The media missed the rise of Trump in 2016. Are they ready this time?

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Key figures from major US newspapers, news sites and TV describe their fears about covering this years election and ideas on how to get it right

In the weeks after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the American media went through deep soul searching. Most news outlets had been taken by surprise by Trumps victory, had failed to see the rise of the electorate that would put him in the White House, and had been led by the clickbait of his tweets. Then there was Hillary Clintons emails and an arguable failure to appreciate the importance of misinformation and Russian interference in the election.

This time the press has pledged to do better. Yet, with less than a year to go before Americans go to the polls again, there are already signs that mistakes of the magnitude of 2016 may be repeated or new challenges arise.

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The Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review have partnered to interview30 top media figures and commentators, asking how ready they think we are for the 2020 presidential election.

The media got the country wrong

The stakes could not be higher. With the 2020 presidential election upon us, leading media practitioners and commentators are in anxious and reflective mood.

Journalists
Journalists file information inside phone booths at the public impeachment hearings on 19 November 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post: The press is under assault and democracy is under assault right now, and these two things are related. One of the things we didnt do well covering the presidential election last time was that we failed to distinguish between the serious and not so serious the term false equivalency comes to mind. So Trump and his sexual assault claims, business record, history of racism all those things were made equal to Hillary Clintons emails. Today were calling it a little better. When things are racist were willing sometimes to use that word. Were willing to use the word lie. Weve come a ways in that sense, but Im still not particularly positive about how were going to deal with 2020.

Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times: In 2016 I think the media got the country wrong. I dont think we got Trump. We didnt understand how much the country was angry at elites, upset about the fallout from the economic crisis. And I dont think we understood quite how much the country just wanted to shake things up. We covered it as usual, the way we always cover elections, as a clash of two ideologies, and I think it was much, much deeper.

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News: The media has this incredible quadrennial habit of learning all the lessons of four years ago and applying them when the medium has already moved on. So I think the media is totally prepared not to repeat the mistakes of the last cycle, like giving Trump endless livestreams and letting him use provocative tweets to dominate the conversation. But Im sure we will fuck it up in some new way we arent expecting.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of Teen Vogue: People are worried and we dont have an answer. The US president is openly attacking journalists. He has convinced a third of the country that the New York Times is fake news. We can criticize the Times all we want for substantive reasons, but its not fake news. We have to have some general understanding: outlets like the Guardian, the New Yorker, these are not fake news!

Jorge Ramos, Univision news anchor: In 2016 there were 27 million Latinos eligible to vote and 13 million of them decided to stay home more than 50%. In 2020 there will be 32 million Latinos eligible to vote and Im very concerned that the story might repeat itself again: that Latinos decide to stay home because they dont like President Trump but dont trust the Democrats either. That would be terrible for Latinos.

Daniel Arnall, executive editor of MSNBC: So one of the things that we are doing differently than in the last cycle is focusing more on issues, and coverage of issues that folks across the country are interested in. That is going to be driving our coverage. Were going to be substantially less interested in taking like live candidate events, I think, and dealing with all of that.

Charlie Sykes, editor-in-chief at the Bulwark: Going back to 2016, when I was part of what youd consider to be the conservative media, its difficult to remember that there was still a lot of diversity of opinion. There were a lot of conservative commentators and talk show hosts who were very critical of Donald Trump. Whats really changed is how increasingly tribalized the media has become.

Kara Swisher, tech journalist and founder of Recode: What happened in 2016 should not come as a surprise for anyone who has been paying attention to the tech companies. Tech moguls collect all the money and pay none of the price.

Trump and his tweets

In 2016 Trump regularly set the 24-hour news agenda with his early morning clickbait tweets. Will the same Trump-obsession dominate again?

Donald
Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One at the White House in Washington on 2 December 2019. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Frank Bruni, columnist for the New York Times: Weve learned that if you write a story about the ridiculousness of Trumps latest tweet it gets a lot more traffic than an analysis of Elizabeth Warrens Medicare for All plan. Trump understands what news catches peoples interest, he has a very acute sense of what people will click on. So Im concerned that we are going to end up giving Trump more than the lions share of media time all the way up to election night.

