of.

John Dickerson, Host, CBS Face the Nation: There was initially a lot of discussion about taking Trump seriously. My argument was whether you take Trump seriously or not, the Trump phenomenon you have to take seriously. There are a lot of people who are very upset and angry with the system and want a voice for their anger toward a system they think is rigged. Having covered Pat Buchanan in ’92 and ’96, covering movement conservatives, grassroots conservatives, I knew they existed and were an important part of the Republican story. Anyone who covered the Tea Party movement and then covered the 2014 races, and the establishment’s effort to beat back Tea Party challengers in congressional races, you knew this voice was out there. You knew this energy was out there.

Tommy Craggs, Politics Editor, Slate: I remember when [Trump] won the New York primary and essentially clinched the nomination. I said, ‘Watch, they’re going to say—no matter what he does, no matter what he says—they’re going to say he was more presidential.’ And that night, sure enough, MSNBC, CNN, they said Trump was more presidential, which just seems insane. He went up and didn’t swallow his tie in front of everyone and as long as he didn’t do that they were going to call him presidential. He could have gone up there and danced the hoochie coochie and they would have said, ‘This is a welcome change in tone from Donald Trump.’ Hillary had basically put away Bernie at that point. The narrative demanded that Trump be anointed the challenger. He was just a guy who held on to his angry little plurality long enough to win this nomination in this party that was undergoing this massive existential crisis. To treat him like a normal Republican nominee in a normal election year is doing an enormous disservice to the truth, but that’s precisely what happened. It’s hard to say definitively the media has singularly fucked this up, but there have been definite ways in which they’ve let the Trump phenomenon get bigger and gave it credibility it didn’t deserve.

 

Social media takes on an increasingly large role in the campaign, as Trump and Clinton use it to circumvent traditional media and journalists mine it for stories. Brutal harassment of journalists on social media becomes the new normal. 

 

 


Ramos, Univision and Fusion: [Hugo Chavez of Venezuela] used to avoid interviews by talking to the nation through TV, on nationwide speeches that the networks were forced to take. So it is concerning that, especially Donald Trump, has avoided the specific journalists from covering his press conferences and the way he has chosen, in this case Fox News, to be his network of choice.

David Fahrenthold, Reporter, The Washington Post: The first time I really used [Twitter] for reporting was back in May, when Corey Lewandowski basically lied to me and told me Trump had given away this million dollars to veterans when he really hadn’t. I still saw Twitter primarily as a place where journalists and Trump would gather; I didn’t really then understand the power of all the readers who are on Twitter and all the amazing knowledge they have and all the work they’re willing to do on your behalf. It was only later, when I started looking for Trump’s donations in general, that I started getting this incredible interest and feedback that I realized how big it was.

Nuzzi, The Daily Beast: Your likelihood of reaching idiots or crazy people increases with every 10,000 [Twitter] followers you get. It got to a point where I turned off my mentions completely so I don’t have to see the sort of terrible things people say to me. A friend of mine from school actually texted me today to tell me someone had said something awful to me about my sex life, and I didn’t even know what she was talking about because I don’t see it anymore. I’m just blissfully unaware at this point. Everybody is getting harassed a lot, but obviously things are much worse for women, and I imagine things are much worse for women of color. People just say things that you think that they would probably never, ever say in real life and, after a while, even if you are completely callous by this point, it does start to wear on your psyche.

Gold, Politico: I got plenty of anti-Semitic hate emails and really creepy pictures sent to me. It’s just become normalized now. They’re a nuisance, but they’re not going to stop me from doing my job.

 

Spring 2016-November 2016: The press has immense difficulty getting Trump and Clinton to focus on issues of importance to Americans.

 

 

Wallace, Fox News: It has really been a campaign about, in the case of Trump, his temperament, his behavior, and in the case of Clinton, her ethics, her honesty. If you believe their campaigns, it’s the choice between a creep and a crook. 

Gina Chon, Columnist, Reuters: Trump has a tax cut plan, he has a healthcare plan, he has plans regarding the energy sector, but a lot of them, especially in the first few months of his campaign, were very vague and did not have a lot of detail. So it was really hard to figure out how to analyze them in terms of what effect they would have. We had to rely on plans that were somewhat similar and try to fill in the details. Let’s say the wall on the Mexican border, [if you] wanted to make it as robust as he said it would be, engineering experts say that would cost $25 billion. [Clinton] was pretty detailed, and her plans frankly just weren’t as radical because she was pitching herself as basically carrying on or building upon Obama’s legacy.

Adam Moss, Editor in Chief, New York magazine: The one thing that even quality media did terribly wrong in this election was that they—and I put us in the same boat—didn’t force a focus on actual content. They allowed the contest to be what the candidates themselves were making it. The absence of conversation about climate change, and the fact that we have absolutely no idea today what Donald Trump actually truly wants to do about anything, is a catastrophic error on the media’s part, and lots of other people’s part.

David Scott, US Political Editor, The Associated Press: The hardest thing about this election was trying to do the best that we could to fact check both candidates in real-time. They’re on the stage, they’re on the stump, they’re on Twitter and they say things. A lot of the times, what they say is shaded or just outright not true, and to keep up with the volume of misstatements and to keep up with the intensity of things that were presented to the public that don’t match the facts was a challenge and that will be our challenge moving forward because we don’t have, in the current age of instantaneous information, the time to spend four, five, six hours to research and report every detail and fact-check. And the news cycle is only getting faster.

