As contentious as the presidential election was, the aftermath seems to be creating even more conflict.
Students are taking to the streets to protest Donald Trump’s victory, and Trump supporters are dismissing the marchers’ concerns as selfish millennial whining. Trump backers are telling his critics that they are being disrespectful, that they should give the president-elect a chance to take office and enact change; the hypocrisy of this is thick, since conservatives have spent the past eight years complaining about every possible aspect of the Obama presidency.
While both sides continue throwing rocks at one another, a considerable number also are targeting the media for its complete misread of the election tea leaves. Many have charged that media outlets were biased against Trump from the start – the candidate himself pummeled the media as part of his campaign strategy. He limited reporters’ access at his rallies, and encouraged his crowds to taunt and mock the journalists in attendance. This deepened their “us against the world” attitude, which spurred their enthusiasm to show up big at the ballot box.
Polls and projections leading up to Election Day painted a bleak picture for Trump, and on Tuesday night many of those pundits stammered their way through explanations of how they could have gotten it all so wrong. They provided plenty of excuses, except for the ones that hit at the core problems for contemporary journalism and our democracy.
Media outlets, especially cable TV channels and bloggers, are fully invested in horse race election coverage. They fixate on polling and commentators’ opinions of those polls rather than diving deep into the candidates’ stands on issues of consequence. This is how we end up with “cult of personality” candidates who skate by without their talking points being challenged directly (How exactly does your “free” college plan work, Senator Sanders, since everything has a price? Due to the terrain challenges, Mr. Trump, how specifically would a border wall be built and how would you get Mexico to pay for it?).
A bigger issue is the public’s embrace of commentary disguised as news and its unwillingness to pay for quality content. People say they want objective reporting but they turn to partisan outlets such as MSNBC, Fox News, Breitbart, Daily Koz and others to get their information packaged to endorse their preconceived notion of what they believe or want the world to be. When faced with objective reporting, including the outstanding work done this election cycle by the Washington Post and New York Times, too many reject it as biased because they are so used to having the message managed to fit their liking.
The news media’s suicidal flaw of providing content for free online also has undermined the quality of journalism and the public’s news consumption habits. In the early days of the Internet, publishers gave consumers free access to news online, which provided incentive for readers to stop paying for subscriptions. As profits declined, costs had to be cut so newsroom staffs were reduced. It’s simple math: Six people cannot do the work that 17 used to do. The reduction of original reporting pushed more people online to free content sites, and many of those sites lack ethics and a commitment to accuracy.
Many complain about the lack of substantive reporting, but their news consumption habits and reaction to truly objective work tells publishers and producers a different story.
Dave D’Alessio, associate professor of communications at the University of Connecticut, told poynter.org: “Everybody thinks the media should do something but that something varies from person to person to person. And that means we’ll never stop talking about it. They see the media as biased no matter if it is or it isn’t. That’s a conversation that should be happening right now and in the future in civics classes – what role does the media play in the political process?”
I have a bumper sticker that reads, “Democracy depends on Journalism.” I believe that is an absolute truth, no matter which party is in power. Quality journalism has value if you value it. If you want more and better coverage of government on all levels, that starts with paying for content so publishers can pay reporters and editors to hold our leaders accountable.
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.