BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone.
This is not the morning after. It's too late now to console half the nation about the decision the other half made. Also, there's no point this week in excoriating the press, yet again, for its many lapses this election season.
BOB GARFIELD: Because this week the media have been very busy excoriating themselves, not for failing to say early enough and loud enough that the aspiring emperor had no clothes, but for failing to project last year's punch line as this year's president-elect. So, as the duly-appointed spokesperson for the entire American media, all I can say is – oops.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: We’re all sitting here sort of silenced, in, in shock.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Pollsters missed it, correspondents missed it.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We all missed the biggest political story of our lifetime.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And I think we all thought it couldn’t happen.
BOB GARFIELD: It was an upset all right, in all senses of the word, due to the fact that the electorate was whiter, older, more rural and far angrier at the powers that be than pollsters and pundits had anticipated. That much is clear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s a little less clear is why those voters came out for Trump in districts that had previously polled Democratic. And, in that, the results served as a kind of Rorschach test for talking heads because when seeking answers all of us, even journalists and pundits, tend to start searching in territory we already know, like racism.
VAN JONES: This was a white-lash against a changing country. It was a white-lash against a black president, in part, and that’s the part where the pain comes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sexism.
COKIE ROBERTS: There probably is a strong sentiment about not having a woman president, and the fact that we’re seeing this, particularly among non-college-educated white men is not surprising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or America's Whitman sampler of woes.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Voters think Donald Trump can fix three things, you guys, terrorism immigration and trade.
BOB GARFIELD: The weird thing is the mainstream media, not known for issuing mea culpas, actually are being a little hard on themselves. News outlets have been beating their breasts about missing the story but, in fact, they mostly didn't. For instance, here’s CBS Sunday Morning.
MAJOR GARRETT: Trump voters have had enough of holding their nose.
RAY PARADEZ: I mean, I’m mad, I’ve been mad. I’m one of the angry, you know, voters that they’ve been discussing for the last year.
BOB GARFIELD: And NPR?
NPR REPORTER: Forty-four-year-old Jim Bell works in nearby Dearborn. He’s a Ford employee represented by the United Auto Workers Union.
JIM BELL: However, I leaned more towards Trump just because I – the change that Obama wanted to bring I think Trump will.
NPR REPORTER: Bell does like what the billionaire candidate says about trade, including that American factories will come roaring back.
BOB GARFIELD: And Fox News.
J.D. VANCE, AUTHOR of HILLBILLY ELEGY: On the one hand, you have declining manufacturing jobs and other blue-collar industries in a very heavily blue-collar area but, on the other hand, you have the things that move in when these jobs go away, so you have rising mortality rates, rising heroin epidemic and, and even, you know, rising family breakdown rates. And so, for the folks who grow up in these areas, what they’ve seen, frankly, is a community, a neighborhood struggling in a lot of different ways, and they’ve seen a Republican Party and a Democratic Party that hasn't really responded.
CHRIS ARNADE: I think the media is blaming itself too much.
BOB GARFIELD: Chris Arnade, a photographer and writer who logged 100,000 miles this election season talking to Trump supporters, concedes that much of the media, gripped by the candidate’s, let’s say, quirks, came late this narrative, that, in fact, they should have been covering this slice of the electorate for decades. But Arnade also concedes that the death of newspapers and the consequent lack of local reporting made that inevitable.
CHRIS ARNADE: I think the idea that the media saw it but didn't believe it is a much stronger argument than the media didn't see it. I don't want to beat up on the media. Readers and editors and even writers of these pieces suffer from biases that they don't want to admit, ‘cause it’s uncomfortable. I certainly suffered from that in the sense I didn’t want to see Trump win. I think if I had had less of a bias personally about wanting to see Hillary win, I would have been more open. All the chips were there for me to see that Trump would win. All the pieces were there. I spent time in the states he flipped. I spent time in Pennsylvania, I spent time in Ohio, I spent time in Wisconsin. I saw plenty of people who had voted for Obama who were voting for Trump, so I saw it, and it should have been pretty easy for me to then make the next intellectual step.
BOB GARFIELD: So the allegation goes, we media elites and our like-minded readers suffered a collective delusion. Well, if so, why? Here’s the conventional wisdom, expressed by the conventionally-wise Tom Brokaw.
TOM BROKOW: I do think that Washington and even those of us in the national media have walled ourselves off far too much from where people live.
BOB GARFIELD: And that is certainly undeniable, but it’s not the only reason because those cozy cocoons that the media and the rest of us nestle in don't exist only on the coasts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They exist in our heads. We’re literally wired to believe what we want to believe and ignore what we don't. I was thinking of a piece I did some years back called “Your Brain on Politics.” Here’s a little piece of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emory University Professor Drew Westen is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. In a 2006 FMRI study, he used brain scans to see what happens inside a voter’s head when confronted with candidates’ statements that showed lying or pandering. The volunteers in the study had no trouble reasoning when dealing with the incriminating statements of the opposing candidate. But when they confronted hypocrisy from their own candidate, they were lost in space.
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PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN: The first thing that was activated were a series of negative emotion circuits that were basically - for any of your listeners who can remember Lost in Space, it was “Will Robinson, danger, danger.” They saw danger. They saw a threat, and you could see it all over their brain. Then what you saw was activation in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate. It monitors and deals with conflict. So you could see that they were in conflict. They were trying to figure out a way out of that conflict. And then you saw, after they had come to the conclusion that there was really no problem for their guy, what you saw was activation in parts of the brain that are very rich in the neurotransmitters that are involved in reward. These are the circuits in the brain that get activated when junkies get their fix.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean once they figured out how best to lie to themselves, they got a blast of oxytocin or something?
PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN: [LAUGHS] That - very, very close, that’s right. So they got this huge blast of dopamine, which is involved in reward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words, the same thing you get when you take coke.
PROFESSOR DREW WESTEN: That’s exactly right. There was no reasoning at all going on.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, this wasn't just the media’s problem. In fact, it seems to have affected the entire US population. To think that the 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle called economics “the dismal science.” He clearly hadn't reckoned with biochemistry.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, what the numbers tell us about the state of the nation and what they don’t.