Alec MacGillis, Reporter, ProPublica: To start with Hillary, it was so mystifying all along that she was deciding once again to hold [the press] at arm’s length and to be so closed, when there had been all that talk early in the campaign that this time it was going to be different, and that she was going to be more freewheeling. There was that piece George Packer had in The New Yorker where she actually sat down with him for some time, and her remarks to him were so incisive, so wide-ranging, so impressive, talking about the economy and people left behind by today’s economy, and what it was going to take to spread the gains more broadly. I was blown away by it, because I hadn’t seen her talking like that at all in this campaign. Why weren’t we hearing more of this? Why was she not out there more, maybe not necessarily more press conferences where she was being shouted at about her emails, but why not more of the one-on-ones, why not more of something, because there was just very little. With Trump, running a campaign without much money, he just realized that a really, really good way to get your message out there was to talk to almost all comers, and yes you are going to say something outrageous, or something that, in another day, would get you in trouble. But if you’re just talking so much and saying so many things that are cross the line, the system almost can’t process it, and they don’t take the hit that they would have in another day.

 

Throughout the general election cycle, accusations of false equivalency—treating both candidates essentially as the same—plagued the press.

 

 

Weisberg, Slate: Trump had a really serious scandal, or did something really outrageous, about every four to six hours. And part of the effect of that was nothing lasted. It was a weird kind of teflon. If you just keep generating new scandals, none of your scandals will matter. Hillary Clinton had one sort of B-/C+ scandal, but there was nothing to replace it. But because of this structure of false equivalence, hers got way more attention than it deserved. He had 50 things that were all worse than her one thing.

Rebecca Traister, Writer at Large, New York magazine: A lot of the press treated Hillary like she was going to be the president, and held her to account for that. There was great journalism done on Donald Trump. But the daily, relentless hammering on these bullshit stories: the emails. I get so sick of saying, ‘Yes of course she shouldn’t have had a private email server. Yes. Right. She shouldn’t have.’ But it literally shouldn’t have been the story every day for a year and a half. That’s where the incongruity is. It’s not that people didn’t do great journalism on things that were wrong with Donald Trump. It was the daily hammering of the comparatively minor things that were wrong with Hillary Clinton.

Adam Smith, Political Editor, The Tampa Bay Times: It makes me a little uncomfortable the way you turn on TV and what you read, it just sounds so relentlessly anti-Trump. I don’t think anybody is guilty of false equivalency. I get why it is that way, because he is repeatedly saying things that are factually untrue or objectively racist and it is our job to say so, but sometimes it just seems like the entire media is piling on him, and it is a little unsettling.

Dan Roberts, Washington Bureau Chief, The Guardian: Both candidates deserve equal scrutiny. I do think that is something that we in the media have failed to properly explain and integrate rather than the other way around: Why some of the people are drawn to this crazy candidate.

Siddiqui, The Guardian: It’s a fact with everything Donald Trump said and did, with the kind of investigation he’s been under where his legal team has to defend him in court against under-age rape allegations after this election is over, [and that those are] being treated as potentially equal to some of the issues facing Hillary Clinton. If you were to take the names away and hold them up to any member of the public, I don’t think they would treat them as equal.

Molly Ball, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: You’d write stories saying both candidates are historically unpopular, but [people would] say, ‘Yes but Trump is a bit more unpopular’ or ‘Yes but Trump is more of a liar,’ or ‘Yes, but Trump is more this or that.’ And sure, we should be noting in the pieces that there are differences of degree, but in a two-party system you’re always going to be comparing the two candidates. You’re always going to be looking at ways that they are similar and different, and a lot of Hillary Clinton supporters just didn’t want to accept the fact that a lot of people didn’t like her. A lot of liberals wanted us to portray a Hillary Clinton who didn’t exist, a Hillary Clinton who was thronged by adoring fans. I covered Hillary Clinton. I never covered a candidate before where you would go to her own events and half the people there would say they didn’t really like her. They were going to vote for her, or they were just there to see someone they thought was going to be president.

Gold, Politico: People are still screaming at me about how the media paid too much attention to the [Clinton] emails, but you know what? The FBI was investigating the emails, so [how] are we not supposed to write about it? Because [Trump] had so many different incidents, it became this daily stuff, whereas for Hillary Clinton, it was much more down the line emails, emails, emails.

Maria Ramirez, Political Reporter, Univision: When you are interviewing people, people say things that are not true at all, and I’m still sometimes conflicted about whether I should say ‘No, that’s not true.’ Most of the time I just smile and keep recording. It’s not your job, I guess, to fact-check voters. But sometimes I feel weird [not saying anything].

MacGillis, ProPublica: I got a lot of flack over the last few months for having written so much about [Trump] voters and their towns and their worlds. I had a whole lot of people saying to me, ‘Why are you writing so many stories about these poor woebegotten people and their poor woebegotten places? We’re so sick of hearing about this all-hallowed white working class and their troubles and their needs. Enough already! There are other people in this country and voting in this election.’ My response always was we’re writing about these people because they have been more than any other group behind the rise of Donald Trump. The rise of Donald Trump is an extraordinary thing that wasn’t supposed to happen in our country. The story of this election was figuring out how this had happened, and that meant figuring out what was going on with these people and with the parts of the country where he was strongest. Writing about these people and focusing on them so much was [seen] somehow as a statement of favoritism and affinity, when in fact it was just where the story was.

 

Major mainstream media organizations like The New York Times went further than ever in terms of calling out lies, raising questions about whether the US media fundamentally changed its approach as a result of this campaign.

 

 

Carolyn Ryan, Political Editor, The New York Times: [Trump] came out and said Obama was born in this country, but blamed Hillary Clinton for starting the whole mishigas. We decided within about 40 minutes—Michael Barbaro, Dean Baquet, and I—that we were going to write something very straightforward. I went to Dean Baquet and I said, ‘Can we call this the unwinding of a lie?’ He understood the potency of coming out very directly and saying that, and that what Trump had done—a willful deceit—was far more egregious than some of the fabrications and stretching of the truth that we usually see in politics. So he was firmly behind us, and a lot of readers reacted favorably. In the newsroom, it’s a fairly traditional institution and there were some suggestions that it was precedent-shattering and what does that mean, and how do we go forward when other people stretch the truth or say things that are untrue? This felt, to me, like the very definition and essence of lying, that it was more than inaccuracy, that there was a willful desire to deceive.

