As Donald Trump assumes the mantle of 45th president of the United States, much of the mainstream press is going through a soul-searching process, trying to understand how it got the outcome of the election so thoroughly wrong—and also how to survive under what is likely to be one of the most media-hostile administrations in recent memory.
In trying to figure out where to lay the blame for its failure, the media has gone after pollsters like Nate Silver for making bad projections, criticized analysts for misinterpreting the results, and targeted Hillary Clinton’s team for managing the campaign badly. Some have even embraced potential Russian involvement in the election like a get-out-of-responsibility free card: You can’t blame us for getting it wrong. It was Russia’s fault!
But was it Russia’s fault that so many leading media outlets paid so much attention to leaked Clinton emails that contained little of substance? No. Did the polls cover up—or make journalists ignore—a groundswell of discontent in the heart of the country? No. Did someone force them to give so much credence to FBI allegations about Clinton? No. These were self-inflicted wounds.
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In the introduction to a series that will look back at the events leading up to the election, Silver seems on the defensive somewhat, justifying his analysis of the poll results and pointing out that he predicted Clinton would be weak with the Electoral College and that Trump might prevail. But other parts of his postmortem ring even more true—as much as we might wish they didn’t.
For example, Silver argues that a number of factors had more to do with the media’s misunderstanding of what was happening during the election than any alleged errors in polling. He suggests that:
“There are real shortcomings in how American politics are covered, including pervasive groupthink among media elites, an unhealthy obsession with the insider’s view of politics, a lack of analytical rigor, a failure to appreciate uncertainty, a sluggishness to self-correct when new evidence contradicts pre-existing beliefs, and a narrow viewpoint that lacks perspective.”
In a sense, what Silver is pointing out is similar to what we see in the rise of so-called “fake news” that circulates through Facebook and other social platforms—namely, a massive case of confirmation bias. When confronted with the usual grey areas and inconsistencies in polling data, many chose to see what they wanted to see, which was clear evidence of a Clinton victory.
In other cases, Silver argues, media organizations chose to not focus on the polls at all, but turned their attention to secondary or even tertiary events that had little impact on the outcome of the election. As the polls showed the race tightening, he says, “reporters frequently focused on other factors, such as early voting and Democrats’ supposedly superior turnout operation.”
Silver also argues that FBI Director James Comey’s remarkable letter—in which he suggested that his department might have reason to re-open the investigation into Clinton’s email history, 11 days before the election—may have significantly influenced the outcome. And yet, many journalists ignored obvious evidence that Comey’s letter had swung voters against Clinton, he says.
Although the FiveThirtyEight founder doesn’t mention it (at least not yet), the media’s desire for false equivalence or false balance likely played a role in the election’s outcome as well.
In an attempt to seem fair to both Trump and Clinton, a number of media outlets devoted far too much time to the leaked emails and alleged expansion of the Clinton investigation. It might have smelled like a juicy scandal, something to balance the coverage of Trump’s potential conflicts. But the further that reporters dug into it, the less there seemed to be. As Silver puts it:
“This is an uncomfortable story for the mainstream American press. It mostly contradicts the way they covered the election while it was underway [and] it puts a fair amount of emphasis on news events such as the Comey letter, which leads to questions about how those stories were covered. It’s much easier to blame the polls for the failure to foresee the outcome.”
In many ways, Trump’s win was the coming together of a perfect storm of failed coverage and an overall inability to see the writing on the wall. A wave of confirmation bias, combined with an inattention to evidence of weakness in Clinton’s support, mixed in with too much coverage of irrelevant sideshows like the Clinton email “scandal.” On top of it all, Trump was playing to his base, oblivious to any criticism of his policies or practices.
Now, as New York University professor Jay Rosen has put it, winter is coming for the media. Trump has made it clear he plans to treat the press with the same kind of disdain and even outright animosity he showed during the campaign, and will likely continue to do an end-run around them as much as possible using Twitter (TWTR) and other social platforms.
So will the media buckle down and do the hard work, forget about White House access or invitations to parties at Mar-a-Lago, and treat the president fairly but critically? Or will they forget the lessons of the past and jump at whatever bones they are thrown by Trump’s handlers, pander to his supporters, and hope for that front-row seat? If nothing else, this administration should make it easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.