Donald Trump's election early Wednesday as president — utterly unprecedented, utterly unexpected — caught the media flat-footed. The distance between the nation's political press corps and its people has never seemed so stark. The pundits swung and missed. The polls failed. The predictive surveys of polls, the Upshots and FiveThirtyEights, et al. with their percentage certainties, jerked violently in the precise opposite direction of their predictions as election night progressed.
And now journalists are confronted by the prospect of a president who avidly campaigned against them and has promised retribution at a time when many of the nation's most important news organizations can least afford it.
Let's catalog just a few of the questions facing the nation's news organizations:
How will the media cover Trump?
The nation's journalists like to think of themselves as people who hold the powerful accountable, who are skeptical rather than cynical, constructive rather than carping, institutionally adversarial but not personally opposed. I don't think that's how the public thinks about the media. Not at all. The media have come off as petty, grasping and out of touch, all part of the great establishment party from which many Trump voters felt excluded.
What's even more problematic for the media is that Tuesday's vote involves a repudiation of the idea that the nation's top leader should care about the facts. On the trail, and throughout his public statements, Trump contradicted the record, the facts, and even himself without the blowback one would expect for a more experienced politician. Indeed, Trump has proved impervious to shame when presented with convincing evidence he is wrong. There's no reason to believe he'll care now. The press will have to consider how it can hold accountable someone who rarely if ever is willing to accept fault. During the general election season this fall, CNN's on-screen captions were often written to be puckish correctives of Candidate Trump's frequent false claims. Will it continue to do so for President Trump?
For many news organizations, journalism is commerce as well as public service. TV networks pushed for more primary debates because they could make money off those evenings. CNN made great riches by airing Trump at great unedited length on the campaign trail during the primaries: It booked an extra $100 million above what it would expect for an election year, attributed to the obsessive focus on Trump. CNN chief Jeff Zucker even boasted that the network's ad inventory for election night was sold out in record time. Along the way, CNN, Fox News, NBC and other outlets yielded to all kinds of demands by Trump. As one example, Trump's near-insistence on doing interviews by phone ensured he could control the tempo of the exchanges. As a man who prizes negotiation, Trump knew such demands would cement his alpha-dog status.
The transition and the start to the Trump presidency should be great for ratings in the same way the invasion of Iraq was: A strong contingent of the country will cheer it on. Another segment will look on with grave misgivings. And the stakes are enormous. Yet that's just ratings and clicks. If Trump holds to campaign form — which is not certain, but there's no reason to expect otherwise — news organizations will have to choose whether to lurch from outrage to outrage rather than identifying what's actually occurring in the new Trump administration.
Will news organizations acquiesce to a new day without acknowledging the distinctive and dislocating nature of the Trump administration? Will they take an adversarial but conventional approach to covering his White House? Or will they take on an almost oppositional stance? I don't know — and I don't think they do, either.
How will Trump address the media?
For the moment, put aside questions of partisan bias (not that Trump intends to). Think instead about the degree to which Trump rejects key values fundamental to journalism, undergirding a deeply held worldview. Trump barely gives lip service to transparency. It's hard to foresee what kind of information the White House — or various federal agencies and departments — will give out under his watch.
As a candidate Trump showed indifference or hostility to many civil liberties, which incorporate the freedom of speech, expression and assembly embedded in the media's sense of self. Reporters were herded and penned up at Trump rallies, singled out for abuse, and blacklisted for critical stories, even as their editors negotiated for concessions that seem meager in retrospect.
Trump has called for loosening libel laws to make it easier to beat news organizations in court. His Silicon Valley supporter Peter Thiel underwrote cases against Gawker that helped shut down the site and force the sale of its parent company. Rolling Stone and its parent company, Wenner Media, just lost a multimillion-dollar libel case in a federal court in Virginia. Even though most cases involve state courts, and are therefore somewhat insulated from federal law, a president's advocacy can shape laws in state legislatures across the country.
Trump has also personally threatened to punish the owners of news organizations whose reports have proved embarrassing or critical. Trump threatened to sue The New York Times for reporting on his taxes. Trump said he would sue NBC for the release of the Access Hollywood tape from 2005 in which he bragged of assaulting women by grabbing their genitals and getting away with it because he is famous. (Trump later denied he had ever done so.) In May, Trump suggested to Fox News he might go after Amazon for unpaid taxes or on antitrust grounds because its founder and CEO, Jeffrey Bezos, personally owns The Washington Post.
