The biggest story of our time requires an army of journalists to tell

I was so wrong. I was so naïve.

I thought that if mainstream journalists were simply more courageous about calling out Donald Trump for who he really is — and more assertive about confronting disinformation — then the American public would overwhelmingly reject him.

The journalism disappointed. Reporters too often normalized Trump’s conduct and covered the campaign more or less like any other — rather than one in which the choice was between a return to norms and a failed state. Their passive truth-telling was no match for the aggressive lies of Fox News and the right-wing media ecosystem.

But that doesn’t explain the fact that nearly half of the American public affirmatively voted for Donald Trump – way more voters, in fact, than in 2016 — and did it during the middle of a pandemic that he is disastrously mismanaging, for good measure.

Whether Joe Biden can eke out a win or not doesn’t change the fact that an extremely large subsection of our fellow Americans is that deluded, racist, and/or eager to submit to a strongman.

So it’s no longer enough for journalists to simply do a better job.

We’ve got to take on some new jobs.

It’s no longer enough to passively and politely chronicle what’s happening.

We need to delve deeply into the pathology of this huge chunk of American voters.

Pluralism is a legitimate journalistic value, and it is under attack.

So we need to actively fight racism – starting by reporting much more vigorously about systemic oppression and white nationalism.

The role of the free press in the world’s leading democracy is not to sit by and watch as authoritarianism takes root.

We need to actively promote democratic values, remind people of the importance of constitutional checks and balances, support human rights, and advocate for a government that is responsive to the people’s needs.

The appropriate role of a journalist is not to sit by as the very notion of truth is undermined.

We need to crusade for reality. While Washington Post editor Marty Baron famously said “we’re not at war, we’re at work,” we need to go to war – against disinformation.

We need to go to war against Fox News and a right-wing media ecosystem that traffics in partisan lies.

It’s us or them.

As Janine Zacharia, who teaches journalism at Stanford, tweeted on Wednesday: “We’re never ending polarization in this country or support for Trumpism unless we restore respect for credible, fact-based news and ensure every American gets quality information.”

The Diagnosis

The most important and urgent journalistic task – one that no one else can accomplish — is for us to properly diagnose the problem.

What upsets me most as a journalist is that even after a seemingly endless, four-year parade of articles about how Trump supporters still support Trump, we continue to lack anything like an accurate, widely agreed-upon consensus about what motivates them.

Those articles almost exclusively entail credulous stenography, passing along quotes from Trump supporters that – if you stop to think about them – don’t really explain their support at all.

Much of the time, these supporters say things that simply aren’t true – like Kathleen Skeins, the Michigan voter who told the New York Times that over the past four years, Trump had been “straightening out” government corruption. Or like the Ohio construction worker who told the Economist that Trump “got health care done, which the Democrats could never do. He built the wall.” (More examples here.)

Profiling Trump supporters like this Nebraska farmer, reporters at the Times engage in euphemisms: writing about a “sense of Trumpian kinship,” for instance, rather than openly addressing white nationalist feelings of victimization.

Journalists need to stop buying transparently bogus explanations for why people support Trump and figure out what’s really going on.

As I’ve written before, this requires a different – actually, more empathetic, and certainly more time-consuming – kind of interviewing style. It means taking a more sociological approach, asking about formative moments, about cultural background and value systems, about education, and, perhaps most importantly, about media diets. It means diving deep into the “comforting simplicity of tribe,” as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan put it.

And in addition to exploring – and countering – disinformation at the macro level, we need reporters to examine how disinformation infects individuals and groups, leading to what I call fact rejection. How does fact-rejection manifest within our communities?  How widespread is it really? How is it transmitted? Who is susceptible and why? How persistent is it? What effect does it have? And perhaps most importantly: Is there any way for people to recover? We need to understand this in order to fix it.

