How the media covers the ‘deplorables’

Media in the Age of Trump

A "Donald Trump for President" campaign yard sign in West Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Tony Webster, via Wikimedia Commons

I

remember when I saw my first “deplorable.” I was in my teens. He was the subject of a photograph by Berenice Abbott. The picture has haunted me as a person, and as a journalist, ever since.

In 1935, Abbott traveled through Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Deep South, taking pictures of the people and places she encountered. Though not done under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration, which had sponsored the work of photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Abbott’s pictures often possess the same acute social consciousness.

Entitled “Old Man on Porch,” the picture shows a white man who appears to be in his late sixties or early seventies sitting in a rocking chair on the rundown porch of a shanty. The baggy pants of his overalls fall over his bare feet. One arm rests on his thigh, his hand hanging down between his legs. His other arm hugs a hound dog, which has placed its front legs on the man’s other thigh. Under a small, billed cap, the man looks through two slits of eyes, with a slight air of knowingness, out beyond the shanty. The dog is gazing, with open mouth, at its master with obedience and affection.

Underneath the photograph, and obviously after talking with the man, Abbott wrote this caption: “Here is one of the people who made for tension in the South. He felt vastly superior to any black man out doing all the work, sweating in the sun. It was so dreadful I don’t even like to talk about it.”

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Photo by Berenice Abbott

The knowing, slightly sardonic expression on the man’s face has always disturbed me. The picture was taken at time when blacks were being harassed, tortured and killed in the South. Yet I am also taken aback by Abbott’s quick condemnation of her subject, without any attempt to find out, for example, if his actions had ever corresponded to his hate-filled words. And at the end of this train of thoughts, I am annoyed with myself for caring about this man at all.

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The word “deplorable” has, along with so much else in this political season, crystallized the disruptions rippling through American life. The term also encapsulates a dilemma confronting journalists who have come to report on the class of people that Hillary Clinton designated, with the power of a formal indictment, as a “basket of deplorables.”

Journalists have had to grapple with the most consequential questions surrounding the issue: Once you have established what class of people Clinton was referring to, how do you write about them? How do you cover their lives, their opinions, their judgments, their values, especially when their values fall outside the pale of what is socially and morally acceptable?

The media response to the revelation of Trump’s America fell into two approaches. The first was to send reporters out to the hard-pressed hinterlands with the intention of trying to find out how, literally, the other half lived. Many of these stories were sensitive, subtle investigations and explorations of the lives of the working class and the working poor. They fell into that traditional journalistic category of the “human interest” story. Ordeal was emphasized and, as is so often the case in journalism, so was triumph over adversity. The subjects of these stories may well have been in Clinton’s “basket” of people who held abominable social attitudes but that fact was scarcely mentioned or alluded to, if at all. 

The second approach, on the other hand, made no bones about trying to find out what made Trump’s followers tick. Though they also included details of economic struggle and dislocation, they were more focused on the personalities and motives of the people who want to see Trump in the White House. The moral indictment that lay behind Clinton’s use of the term “deplorables” was strongly present in these stories, but it was never explicitly referred to.  Yet the term lurked in every one of these reports and articles. 

 

Only a fool would deny that the election of our first black president revealed a profound schism in American society and politics more vividly than ever before. The unprecedented threats made against Obama in the wake of his first election. The rise of racist sentiment. The Tea Party’s extreme right-wing agenda. Sarah Palin and the normalization and even the celebritizing of what were once fringe ideas. And now the advent of Donald Trump, the unintended consequence of what the election of our first black president hath wrought, and the product of, among other things, the feeling on the part of many in the class of “deplorables” that the country’s first woman president, coming right after the country’s first black president, is the last straw.

Our familiar frames of reference have been radically altered. The economic meltdown in 2008, ongoing economic displacement, the shifting paradigm of work and labor relations, the gradual exposure of a growing oligarchy of wealth, the shocking revelations of police brutality and of law enforcement’s tortured relationship with black Americans–all these have, with the catalyst of this election, become as part of the common conversation as the latest change in Facebook’s privacy policy.

 

It is an immutable fact of journalism that the world is divided between people who write about other people, and people who are written about.

 

Books like “White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America” and “Hillbilly Elegy,” a complex memoir of growing up in the impoverished Rust Belt, became almost instant bestsellers when they were published this year. A stream of other books examining those Americans left behind by the juggernaut of a global economy, as well as by an increasingly unmoored political and financial class, have filled the bookstores.

