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P.S., 2020: not all journalists failed

There is no shortage of criticism about how the press failed this election cycle. I was quick to denounce what CNN and other outlets did not report ahead of the election this week (and earlier wrote how mistakes from 2016 were being repeated). The editor-in-chief of CJR added, “Newsrooms leaned too heavily on polls as a substitute for on-the-ground reporting… And major media institutions made it all but impossible to envision that, despite the wealth of reporting on the president’s lies and his racism and his circus—nearly half the country remains beholden to the man and his beliefs.”

That is true. Many newsrooms were askew. Most thrive inside a national news bubble which couldn’t contemplate any other narrative. My former employer, MSNBC, was among the worst offenders, but CNN did the same. It was especially exasperating because those other stories actually were readily available, reported by journalists with integrity. To disregard that information as so many did is journalistic malpractice.

To be honest, as a broadcast producer, it’s relatively easy to find a story, book the reporter or maybe even one of the people featured in that story, and get it on air, providing additional exposure to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. The hard work is being done by the reporters, local and national, usually for print or digital, out there pounding the street, working the phones, and digging up scoops. And that hard work was very worthwhile. What was contained in the shoe leather reporting this year painted a different portrait of America than the one viewers saw regularly on broadcast news. It’s rather vexing.

A cursory review of these grassroots stories, reveals that support for Trump did not only come from the xenophobic, as so many outlets lead their audiences to think. Some voters had, let’s say, “unconventional” beliefs (e.g., one thought Trump pushed Jeffrey Epstein out of power). Others may have been single-issue voters or were simply apathetic.

The point of this post is twofold: to give credit to the hard-working, under-appreciated journalists who did the tough job of old-school reporting, and to reflect, again: why did broadcast news fail their audiences so badly?

There was some solid reporting this election, especially during the pandemic. These are just some of the stories I managed to catch online. Politico’s Tim Alberta traveled far and wide to capture insightful stories throughout the campaign season. He reported in June how some Black voters in Detroit were lukewarm towards Biden and in September, how support for Trump was persistent in some Wisconsin suburbs. The Daily podcast also spent a lot of time in the field talking to all types, from former felons in Florida about their skepticism about the relevance of the election, to voters split in Wisconsin.

The NYT’s Jennifer Medina reported the macho appeal of Trump to Hispanic men. The NYer wrote this postcard from Sarasota where Black men described what was attractive about Trump. In the final days of the election, Michael Moore warned not to trust the polls, that Trump voters in the Midwest were being undercounted because they don’t trust pollsters. Politico reported that in south Florida, local Democrats were warning the Biden campaign that there would be low turnout among Blacks and Latinos, putting that key state at risk.

Would you believe that come election day, those stories bore out, shocking inside-the-bubble broadcast journalists and their audiences?

It’s shameful. The material was out there. Unfortunately, most of it got lost to the internet, but most tragically, it was ignored by broadcast outlets. To me, it’s worse that the material actually existed but was largely dismissed. In my experience, those stories were mostly overlooked by producers because they didn’t fit their primary storyline that Trump is bad. Even more critical, those stories wouldn’t have rated well.

Now, I’m not here to argue that Trump’s behavior, lies, and corruption are acceptable. I’m here to argue that it was lazy, at best, to fail so badly to even attempt to understand what folks on the ground outside of the Acela corridor thought about the election and the candidates. At worst, it was crooked, a way to appeal to an audience hungry for ridicule for the sake of ratings.

So instead of blaming “the media” or “the press” for the failed coverage (again) this year, I would define that debacle more narrowly and pin a failing grade specifically on one entity: broadcast “news.”

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