This week has seen a good deal of navel-gazing by the Fourth Estate. If you want to know what went wrong in journalism in 2016, Harvard’s traditional election postmortem offered a clue.
In addition to senior campaign staffers from each side — who fought openly when Hillary Clinton’s team behaved like sore losers — the conference at the Institute of Politics included many journalists — but none from Breitbart News, which was one of the few outlets to report accurately what was going on in 2016.
(Executive Chairman Stephen K. Bannon was included — though he did not attend — because of his role as the Trump campaign’s CEO, not his media role. Bannon, an incoming White House adviser, is currently on leave from Breitbart News.)
Journalists recognize they have a problem — but they refuse to see what it is, or how to fix it. CNN’s Brian Stelter, for one, delivered a heartfelt call for soul-searching on morning — then smeared Breitbart News as “white nationalist” that evening.
Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism also published a self-diagnostic anthology, which has a few insights but is still remarkably clueless. Many of the media contributors seem to think the problem in 2016 was political, not professional — i.e. not that they were so wrong about what was happening, but that the wrong outcome took place despite their strenuous efforts.
I spent a good deal of time this year thinking about what was wrong with journalism. I had a chance to observe the front rank of the field up close, as I joined the Trump traveling press corps. And I made a few mistakes myself. My conclusions follow.
1. Hello: This is not a new problem. The media have been functioning as an arm of the Democratic Party for several years. Some are only willing to acknowledge it now because Trump’s win was such shock to them, and because many made their partisan loyalties explicit in 2016. But the profession has been corrupt for a long time, and remains so, from top to bottom.
2. Journalists ignored the basics. Who, What, When, Where, Why, How. Journalists were far too busy telling their audience what to think about about the candidates and the issues than to bother with telling them what was actually going on. Not one of the high-minded essays in the Nieman anthology grasps this point. Journalists neglected the basics in favor of punditry.
3. Journalists were blinded by hate. After Trump’s final rally in New Hampshire, the country’s elite journalists were more interested in whether Tom Brady had really voted for Trump or Bill Belichick had really written him a letter than in the fact that Trump had just made an explicit appeal to working-class voters, something you almost never see Republicans do. They hated Trump so much that they simply could not listen to what he was saying except to find gaffes with which to punish him.
4. Elitism. Journalists approached this election like a medieval guild defending their place among the privileged. They failed to notice that technological advances have enabled virtually anyone to compete with them, whether as “citizen journalists” or itinerant social media participants. That should have driven professional journalists to prove their skill. Instead, they sulked. They mocked their audience without realizing that their audience now has alternative outlets, and the means to fight back.
5. Little real diversity. Journalists wrote often about the number of white people at Trump rallies. Ironically, the traveling press corps was almost entirely white, with a few exceptions. There was more racial diversity in the crowds than in the media pen. The most important kind of diversity goes beyond color, but neither the media nor the academy wants to know that.
6. Journalists are poor political operators. Once, perhaps, a columnist could hope to affect political outcomes by planting a particular idea, attacking the right target, or appealing to the right people. When I look back at my own mistakes from 2016, my worst was thinking that there was room for compromise between the Trump campaign and its opponents in NeverTrump. Neither side had much interest in finding common ground. It would have been better just to report that than to try to solve it.
7. The media are terrible at predictions. This is one point that some of the Neiman contributors understand. Journalists kept saying there was no chance Trump could win. Now they look like fools. We in the conservative media learned our lesson in 2012. The difference is we remembered it. Mainstream journalists failed to predict 2014, and had learned nothing by 2016.
8. The media lost interest in the story. Journalists had convinced each other that Trump had no chance of winning (see #7), so they treated the final weeks of the campaign like a death march, rather than high drama. Not even commercial self-interest could motivate the media to describe the contest as the exciting historical clash that it was. They said it was over. Too soon.
9. Laziness. Journalists borrow too many words, ideas, and labels from each other without thinking. The sort of intellectual vacuity that allows the media to attach a phrase like “white nationalist” to Breitbart News — all of a sudden, after the election — is not only defamatory, but also reinforces the barrier between the media and the reality beyond. In addition, the social media temptation has also become an obsession: many journalists spend too much time on Twitter and too little time working.
10. The cone of silence. The rule in the traveling press corps was that everything that was said, and even everything that happened, among the journalists was off the record. It’s a new rule — David Halberstam’s The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, about the 1968 campaign, would not have been a classic without press anecdotes, which he reported discreetly but powerfully. There’s a value to keeping some things off the record — even journalists need privacy — but the fact is that media memes are manufactured in that cone of silence, including false ones. The public has a right to know that, and to know how.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.