A Trump presidency is forcing an entire generation of journalists to rethink what “journalism” even means

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Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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In its critique of Tuesday’s television coverage of the election results, and the night’s unexpected ending, the New York Times said the network newsrooms appeared “rudderless.” The election had gone off script, and the media didn’t know how to react.

This wasn’t the first time the press had been called to task during this campaign cycle. The common complaint has been the cultural gap between journalists and Trump’s followers. Coastal elitism clouded the media’s understanding of middle America, goes the argument.

Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor of journalism at New York University, thinks the professional failure goes deeper. In essays for his blog, PressThink, he has explained that the media failed the public by sticking to its longstanding operation model rather than reinventing its craft in the face of a novel political candidate—the one who will be sworn into the Oval Office in 2017.

To Rosen, the mainstream media’s primary mistake was clinging too tightly to a reporting approach that had served it well for every election until this one: reporting a balanced story and giving fair time to two political ideologies. That method, though, was inappropriate in a situation in which two campaigns were behaving in wildly different ways; in 2016, the press never adequately dealt with the misshapen picture created by false equivalence.

Many other media pundits made a similar point immediately following Trump’s victory, including Matt Yglesias, at Vox, who slammed the media’s treatment of the Hillary Clinton email server story, writing, “Future historians will look back on this dangerous period in American politics and find themselves astonished that American journalism, as an institution, did so much to distort the stakes by elevating a fundamentally trivial issue.”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign actually did follow conventions, Rosen explains, feeding the media a consistent diet of concrete policy pledges supported by evidence. The candidate and her campaign manager were on the same page, as the media and Democratic voters expected them to be.

Trump’s campaign, however, did not have a philosophy to defend and did not need facts to support policy talking points, because it had dispensed with such frivolities. It favored fabrications, vague threats, conspiracy theories, and bigotry. Trump’s campaign created its own reality, using its own facts, and purposefully presented conflicting and confusing views on issues like immigration.

In the past, when both parties have operated like Clinton’s campaign did in 2016, political journalists knew what to do. They had a process. Here’s what it looked like, according to Rosen: In their “mental picture” of what it means to do political journalism, reporters play “chronicler, questioner, and referee” between parties whose warring philosophies are ultimately dissected in the articles produced. And so, historically, these journalists worked their sources, meeting with political insiders to get the inside story from both campaigns. This has created a cozy role for media outlets, Rosen says; the framework allows editors to efficiently plan election coverage and makes life easier for publishers “hoping to alienate as few people as possible.”

But Trump’s approach undermined the process. Rosen cites philosopher Jason Stanley’s pre-election New York Times essay about Trump and authoritarianism, which argues that “fact checking Trump in a way missed the point. Trump was not trying to make reference to reality in what he said to win votes. He was trying to substitute ‘his’ reality for the one depicted in news reports.”

Trump also convinced supporters the press dealt in lies. Over the past year, the media’s legitimacy has been undermined in the eyes of Trump voters, and its voice overpowered by the legions who took to social media with their own counterfactual messages, which reverberated within personalized information bubbles. (Facebook’s outsized role in this election—through its news feed algorithms, trending box, public service announcements and highly targeted advertising—has raised concerns from media and behavioral psychology experts alike.) In this context, naming the flaws in Trump’s statements only seemed to support his claims of media bias.

In other words, the political world was warped beyond anything the media had previously encountered.

On the other hand, this could—and maybe should—have been expected. Rosen traces the cultural shift that laid the groundwork for Trump’s success to the George W. Bush administration and its rejection of so-called “reality-based communities,” which, in a conversation with to New York Times writer Ron Suskind, one senior advisor to Bush defined as those who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Bush’s White House, too, proved its power by spinning its own truths. Not only did the vast majority of major media outlets miss the real story when Bush made a case, using invented pretexts, for invading Iraq, but it “failed to flag the retreat from empiricism as a pattern that could replicate,” says Rosen.

That pattern re-emerged with Trump, but on a much larger scale. The resulting flaws in the media’s account of  Trump’s rise was inevitable, because, as Rosen wrote at the end of September, “asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press.” The media did not know how to fully explore or explain the appeal of Trump’s fictions while also continuing to cover the Clinton campaign in the traditional fashion. Rosen wrote:

“How can you say to readers: ‘These people live in a different reality than we do’… and leave it there? That is not the kind of story you can drop on our doorsteps and walk away from. It’s describing a rupture in the body politic, a tear in the space-time continuum that lies behind political journalism. I don’t think the editors understood what they were doing. But even today they would find this criticism baffling. ‘We reported what people in this movement believe. Accurately! What’s your problem?’”

Journalists needed to retool their methods for reporting and storytelling, Rosen insisted. It wouldn’t be easy, but, “they will have to find a style of coverage as irregular as Trump’s political style. There are powerful forces working against this. But if they don’t try, they are likely to regret it for the rest of their careers.”

They didn’t manage this before Election Day, but now they’ll have four years to figure something out.