Mukhopadhyay, Teen Vogue: We are living amid constant cutbacks. Outlets are shrinking. I worry the story continues to be driven by what is performing, by KPIs (key performance indicators). Thats where a lot of the Trump tweet coverage comes from its low-hanging fruit.

Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today: I make no apology for the amount of coverage we give President Trump. Hes the president. If he says something thats incredibly provocative or does something that has far-reaching ramifications, we have an obligation to report it.

Ramos, Univision: When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015 and when he ejected me from a press conference, we told everyone, listen, this is someone whos making racist remarks, hes attacking the press, yet very few people pay attention. Today I believe its a completely different story. Journalists are being much more aggressive than they were in 2016.

Smith, BuzzFeed: This is a totally different moment to 2016 its an election that will be a referendum on Trumps presidency. The challenge will be covering his presidency and not what he says about it.

Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent for New York magazine: Trump is sort of blowing everything up. And the way he has done that has provided more opportunity for reporters to be creative. In the Trump White House, nothing works like its supposed to.

Baquet, the New York Times: When you cover a theatrical politician you must try not to get caught up in the theatre. Having said that, Im one of those people who thinks theatrics are still worth covering they are part of the way he leads the country.

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University: During the first Gulf war, the Washington bureaus of major news organizations spearheaded by Harpers together with the networks and a number of major news organizations said: Were not going to go along with the minders scheme. Such collective action is not beyond the bounds of the imagination for 2020.

Zanny Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of the Economist: I think there is some debate in certain quarters about whether the media should be taking one side or another stand in opposition to Trump. And thats in part what is feeding the sense of polarisation and people living in two entirely ecosystems in the US.

Lies, damn lies and factchecks

Since Trump took office, the Washington Post has counted 13,435 of his false and misleading claims. This extraordinary splurge of untruths poses huge challenges for the media as we go into 2020.

Kellyanne
Kellyanne Conway speaks to reporters after Donald Trump terminated James Comey. Photograph: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Glenn Kessler, editor of the Fact Checker, Washington Post: The database of Trumps false claims is a very depressing duty. It just drags you down to have to go through it, like reading one of the presidents rally speeches. Just one speech will have 60 false and misleading claims, most of which youve already factchecked and said were false. Its incredibly depressing.

Page, USA Today: There is much more impressive factchecking than there was in 2016. One of the things that weve seen happen is not to let something that we know is inaccurate stand unchallenged.

Ramos, Univision: Ive covered Latin America for many decades and I think that has prepared me for what Im seeing right here in the US. To have someone leading the country who is an authoritarian, who is not telling the truth, whos constantly lying in a country that is completely divided.

Bruni, the New York Times: You can only say the same thing so many times before people become numb and deaf to it. If the public is not listening, I dont know how that becomes our fault.

Nicholas Johnston, editor-in-chief of Axios: What makes me somewhat optimistic is that four or six years ago we didnt even have the vocabulary to talk about deepfake, fake video and audio, misinformation, the manipulation of social media, the end of truth. Now we know that these are things, we can talk about it and help voters identify what is true and what is not.

Kessler, the Washington Post: Ive covered just about every presidential administration since Reagan and this administration has the least fidelity to truth and honesty of any Ive encountered.

Sullivan, the Washington Post: The Sunday TV talkshows will bring on people like Kellyanne Conway, Trumps White House counsel, who is just an inveterate liar. By having her on, she is allowed to say things that arent true and although she can be challenged its still a very strong message having her on air. My feeling is, dont have her on, you know shes going to lie her way through every broadcast. Thats not censorship. Censorship is government action that disallows things being said, but judgments made by editors and producers are not censorship.

