Clearly journalism paid no attention.
“As politicians have become more polarized, we have increasingly allowed ourselves to be used by demagogues on both sides of the aisle, amplifying their insults instead of exposing their motivations,” Ripley wrote. “Again and again, we have escalated the conflict and snuffed the complexity out of the conversation. Long before the 2016 election, the mainstream news media lost the trust of the public, creating an opening for misinformation and propaganda.”
With a presidential election coming in 2020 and the Democrat competition for the party’s nomination heating up, what was true in 2018 is only truer now. The attack dogs have taken over the show with the big dog in the White House leading the way and the mainstream media encouraging him to lunge at the end of his chain.
We now live in a country where calling the President a racist is a key talking point for the party out of power and where a significant segment of the mainstream media has suggested the President committed treason by conspiring with foreign powers to throw the last election.
The problem is that it’s not that simple. There is surely some racism in Donald Trump, but there is some racism in almost all of us. It is hard to avoid. It is an extension of the tribalism that has existed in the human animal since primitive times.
We are a species that tends toward tribes the way wolves tend toward packs. It is unfortunate we spend so little time celebrating how far we’ve come in changing that part of our nature, and how much time we spend now trying to regroup into new tribes.
Trump, of course, has encouraged this. His path to power required him to do so. He was not the good soldier who rose through the ranks to represent a collective of interests. He was the lone wolf who seized control of the pack by displacing the existing alpha.
His rise to power is interesting in its complexity, and what it says about the complexities of class and status in the United States today. How can it be that Trump – a product of the ruling elite, a man raised with a silver spoon in his mouth, someone who has never gotten his hands dirty or broken a fingernail – has become the political favorite of the country’s embattled working class?
Is it as simple as the Make America Great Again slogan attacked by the intellectual elites on the country’s coasts as a racist dog whistle for White Americans while embraced in the Heartland as a call to bring back the manufacturing jobs which once provided working-class Americans solid incomes and significant benefits?
Enter today’s journalism. Not all of it, but most of it.
Journalism today doesn’t do complicated well. Ripley last year was willing to make a confession in this regard. You are unlikely, unfortunately, to find many other journalists doing her soul searching.
“After spending more than 50 hours in training for various forms of dispute resolution,” she wrote, “I realized that I’ve overestimated my ability to quickly understand what drives people to do what they do. I have overvalued reasoning in myself and others and undervalued pride, fear and the need to belong.”
Or at least she overvalued her reasoning abilities because, as with most of us, pride, fear, the need to belong, ego, various prejudices and more regularly try to get in the way.
And never more than now in a country gone tribal and journalism along with it.
If there is a mainstream journalist in Alaska who can at this moment understand why an average Alaskan would or could support President Donald Trump, I’d be surprised. I’m certain there’s not a one who voted for or would vote for Trump, but that’s a different matter.
Personally, I don’t vote and don’t think journalists should. There are all sorts of psychological studies out there examining how behaviors change once people settle on a candidate, and journalists are people.
Once you pick “your” guy or gal, he or she starts to look better. There’s a bad tendency to shift from being an observer to being a fan. Fans of sports know all too well the flaws that can be overlooked in a favorite team. Fans might be able to look objectively at all the other teams, but they have a skewed view of their team.
The country witnessed the perfect political illustration of the consequences in the last presidential election with the media expectation that Democrat Hilary Clinton would be coronated as the nation’s first female president. Journalists were so sure their team would win they failed to thoroughly examine the strengths and weaknesses of the opposite team and devoted much of their coverage to fretting about Trump’s lack of political correctness and other “unpresidential” behaviors.
“Donald Trump’s Worst Offense? Mocking Disabled Reporter, Poll Finds.” “Trump appears to mock a person with disabilities. Again.” “Trump Fat-Shames a Supporter Mistaking Him for a Protestor.” “Trump Dismisses His ‘Grab Them By The Pussy’ Comments Once Again.”
The media ended up sucked into the very battle it was supposed to be trying to cover objectively.
“Once we get drawn in, the conflict takes control,” Ripley observed. “Complexity collapses, and the us-versus-them narrative sucks the oxygen from the room.”
By election day 2016, it was pretty much all us-versus-them. The prevailing media view on the Presidential race was simple: Good (Clinton) versus bad (Trump). Only two of the nation’s 100 largest newspapers endorsed Trump.
All of which, with the clarity of hindsight, clearly worked to Trump’s advantage. Elitist-blue Americans were so sure Trump was bad the majority of working-class-red Americans decided Trump must be good.
Trump won 67 percent of the vote among whites without a college degree, according to the Brookings Institution. He beat Clinton 52 percent to 41 percent among Americans earning less than $50,000 a year, a group that in the previous election had tilted heavily toward Democrat President Barack Obama.
As a result, the media treated Trump as a circus act instead of a legitimate candidate and forget that despite animal-rights protests, a lot of people in this country still love the circus.
Who knows how things would have worked out if the media had complicated the narrative with a rounded view of Trump instead of simplifying it with a focus on his engagement in the sort of name-calling all too common in the media itself.