"Every hour we're getting calls from reporters from The Washington Post asking ridiculous questions," Trump told one of the most sympathetic figures in media toward him, Fox News host Sean Hannity. "This is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos. ... Amazon is getting away with murder, taxwise. He's using The Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don't tax Amazon like they should be taxed." (I should disclose here that my wife works at Audible, a fully owned subsidiary of Amazon.)
In addition, Trump came out against the proposed AT&T takeover of Time Warner (parent company of CNN). He also said as president he would have federal antitrust lawyers reconsider their 2011 approval of Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal as part of an assault on media concentration. Such a position is defensible but appears aimed at those owners of media outlets that he sees as providing hostile coverage. Trump has made no such remarks about the Murdochs' twin media empires at News Corp. and 21st Century Fox, for example.
None of this may come to pass. Trump notoriously hates losing. He made his name in the pages of the tabloid press and as the subject of gauzy interviews on entertainment TV shows. He loves being allowed to weigh in on serious matters in interviews with television news anchors. As the winner of the biggest prize of all he may invite the press in to chronicle his triumph. If he does, it is because the siren call of the klieg lights has won out over his anger. But it is hard for the media to rely on his insincerity for salvation.
And now, a glance backward to help inform how to proceed.
How did the media get this so wrong?
The media became a player — an antagonist — on the trail, thanks to Trump and, he would say, thanks to the media's coverage too. That may well have affected what people were saying to pollsters. Many states performed outside the margin of error of the projections.
Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight was off. The New York Times' Upshot was badly mistaken too. People relied on misinformation spread instantly on social media as well as the shoutfests and jabberjaw punditry on cable news.
And this occurred at the same time that unrelenting financial strains have hollowed out newsrooms across the country. Executives at News Corp., the New York Times Co., Gannett and tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing) have all reported deep declines in advertising revenues. Over time, reporters have only become more concentrated in Washington, D.C., and New York, as Nieman Lab's Joshua Benton wrote Wednesday.
The anti-Trump conservative columnist John Podhoretz, also the editor of Commentary magazine, mused on Twitter Wednesday that he might have to think about shutting down his social media account. "[T]he Twitter echo chamber created a din for many of us that made it impossible to hear what was happening," Podhoretz wrote.
It's "perhaps unhealthy for chattering classes (me included) to live partly within this 24-7 cocktail party that reinforces things that maybe shouldn't be reinforced and rewards facile conventional thinking rather than depth," Podhoretz continued. "Twitter is a bubble, or is a world of cliques."
Cenk Uygur, the leftist host of the Young Turks and a supporter of Bernie Sanders, predicted in July that Trump would beat Clinton based on a populist appeal tapping into voter anger against the establishment. He looks pretty good in retrospect. But he has for years been considered outside the acceptable norm of media voices.
As the conservative political columnist Salena Zito wrote of Trump in September, "the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally." She has been writing for months about the depths of Trump's support. One such column in August was titled: "Stumped by Trump's success? Take a drive outside US cities."
This can be a period of great reconsideration by the press of how it operates, even as the stories arise all around us.
News organizations can yield to mass distraction, and coverage can bounce giddily once again from one outrage and astonishing turn of events to another. It is a time for humility and taking stock. It is a time for listening to voters who unexpectedly turned to Trump and those who envision a very different form of America.
It's one of NPR's strengths that it can draw on reporters from hundreds of member stations in states both red and blue. Our reporters consistently capture voters in their own voices. News organizations often struggle to do that.
In the days and months ahead, I'd like to see less predictive punditry and much more reporting. God knows, the press has much to be humble about. I'd like to see much more careful coverage of Trump's actual policies and the rules, regulations and laws that emerge. Now is the time to capture not just what Trump has to say, but what people are doing in his name.
Twenty-five years ago, as a rookie reporter in North Carolina, I witnessed an impromptu debate that broke out between two Duke University trustees about the point and power of journalism.
An African-American law dean named Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke praised Gene Patterson, a legendary Southern editor, for his leadership at The Atlanta Constitution, which chronicled the battle for civil rights despite opposition from segregationists. Reuben-Cooke said her family knew that the paper would not ignore the fate of Georgia's black residents in the 1960s.
Patterson, who died in 2013, replied that the newspaper had indeed reported despite pressure to look away — but there were limits to the paper's influence. Despite the paper's intense scrutiny of Lester Maddox, the combative segregationist was elected Georgia's governor in 1966. The paper also covered his occasionally surprising policies. As The New York Times later noted, Maddox "surprised many by hiring and promoting blacks in state government and by initiating an early release program for the state prison system."
So too does the press have to document developments as they unfold in the Trump presidency.
His administration will require an unusually robust, muscular form of accountability reporting — tethered to fact and fairness, independent of political pressure.