Media

TV News and Its Long Dark Night of the Soul

Tunnel vision and faulty polls blinded television to what was happening during the election. But that's not all.

TV News and Its Long Dark Night of the [...]

Donald Trump is interviewed by CNN's Wolf Blitzer for The Situation Room. (Photo by Regine Mahaux/Getty Images)

Last week I met a prominent network personage I will call Sandra. I asked her what had been going on in her shop since election night. “Soul-searching,” she said. Approvingly, I commiserated, then asked what kind of soul-searching she meant. “The polls were all wrong,” she said, “and we took them at face value. Also, we had no idea what was going on in the white working class.” That was all.

Sure, it makes sense to revisit the media reliance on polls. Why didn’t they see the Trump victory coming? Even Trump didn’t see it coming — his private polls were no better than the published ones.

… it’s a good idea to revisit the coastal bias that afflicts not only the broadcast networks but just about all other major media outlets. To state the obvious: They’re parochial.

Now, when the final tallies of the popular vote arrive, it may turn out that Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin fell inside the range that the polls anticipated, or just outside it. But plainly the statewide polls were systematically wrong, and all pointing in the same direction, underestimating the Trump vote. Why? The best guess is that so many in their samples are refusing to play along that the pollsters, receiving fewer data to deal with, have to tinker with their models, hoping to compensate for the refusals. Choosing different models, they get different results. In other words, the whole polling model is — in the words of one professional analyst I consulted — “broken.”

As for Sandra’s point about media blindness to what goes on in the heartland — what Los Angeles and New York media types used to call “flyover country” — it’s a good idea to revisit the coastal bias that afflicts not only the broadcast networks but just about all other major media outlets. To state the obvious: They’re parochial. Their vision is bound by the Acela corridor. And the Rust Belt is not the only swath of the country they overlook.

But repairing the networks’ tunnel vision is not so easily accomplished. Michael Massing trenchantly makes the point:

“… dispatching brownstone-dwelling urbanites to the nation’s midsection is like having Western anthropologists study the natives of Samoa. Rather than send out journalists to report on the other America, why not bring the other America into newsrooms? News organizations could hire people with roots in the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt, the Muslim and evangelical worlds, who could report on their communities from a non-exile perspective.”

As for other remedies, I have a good deal of sympathy for Michael Moore, whose acumen rose in my estimation this year when, with ear close to the ground in his Flint, Michigan, hometown, he anticipated Trump’s victory, and punctuated the point with this not-so-modest proposal: “Fire all pundits, predictors, pollsters and anyone else in the media who had a narrative they wouldn’t let go of and refused to listen to or acknowledge what was really going on.” Really, how many more years do we need to hear Beltway boilerplate from the mouth of David Gergen?

But there are so many more crevices of the network soul that are long, long overdue for a thorough search. What about the incessant noise about Benghazi, where Clinton did not deserve any blame (but for which Republicans should have been tagged for cutting funds for embassy security)? What about Clinton’s damn emails? Or the Clinton Foundation, from which no one ever found any slush fund for Hillary, or any pay-for-play reward to contributors.

When we’ve counted up the networks’ scanty mention of Trump’s demonstrable lies about the operations of the Trump Foundation and compare them to the streaming mentions of the Clinton Foundation, where there were no lies — I’m working on getting the numbers — I’m pretty sure we’ll see the glaring discrepancy.

While newspapers, especially The Washington Post, devoted hundreds of person-hours to investigating Trump’s massively checkered past, the networks went easy on Trump throughout the primary season; they donated free time to his spectacular self simply because he was Donald Trump, a TV celebrity, and therefore newsworthy whenever he appeared or might be about to appear. Once he had won the nomination, maybe they were embarrassed; surely they came under fire for letting Trump get away with his preening. And then they did – intermittently — try to play catch-up.

While newspapers, especially The Washington Post, devoted hundreds of person-hours to investigating Trump’s massively checkered past, the networks went easy on Trump throughout the primary season; they donated free time to his spectacular self simply because he was Donald Trump…

But they never got down to a close look at Trump’s business arrangements abroad, arrangements still underway, arrangements which will expose him to more conflicts of interest than all the Clintons have been nailed for in all their decades in public life. Television never scrutinized Trump’s relationship to the mob; or the New Jersey corner-cutting that permitted him to line up a casino license in Atlantic City; or his hiring illegal workers to build Trump Tower; or…or…or…. They gave short shrift to his nasty treatment of contractors and his repeated stiffing of bankers, which led them to cut him off from further loans. Instead, they subscribed to the principle that the more sleazy you are, the less exposure you have to fear. To say, in extenuation, that there were too many Trump scandals to handle is to say that the networks were undone by the false equivalency imperative. The myriad undeniable Trump scandals, the vast expanse of lies and bulls**t, deserved the networks’ attention, however many there were.

Let souls be searched, then. But let the search not stop at the low-hanging fruit. Search the whole Trump show from start to finish. See how again and again the networks let themselves be tickled, dazed, bullied and bedazzled by a dangerous fool.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.