Craggs, Slate: There’s a recognition that the old, rigorous, pretend neutrality is just a relic of a bygone era: You take two perspectives and the truth is what lies between them. The whole idea of objectivity was really just a business matter. It’s how newspapers could comport themselves in a way that would not offend the advertisers. But it’s been dressed up into a matter of journalistic ethics and journalistic epistemology [that] went unexamined for way too long. Once it crumbles, journalists are going to see it for what it was, which is this kind of phony thing that actually had no relation to putting true things on the page, which is supposed to be the job.

Jonathan Martin, National Political Correspondent, The New York Times: If any other candidate [did] these sort of things—talked about somebody gaining weight, questioned somebody’s religion, mocked their marriage, questioned the impartiality of a federal judge because of his ethnicity—coverage would be very tough. We’re covering [Trump] for what he says and not trying to impose some faux balance for the sake of some platonic ideal of equilibrium. If one of [the candidates] is doing things that sharply break from longstanding American political norms, then that’s how they should be covered.

Gerard Baker, Editor in Chief, The Wall Street Journal: I’m really proud of the journalism we did. Other people were so focused on Trump’s apparent flaws and questions about his own character that they simply looked past the bigger political phenomenon going on. Some reporters saw it as their role to stop this man from becoming president. They put themselves in the role of partisans. They were saying that if you voted for Trump, you were implicitly a racist. It’s easier to write about someone and his character than it is to go out into the country and report.

Goldberg, National Review: This is the first presidential election where I’ve had no idea what to do, as a professional opinion journalist. I’ve found it utterly dismaying. I feel like I need to search Amazon for deals on hemlock. I feel like a therapist should be asking, ‘Show me on the doll where 2016 touched you.’ It’s a very difficult thing for me to get a sense of. I’ve long had this theory that from the New Deal until the late ’80s there was this parenthesis in American journalism, where we locked into this very mid-twentieth century understanding of what journalism is and how it’s supposed to behave. You had the first generation in American history when large numbers of people had enormous amounts of faith in big institutions, combined with the change in the technological way that journalism was done, and there was this notion of objectivity that came out of radio, the telegram, and then, of course, television. [But] if you go to Europe, you have ideologically slanted newspapers, and it doesn’t mean they’re bad newspapers, but they sort of own it in a way that in America we had to pretend that [we] didn’t. If you go back far enough, you find that the ideological slant of American media in the nineteenth and eighteenth century was just astounding. De Tocqueville talks about this in his stuff about America when he says that the backbone of America are associations and the backbone of associations are newspapers. Newspapers were a source of community where partisans would get the facts and information they wanted. So it’s my theory that we are sort of reverting back to the norm about this kind of stuff in America. This election has had a really catalytic effect on that process, where you have lots of journalists, [who] normally at least pay passionate lip service to neutrality and objectivity and all that kind of stuff, who see Donald Trump as this singular threat to Western Civilization, and wanting to sort of put their thumbs on the scale without apology rather than do it in secret. While I’m very sympathetic to hostilities to Trump, I think one of the reasons why we got Trump in the first place is because you have so many people who no longer have any trust in the motives of what we’ll call the mainstream media. There’s this great line in Orwell where he says, ‘A man can be a failure, and because he’s a failure take to drink, and because he drinks become all the more of a failure.’ This election season, this 2016 cycle, is accelerating, catalyzing, multiplying these trends that we have been seeing in the media for the last 20 years. Mostly for ill, but there may be some good at the end of the tunnel, I don’t know. There are literally people in Washington who, after giving these yeoman defenses of Donald Trump’s sagacity and constitutional convictions, after the cameras go off, turn to you and say ‘I’m so sick of having to defend this idiot.’ My position is: You don’t have to defend this idiot. If he’s indefensible, don’t defend him. You CJR-types get way too worked up about what constitutes journalistic ethics. It’s a lot more simple. Ninety-five percent of it is: Never say anything you don’t believe to be true. That’s true of intellectuals, it’s true of journalists, it’s true of opinion journalists, it’s true of TV hosts. I have been astounded by how many people don’t get that. It disgusts me. 

Wallace, Fox News: The problem I have with the Times, and frankly a lot of other newspapers, is that at some point they decided that Trump was beyond the pale, and that he should not be treated as a legitimate presidential candidate. You’re entitled to your opinion, I just don’t think you’re entitled to your opinion on the front page of the paper.

Ramos, Univision and Fusion: Donald Trump is forcing us to take a stand. I believe that as journalists we have to take a stand when it comes to racism, discrimination, corruption, public life, dictatorships, and the violations of human rights. In the case of Donald Trump, if we don’t do that then I don’t think we’re doing our job. We will be judged as journalists on how we reacted to Donald Trump. I hope that the next election cycle, the next presidential election, that right from the beginning we will take a more aggressive stand on the candidates. The best examples that we have of great journalism have happened when journalists take a stand in specific circumstances. With McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow did it. Cronkite did it during the Vietnam War. The Washington Post reporters against President Nixon and [more] recently The Boston Globe reporters against the Catholic Church and the sexual abuse cases. So it is important to understand that our role is not to be passive and complacent and patient. Our role is to be aggressive, challenging, and questioning those who are in power or those who seek power.

