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A bad year for the news media

Fraser Smith Big

 

The end of the year demands up-or-down arrow reports on the various actors or important institutions in our society.

The winners and losers don’t usually include the press, which historically has been on the immune side of the equation.

Newspapers, which bought ink by the barrel, were the prime arbiters, deciding who did well and who did not.

This year’s sharp and generally unflattering focus on editors and reporters in the 2016 presidential race may  be unprecedented in the history of American newspapers.

The print press itself has been among the most stringent critics of its performance. The sting may be sharper since the newspaper industry finds itself pinned at the center of  a controversy about its role in the future of our democracy.

What will be the news platform of the future? Social media like Facebook and Twitter? It’s not likely to be, almost certainly will not be, ink on paper. But for now newspapers draw most of the criticism. Fair enough. The major national newspapers continue to set the standard for journalistic excellence, so they must accept the preponderance of criticism. And they do.

Some of the shortcomings were colossal. The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg says editors and reporters assumed historic presidential election patterns would hold.

They belatedly caught up with two or three pattern busters. Elites may have seen Donald Trump as a lying poseur, a candidate whose many disqualifiers would demolish  his campaign. Instead, they were almost part of his list of bona fides. Patterns  are one thing. But the race has to be run.

Hillary’s issues

These same editors and reporters (seen as a whole) continued to believe Hillary Clinton was the inevitable winner — in spite of the decades-long campaign to vilify and demonize her.

Her campaign acted as if she need not address the demonizing, allowing Trump to amplify the work done for him over a decade or more. If so, it was the press’s responsibility to report it. That’s what campaign coverage is all about. Her reluctance to hold press conferences was widely covered  And of course she won the popular vote by 2.8 billion votes — but fell short in the states where she should have been more worried about long-standing economic conditions where Trump turned despair his way.

Some efforts were made to understand why important electoral states were for Trump.  Belatedly. The Kentucky-born Ohio-raised  writer J.D. Vance did a better job by far in his book “Hillbilly Elegy.”  His family and his friends had been repeatedly  shorn of jobs and dignity.

Did the national or regional press see this as clearly as Vance? There was a time when newspapers would have done major series on the enduring plight of dislocated families. If done at all, takeouts of this kind were not done as preludes to the campaign.

Newsroom casualties

A dying press offered voters less help sorting things out in this campaign. Newspapers across the country, including no doubt in the key electoral college states, had fewer sources of information. There were 129 fewer newspapers in 2014 compared with 2009. The longer-term newsroom casualties were even more telling: Over 20 years, 20,000 newsroom jobs disappeared.

More was at stake here than this election.  More attention should have been paid to the pain and despair of people fading further and from the American Dream.

Among the many issues newspapers should consider now is the tendency to cover news at the margins. There is more commentary available than ever, yet the plight of the displaced worker deserved repeated attention. Newspapers have tended to say, we’ve covered that. What’s new?  ‘Gotta move on.  True, but staying with a calamity until action is taken used to be part of the game as well.

Newspapers have to take seriously the charge that newsmen and newswomen at the high end of the income scale didn’t feel the pain of many in the workforce. Polls are one thing and a good thing. But they don’t replace the wisdom or cab drivers and bartenders and men/women in the street.

I remember a report in one Ohio town where a voter said the polls showing a close race mystified him.

“I don’t know anyone who’s voting for Hillary,” he said.

Finally, as if the ground were not littered with other issues, newspapers have to worry about fake news and the even more worrisome loss of media credibility. More and more voters don’t believe what professional reporters and commentators put in front of them

Clinton’s program-heavy proposals fared poorly versus Trump’s promises and misstatements or lies — which the press did dismantle. And yet 63 million Americans voted for him.

Soul-searching is surely in order. Newspapers have never done a particularly good job of reporting on themselves. We didn’t think we had to. People could rail and fret. We were confident of our professionalism. Folks would just have to get over themselves. The First Amendment was our sword and  shield. Our professionalism, we thought, was our best defense.

Still true, but more transparency might help. In offering it, we might counter a little of the view that we had become a bit arrogant.

Worth thinking about. If we in the news business are to be worthy of our constitutional protections, we have to regain our voter audiences.

Otherwise, democracy’s on its own.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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