A Middle Finger to the Mainstream Media

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.


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So far in our reader series exploring the reasons why so many Americans voted for Donald Trump, we’ve heard from an array of perspectives:

Lindsey is another reader who is upset by what she sees as the media’s posture against Trump:

I’m a college-educated, female, lifelong Republican (who voted 3rd party this year), but I woke up the day after the election excited to see mea culpas from pop culture figures and mainstream media. “Finally,” I thought, “they are going to take responsibility for giving Trump a billion dollars of free exposure and for allowing Hillary to coast scrutiny-free through the primaries.”

Do you know what I found instead? A series of tone-deaf meltdowns and a barrage of more of the same insults that my people have heard so often that they have lost their meanings.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

I kept a running list of all of the snotty headlines I saw from the “balanced” mainstream media sites on Wednesday, to help explain to my future children why Trump supporters did not CARE what mainstream says. (Kudos to the WSJ bucking the trend: “‘Deplorables’ Rise Up to Reshape America.”) Try to read the following headlines from the perspective of a child who is 15 years removed from this week’s kerfuffle:

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Grief. Fear. Disturbing. Broken. Maniac. Disaster. Can you take a step back from nodding at those headlines to see their negative bias? If you can’t, here is a list of article topics I would have liked to see more of the day after the election, things I wish I could expect from responsible, fair-minded journalists:

  • Kellyanne Conway is the First Woman to Run a Victorious Presidential Campaign! Who is she? What else has she done?
  • Who was the previous immigrant First Lady?
  • Likely Donald Trump cabinet picks?
  • Likely Donald Trump Supreme Court picks?
  • Lame Duck Obama: What’s on the agenda?

The ultimate form of tolerance is hearing people say negative things about you and ignoring it. The ultimate form of confidence is hearing every celebrity and mainstream media outlet in the nation insult your values and still create enough cognitive dissonance to like them and buy their products. These are the two great virtues of the average Trump voter.

Disagree with Lindsey’s assessment here? Drop us a note and we’ll keep the debate going. Update from reader Bridgit:

While there are plenty of reasons to critique the media after this election, and I believe considered skepticism is an admirable quality, Lindsey’s commentary illustrates two problems facing this country. First, it is unfortunate that a college educated person cannot differentiate between opinion and news pieces. Of the eight headlines Lindsey supplies, only two are actual news, and the rest are commentary pieces.

Secondly, there is a complete lack of balance to her sources-the “mainstream” (read: “liberal”) media is far from the only guilty party here. There are plenty of excited, opinionated, uncritical headlines praising Trump from the “alternative” (read: “conservative”) media websites. I am hopeful Lindsey saved some Fox News headlines from Obama’s 2008 campaign and election to show her children? I clearly remember the cable network calling a fist bump between the Obamas a “terrorist fist jab.”

That’s nothing compared to the perpetual propaganda campaign by Sean Hannity on behalf of Trump this election cycle (even to the point where Fox News had to tell Hannity to stop appearing in more campaign ads for Trump). One estimate—all the way back in August—put the dollar amount of free airtime for Trump on behalf of Hannity at $31 million. (All of the donations to the Clinton campaign by journalists combined didn’t even reach $400,000.) Here’s just one of Hannity’s propagandist efforts, from a “town hall” with Trump in Wisconsin—a traditionally solid blue state he ended up winning in the general election:

Update from another reader:

That clip you posted of mainstream journalists laughing at the prospect of Trump winning the nomination—let alone the presidency—made me think of this legendary act of media smugness, from The Huffington Post:

After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.

I noticed that one of the bylines on that announcement is Ryan Grimm, who days before the election went after Nate Silver for “unskewing polls—all of them—in favor of Donald Trump”:

By monkeying around with the numbers like this, Silver is making a mockery of the very forecasting industry that he popularized. [...] I get why Silver wants to hedge. It’s not easy to sit here and tell you that Clinton has a 98 percent chance of winning. Everything inside us screams out that life is too full of uncertainty, that being so sure is just a fantasy. But that’s what the numbers say. What is the point of all the data entry, all the math, all the modeling, if when the moment of truth comes we throw our hands up and say, hey, anything can happen. If that’s how we feel, let’s scrap the entire political forecasting industry.