Moss, New York magazine: We’ve always been a subjective medium. We don’t pretend to objectivity, but we do, as a rule over the years, try to maintain some kind of even-handedness. We abandoned that because we felt the threat of his candidacy and presidency was too great.

Ball, The Atlantic: I don’t have personal feelings. I’m neutral and objective. Once you have a side in a particular fight you are likely to even unconsciously portray things are better for your side and worst for the other side, so I do think it’s important to stay detached. My emotional life is my family and my sports teams, not politics.

Roberts, The Guardian: We all bring perspective to our stories. It’s one of the things that makes for good journalism. Journalists have to come from somewhere in order to be honest and also effective, so I have no problem with acknowledging that both me and my team and The Guardian as a newspaper come from a certain political perspective. I don’t think that should stop you from understanding why voters might disagree. We shouldn’t hide from where we come from, our perspective, but we shouldn’t become tribal.

MacGillis, ProPublica: You saw during the campaign a big shift in the way the mainstream political press covers the campaign, becoming much more willing than it has in past to call things for what they are, to call out blatant mistruths. I found that very heartening. I wondered if Hillary had won, would the press go back to its usual ways of being very reluctant to play that role. Now that [Trump] is president and he is going to continue to make the sort of statements he does and to have people around him who are really pushing the envelope in a lot of ways, the press is going to continue to be in that mode of candor. What the press is still going to struggle with is how do you get across just how extraordinary it is that this man is president? How do you get across that it’s mind blowing that Donald Trump is going to be sitting in the Situation Room at various high stakes moments and deciding whether to launch that drone attack? We use the word normalizing a lot. On the one hand it’s happening, so you must report it as a fact that it’s happening. So in that sense it is normal. On the other hand, it can never cease to be astonishing. Somehow the coverage still needs to continue to reflect how astonishing it is.

 

September 16, 2016: Trump performs a bait-and-switch with the media at a press conference, which turns into an infomercial for Trump’s new hotel. The incident epitomizes Trump’s mastery of the media and leads to questions about the role cable news and social media played in Trump’s rise.

 

 

McGann, Vox: CNN took a lot of heat for leaving Trump on the air, and his surrogates were talking, and when Trump finally did come on, he was plugging his new hotel. I was in the moment like, ‘Well, that’s a hard call to make.’ I was sympathetic to their position of, ‘Why would you think that this was going to be an infomercial for Donald Trump’s hotel?’ They thought this was going to be an actual newsworthy event. CNN has made a point now, if they go to a Trump event, they leave him in the corner in a tiny little box and wait until he’s actually speaking. TV news has a tough job. To fill all that air time is really difficult and to make those live decisions are difficult, and TV news has made some interesting calls, and especially CNN. They changed course. It’s not easy to do that, to say, ‘We did the wrong thing there. We’re not going to be duped again.’

Siddiqui, The Guardian: He was able to really work himself into the day-to-day news cycle to the point where the entire campaign, from the moment he launched, has largely been about him.

Matt Murray, Deputy Editor in Chief, The Wall Street Journal: He’s the culmination of many different trends, and not necessarily as anomalous as we would like to think. All successful politicians have to learn how to be performers. He’s all performer.

Nuzzi, The Daily Beast: Obviously, cable news has its own demons that are pretty evident to anyone who watches it, but I vehemently disagree with anyone who says that cable news created Donald Trump. I think that removes voters’ agency in a way that is incorrect.

Craggs, Slate: Trump identified a weakness in the way online political media, or just online media in general, operates. He won the primary largely by sucking all the oxygen out of the room. In this crowded field his was the only name that people saw out there all the time. People didn’t get a chance to know who John Kasich was or what Chris Christie had to say. All Trump had to do was cling to his plurality and make sure nobody else got any attention. It didn’t matter, at least for the purposes of the primary, if he made 60 percent, 70 percent of the country hate him. In some ways, the media understandably and inadvertently became complicit in that. He can command the attention from a country’s entire political media by just being an idiot on Twitter at 3 am. Even though it’s his own stupidity that’s being covered, in some ways that makes the media sort of a slave to this one figure in a way that it wasn’t for any other politician until he came along.

Martin, The New York Times: There have always been sharp-line differences between print media and TV media. Those lines were even brighter this time. There was more energetic coverage of Trump from TV, especially cable TV. They are an industry that is trying to navigate the way forward in an era when fewer people are watching live TV. How do you keep viewers? Well, have somebody who makes for good TV, and that’s one way to keep eyeballs. If the other guy is having him on, you’re going to also. So what you’re left with is somebody who’s getting a lot of TV attention, essentially live airing of his speeches, and that does tilt the election somehow. Now, does that mean that he won the nomination because he gave speeches that were covered widely on TV? No, not necessarily. It helped, but ultimately the voters were the ones who bought the product.

 

October 1 2016: The Times breaks the story that Trump may have avoided paying taxes for nearly 20 years

Susanne Craig, Reporter, The New York Times: The way that they came to us was certainly unexpected. My first reaction when I went to my mailbox and I opened the letter, when I saw that it was from an address from Trump Tower—you sort of can’t believe it—and then I sort of looked around. You’re wondering if they’re real, but you’re also thinking every other reporter in the building will have them. I knew, even if they were real, the chances of being able to confirm them were slim to none. It was like everything was just another obstacle, even if they were true, which we were pretty skeptical they were because of the issues with the numbers. To get this to publication for The New York Times, the bar was so high. We were going to have to source this and get somebody to confirm them. So there was a lot of, ‘Even if we have them, because they come from an anonymous source it’s still going to be a pretty difficult reporting feat to get it done.’

 

November 9, 2016: At 2:29am the Associated Press announces Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America. The outcome catches many media organizations unawares and leads to hand-wringing and introspection about what the media got right, what the media got wrong, and what a Trump presidency means for political journalism in the future.

