Surprised by Trump win? Stop ignoring the white working class.

December 12, 2016
Photo by Gage Skidmore (Wikimedia Commons)

The hand-wringing has been going on for weeks: How did the media miss the biggest political story of our lifetimes, the revolt of the white working class that ushered in the Age of Trump?

Here’s why: We just don’t care about the working class.

We in the national news media, whatever the griminess of our origins, inhabit a different stratum of society, and it colors our coverage. The era of Jimmy Breslin and the late Mike Royko, of journalists who embraced their working-class origins, is long past us. It made the press coverage of Trump shallow, prejudiced, and obtuse.

For the national news media, the working class hordes who were Trump’s base of support were a kind of malignancy, not a constituency. They were racists. Jerks. An oddity, the Other, their problems to be examined with disdain in the manner of “colonial administrators checking in on the natives,” as CBS Digital put it in an analysis by its political director Will Rahn. “Journalists love mocking Trump supporters,” he wrote. “We insult their appearances. We dismiss them as racists and sexists” while rejecting their feelings as invalid. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi made a similar point. While political talk shows featured “geeks” talking about the yearnings of blue-collar workers, “the whole time, The People, whose intentions we were wondering so hard about, were all around us, listening to themselves being talked about like some wild, illiterate beast.”

But as Rahn points out, the missing element is empathy. It means coverage of working-class whites as fellow citizens with legitimate, unmet needs. “Yes there is room for improvement,” said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, in an interview. “I think it’s a little bit of a myth that the press did not write about the working class people who supported Donald Trump.”

He pointed to the “Anxious in America” series in the Times, and work that appeared in The New Yorker and The Washington Post. “I think it is a normal occurrence after every election there’s a lot of second-guessing, and in the case of this election I think there’s much, much more of it because the result was a surprise.” Still, he believes that “the press can do a better job understanding the divide that exists in America. I think it’s a deeper divide than many of us understood, for a whole variety of reasons, and I think we can do a much better job covering it and explaining it and understanding it.”

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Having grown up as “a poor black guy in New Orleans,” Baquet says he rejects the idea that newsrooms are only populated by members of the elite. “Neither one of my parents went to college or high school. So I don’t feel that my newsroom is filled with people who only have the same kind of background. That said, I do think we need more people in the newsroom who are from different backgrounds. Who are from working class backgrounds, different races, different religions. I think we need a more diverse newsroom.” Baquet described the 2016 election as “the greatest argument for diversity that we’ve seen in a long time.”

I, too, grew up outside of the elite zone long considered the Times’ main stomping ground. As a toddler, I lived in a three-room apartment in the Bronx, then in a four-room flat through college. My parents were the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. I don’t want to overdramatize. This wasn’t Manchild in a Promised Land or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There were roaches, not rats.

But I do I have a sense of what it’s like to be among Trump’s “forgotten men and women,” at least as far as media coverage is concerned.

Media indifference to the working-class Bronx is neither new nor unusual. In his epic biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, Robert Caro described how a study of the havoc that would be caused by routing the Cross-Bronx Expressway through the working-class Tremont neighborhood was ignored by the Times, the Herald Tribune, and Daily News. The three papers, he said, “gave the whole Cross-Bronx Expressway fight scanty–and slanted–coverage.” It was only when Moses proposed highways bisecting Manhattan, famously fought by Jane Jacobs, that the Times, while reaffirming its previous support of Moses, finally took him to task. I well remember how a jeweler down the street from us who was slain in a robbery, without that appearing in the Times. The same for the death of a man in our building died of a stroke during a push-in robbery.

Could it be that, for whatever reason, the Times just doesn’t care about neighborhoods like the Bronx or, by extension, the people who live there? “That’s a good, provocative question,” Baquet responded. After a pause, he continued, “I think that news organizations, as we shrink to fewer of us, and with smaller staffs, run the risk of covering people who are only like us. And that has two enormous disadvantages. One obviously is that you can miss stories. The second is that you can miss the kid like you described who’s not unlike the kid that I was, and make him feel like this is not a newspaper or news organization for him or her. I think that’s a real issue and really fair question.” The answer, he suggests, is to have a news organization that includes people “like the kid you were and the kid I was.”

That brings us back to that missing element, empathy. In the wake of the Trump apocalypse, one has to wonder about the breadth of the media’s failure of imagination. What other stories are being missed? What other areas of coverage are so influenced by elitism and ideology that reality is a casualty?

Tackling this problem requires a return to basics, and to the heartland. It will mean a constant presence between the coasts, beyond just “parachuting in.” Baquet is right that cutbacks have reduced the elite media to largely an East and West coast phenomenon, leaving a coverage drought in the center.

Joanne Lipman, Gannett’s chief content officer, makes a similar point. A recent study, she said, showed that one in five journalists is based in either New York, Washington, or Los Angeles. At Gannett, that number is one in 39, thanks to the geographical advantage conferred by the 4,000 journalists at the chain’s 109 dailies from coast to coast. She pointed out that Gannett’s flagship USA Today draws on that reporting, now organized as the USA Today Network.

The chain’s recruiter, Lipman says, makes a point of recruiting journalists with working-class backgrounds. He goes “not just to the traditional feeding grounds for journalists, but to nontraditional sources and places.” That, she says, is key in diversifying the reporting staff.

That will help. But a working-class background is by no means a prerequisite to the kind of in-depth reporting that is needed to understand the Trump phenomenon. Joseph M. Cohen, a former longtime Hartford Courant reporter and editor who comes from a working-class town in Massachusetts, told me in an email that “I do think growing up poor, less fortunate, less privileged can in a twisted sort of way be advantageous for a journalist. It can make one more adaptable, flexible, open (things poor kids who want to succeed learn to do to survive and thrive). But it is not necessary.” What matters more, he believes, is “a certain level of ‘antenna’ up and receiving, an openness of soul and of mind. Cynicism and a sharp eye for detail help.  That can come from any social background.”

The work of outstanding investigative reporters like David A. Fahrenthold, Kurt Eichenwald, David Cay Johnston, and Suzanne Craig will continue. Journalism will endure. We may or may not be able to keep Donald Trump honest. But we can keep ourselves honest.

Gary Weiss is a New York-based investigative journalist and author, reachable via Twitter @gary_weiss.