Yesterday’s midterms were also a referendum on the press

November 7, 2018
US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on October 31, 2018. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

For 728 days after the election of President Donald Trump stunned Democrats, political professionals, and maybe even Trump himself, the press corps might as well have been holding its collective breath. Pundits who all but coronated the Clinton administration-in-waiting bashfully swore off future predictions while keeping their plush postings. Reporters and editors blunted accountability reporting on the White House with cartoonish portrayals of hard-on-their-luck Republican voters. And Liberal America stepped up its criticism of the media’s culpability in Trump’s rise as the president turned out to be the man everyone thought he was.

Trump’s two-pronged campaign of racist incitement and outright deception in recent weeks—often magnified by media outlets—only brought Tuesday’s stakes into clearer focus. These midterms, USA Today scribe Susan Page wrote, “crystallized clashing visions of what defines the nation.” The decision at hand was about health care and immigration and other issues. But more so, The Washington Post’s Dan Balz added in his Sunday curtain-raiser, “it’s about something more elemental: what kind of country Americans see today and want to see in the future.” NBC’s Lester Holt summed it up in his Lester Holt-iest of voices as crowded polling places began closing Tuesday evening: “A divided country at a crossroads. Tonight, the moment of truth.”

Left unsaid was that the results would also provide something of a popular progress report on the media’s performance over the past two years. As the GOP-controlled Congress has played the role of deadbeat dad to its oversight duties, journalists have been pushed into something of a wartime footing while awkwardly clinging to old rules of detachment. A series of bomb threats against top Democrats and CNN last month underscored how democratic institutions are currently under threat. Yet Trump only ramped up his conspiratorial enemy-of-the-people rhetoric, casting the midterms as a chance to vote on his worldview. In this sense, they were also a referendum on real news v. fake.

ICYMI: How white is the media? You may want to look at these numbers…

Election nights in the live media world have become biennial rituals in meaningless immediacy and performative suspense. With final forecasts projecting a decisive Democratic advantage in the popular vote, the board was set in the midterm expectations game. But as The New York Times fired up its much-maligned election needle, Twitter’s firehose rose in pressure, and television panelists dutifully took their overcrowded posts, no one exhaled. Media narratives, like pendulums, are made to swing.

While vote counts began to trickle in, analysts’ speculation of a blue tsunami quickly subsided to the expected blue wave and, in turn, a potential blue ripple. The first slate of Senate races suggested something closer to a blue rip current, pulling away from Democrats. Flashbacks to 2016’s post-election stress disorder bubbled just beneath the surface of discussion in ABC News’ throne room of 16 (!) talking heads.

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“Democrats are still favored to win the House,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist, tapping the brakes. “So we have to take a deep breath.” (Editor’s note: No one did.)

It was Fox News, of all outlets, that ended up calling the House in Democrats’ favor far before anyone else. “I know a lot of listeners out there, their heads are exploding,” host Chris Wallace said. “But this is going to be a very different Washington.” The pro-Trump media organ’s projection was giddily passed around Twitter and soon picked up by competing TV channels; crisis averted. And a series of key House calls—in Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere—seemed to bolster the comeback storyline.

“Now you have the discussion: Is it a wave or not?” NBC News national affairs analyst John Heilemann said.

If only there were a more nuanced tidal current. As hosts and pundits yammered on into the wee hours, Republicans steadily built upon their Senate majority. The new members, including three with restrictive views of abortion rights, will further the GOP’s ability to stock the federal bench with conservative judges. What’s more, the national media’s Democratic darlings all fell short. African-American gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum did not make history against Trumpian opponents in Georgia and Florida, respectively. In Texas, RFK-doppelganger Beto O’Rourke was felled by incumbent Senator Ted Cruz, who is widely regarded across the aisle as a font of Washington villainy.

Democrats instead found success in races largely overlooked in the past few months of national media coverage. Across the Midwest, the party flipped gubernatorial mansions in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Kansas. Fresh faces in the House will also include the chamber’s first-ever Muslim and Native American women.

Taken together, the murky results present news outlets with two storylines that will frequently conflict with each other in the coming years: a clear majority of Americans, largely in urban and suburban areas, resisting an historically unpopular president; and a smaller, whiter, older Republican Party clinging to control over a system that empowers rural states. CNN came to the fork in the road and—as it so often does—took it, presenting both. “If [Trump] thinks the media is annoying, wait ’til he meets a Democratic House that has subpoena power and actually has the legal ability to force them to turn over documents,” host Jake Tapper. Still, White House Reporter Abby Phillip added more soberly, “tomorrow morning Donald Trump wakes up to a Republican Party that is more beholden to him than it was yesterday.”

A divided government will relieve journalists of some pressure, as Republicans close ranks in the face of a true opposition party and Democrats investigate Trump on their own terms. Tuesday night’s dual narratives, however, also complicate matters.

The popular results suggest most of the country is still responsive to the cascading media revelations of incompetence in the White House, corruption in the administration, and cruelty from Trump himself. But a large portion of America has tuned them out, if not turned away from journalism wholesale. And in the hope of winning these people back, the press corps has proven unwilling to fundamentally alter how it covers a president whose style revolves around dishonesty and division. It’s still gotta hear both sides; the scoop-industrial complex still requires access. Trump will no doubt take advantage of this dynamic as he did by playing assignment editor on saturation coverage of Central America migrants in recent weeks.  

It’s possible the next two years will surprise in this regard. Perhaps the press will reorient itself away from covering Trump’s free associations and toward the implications of one political party entrenching itself as a dominant minority. There are 727 days till the next election; I wouldn’t hold my breath.

ICYMI: “Sometimes I would get an interview, most of the time not. I was never hired.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.