Predictable contrarian takes have emerged in response, arguing that not all of Trump’s followers are economically hard-pressed. This may be true, but that doesn’t change the fact that many of them are. The idea that a substantial number of Trump voters don’t fit the socio-economic mold of the “deplorables” might satisfy journalists’ ceaseless appetite for new angles on new angles, but the Gallup study by Jonathan Rothwell upon which it is based concludes that the majority of Trump’s supporters are poor, almost poor, or blue collar. 

Few stories grip the media’s attention so strongly as the subject of the media’s attention. Journalists love to investigate themselves, uncover their own prejudices, and vow to overcome them.

The pressing issue here was whether journalists who, regardless of their backgrounds, enjoy a privileged existence relative to the “deplorables”–and often hail from rarefied backgrounds themselves–possessed the sensibility and/or the morality to cover their new subjects without elitist prejudice, elitist condescension, or elitist sentimentalilty.

A rash of journalistic outreach was unleashed with Puritan fervor. Roger Cohen flew out to coal country. David Brooks reflected on the white working class. Reporters from all over America converged on forgotten, struggling America as if on a foreign battlefield. But were these Americans being now written about because of their newly discovered plight? Or was it because their newly discovered plight had a sudden and unexpected political impact? Was their situation, in other words, a permanent condition of American life, or was it a component of the soon-to-be-forgotten political cycle?

The predicament, and the agony, of the white underclass and near-underclass have not gone unnoticed or unchronicled. Its first scholarly examination was in the once-famous and now-forgotten volume of essays titled “The Radical Right” by Daniel Bell and the equally neglected “Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter, in which Hofstadter attributes extreme right-wing attitudes to what he famously termed “status anxiety.” Bell’s book appeared in the mid-fifties and Hofstadter’s ten years later. Both books concerned themselves with “deplorables.”

It is an immutable fact of journalism that the world is divided between people who write about other people, and people who are written about. The rise of digital culture has changed this equation to some extent. But in the context of the establishment media, the ones who cover and the ones who are covered might just as well be two separate civilizations. 

This is why, of course, journalists are under the obligation to write about other people with a kind of objective empathy. Though the rules of fairness and detachment apply equally to all subjects, it is an ethical trait of journalism to write about marginalized, disempowered people with the strongest degree of empathy. This instinctive alliance with people under pressure also applies to people who are alien to a journalist’s experience. The stranger the subject, the more powerful the objective empathy. And underneath this subterranean journalistic tradition is an even more fundamental assumption. People are ultimately unfathomable. You must write about them with care.

It might cut against the grain of traditional reporting, but once a certain group or class of people are proven to hold attitudes that fall outside the basic assumptions of freedom and tolerance that are the pillars of American democracy, they no longer require to be treated with objective empathy. Of course it is necessary to understand such people, to grasp the nature of their humanness, to understand what makes them hold the beliefs they have. But there is a moral and ethical tipping point in the media when a journalistic occasion occurs in the vortex of a political, or an impending political crisis. There is a point at which sensitive reporting, analysis and commentary can–must–make way for withering expose. 

 

Though the rules of fairness and detachment apply equally to all subjects, it is an ethical trait of journalism to write about marginalized, disempowered people with the strongest degree of empathy.

 

It is good and healthy for journalists to examine their own prejudices, to ask themselves how their own circumstances shape their perceptions of other people’s situation. Indeed, just as a limitation of the Supreme Court is that every justice is the product of an elite Ivy League institution, and most graduates of Harvard Law School, there are far too many journalists who exist in the bubble of privilege in which they were born and grew up. Hailing from hard-pressed circumstances is no guarantee of understanding and compassion–sometimes quite the contrary. But no experience of social adversity among an entire class of journalists is a sure guarantee of myopia, posturing and bad faith. One of the golden developments of the digital age is the opportunity for people from every level of society to establish themselves as authentic journalistic voices.

At the same time, the boilerplate criticism of the press that it is elitist and too far removed from ordinary life is itself detached from reality. A certain level of education, cultivation and freedom from material constraints are essential components of fairness and skepticism. The Trumpist lament of the media’s elitism, if taken too conscientiously by the media, has the ironic effect of elevating Clinton’s “deplorables” to a new type of elite, with its own special immunity.

Of course not everyone who supports Trump is morally deplorable, any more than every white farmer in the Deep South in 1935 was a dangerous racist. But it is a verifiable fact that millions of people who wish to see Trump in the White House fit Clinton’s description. They have demonstrated the accuracy of her characterization on websites, at rallies, in testimony to reporters. In this case, the coverage of them can be as frank about their moral nature and their political influence as Abbott’s caption was frank about her subject, without which her photograph would simply be just another photograph.

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