Swisher, Recode: If youre not scared when Facebooks Mark Zuckerberg says its okay for politicians to lie, especially in the context of a system that is so viral compared to any other media, you should be afraid.

Polls

Most opinion polls in 2016 predicted that Hillary Clinton would win. On election day the New York Times gave Clinton an 85% chance to win through its forecasting model. Theres been a lot of soul-searching since then. Have we learned the lessons?

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A 2016 election night watch party at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arnall, MSNBC: I am still hesitant on polling, and I think theres been a real reluctance by a lot of major organizations to really come to terms with the failures of that through the last cycle. I think thats a potential weak point that a lot of people should be pushing their organizations on. Im still like, What are we doing differently this time?

Larry Sabato, pollster and director of University of Virginia Center for Politics: All of us pollsters got to eat a large, bitter humble pie after election night in 2016, which came as a tremendous shock. Wed all expected Hillary Clinton to win by three points or so, giving her over 300 electoral college votes. When Trump won we were forced to relearn that polling is not the word of God or handed down on the Mount to Moses.

Baquet, the New York Times: All of us in the media were just so convinced Trump couldnt win. But he was outside of the paint-by-numbers game we have developed.

Sabato, pollster: The polling industry has tried to correct itself after it was so badly caught off-guard. We used not to weight by educational level and it turned out that if we had done so we might have been more accurate in 2016. So now everybody is weighting by education. We also had our fingers burned over the electoral college. The polls got the popular vote more or less correct, with Clinton winning the popular vote by two percentage points, but we should have thought more about the profound electoral college impact that gave Trump his victory.

Page, USA Today: You have to rely both on quantitative and qualitative interviews. Polling is really valuable, but it doesnt tell you everything. You want some quantitative data that enables you to say, Hey, Pete Buttigieg is doing really well among older voters, which is one thing weve just noticed in recent polling, then go out and talk to older voters.

Sabato, pollster: As for forecasting models, they need to be dropped entirely. Most readers didnt understand what probability really means. It just confuses people, and to do it again next year would be to plant a bomb that could explode in your face.

Horserace coverage is dead

2016 provoked soul searching about whether Clinton was held to different media standards than Trump, both in the extent and type of coverage. Is the same happening again within the traditional media obsession with the horserace?

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A Trump rally in Sunrise, Florida on 26 November 2019. Photograph: Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bruni, the New York Times: Heres one specific way I think we will be able to judge whether weve done our jobs well at the end of the 2020 election: we will not have gone to the Democratic finalists in the primary stage or to the ultimate Democratic nominee, whoever that person is, every time Trump hurls an insult and accusation at them. We will not have made that the main news story of the day: Candidates traded volleys in a war of words. We do that all the time.

Sullivan, the Washington Post: I see sexism in the coverage of women candidates. Its improved since Hillary Clinton ran but its still not great. The disappearance of Kamala Harris has some of that wrapped into it, and the constant discussions about whether Elizabeth Warren is likable enough to be elected reflects inherent sexism that we havent really dealt with.

Page, USA Today: On the day that Donald Trump announced, my assumption was that he was not going to be nominated for president. And it took a while for me to realize what voters were saying, which was that he would be. So that is a lesson that I think we tried to apply this time, by looking at the Democratic field Its not up to us. Its up to voters.

Mukhopadhyay, Teen Vogue: One thing were seeing with young people is that they are having trouble following the deep nuances between candidates. Its kind of boring to really point out some of these policy differences because theyre not really that different.

Smith, BuzzFeed: Horserace coverage is dead. Our audience actively hates it. We have to think about a way to replace it in a way that is compelling and that cares about the personalities and the policies while always keeping in mind that there are real things at stake. Now its kids in cages. I mean, who cares that somebody fires his political consultants.

Beddoes, the Economist: We are beefing up our data department, which well combine with traditional shoe-leather reporting. We plan to put those together with the outsider perspective we bring, and the ability to stand back from the tick-tock of the horserace minute-by-minute, to give rigorous fair-minded analysis.