“…Complexity,” as Ripley discovered, “leads to a fuller, more accurate story….(and) when people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.”
Nobody is listening
Possibly nowhere is complexity more ignored than in Alaska at this time. The state has a significant budget problem that can itself be defined in very simple terms: We annually spend more money than we take in.
The solutions to this problem are also simple:
- Reduce spending.
- Increase revenue with new taxes.
- Forge some combination of #1 and #2.
The red team led by Gov. Mike Dunleavy has chosen #1. The blue team led by state House Democrats timidly favors #2. Little real consideration has been given to #3 because it is the most complicated and difficult, and in these partisan times that makes it the least politically saleable for politicians hoping to be re-elected.
The state’s mainstream media has joined the blue team. Alaska Public Media staked out its position in an online solicitation:
Yes, there are people getting help from the government and government employees destined to struggle when budgets are cut in any way. Just as there are working people sure to suffer if taxes are raised.
The days of Alaskans – rich and poor – living fat on the hog of North Slope oil aren’t over, but they are clearly fading. Oil still provides the bulk of state revenue, but the percentage is shrinking.
The state could raise oil taxes, but then there is the probability companies would cut back on exploration and enhanced production – the most costly of operations – and that could undermine the future revenue stream.
Economic issues are complicated.
Ed King, the former chief economist for Dunleavy, and Mouhcine Guettabi, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research could have a lively debate about what cuts aimed at getting the state budget close to balanced due to the economy.
But the Alaska media hasn’t delved into the complexities of economics and economic forecasting. There is no well-rounded picture of the complexity to be found anywhere. It is so much easier to play to fear.
Ripley attributes this to journalists being “used,” but there is more to it than that. A lot more.
Economics play a huge part. An old slogan defining TV news was “if it bleeds, it leads.”
The idea then was that the best way to hook viewers was with something tragic and scary. As media has moved online and profits have fallen and competition for eyeballs has become even more intense, there is more incentive than ever to play to people’s fears.
The New York Times hasn’t made Trump into the devil conspiring with the Russians to subvert the election process just because of some sense of journalistic responsibility. The newspaper has seen its circulation increase with its pursuit of Trump. There is a financial incentive.
It is the same financial incentive that led to the creation of Fox News. Plenty of journalists who for years badmouthed Fox as one-sided and biased are now walking down the same path Fox followed and believing that fine.
They’ve joined the resistance, and by that act alone defined a whole other segment of America as the enemy.
The polarization only serves to bond Trump supporters to Trump. This is what Elaina Plott, who covers the White House for The Atlantic, wrote after attending a Trump rally in Cincinnati at the start of the month:
“…The rally-goers I spoke to last night seemed most nonplussed by—not so much that Trump had been roundly condemned in recent days as a racist, or a bigot, but that they, by virtue of association, had been as well. But rather than distancing them from Trump, the accusations have only seemed to strengthen their support of this president. To back down, they suggested, would be to bow down to the scourge of political correctness.”
There are likely a whole lot of Americans with calloused hands and dirt under their fingernailswho like Trump for that alone; that he says what he wants to say; that he hasn’t been co-opted by the “establishment;” that he doesn’t stop Tweeting just because his Tweets offend some people; that he is the nation’s Bad Boy in Chief.
Does that mean they belong in a “basket of deplorables,” as Hilary Clinton characterized then, or identify as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, (and) Islampahopic” or – to use the all-inclusive phrase of the day – White Supremacists?
Personally, I’ll admit I’m not a Trump fan. I’ve spent my life in the facts business and Trump has, at best, an arms-length relationship with facts. But I’m not so naive as to believe other politicians always tell the truth either.
I’ve honestly never met a politician (at least a successful one) that was truly unlikable. Personability at some level is the key to getting elected in this country.
And he cheated. Surprise, surprise.
Politicians are invariably more likable than trustworthy. They lie; they cheat; they misdirect; and – worst of all – they almost always do the politically expedient thing. Reilly again on Trump versus former President Bill Clinton:
“It’s like a guy who goes to the bank to steal a pen versus the guy who steals the money. [Trump] really needs to win and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Right there is one reason some average Americans might like Trump.
Cheating just sort of goes along with winning: Bill Belichek’s “Spygate,” Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds…. The list of winning cheaters is long.
So Trump lies and cheats and postures in various ways. Think of him as “Slick Willie” without the “slick.”
If you try, you can probably come up with some reasons Trump isn’t all the bad. I like his get-tough policy with the Chinese, who never saw a good idea they wouldn’t steal and who see economics as a tool of global war, as have other oppressive regimes.
I’m sure, if I tried, I could come up with something else of which I approve that Trump has done while in office, or find more than a few actions the president has taken of which others might approve.
It might be a good idea for all journalists to do this. It broadens the perspective. It brings some complexity to the discussion. It helps open an avenue for Americans on either side of the partisan divide to have a discussion that isn’t limited to “you’re stupid.”
“No, you’re stupid.”
“I said it first….”
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Then again, confrontation seems to be selling a lot better than discussion. Now, feel free to argue.