‘Trump supporters don’t read the news’ is no excuse for craven political coverage

Pile of newspapers

Donald Trump is — incredibly enough — making a serious play to return to the public office that he tried to steal last time.

And there’s a new narrative going around in elite media circles that would let the country’s major newsrooms off the hook for that.

It’s based in the obvious fact, most recently illustrated by an NBC poll, that the vast majority of traditional-media consuming, well-informed voters support Biden over Trump. By contrast, the know-nothings — the ones who don’t follow the news much at all — heavily lean Trump.

And of course that’s true.

But that doesn’t mean that the elite media has done its best and can sit back and watch what happens with a clean conscience.

Quite the contrary.

The elite media has a vast influence on the national discourse, all the way down to TikTok. Even if you don’t read the New York Times or the Washington Post, their stories appear in your local newspaper, get picked up on your TV news, and set the agenda for social media.

And even more significantly, I believe that by sticking to the traditional both-sides format of political news coverage – rather than constantly sounding the alarm over Trump and MAGA — the elite media has created a permission structure for those low-information voters to throw up their hands and say “whatever”.

Doing the job properly would mean making it abundantly clear to even the most casual readers and viewers that Trump is a profoundly abnormal candidate whose desire for revenge and retribution present a profound threat to government, democracy, and national security as we now know it.

Doing the job properly would clearly establish that voting for Trump is an extremist act, and that people who support Trump are doing so for one (or more) of four reasons: because they are white Christian nationalists at heart, because they are zillionaires, or because they are deluded or deranged.

I’m not suggesting that such a consistent message across major media would instantly change everything about the election, but I do think it would help get the message even to low-information voters that supporting Trump is a radical act, not a casual one, and worth reconsidering.

Instead, the day-in day-out coverage from our major newsrooms, heavy with horserace and polling stories, doesn’t make it seem wildly abnormal to vote for Trump.

Yes, there are the occasional sobering works of journalism about the stakes involved, but most of the stories are about the odds, which creates a false balance between the two candidates — only one of whom is willing to play by the rules this country was founded on.

The messages from the elite media should be clear and overwhelming:

  • There are few if any good reasons to vote for Trump unless you’re a white Christian nationalist or all you care about is paying less tax on your millions.
  • His actual domestic policy proposals, which are very few, would not accomplish what he says they would.
  • His foreign policy would serve Vladimir Putin’s interests and likely destabilize the world even further.
  • He would embark upon a cruel, draconian, round-up, internment and deportation at gunpoint of 11 million immigrants, many of whom have lived in this country for decades.
  • Our freedoms are at stake: Reproductive rights, to start with, but MAGA also threatens trans people, endangers access to birth control, bans books in schools, censors professors, attacks the press, and throws young people and people of color off the voter rolls.
  • He would turn the federal government into a personal fiefdom.
  • His use of violent and race-baiting rhetoric are disqualifying by any normal standard.
  • He exploits grievances in order to obscure the actual systemic causes of social problems.
  • He is, personally, an abhorrent human being, especially to women.

And, while we’re at it:

  • Fox News is full of lies and shouldn’t be shown in public.

A recent New York Times story illustrates how loath the elite media is to take any responsibility for its own failure to properly inform the public about Trump.

In “The Hard Problem of Bringing Trump Into Focus,” reporter Jason Zengerle actually blamed Biden for the fact that no matter what Trump does, he doesn’t lose supporters.

But the problem is not that Biden has somehow failed to describe Trump, it’s that the corporate media shies away from the words that would give the public a clearer sense of who Trump is. Words like fascist and crazy, unhinged and unqualified.


  1. Ornstein and Mann wrote “Let’s Just Say It” more than ten years ago. The failure of the press to punish Republican extremism by writing about it accurately was already a long-standing problem then.

    I think the elite press sees their role as co-rulers as keeping the American people politically demobilized, so as to protect their fellow elites.

    That is why virtually every story is reported as an isolated incident, with as little larger context as possible. “Context” meaning who is responsible.

    Have you noticed that stories with the least political relevance get stupifying amounts air-time?

  2. “White Christian Nationalist” is journo-talk that obscures more than it reveals. The three key words are: masculinism, racism, and ressentiment (the fancy word for “own the libs”). Christianity has very little to do with this, except to justify masculinism. Masculinism, btw, is a fairly complete ideology–best viewed as a kind of two-spheres theory in which men no longer have any economic responsibility. Their sphere is now limited to violence, danger, and ruling. To afford some space for masculinity, the world must be viewed as a violent and dangerous place that can only be tamed by the righteous violence of individual men who rule their families.

  3. I’m about to give big media a temporary pass. They are both-sidesing things because they don’t want their readers / viewers / listeners to burn out on the truth about trump & MAGA. They’re keeping their powder dry, waiting for the right moment to start the full-time, full-bore “This guy is a monster” narrative.

    Of course if they ever get to that point, it will be sometime around Thanksgiving.

  4. What I’d like not to amaze me is how our mainstream press folks keep assigning, writing, and headline-writing for basically everyone from the rabid Trump voter to the polite-seeming moderate conservative.

    Those readers are never going to respect the normie press, and don’t want them to do a good job.

    Chasing those readers and viewers debases their output.

    Now I’m off to the NYT’s coverage of Biden wins–a.k.a. page A16.


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