The News Media Must Come to Grips with Trump’s Popularity

Better listening by journalists could help heal a divided nation.

Photo by Jason Zeis on Unsplash

This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

It’s no secret the incoming Biden administration faces long odds in taming the partisan antagonisms and ill will roiling America and eclipsing its health and promise. The news media have an important role to play, but they need to do a better job of listening.

In the aftermath of the Nov. 3 election, Axios Jim VandeHei didn’t mince words: “All of us — and the media, in particular — need some clear-eyed, humble self-reflection as the dust settles.” Why? “The media remains fairly clueless about the America that exists outside of the big cities, where most political writers and editors live.”

Indeed, the mainstream media is fumbling its job of listening to America. How else to explain the failure to flag the Democrats’ down-ballot difficulties or often wishful signaling on cable news of a Biden blowout when, as it turned out, 74 million people voted for Donald Trump?

Too often reporters and pundits can pay lip service to the plight of the jobless or disenfranchised before briskly moving on, for example, to reflexively depict Trump supporters, as narrow-minded bigots. Right-wing media, meanwhile, are quick to write off liberals as enemies of the state. The result is a floodtide of resentment and recrimination.

So here’s a modest proposal. What if reporters, editors and producers of all stripes put more effort into asking one of journalism’s basic questions: Why do people, especially those with whom we disagree, see the world the way they do?

Looking back, I wince at the times I warped my reporting by talking too much when I should have been listening. Then in the wake of 9/11, I was overseas talking to some of America’s most biting critics, and it was hard to take. I had to remind myself my job wasn’t to impose my values on them; it was to understand their internal logic, why they believed what they believed.

It was frustrating, but a quote I remembered from psychiatrist Carl Jung provided perspective: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Or if we’re lucky, a better understanding of “the other.”

Yes, I know: Journalism’s job in a democracy is to monitor power and hold its abusers to account. We uncover the facts that fight fiction and malfeasance and, in the words of authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

But that’s only part of the job. In the first instance, whatever the story, we work to achieve what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein dubbed “the best obtainable version of the truth.” And when we encounter people who hold opinions we find outrageous or outright reprehensible, we don’t give up our ability to question, but we do need to shift our capacity for empathetic listening into overdrive.

That’s a tall order today. Cable news, with its talking heads and confrontational style, discourages deep listening. Social media’s genius for angrily confirming our worst biases defeats it. Even when reporting is accurate, the spewing of raw facts overwhelms our ability to understand what we’re hearing.

At the end of the day, good reporting is good detective work and a detective who can’t listen isn’t very good. As Sherlock Holmes observes in A Scandal in Bohemia: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Thinking like that blinds us to reality. In his new book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel argues “it is a mistake to see only the bigotry in populist protest, or to view it only as an economic complaint … the election of Donald Trump in 2016 was an angry verdict on … rising inequality … that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered.”

Millions of Americans, right and left, now see civic life as a rigged game. Meanwhile, the well-off, regardless of their politics, are prone to “believe they are ‘doing God’s work,’” Sandel writes, “and to look down on victims of misfortune — hurricanes, tsunamis, ill health — as blameworthy for their condition.”

The danger, says Sandel, is that “the more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility. And without these sentiments, it is hard to care for the common good.”

But how do we boost civic empathy when so many Americans blame the city-based information elite for spitefully producing “fake news”? Those attitudes aren’t likely to change until more Americans feel more secure about the future in their jobs and communities, and that’s for business and government leaders to help orchestrate.

But journalism has a role to play. It won’t spell an end to rampant conspiracy theories, but deeper listening can bring us closer to a shared sense of reality and the values that give it oxygen. Unstopping our ears to those different from us can eat away at sclerotic thinking and nudge us toward common cause.

There are journalists, particularly immersive reporters, photojournalists and filmmakers, who work this territory and do it well. Aspiring journalists I meet these days as a teacher seem ready and willing to invest in reflecting on the events of our world, not just reacting to them. The impact of the coronavirus may have opened that door even wider.

In her book You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, journalist Kate Murphy observes: “It’s hard to develop the sensitivity and respect for another person’s vulnerability without knowing what it’s like to be vulnerable yourself.” Or as Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it in his 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,“Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?”

With so many Americans in a kind of existential deep-freeze today, as jobs disappear, businesses fail and families go hungry, the media needs to help us listen more closely to our fellow human beings. Otherwise, as Jim VandeHei points out: “We are losing the war for truth … If we do not collectively solve this, we are all screwed.”

Career journalist. Former foreign correspondent. Professor, University of Texas at Austin.

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