For not the first time this year, the news media by and large missed what was happening all around it, and it was the story of a lifetime.
All the dazzling technology, the big data and the sophisticated modeling that American newsrooms bring to the fundamentally human endeavor of presidential politics could not save American journalism from yet again being behind the story, behind the rest of the country.
For not the first time this year, the news media by and large missed what was happening all around it, and it was the story of a lifetime. The numbers weren’t just a poor guide for election night — they were an off-ramp away from what was actually happening.
The night isn’t over as of this writing, but even if Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, pulls off a squeaker, no one predicted a night like this.
Tuesday night’s misfire was about a lot more than a failure in polling. It was a failure to capture the boiling anger of a large portion of the American electorate that feels left behind by a selective recovery and betrayed by trade deals that they see as threats to their jobs.
It was just a few months ago that so much of the European media failed to foresee the vote in Britain to leave the European Union. Election 2016, thy name is Brexit.
Election Day had been preceded by more than a month of declarations that the race was close but essentially over. And that assessment held even after the late-October news that the FBI was reviewing a new batch of emails related to Clinton’s private server.
Clinton’s victory would be “substantial but not overwhelming,” The Huffington Post had reported on Monday, after assuring its readers that “she’s got this.” That more or less comported with The New York Times’ Upshot projection on Tuesday evening that Clinton was an 84 percent favorite to win the presidency. By 10:30 p.m., however, that projection had switched around, remarkably, to 93 percent in favor of Donald J. Trump.
The media shift was profound. Major sites devoted to predicting election outcomes flipped from a likely Clinton victory to a likely Trump victory. John King of CNN proclaimed to his huge election night audience that during the previous couple of weeks, “We were not having a reality-based conversation” given the map he had before him, showing Trump with a clear opportunity to reach the White House.
That was an extraordinary admission; if the news media failed to present a reality-based political scenario, then it failed in performing its most fundamental function.
The unexpected turn in the election tallies immediately raised questions about the value of modern polling — can it accurately capture public opinion when so many people are now so hard to reach on their unlisted cellphones?
“I think the polling was a mess,” Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, told me last night. “But I think a lot of it was interpretation of the polls.”
Regardless the outcome, it was clear that the polls, and the projections, had underestimated the strength of Trump’s vote, and the movement he built, which has defied all predictions and expectations since he announced his candidacy last year.
And that’s why the problem that surfaced on Tuesday night was much bigger than polling. It was clear that something was fundamentally broken in journalism, which now seems incapable of keeping up with the anti-establishment mood that is turning the world upside down.
Politics are not just about numbers; data can’t always capture the human condition that is the blood of American politics. And it is not the sole function of political reporting to tell you who will win or who will lose. But it has too often become about just that — the unpredictable horse race that so many try to predict.
You have to wonder how different the coverage might have been had the polls, and the data crunching, not painted such a vivid picture of an almost certain Clinton victory. There perhaps would have been a deeper exploration of what forces were propelling Trump toward victory, or near victory, given that so much of his behavior would have torpedoed any political figure who came before him.
Maybe we’d know a lot more about how Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Southern border was resonating with anxious workers, or how it would fare in Congress. How about his plan to block people from countries with links to terrorism?
Then there was the drop in the global stocks last night — which wasn’t just figures on a screen but wealth being erased. The expectations were out of whack and Wall Street doesn’t do out-of-whack well.
What’s amazing is how many times the news media has missed the populist movements that have been rocking national politics since at least 2008. It failed to initially see the rise of the Tea Party, which led to the 2010 Republican wave election and the 2014 wave election after that, which was supposed to be the year the so-called Republican “establishment” had regained control over its intraparty insurgency.
Then, of course, there was Trump’s own unexpected rise to the Republican nomination. And after each failure there was a vow to learn lessons, and not ever allow it to happen again. And yet the lessons did not come fast enough to get it right when it most mattered, on Tuesday into last night.
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In an earlier column, I wrote that the conservative writer Rod Dreher told me that most journalists were blind to their own “bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks, and bigotry against working class and poor white people.”
Whatever the election result, you’re going to hear a lot from news executives about how they need to send their reporters out into the heart of the country, to better understand its citizenry.
But that will miss something fundamental. Flyover country isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind — it’s in parts of Long Island and Queens, much of Staten Island, certain neighborhoods of Miami or even Chicago. And, yes, it largely — but hardly exclusively — pertains to working-class white people.
They think something’s so wrong that all the fact-checking of Trump this year, the countless reports of pointing out his lies and untruths — which he uttered more than Clinton did — and the vigorous investigation of his business and personal transgressions, bothered them far less than the perceived national ills Trump was pointing to and promising to fix.
In their view the government was broken, the economic system was broken, and, we heard so often, the media was broken, too. Well, something surely is broken. It can be fixed, but let’s get to it once and for all.