 

 

Scott, The Associated Press: It’s kind of an interesting moment when you’re in the AP newsroom on election night because we call the race and we count the vote. We actually have these pieces of paper we call ‘call sheets’ that [the Decision Desk journalists] all have to sign off on. You have this moment where you’re one of like five people in the country who knows who the next president is going to be. It was pretty incredible. I got that call sheet and then I tapped our news alerts editor on the shoulder and said, ‘OK, we’re calling Wisconsin,’ and he sent that out, and I sat back down at my desk and hit the button on the news alert that said, ‘Donald Trump elected president.’

Moss, New York magazine: Around nine o’clock, just as it began to occur to everybody else, it began to occur to me that this thing could have a very different outcome than what we’d expected. At that point I re-engaged the whole crew, mostly through text message, to mobilize the forces for a very different outcome. There was a very long period, around one to three in the morning, where it was certainly completely obvious what was happening, but no one was calling the election. Then there was the question about when we would press go on basically saying this thing was over. At that point we had about six very strong pieces of analysis and commentary and anguish that were ready to go and the question was just when to do that. And then we did it. And then I tried to go to sleep. 

Deb, CBS News: I was at Trump HQ. There was a glass case on the stage with a red ‘Make America Great’ hat inside. That always stood out to me. As the night went on, you could kind of feel that something was not coinciding with the narrative that had been established. You could just get the sense that something is wrong here in terms of what we expected tonight. Not just reporters, but campaign staff. As the momentum shifted Trump’s way, you could see his supporters getting more elated. And then suddenly, even when it hadn’t been called yet, you knew Trump was going to win. At which point, look, the entire world—reporters included, Trump staff included—were shellshocked. A lot of reporters were shocked by what they were seeing in front of them, but I recognized that look, because we had had that look on our faces so many times when Trump would do something outlandish at a rally. So it was kind of a familiar look in many ways.

Traister, New York magazine: I was at the Javits Center. Imagine the worst party you’ve ever been to and multiply it by a million. Here’s the thing about that Javits party. The beginning of it was like a preview of a future that I’m not sure we will ever see again. I’m glad I was there because I have never seen women and men so sure that the country was better than they thought it had been historically. And we will never have that assuredness again. Never. [Then] it was like, everybody doubled over in pain. 

MacGillis, ProPublica: I was as stunned as everyone. I knew there was going to be this big white working class surge for him in these places, because I had kept seeing it all along. I kept meeting Obama-Trump voters, who other people refused to believe exist. I kept meeting the people who were coming out of the woodwork, who had never voted, even later in life. I could have told you all those places on the map that turned redder. But I thought [Clinton] was going to get a countervailing trend of support from college-educated, suburban Romney voters, especially white, college-educated Republican women, who would switch because they’d be so appalled by Donald Trump. I was totally taken aback, and suddenly hit with the wave of implications of it all, and I finally knew by about four in the morning, after a lot of reading and tweeting about it, that I was not going to be able to go to sleep. So I poured a little rye to steady my hand and began writing. 

Martin, The New York Times: There’s no question that part of the Trump story is that institutions in this country do not have the authority and gate-keeping capacity that they used to have. Everybody recognizes that. That said, Trump is the most unpopular major-party nominee in American history. So, when I hear the casual references to, ‘Nothing can pierce the Trump armor,’ that’s not totally right. There’s a reason why he is so unpopular and deeply polarizing. It’s because people do read the coverage, watch the coverage. And they see things they don’t find terribly flattering. That’s a little bit of a simplistic argument to make, that everything bounces off of him, that he’s Teflon.

Scott, The Associated Press: It was not what we expected and that that’s not uncommon. Our race call team really is driven by the numbers and by the data and the vote, so from pretty early on in the night they had a good sense that things would go differently than what we probably expected going into Tuesday. We adjusted and we did what we do best, which is cover the news, and we were proud of the fact that our race call team was 100 percent accurate and that we were able to call the race for President Trump before anyone else. 

Traister, New York magazine: When I say I’m not sure what’s going to happen, it’s because what just did happen took me by surprise. Not because I had assumed [Hillary] was a done deal, but because I just thought the inaccuracy of literally every metric I’d been reading… I wasn’t guessing that they were all going to be wrong.

 

The media looks in the mirror, Part 1: The upside



Ginsberg, The Washington Post: The notion that we didn’t cover or didn’t understand the Trump movement is off base, certainly at the Post. We covered it extensively for a long time. There is a lot of indication that while [voters] backed Donald Trump, they have reservations about it. It’s hard to say he took the country by storm beyond his core supporters. If anything, we might have missed a little on Secretary Clinton’s support and the trouble she was having with it. We wrote a lot of stories about that, but in the end we expected her to have a little more support than she did.

Gold, Politico: The media properly informed the public, and the public just did not care. When people blame the media, I remind them the media did not go into 50 million voting booths and pull the lever for Donald Trump. That was an individual person’s decision. The media sure helped Trump’s rise, that’s without question, by covering him so much, but he was popular from the beginning, even before he became clearly the nominee.

Nuzzi, The Daily Beast: I’m proud of how print journalism in general has been covering Trump. I think everyone has been appropriately aggressive and has asked appropriately difficult questions. People get criticized a lot for things that are actually part of Trump’s personality and there’s no way to avoid them, like, he can’t answer questions honestly or in a straight way, that’s just not how he talks. He talks in circles, and that’s not Jake Tapper’s fault, or Katy Tur’s fault, or any other reporter’s fault. Across the board, every game-changing story, to use a nauseating phrase, has come from print journalists. That says a lot about the quality of the work that people have produced over the last 17 months.

