On Thursday, CNN’s Brian Stelter released a lengthy story based on interviews with dozens of journalists who covered the 2016 presidential race.
The consensus from the oral history was: They were all shocked when Republican Donald J. Trump became president-elect sometime around 2:40 a.m. on Nov. 9.
All of them. Every single person Stelter spoke to. Reporters. Pundits. Even a few conservative commentators.
The story is yet more evidence the media is putting on a show of introspection to cover their rear, because the mainstream media should have done a better job of covering the presidential horse race. It was close from the beginning of the general election, and Trump’s sweeping victories in most primary states should have signaled that information to reporters and pundits.
Yet despite the thin veneer of self-awareness, the media continues, in many ways increasingly, to ignore the lessons of 2016 and peg Trump’s victory entirely to the notion of Russian interference. The myth of Putin tilting the scales of 2016 obfuscates the fact Trump was always in contention and allows the media to continue to ignore the powerful trends and priorities among the American people in the election — the same trends they ignored in their pre-election coverage that led them to get the outcome so wrong.
It was more soothing, and more fitting to their worldview, that Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was winning, and was far ahead. On Oct. 23, the media rushed to broadcast Clinton might be testing a national double-digit lead.
“Hillary Clinton has a 12-point lead over Donald Trump and has reached 50 percent support nationally among likely voters, a new ABC News tracking poll shows,” wrote CNN’s Eric Bradner. “The poll shows Clinton with 50 percent support to Trump’s 38 percent.”
But in many polls, there were problems — many of them overlooked in favor of Trump’s problems.
For one, Clinton was losing independent voters, the most important voting bloc for presidential candidates.
The media also ignored some polling outlets that predicted a Trump win. The Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California conducted a daily poll, unusual in its method. It asked the same 3,000 people their opinions, using input emailed in every day. Trump was usually winning the poll in the last two months.
The End is Near
Shortly after the parties’ conventions ended in the summer, the media began a two-month production of Trump’s campaign obituary. To be fair, Trump often stumbled in ways that would have killed off most campaigns.
And most polls looked credible to the media because of preconceived notions, says Liz Mair, a GOP consultant and president of Mair Strategies.
“There was less skepticism about the potential (in)accuracy of polls because for many people in the media, it was just inconceivable that America could elect a candidate like Trump,” Mair told LifeZette on Friday. “In some cases, that’s a result of the much-stereotyped and criticized ‘Acela corridor’ mindset that has too many pundits only talking to fellow pundits or opinion-leaders or voters who live on the coasts, and Chicago, and nowhere else.”
But the media forgot Trump usually recovered from errors in primaries.
On March 15, Trump won 45.8 percent of the Republican vote against three challengers, including the state’s junior senator, Marco Rubio. Rubio only scored 27 percent. Rubio dropped out of the race after that defeat.
Then in May, Trump dispatched his final two opponents in Indiana. Trump won almost 600,000 votes in the primary. In some counties, primary turnout broke 45 percent — which is fairly good for a general election. Yet the media downplayed Trump’s growing connection with enthused voters.
And the media was stuck in its ways and clung to old wisdom:
Blue states never swing.
America is not center-right.
Polls are always reliable, especially state polls.
And voters made up their mind a long time ago. The last two weeks don’t matter.
The media also bought Clinton’s spin that she was running a state-of-the-art ship.
“In some cases, it (was) a result of a robust belief that Democrats had baked into the equation a much better digital and data operation that would ensure they drove more Democratic-inclined voters to the polls on the day than Republicans could, and that in general election years, the electorate now always looks a certain way, demographically, which meant Trump simply could not win,” said Mair.
Then came Election Night. Denial continued into the night.
At CNN, reporter Jim Acosta, reporting from Trump headquarters, told Stelter that a Trump official called him and said, “It will take a miracle for us to win.”
Yet the Trump campaign had many people predicting a win to the media, long before Election Day. It’s astounding how the media only found the Doubting Thomases (always unnamed) within Trump’s campaign.
But nervous doubt also ran through the media as they fought the idea of Clinton losing. Shortly after 9 p.m. on Nov. 8, Fox News’ Chris Wallace was first to say what no others would: “Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States.”
Now the mainstream media need to explain his unlikely win, and they need foul deeds to make the case.
First, it was FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress.
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Also helping Trump in his surprise win was “fake news,” decried the excuse-hungry press corps.
Now the main media obsession is Russian hacking into “the election.” (Alleged Russian hacking targeted Democratic email accounts — not election equipment.)
One of the motives for this excuse-making — especially the Russian hacking charge — may be to delegitimize Trump. On Friday morning, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway bashed CNN for talking about the Russian allegations “ad infinitum.”
But when you miss the story of the year, you have to explain why. Right now, the Russian bear provides great cover.