A scene from a Chicago street on Nov. 8, 2000, as Willie Smith holds four different editions of that day’s Chicago Sun-Times, reflecting the rapidly shifting events of election night.
Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega. Welcome back to The Takeaway. With the presidential election less than two months away, United States media outlets are gearing up for an intense coverage season, but some analysts are concerned about whether the media will be able to navigate this election better than it did in 2016. That year, almost all predictions about who would win the election were wrong.
The media is focused on so-called economic anxiety of white-working class voters obfuscated the economic concerns of Black and Latino Americans. Since then, media outlets have also struggled with how and when to call something or someone racist or whether to say the president is telling a lie. All of this is happening in the shadow of a racial reckoning in newsrooms across the country where journalists of color are asserting their place in the media landscape.
To wrap up the show today, I have my dear friend Margaret Sullivan with us and we're going to talk about how to avoid pitfalls in coverage this year. Margaret is the media columnist at The Washington Post. Margaret, thanks so much for being with me.
Margaret Sullivan: Thanks for having me today. Glad to be with you and your listeners.
Tanzina: Margaret, there've been a couple of pieces that have come out recently about what the media got wrong in 2016, covering the election and what they should do right. Now, I think these pieces are coming out a little bit late, given that the election is a month-and-a-half away. Why is there so much reflection happening now?
Margaret: I think we're realizing now again, the role that the media played in 2016 and the flaws in that coverage, particularly the false equivalency around Hillary Clinton's email scandal as opposed to all the other scandals that could have been emphasized. We realized that elections have very important consequences and with another one coming along now, it's a time when we look back. I would say that there has been reflection before but there's, as you say, a new round of it right now.
Tanzina: I wrote a piece for Neiman, the journalism folks over at Harvard University about two years ago or a little bit before that when I was still at CNN, where I said the biggest mistake in 2016 that I thought the press made was its failure to really understand and see race and the role that race played in the 2016 election. I think that we have gotten a little bit better at race, but during that time, we've still struggled as the media, if you will, to call something racist.
Margaret: That's right. For whatever reason the mainstream media, and I don't use that as a pejorative, just as a description, the mainstream media has a tendency to want to soft-pedal the obvious and a racist statement or a racist person. That's a bridge we have found difficult to cross just as it seemed to be pretty difficult to cross the one about, "Is this a lie?" as opposed to a misstatement or a falsehood or whatever. There are two very loaded, powerful words, but when they apply, I think we ought to use them.
Tanzina: One of the themes that emerged in 2016 around the election was, and that's been tossed about back and forth and we've seem to have lost it, is economic anxiety. There was a lot of coverage of so-called economic anxiety among so-called white-working class voters. I recall it looking at that and saying, "There's economic anxiety to be had by all Americans." In fact, Black and brown Americans, one could argue, experienced more economic anxiety because of the racial wealth gap that exists in this country and yet there are poor whites and there was a gutting of many of the industries that really brought many Americans to the middle class because of the economic shifts we've seen in the past couple of decades. Margaret, whatever happened to economic anxiety as a narrative in the election.
Margaret: Right after the election, the results of which took many journalists and many others by surprise, we started grappling with, "What did we not understand about the country? What did we not understand about the way that Donald Trump could actually become president?" When it seemed like everyone from pollsters to the people who run the needle at the New York Times to, I believe, Donald Trump himself, never really thought that this would come to pass. We started saying, "What did we miss?"
One of the ideas that people came up with was, "Oh, we missed what was happening in the heartland. We missed what was happening with people, like you just mentioned, who had lost their jobs in heavy industry or farmers and we concentrated on that in a way that had to do with a guilt, I think, that we were coastal journalists and we hadn't been in the Midwest enough and so it was overcompensation that concentrated too much on one thing." You are absolutely right that when you talk about people who really should have economic anxiety, Black and brown people should be close to the top of that list, not forgotten in the accounting.
Tanzina: Another thing that the media, if you will, particularly the political media was criticized for is access journalism. Spending time with the folks that you cover and maybe potentially not revealing information when it needs to be revealed because you want to curry favor with certain sources. I guess, most recently the example would be Bob Woodward's book, Rage, and what he knew about how President Trump felt about the coronavirus and what he was saying about the coronavirus in terms of downplaying it and whether or not Woodward should or should not have revealed that earlier in the game, if you will, but do you think access journalism, particularly when it comes to political journalism has been understood or misunderstood?
Margaret: Access journalism has always or for a long time been with us and is not going to go away. Anytime you cover a beat-- Early in my career, I covered the public schools' beat in Buffalo and county government in Erie County, New York. When you're going to cover the same people day after day because that's your beat and you need to get information from them, it's a natural thing that you present things in a way that isn't going to completely turn your sources off forever. You're careful. You try to be truthful, but you try to give them their say, et cetera.
That's why so often beat reporters are not the ones who end up doing the big explosive investigations. This is just a dynamic that isn't going away. However, when it's happening at the highest levels like this, I do think there's a real hazard and a real consequence to the democracy of not getting the bare-knuckles coverage that would be more appropriate.
Tanzina: There was a recent interview with a reporter from Axios with President Trump, and this was a video interview and the reporter really took the president to task and was very, very direct with him in terms of what he was saying and what he wasn't saying and people took that interview and said, "This is how you all should be covering the president." Why aren't more journalists taking the president to task directly.
Margaret: That Jonathan Swan interview was really interesting. I think he did push in a way that sometimes we don't see our most prominent national journalists pushing. With President Trump, it's really difficult because he frankly does lie all the time and he has an ability to distract, present the next shiny object, take where you're trying to come from, and take it someplace completely different. You need to really have strong and very powerful interviewing skills in order to break through that.
Tanzina: We are a month-and-a-half away from what many, including myself, are considering one of the most consequential elections of their lifetime, really for the future of this country. I don't mean that in any other way, other than what I just said, it is a serious time for this country. The media has got a month-and-a-half to go and it's probably going to be a pretty interesting election that may even not be decided on Election Day. Margaret, what is your advice for journalists heading up in this final countdown to the presidential election of 2020?
Margaret: One of the most important things that we, in the media, can do is to prepare the public for a different election night. We don't know that this is going to happen, but it's not unlikely that we're going to have more like an election week or an election month then election night. We need to let people know without creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that there's going to be chaos, that it's not just a normal thing and it may not even be as orderly as the election of 2000 was with its hanging chads and weeks of uncertainty. This may actually involve something closer to insurrection and trouble in the streets.
I think that it's really important to try to educate the public about the fact that this is going to be a much different election, in part, because of the large number of absentee and mail-in votes that are going to take place because of the pandemic. That's a major piece of advice.
Tanzina: There will be no shortage of opportunities to report. Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post media columnist. Margaret, thanks so much for being with me.
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