Sanders, NPR: We have to question the framework of some of these conversations we’re having. Everyone always says ‘the media.’ Would we ever allow anyone to say, ‘the blacks this,’ ‘women that’? For some reason, we forget that not all media are the same. We lump all of these people into one category in a way that we would never lump any other group. So I challenge the frame of these questions, first and foremost. We at NPR have tried our damnedest to do hard, intelligent, thoughtful, empathetic, and unbiased coverage. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that. Whenever you put a ‘the’ in front of a group, it strikes me as a bit problematic. Let’s have a sensible conversation and understand that not all things are the same.

Chon, Reuters: One of the stories I’m proudest of that we did was really tallying up the cost of Trump’s immigration plan. A lot of people who were writing about that, it was more based on outrage and emotional feelings of being offended by the racial overtones or religious overtones. Those are legitimate and important issues, but we tried to take it back to how is this affecting the economy and growth. And it turns out if you want to deport 11 million people that takes a lot of money actually in terms of plane rides, bus rides, infrastructure to house them until they’re deported. So we tallied up all those costs and we found it would cost $1 trillion. That helps put it in a new light.

Moss, New York magazine: The coverage can be divided into periods. Frank Rich wrote an extremely good essay at the very beginning of this, which [said] that Donald Trump was actually good for democracy because he’s exposing the crud in the campaign process, exposing the uselessness of consultants, and the falseness of a lot of the polling and all that stuff. On the one hand, covering Trump built him up because he thrived and drew all that sunlight, and on the other hand it was actually legitimate. So it depends on where you’re looking. There’s good and bad. Later it was absolutely unavoidable to cover Trump. There was a period in the last six months when some of the journalism was really, extraordinarily good. You had a kind of investigative aggressiveness on the part, let’s just say, of The Washington Post and of The New York Times that was journalism at its very, very best. So, it’s hard to say in a blanket way that the media failed, or that the media failed to do good work, because some of the media did quite extraordinary work. 

Weisberg, Slate: We’re sorry more people didn’t listen to us. We occupy this crucial but narrow and somewhat misunderstood space that’s in between neutrality, on the one hand, and partisanship on the other. Slate did not see itself as partisan for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Slate saw itself as very alarmed about Donald Trump. That’s a distinction that tends to be lost on a lot of people. Now that we’re facing a Trump administration, that gets harder. In such a polarized media environment, the media is more sorted into pro-Trump and opposition media. The space for doing something thoughtful—when you’re not Fox and not the AP—it’s harder to get that balance and find that space.

 

The media looks in the mirror, Part 2: Mistakes and regrets



Goldberg, National Review: The recriminations will be glorious. There’s this famous line where somebody asked Zhou Enlai what he thought of the French Revolution, and he said, ‘Too soon to tell.’ The blame [does not] reside entirely within the conservative movement. We made a lot of mistakes, but those mistakes were made in a broader context that encouraged [them]. For example, the mainstream media has been woefully irresponsible in the way that, every four years, whomever the Republicans nominate, the hunt is on to cast them as a racist, as a bigot, as a monster of some kind. One of the reasons [the mainstream media is] in so much trouble right now when it comes to Trump is that they have a huge ‘cry wolf’ problem. It was Daniel Schorr, in 1964, who said Barry Goldwater’s trip to Europe after he had secured the nomination was really a clandestine trip to meet up with neo-Nazi elements. They have been doing this for a very long time. So when the press says that every Republican who’s nominated, including Mitt Romney of all people, is a monster, and then the Republican party nominates a monster, you guys don’t understand why half the country couldn’t give a rat’s ass. That’s on you guys to a considerable extent.

Dickerson, CBS: It is an existential question: Our central job is to get people to agree on that common set of facts. We recognize in what we do that we are fallible. We recognize in what we do that facts need context. We also should recognize in what we do—and this is something we can all do a better job of doing—that we should be humble in what we really know. And this, again, is the distinction between opinion, hackery, and journalism. There are a lot of people who are in the conversation who assert things that either aren’t so or that they don’t have basis for. And those assertions—those hot takes cooked up in the old noggin—gain the same primacy of a thoroughly reported piece. The problem with that is the hot take with all that certainty is totally wrong, and yet it operates in the same space as the thing that’s been carefully built out of argument and reporting. So when the hot take is wrong, as it obviously will be, it degrades and debilitates the ability for people to give their trust to the well reported or well argued piece. It’s all coming through the same screen, essentially. 

MacGillis, ProPublica: There was all this talk about, was the press being tough enough on Trump? Which I think kind of missed the point, or it was not the right way to think about it. The problem wasn’t that the press wasn’t doing good stories on him and scrutinizing him. What the press wasn’t able to do, and what it was almost not set up to do, was to get across the sheer ridiculousness or surreality of Donald Trump running for president. The press is all about the news, what has not been said yet, what is new. With Trump, you almost needed to have a story every single day saying, ‘Holy shit this guy still hasn’t released his taxes, and this will be first time in modern presidential election history that a candidate has not released his taxes, and he’s violating a major political norm.’ But by the end of campaign, there was barely anything about the taxes because that wasn’t news. Somehow, there was no way to get across, every day, that holy shit, Donald Trump is very close to winning the presidency, this guy who’s never been in office or served in the military—the first time in our history that we have someone becoming president who has done neither of those things—a reality TV [star] and real estate developer with a string of bankruptcies and really, really shady finances and tax shenanigans. We have our own Berlusconi, and even arguably more than Berlusconi: a guy whose campaign is being run for the last few months by a white nationalist who runs this really incendiary website, a guy who Roger Ailes went to advise his campaign after being ejected from Fox News because of all the sexual harassment stuff there, a guy who his campaign was in part being run by his children. The sheer strangeness and non-seriousness of his campaign and the lark of it—you could never bring it across entirely. We were unable to get across how utterly weightless this one person’s campaign was and how not legitimate it was at some basic level. The campaign has exposed again, in a whole new way, the real problem with us having such insanely long presidential campaigns. They basically go on for almost half a presidential term and we have hundreds of people covering these things instead of covering national government, and sending hundreds of people to debates to sit in a room to watch it on a screen, when no one is covering state government. The justification is this is the most important office in the world, and the point of this insanely long campaign is to vet people. You’re really putting people through the wringer to make sure you have someone serious and up to the job. How did that work out this year? Trump’s becoming president has completely put the lie to that justification. The sheer length of the process played to his strengths. If you’re going to have such a damn long campaign, you need someone who can sustain the show for that long. You need someone who can provide plot turns; it’s not enough to be Scott Walker. Donald Trump is the perfect person for that. This is a person who literally knows how to craft a TV show to last a full season, so if you make elections into this two-year spectacle, it should not be any surprise that process produces a showman.

