Media need a recovery plan to help foster the nation’s convalescence

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, February 25, 2021


The mainstream news media may feel vindicated by Donald Trump’s fall, and why shouldn’t they? No U.S. leader ever attacked so venomously and routinely the values, competence, and honesty of the working press and so persistently implored his supporters to regard journalists with hatred.

But with impeachment over, the media’s future depends on understanding just how weakened Trump’s rule has left them and how formidable the challenge is that they now face: Winning the respect, if not the affection, of the enormous swath of the population that exuberantly reviles them.

To reach that goal, the news media must reclaim the role they are supposed to play: Reporting on the conditions that define, obstruct, or enrich the lives of the people they exist to serve, and exposing those realities in ways that illuminate and empower. There is no better way to clear the debris left by years of politically-inspired derision than to deliver journalism that actually matters to people.

But first, to make possible the recovery efforts they urgently need to undertake the national media must shed a toxic legacy from the Trump years: The othering of his followers, their treatment as alien and inferior. It’s no exaggeration to say that the media have defaulted to considering the 74 million people who voted for Donald Trump and his allies not as a public, but as a problem: They are the Trump Base, portrayed as a baffling, politically reactionary mass defined by its pathologies—ignorance, malignant racism, free-floating anger, and susceptibility to demagoguery.

The othering that is rightly deplored in the deeply flawed journalism to which an overwhelmingly White press has subjected people of color through the present day is a feature of coverage of other marginalized groups too, in this case the working class, U.S.-born, church-going, high school-educated, middle-class provincial Whites who remain the core of Trump’s support. For all the hand-wringing among journalists over their astonishment at Trump’s 2016 electoral win, and for all the vows they made, as they managed their hangovers, to get acquainted with the mass of voters who rallied to him, the media show few indications that they know his people any better now than they did then.

That estrangement was apparent in the coverage of the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion, which comprised hours of airtime that included practically no comment from the leadership of the insurgents, as if the event was a natural disaster rather than a political intervention that was planned and led. It seemed clear the national press was stunningly unsourced when it came to reporting on the organizational spadework behind this spectacular event, let alone what the rioters actually thought they would achieve. Only now, as the findings of law enforcement surface, are the rest of us learning what was behind the attack. We shouldn’t have to rely on cops when we have reporters.

But that reporting void wasn’t surprising. After all, these were Trumpies, and for the media there was no need to talk to them. It was safe to assume the people who stormed the Congress were simply following their leader, who had summoned them to a mission suited to their fact-free loyalties, autocratic yearnings, propensity to violence, stunted intellects, and moral deficiencies. So if there was method to the madness it went unexplored.

But despising Trump’s America, treating them as deranged cultists, is no way to foster the recovery that the country—and the media—must begin. It doesn’t lead to journalism that examines and explicates their anger which, no matter how egregiously it’s exploited, begins as a genuine response to a sense of beleaguerment and desperation. The media need not present the beliefs of Trump supporters sympathetically in order to take their lives seriously, and that is essential if journalists are going to get back to the arduous and indispensable work of shedding light on common problems and enabling civic engagement to surmount them. That won’t happen if nearly half the country is disregarded.

The media have plenty to do, now that palace psychodrama no longer disrupts and distracts. There’s no shortage of urgent realities for reporters to report that are of intense concern to everybody, no matter how they voted: the adequacy and fairness of the country’s pandemic response and guidance on one’s own survival prospects; mobilization over climate change; social stresses—beyond the political polarization that is lavished with attention—such as the financial drought much of the Boomer generation is approaching and the country’s endangered progress toward racial justice; and the galloping inequalities of wealth and income that have trampled Trump voters just as badly as most everybody else.

Then there are the problems that speak with special resonance because they manifest in the communities where we live and exemplify the values and priorities we actually choose to live by. Here the enfeeblement of local and regional news media has been acutely harmful to the public awareness that enables civic life to flourish. Fortunately, over the past several years philanthropic money has surged into reviving local journalism. Some new initiatives are the work of progressives acting in concert with under-represented people; others have specialty focuses or are targeted extensions of national media, and still others are homegrown attempts to recreate the range of coverage of the traditional local paper, historically the town crier for a community’s public agenda. The destruction of the regional press—the spine of the U.S. news media—is well advanced, but a response is gathering momentum, and cautious hope is warranted.

Still, broader success won’t happen without reconciliation. In that regard, the calming message President Biden offers—his pledge to serve his opponents as well as his supporters—has a precise counterpart in the strategy the news media need to pursue to regain the ground lost during a time of nonstop derision from the country’s most charismatic political performer. This is a time of convalescence, and we may yet be reminded that the chronicle of threats and opportunities that news media compile has the power to unify the public gaze and nudge us all toward the rediscovery of real common purpose.

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