The Midterms Should Have Been a Lesson The Media Had Already Learned
Roughly two years ago my family home was the scene of political strife. Not protest in the street à la Charlottesville, but the private ways our political turmoil touches us: the awkward Thanksgivings, the squabbles and unfriending cousins on Facebook — and in my case, an argument about the predictions made in The New York Times that morning about the outcome of that election.
Yesterday, Americans voted in another election, many hoping for a colossal shift in power. Modest predictions proved accurate, with the Democrats winning back the House of Representatives, but the overall tone from much reporting leading up to election day felt much more like a tsunami was coming for the GOP. It felt like the same tone with which the media talked about Hillary Clinton before she lost.
I thought Trump would win. I didn’t want that to be the case, but it’s what I thought. For some context, I’m from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, one of the most historically decisive voting districts in the country. Both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump held major campaign rallies here shortly before the eve of their election nights (a Republican friend got me a hunter-camo “Mitt” hat for my birthday, which is shortly after election day). Home to a diverse cross-section of our nation’s demographics and political leanings, growing up here has given me a refined sense of the country’s political mood, more so than some of the bubble-dwellers we are all prone to being.
Trusting my gut as I have been conditioned to, I thought the Times was lying to itself: a box-and-whisker plot of the polls The Upshot reported put most odds that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency at between 89% and 98%, the contrary outlier still a comfortable 71%. At the same time, with regard to the Senate, the Democrats’ odds were a mere 52%. The discrepancy was apparent when held under mild scrutiny. Not only is voter turnout tragically low in the United States, but those who do vote tend to do so along party lines straight down the ballot.
Most didn’t believe Trump could win, himself included. But for many, that doubt was tainted by self-interest. People didn’t want him to win. My brother and father were the same. I made my case much the same as I am now to you, but they wouldn’t hear it. In the end it didn’t matter; when the results came out that night, our house was silent.
While I had suspected he would win, I was nevertheless greatly disappointed. What to make of the situation, in many ways I still don’t know. But one thing was clear to me: the media was out of touch, and that needed to be corrected immediately.
The media’s maladies, however, are many and far from trifling. Dark money — much of it from fossil fuel fortunes — has flooded the airwaves, pouring toxic ideas messages, fomenting hate against abstractions and conspiratorial ghosts, into millions of homes . For more on how this has impacted every level of government I encourage you to read Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money. That book will shed a great deal of insight into a consequential symptom we should also note, gerrymandering.
Beyond the bankrolling of the wrong kind of content, social media is amplifying it to a deafening pitch. Journalists spend all of their time plugged into the hype machine, and not to their own fault: Twitter is a popular medium for journalists to find new scoops, leads, and disseminate polls. When so much of journalism is done remotely and solely online, what is written amplifies the author’s biases, which the algorithms across social media platforms have reinforced and intensified.
That’s where Bucks County comes back into this. I had come home from college to vote in my district because, again, it is a battleground purple county in a major swing state. Something I noticed quickly about the landscape was that while there was no shortage of Republican candidates’ signs, the Democrats’ seemed to be in short order. It had always been neck-and-neck. My sister, who was volunteering for Hillary for America, told me that their local manager had said that there had been an issue with the shipments. It seemed vague and implausible for a campaign with major resources and sure knowledge of the geography’s strategic importance.
It is still my hunch that — knowing the people around here like I do — Trump supporting vandals removed the signs, which when we narrowly went blue seemed even more likely. If the acts of violence and racism these past two years haven’t shown, the Trump kool-aid can make people do extreme things.
I’d watched my high school class become savage toward each other online as the information our bubbles fed us drove our realities increasingly apart. The dark money and the Steve Bannon-type online content had pushed the Republican base far right. The media, which does lean left (there’s a whole discussion to be had about asymmetric polarization I know), is largely plugged into an blue hype machine.
On Twitter, Facebook, wherever, it all generally forms a pyramid, with major organizations picking up stories circulating in smaller crowds first. That perception issue is why the Times did not include a reliable variety of polls in its predictions, and why again, liberals will be disappointed that the “Blue Wave” was not such a tsunami.
My brother texted me tonight as news updates the nation. “This election is dark and disappointing.” Democratic rising stars, media favorites, did not shine so brightly this election day.
I told him I never thought Beto O’Rourke had a chance to win. It’s not that I don’t like him, or didn’t want him to knock Ted Cruz straight out of political relevance. I saw the media repeating its mistakes.
People wanted the “Blue Wave”, to smash the Republican majority in both houses of Congress. They wanted America to mobilize and wake up! I do too; but we need to address the stranglehold certain forces have on our society right now, and the media is not doing its job with that regard. Just because people want O’Rourke, does not mean that it will happen. Polls consistently showed him scoring lower than Cruz, yet social media activism by people (many outside of Texas) created a hype-storm that twisted up much of the media and contoured the reporting.
Cruz is supported by a media machine built over decades by archconservative private interest, which in as media has been recently catalyzed has seized the opportunity exquisitely online. Conservatives win by flaming racism and hatred against a number of boogeymen; it’s despicable, but it works because they are organized, targeted, and are selling a “no” to something, not a “yes”. Liberals do it too, but not as much and not as well. Conservatives play on existentialist fears and insecurities, liberals sell villains to tweet mean things about.
I make a point to talk to people I disagree with, and many of the conservatives I spoke with were voting Trump not because they supported him, because they loathed what they perceived Clinton as signifying. The same streak can be seen in the Vice video linked in the paragraph above showing a debate between O’Rourke and Cruz’s supporters.
The media needs to stop reacting and start setting the agenda. Trump uses the media as free publicity; keep him off the air as much as possible, and don’t talk about his tweets so much. I’m sure more Americans hear about his tweets from television than from the actual source. As well, journalists should focus on people stories, not denouncing. Writing a story that showcases the humanity of migrant families is a lot more work than writing an article about how terrible Trump’s policies are, but that work is critical now more than ever. Finally, journalists need to focus on the real issues. It should be them, not Frank Luntz, asking “why is so much money flowing into this [Texas Senate] race?” They should be asking that question every day on every platform.
Finally, we as individuals can take some steps. By “educating ourselves” we need to stop shutting people out of conversations for being “problematic” and help them feel comfortable expressing themselves. Yes, their ideas might be terrible and hurtful, but we are only going to change their minds (and votes) -in this unhelpful social media/dark money landscape - through sheer humanity. We need to understand why people choose to support Trump, and we need to show them there is a better way. It isn’t just journalists that need to get deeper outside their comfort zone, but all of us. If the reader base isn’t so easily fed a narrative, those narratives won’t be so easily written.
And we won’t be disappointed again.