Ramos, Univision and Fusion: Our social role is to challenge those who are in power and on many occasions the press has failed in doing that. It took Hillary Clinton hundreds of days to have her first press conference, and Donald Trump chooses who covers his press conferences or not. This is completely unprecedented. I think we’ll remember this election as unique and very concerning for the future of the press because if [this] becomes the norm, we are in serious trouble.

Scott, The Associated Press: We all need to look at the role of horse-race polling in our coverage. The obsession with polling and predictive science based on polling is something that we really need to look at. Is the story of the day really who’s up and who’s down in the latest poll? Or would we be better off spending more time talking with voters, talking with people who are going to be ultimately making the decision and trying to learn a little bit more about where their head’s at and what they’re thinking, what they value and what they want to know about from their candidates? The only poll that matters is the one that’s taken on election day.

Murray, The Wall Street Journal: Two generations ago, the journalism profession was, economically speaking—not ethnically and racially—but economically, a much more diverse profession than it is today. Getting out and covering the country, on their terms and not looking down on them. One of the things I noticed when the Ferguson stuff was breaking out, when I was looking at my Twitter account, was the number of 28-year-old white guys who went to Ivy League colleges who suddenly seemed to be experts in small-town police and racism. We’re experts on everything, we know everything, we sit at our Twitter accounts and say everything. Get out and report. That’s a big part of it for me.

Page, USA Today: You watch Trump, it’s like a high-wire act, you want to see what he’s going to say next, and will he fall off. I do think cable TV has made an effort to deal with this. They heard complaints they weren’t challenging Trump. But it’s one of those things, looking back on the campaign, that we as an industry should handle a different way.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, Editor in Chief, Reason: I wish that I could say that our position as outsiders allowed us to somehow see more clearly. But that really wasn’t the case. If you look at our cover from our July 2015 issue, where we evaluated all the candidates for their commitment to fiscal discipline, you’ll see that someone is missing from that cover. It has Rubio, Cruz, Jeb, and Hillary. It has Scott Walker and Rand Paul. It does not have Donald Trump. So we missed the boat on that along with everyone else. 

McGann, Vox: Last summer, I was giving out responsibilities and beats, and one of my top reporters asked to write a long, in-depth piece on Donald Trump. I told him, ‘No.’ I assigned the piece to an intern instead, and I regret that decision. She was an extraordinary intern, but nonetheless I regret not taking Donald Trump more seriously a year ago than I did.

Smith, The Tampa Bay Times: Some of the TV stations probably need to look at themselves in the mirror for how much skeptical coverage they gave and hard-hitting coverage early on as opposed to just giving free TV time, but I don’t think there is a lot that I would suggest we do different. We probably ignored a lot of people. We missed Bernie Sanders probably for too long, and certainly a lot of people underestimated Trump’s long term appeal.

Bouie, Slate: The big thing is that I would’ve taken the Trump thing more seriously when it dropped last summer. I was among those who were sort of like, ‘This can’t possibly last,’ and I regret thinking like that. I did the same thing with Bernie Sanders, frankly. I kind of figured that this couldn’t possibly get that traction. I wish I would have been a little more perceptive about the underlying things in regards to both candidates.

Gibson, Reuters: We, as an industry, failed to write a collective nut graph on this election. We failed to explain to people why they should care about the things we thought they should care about. We should call up our college journalism professors and ask them for a refresher and just think about how and why things are important, and how and why we explain what those important things are to our readers. 

Mangu-Ward, Reason:  Both things can be true: The media definitely fucked up in this campaign and, also, the self-flagellation is reaching Opus Dei levels of hysteria at this point. 

 

Looking forward: Covering a Trump administration, and the next campaign



Moss, New York magazine: When I first agreed to talk to you, I thought, ‘What an interesting conversation. It’s going to be about whether we should return to the old norms now that Trump has lost and whether an aggressive, fact-checking in real-time press is a good or bad thing.’ But that question has become entirely moot because the mainstream media is already oppositional and will stay that way until history changes again.

Deb, CBS News: A Trump administration is so unpredictable that we just don’t know how this is going to go. What we do know is that Donald Trump is the guy in charge. He is involved in minor details. Everything that happens runs through him; he is the ultimate decision-maker.

Eisner, The Forward: We had a regularly scheduled staff meeting on Thursday [after the election] and our publisher began by very eloquently talking about how this reinforces the need for independent Jewish journalism like never before. We have a job to do, and it’s to be as fair and accurate and balanced as we can, but also to give voice to the concerns that people have about community that are shared by people in many other communities. She just really set a tone, saying, ‘You have to put aside your own personal feelings about this and just focus on the work that we have to do because that’s our contribution.’