I believe these are essential tasks for journalists in the coming years. I call on existing newsrooms and philanthropically-supported initiatives to field an army of reporters – god knows, enough of them are unemployed right now – and have them fan out to communities all over the country and truly figure out what is happening to our country.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Dan Froomkin says, “We need to delve deeply into the pathology of this huge chunk of American voters.’

    It’s not complicated, Dan. It’s basically selfishness.

    A lot of people are Republicans because they want low taxes… even if that means failing schools, overflowing prisons, rotten infrastructure, and declining influence in the world.

    Others are Republicans because they think they are Christians, and they selfishly want this country to enforce their beliefs on others even if it means that we re-start the Protestant-Catholiic feuds of the 19th century, return to the days of back-alley abortions, and lose some of our best scientists and doctors.

    Others are Republicans because people of different colors and ethnicity make them uncomfortable, so they selfishly want to reduce them to second-class citizens or keep them from immigrating… even if that means losing the people who do the difficult and dangerous work for almost nothing and losing our alliances.

    It’s not like a bit of selfishness is wrong. The African American and Latino men who voted for Trump because they think he’s going to restore jobs aren’t wrong to want that. Naive, sure.

    But America is suffering from a kind of societal autism, in which my desires are all that matter, and yours mean nothing.

    A good long recession, more droughts, fires, hurricanes, and crop failures; a collapse in international standing; and having to do all the hard, unpleasant work that immigrants do should cure that. Nothing like having to change Grandma’s underwear because no Mexicans are available as home health aides to make one appreciate the jobs that they do.

  2. I moved from the bluest of cities to a ruby red rural area. The county is poor, a lot of people are on medicaid and food banks do a brisk business. You’d think that it would be in the interest of people here to vote blue, yet the county is reliably red. Why? This is an information desert. In big swaths of the country, people get news almost exclusively from Facebook and Fox. Add to that the fact that the Democratic political establishment, fishing for big city votes, completely ignores developing the party in these areas, and you have a recipe for Trump.
    This information deficit runs both ways. I read today what was presented as the shocking fact that Hispanics voted for Trump in large numbers. No surprise to me, living as I do in a town that is 50% Latino. If journalists and politicians want to understand these phenomenon, they have to stop trying to do so from afar.

  3. People throughout America believe that the establishment, and that includes the media, is essentially dysfunctional/corrupt/inept. As someone who participated in Democratic politics for decades, I believe they are correct. Polls regarding the media and Congress show a profound lack of trust.

    It’s always amused me that it’s the working class who fervently support Trump and it’s the upper-class intellectuals who strongly oppose him.  Supporters feel disenfranchised and apart from anyone in power. Trump is the bull in the china shop thumbing his nose at the powerful. That’s why he is so loved by people without access.

    Yes, Trump’s remarks make me cringe, but he created an economy offering the lowest rate of unemployment in the nation’s history, he improved national defense, he forced foreign governments to pay their fair share of defense, he took on issues that other presidents ran from, etc. COVID isn’t under anyone’s control per worldwide experience.

    But once again, disenfranchised people love the man because he represents them and their priorities. To them, you and politicians represent everything that is unsavory about America. In the same way that Jefferson and Jackson ran against the establishment and pledged support for the common man, Trump embraces them, and they love him for the recognition.

  4. Charles is I think correct: it is essentially about selfishness. Many people have, in addition to their own self-interest, some empathy; but many people don’t. That is a fact about humanity that we will have to deal with forever. It is really hard for people with empathy to understand people who don’t have it, and vice versa.

    On the journalism side, we all now know that there is no such thing as an objective statement about social issues; power and solidarity always come into play. And so the background of the person speaking is always important and necessary to know. But journalists almost never report it (space constraints, narrative constraints, whatever).

    I don’t think it is exactly about facts, facts as a savior. I think it is about reporting that each person’s view of the facts is informed by their personal story, and that is how our society is made. Not to dispute for a moment that there is a useful understanding of the fact that there are objective facts.

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