By Callum Borchers, Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2016
Donald Trump has called journalists “dishonest,” “third-rate” and a bunch of “lying, disgusting people.” But the latest unflattering name for media members comes from within the press corps’ own ranks.
NBC’s Chuck Todd (dubbed “Sleepy Eyes” by Trump, for those keeping score at home) said over the weekend that — by initially dismissing the billionaire’s candidacy — many journalists behaved like “snobs.”
“I think a lot of us were snobs about it. And we were wrong about it,” Todd said Sunday during a panel discussion about campaign coverage in Manchester, N.H., that was co-sponsored by Time magazine and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “The story is not about Trump. The story is about the electorate that he tapped into.”
Todd makes a good point that is worth fleshing out. There were plenty of legitimate reasons to discount Trump at the outset — chief among them his flagrant violation of so many political commandments. (To wit: Thou shalt not disparage entire minority groups. Thou shalt not insult war heroes. Thou shalt not talk about debate moderators’ menstrual cycles.)
Generally speaking, reporters covering Trump have never seen a presidential candidate behave like him and succeed. With no precedent, it was only natural to be highly skeptical of his viability.
But I don’t think the media’s snobbery was primarily about a religious enforcement of the rule book. It was about a failure to understand everyday people whose view of America’s place in the world seems backward, closed-minded or unsophisticated to many journalists.
Reporters and editors are trained to be open-minded — to tell the other side of the story. For example: When immigrants come to the United States illegally, it’s a journalist’s job to find out what drives them to risk their lives to get here, what they contribute to the economy and what it’s like to exist in the shadows. A journalist can’t just say “they broke the law” and leave it at that.
In other words, what some people call liberal bias — in this case, giving voice to undocumented immigrants — is often fundamental reporting.
At the same time, however, journalists’ perspectives can easily become skewed in a profession where virtually everyone they interact with (colleagues, interview subjects, expert sources) promotes this more-nuanced worldview. The nature of the job can cause them to underestimate the number and influence of people who see issues in black-and-white terms — people to whom undocumented immigrants are lawbreakers who need to be deported. Period. End of story.
The same, by the way, can be said of what’s happening on the Democratic side of the ledger. Journalists have been under-estimating Bernie Sanders for months, thinking people simply wouldn’t embrace a septuagenarian socialist with a pretty black-and-white message pitting average Americans against Wall Street — which Sanders has painted with the broad brush of “fraud” — and embracing policies that often seem no more practical than the ones Trump is advocating.
If journalists don’t spend enough time talking to these people — and they don’t — they’re liable to assume there aren’t very many and that any candidate who deals in harsh absolutes will find nothing but fringe support.
That’s the snobby mistake the media made with Trump.