HILLSBORO, Ohio - When Donald Trump won the presidency in November 2016, it was a shock to pollsters and most of the media. Many of the nation’s most influential news outlets quickly acknowledged they had missed something and pledged to reconfigure their approach.
Some newspapers, such as The Washington Post, expanded the voices on their editorial pages (thank you) and, for a while, cable news producers were regularly scouring the heartland for a different point of view. But by and large, the self-reflection and middle America outreach from a reporting standpoint diminished, often reverting to occasional drop-ins and special assignments.
Two years into Trump’s presidency, the standard operating procedure of most of the media has represented a retreat to pre-2016 bubbles. Reporting and analysis continue to reflect the limited perspective of the left while the other half of America is ignored or, worse, subjected to ridicule and lecturing. Americans - left, right and middle - remain in desperate need of a more comprehensive and balanced informational narrative across the media spectrum.
Before the sad passing of former president George H.W. Bush last week, the probe of special counsel Robert Mueller - ostensibly into alleged Trump-Russian collusion - again dominated the headlines. A flurry of activity and smoke signals from the Mueller camp led to cries in the media that the Trump presidency was about to receive a devastating, possibly ruinous, blow.
In Trump strongholds across the nation, however, the latest developments were regarded with no more alarm than the first allegations of collusion more than two years ago. As far as the president’s millions of supporters are concerned, allegations of collusion with Russia began as political revenge by the left for Trump’s impolite interruption of the ascension of the first female president, and will end as political revenge. They will see whatever Mueller alleges and documents through the prism of the suspect way it began.
The media, outside of Fox News, gives short shrift to Americans who hold such views, or focus their stories on what they see as the ongoing ignorance of Trump voters, such as examinations of how the president’s policies are harmful to the parts of the country that support him. It’s another way of calling them stupid, such as the frequent reminders that voters with college degrees supported Hillary Clinton, while the less educated voted for Trump.
Meanwhile, over the weekend in southern Ohio, one of Trump’s strongest regions, his supposedly duped supporters have noticed that gas prices hover just north of $2 a gallon (and, in my town, dipping a few cents south of that benchmark), the unemployment rate remains historically low, and economic forecasters “expect Ohio shoppers to increase holiday spending by 3.2 percent over last year, as consumer confidence continues to soar,” according to a University of Cincinnati Economics Center forecast.
The simple inhabitants of Trump Country see a president who keeps campaign promises on court appointments, trade renegotiations, illegal immigration and deregulation. But they don’t know what’s good for them, according to many reporters and pundits. They even vote against their own interests, the media critics claim, as though they can understand the interests of Trump voters from afar.
It is likely the media disconnect is about to get worse, with breathless wall-to-wall coverage of Mueller’s final report and Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives in January, replete with endless hearings and even moves toward impeachment. Editorials and columns will suggest or demand that Trump resign. But the attacks will merely solidify the president’s base against common, long-standing opponents, and our political gulf will grow.
For his part, Trump is conducting a unique experiment in national politics, not necessarily a healthy one, but one that worked in 2016 and was arguably effective in his first midterm, when a president’s party typically gets pummeled.
Earlier this year, some analysts said a “blue wave” could result in Democrats not only capturing the House, but possibly the Senate, too. Indeed, Democrats picked up 40 seats to gain control in the House, but the GOP actually gained two seats to expand its Senate majority. Compare this to a real “red wave” in President Barack Obama’s first midterm in 2010, when the GOP picked up 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate, and it’s hard to argue Trump’s 2018 strategy wasn’t effective - aided by negative media coverage that unwittingly helped Trump achieve his objective.
In a more perfect media world, straight reporting from our most esteemed news outlets wouldn’t - couldn’t - be used to energize anyone’s base, Republican or Democrat. Today, the media too often becomes the story instead of merely reporting the story. A less partisan news media could do much to help unify and heal America.
Journalists would be well-served to re-engage over the next two years on the mission they briefly pursued after the 2016 election, discovering and covering all of America - every day, every week, without bias or judgment. If nothing else, such an endeavor might help mitigate in November 2020 the shock that was on display from reporters and commentators when the results trickled in on Nov. 8, 2016 - an outcome they couldn’t comprehend, and still, for the most part, don’t.
• - -
Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor based in Hillsboro, Ohio.