Smith, BuzzFeed: For our audience nobody thinks that politics is a game or that its fun or a sport. The kind of coverage that treats it as though its entertainment is repellant to people. That doesnt mean they dont want to know whos going to win or that they dont care about polling, but just that everybody has a sense of what the stakes are. Thats the brand for our coverage: the stakes 2020.

Fly-over country

Trumps unexpected victory four years ago led to questions about whether media organisations, in their coastal bubbles, had failed to hear the frustration of voters in the heartlands. How is it playing for 2020?

Voters
Voters fill out ballots in Janesville, Wisconsin, on 14 August 2018. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Baquet, the New York Times: We have to get out in the country more. We have to talk to more people, which weve started to do.

Sarah Kendzior, St Louis, Missouri-based journalist and author of The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America: National media is making the same mistakes as in 2016. The midwest has become the sort of stand-in region for what the national media think of as the forgotten voter. What a lot of these coastal outlets are doing is parachuting in here with the narrative pre-written trying to find people who fit their preconceptions of what people in the midwest are like. Honestly the best way they could fix this problem would be to hire people who actually live in these states.

Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues: Its not just boots on the ground. You cant have a parachute mentality. You have to have some appreciation of rural sensibility. The best reporters know how to do that.

Sykes, the Bulwark: Im in Wisconsin and I do a lot of work on the coast as well. Ill be on an MSNBC show, and people on the panels start talking about Wisconsin voters as these strange throwback figures, nostalgic for a time when men were able to slap women around. And it was like, Wait, no. First of all, understand that these are people who have their own values, their own communities, and every time you talk about them in this way, you deepen this red, blue divide, this thing. You need to not treat them as these deplorable troglodytes.

Caitlin Byrd, political reporter for the Charleston Post and Courier: Growing up in the south, you see the same descriptors used to talk about places where I was from: backwoods, dirt road, small town, quiet. The same tropes over and over. But this cycle is it seems that more national reporters in particular are realizing that the south is more complicated.

Gitlin, Columbia University: There was a sense after 2016 that we werent listening to enough people in diners in Ohio. That wasnt so much misguided as it was inflated. The average Trump voter has above-average income! News media went from not noticing people whose life chances are impacted by the rustification of the midwest to thinking that they are now the central story. Its an absurd overcompensation.

Kendzior, journalist and author: I meet a lot of people who have some regret about voting for Trump, who are reluctant at times to admit that regret on record. Some are embarrassed about having made this regrettable decision The base is still there, theyre very frenetic But I do think that base is much smaller than the media portrays it.

The need toreach young voters

Only 46% of 18-29 year olds voted in 2016. Was the failure of media to address young peoples interests partly to blame, and if so how to fix it?

Hillary
Hillary Clinton takes a selfie during a 2016 rally in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Mukhopadhyay, Teen Vogue: The way the media talks about the youth vote is as social media Snapchat-obsessed young people, who dont care about politics and are not engaged because its above their head and they are so selfish and thats why they dont vote. If I was Gen Z that kind of narrative would turn me off too. When you do have outlets that speak to their interests you notice that they do become engaged.

Swisher, Recode: When I started my podcast, someone said to me: You know, Kara, millennials like snackable content. And I was like: I dont want to write for people who want snacks. Everyone whos substantive wants substance. They said: Millennials are twitchy. They cant focus on anything long. And whats interesting about it is, they were dead wrong.

Mukhopadhyay, Teen Vogue: None of the presidential candidates have a very well-fleshed-out strategy for Gen Z. Nobody really knows how the 18-year-old who is in St Louis who works in a fast-food place, we have no idea what they want. We dont know how theyre going to vote. At Teen Vogue we see it as an opportunity for a generation that has not had somebody actually speak to their needs: climate change, immigration, juvenile justice, student debt.

Race in the race

Diversity in media both in terms of the internal makeup of news teams and the way those teams cover Trumps stoking of racial fears will be a running theme in 2020.

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