Fahrenthold, The Washington Post: Whereas the rise of fact-checker columns was a big deal maybe two cycles ago, what you’ve seen this year is fact-checking become mixed in a really important way into the main news stories and into the chyrons on television news. The idea that someone would say something and you’d say, in the news story, ‘That is false’ or ‘That’s contrary to all these facts,’ that’s really important, and I hope we keep that. We have to be that guardrail and create that disincentive for not telling the truth.

Nando Vila, Vice President of Programming and Correspondent, Fusion: When you look at polling on people’s trust in the media and journalists, it is at an all-time low. It’s terrible and I don’t see an honest reckoning with that. I see the opposite: A lot of hatred toward the audience, a lot of disdain towards the audience. ‘Oh, they’re just too dumb, they’re whatever. They buy all this crazy bullshit from these crazy right-wingers.’ If you’re working in the news media, that number [from the American Press Institute poll on trust in media] should terrify us. When you go around the country and talk to people about this stuff, you just realize that what we’re providing for them is not what they are asking for or need. We’re just very, very separated from them, and that’s a problem.

McGann, Vox: It’s hard to suss out how much Trump has changed media versus media changed temporarily for Trump. I would think that coming out of this election we’re going to see a more aggressive, emboldened political press.

Nuzzi, The Daily Beast: That’s sort of the ultimate question about Donald Trump: Did he fundamentally remake our democratic process, including media coverage, or is this just a one-off and things are going to go back to the way they were? There’s a certain point that you can’t return from, and I think we all have crossed that. 

Traister, New York magazine: I was seeing reports in major newspapers about the appointment of Steve Bannon being couched in these normal terms that we might use about politicians. Like, ‘There’s been hand-wringing over the appointment of Steve Bannon.’ Hand-wringing? No. The thing that we need to see from political media is constant reinforcement that this is not normal. That what we have thought of as fringe—racist, sexist, xenophobic, anti-gay—hate in this country is being mainstreamed and normalized every time we cover one of these stories as a normal, if slightly controversial, choice. As far as I’m concerned, every mention of Steve Bannon for the next four years should include several sentences describing things he has said about Jews and black people and women in the past. Just a reminder of who we are talking about when we talk about this man: one of the closest advisors to the president of the United States.

Ginsberg, The Washington Post: The message I’ll give to the staff is that this is really the story of a lifetime and we are lucky to get it and we are lucky to be at the Post to cover it. We should totally embrace that.

Dickerson, CBS: My feeling has always been that we should cover politics the way physicists cover physics. In physics, they don’t really know what a black hole is. They have a lot of good theories. And they use those theories to keep investigating the phenomenon. They always do so with the provision—and almost the sense of excitement—that they can’t wait to be proven wrong. They know the ideas they have and the language they use is provisional. And so they’re constantly searching and testing to be proven wrong, because they know that the unpredictability and the uncertainty of the thing that they’re covering is going to surprise them. News is, by definition, what surprises us. The evening news doesn’t begin, ‘And another 10,000 planes landed safely today.’ That is the premise of the thing that we do, and history teaches us that we are constantly being surprised, whether it’s the election of 1824 or 1948. We traffic in surprises, and it’s almost always the case that the voter surprises. We are really unsure what’s going to happen, but here’s the best case we can make for why things will fall the way they will. And as we make that assertion, we keep in the forefront of our thinking that we’re likely to be surprised. But we can’t just stay mute and not tell you what we think the patterns are, because people seek understanding in their world, even if it’s imperfect. I think data and interviews and focus groups are all really important to give us some shape for the way we think things are going to turn out. That’s what Nate Silver aims to do: There’s a chance it may go this way, but there’s also a chance it may go that way. The Cubs don’t have much of a chance of winning the World Series. That doesn’t mean that they won’t win it at all. In sports, we recognize come-from-behind, exciting outcomes that were not foretold. That’s all very possible in politics. And yet we don’t discount—or we shouldn’t discount—all the best tools of measurement that we have. We should just recognize the imprecision.

Moss, New York magazine: One of the things we learned from all this is that the media  is just not that important anymore. It didn’t matter that some people were doing good work because most places—The New York Times, us, The Washington Post, Bill Maher, god knows—we’re just talking to themselves. ll of that work didn’t actually have any impact whatsoever on the course of things because, in such a divided country, the people who were inclined to think one way get their media from one type of source, and the rest get it from another type of source. They don’t actually talk to each other, which I don’t necessarily think is the media’s fault.

MacGillis, ProPublica: Most people in [the] national press corps are up to the task [of covering a Trump administration] in the sense that they are very good at what they do. A few of them see it all as a game and a great story that Donald Trump has become president, but most are aware of just how unprecedented this is. There is a lot at stake here and there needs to be a new approach to how we do things. Whether the press is up to it institutionally, given the collapse of the business model, that’s another matter. When you’re out there talking to folks by and large, [you find] they’re not getting what we’re writing and producing. It  is completely fractured out there.

Asma Khalid, Reporter, NPR: It’s been sad the way the country seems to be moving apart. I focus on voters, and there are sentiments or frustrations that you’ll hear from voters [on the] left and the right that are often very similar, say about economic concerns or healthcare. But the vitriol that we’ve heard, both from voters but even I would say from surrogates, has created a culture or a climate that feels, at this point, irreconcilable.

Weisberg, Slate: Journalists’ fundamental responsibility is to tell the truth and describe reality. Journalists are now going to have to do it under this tremendous pressure of normalization: To treat Trump like a normal Republican within the range of our political experience, to take his ideas seriously, to not constantly bring up the outrageous things he’s said and done. The press has to resist that pressure. He’s an outlier, and you have to describe him as an outlier and not start to think that you’re the one who’s crazy and he’s the one who is normal.

Photo caption: Donald Trump addresses a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan on October 31, 2016. (Image by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.