Let’s indeed.

Here’s Robert, a reader in Seattle, with another critique of the media, this time from the perspective of a Sanders supporter (“In both foresight and hindsight, Sanders would have been the candidate the country actually wanted most”—defeating Trump). Robert continues with the kind of impassioned and deft criticism of elites that demonstrates how much of a crossover election this really was:

The “liberal” media, as usual, being corporate-owned, is focusing on the trashy side of Trump support rather than take on the corporatist control of our government (and media) which both informed progressives and a large portion of Trump voters see as an existential threat.

Why is the analysis seeming to be summed up as, “Gee, there sure are a lot of racists in here”? Racism is a real and significant problem, but it is not THE fundamental problem. Clinton lost because she epitomizes corrupt corporatist control of government. While the elite control the parties and the government, they will use racism, sexism, homophobia, issues of religion and any and everything else available to divide the public.  

We are reacting in an oppositional way because we are allowing the corporate media to focus our attention away from the problem. We should be reaching out to our conservatively oriented brothers and sisters who also understand that the working class should be ascendant and not in decline. Who understand that our democracy should represent the people and not the elite.

That is absolutely critical moving ahead. When people (read: angry, white, socially conservative, working-class people) are secure in their jobs and health and future, the negative ’isms tend to fall by the wayside. Those people want stronger Social Security, just like progressives. But their establishment Republican Party has always pushed strongly against that. These people are tired of the establishment. The GOP establishment will probably retain the upper hand and control the agenda in Congress. That will end up alienating the white working-class Trump voters yet again.

It is critical that people of good will set the agenda in the Democratic Party—or another one if control of the Democratic Party is irredeemably corporatist—to accommodate and empower the overwhelming anti-corporatist sentiment of the vast majority of the people. To put it succinctly, the Democratic Party has to eject corporatists, Blue Dogs, and third-way neocons and genuinely reflect working-class people’s (low and middle income) interests as the number-one priority, or they will continue to be humiliated, as they have been by losses to W and now even more pathetically to Trump.

Progressives need to wake up and clearly understand that a Trump victory is a huge opportunity. It means that there is awareness among conservative working-class whites that elite control is against their interests, same as informed progressives are aware. Those are our friends in finally throwing off the yoke of corporate rule. Let’s make our movement the rational and coherent and focused and aggressive one against corporate hegemony and for democracy, that they will see as a superior alternative to Trumpism, in spite of their misgivings about the liberal social stuff. Let’s frame the issue so it’s not about “big” government but “corrupt” government.

This is a huge opportunity, despite the pain and destruction we will have to endure under Republican rule. In four years we could see real solid progressives representing the vast working middle and poor class. Get to work.

Update from Lindsey:

Thanks for the edits and the publication, Chris. Your reader Bridgit raised a few good points in her critique of my letter, and I would like to rebut them:

Bridgit, I actually agree with you. Fox News delves into short-sighted, resentful opinion pieces about Obama too often and for that reason, I refuse to watch it ... just like I refuse to watch, say, The Rachel Maddow Show.

The title of this series is, “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?,” and I hope you can look at the five story suggestions that I, as a conservative, would have liked to have read on Wednesday, November 9th and see not Fox News-level histrionics, but neutral-to-positive coverage that simply colored in some finer details of what may happen as we transition from the Obama Administration to the Trump administration. This, to me, is what balanced journalism looks like, but I find we are far from it, even among the finest papers in the country.

I selected mostly opinion pieces because those are what newspapers' Facebook sites pushed to my feed the day after the election. [CB: Here’s just one piece of many about the awfulness of Facebook.] In my lone anecdotal observation, the ratio of negatively to positively (or neutrally) tinged headlines from the mainstream media was around 7:1 that day. I believe I have the right to expect a more balanced selection of opinions and stories about a President-elect from renowned national journalism sources, even if solely out of respect for the office of the President itself and for the peaceful transition of power we in this country are blessed to experience every four years.

Now, I prefer the smart journalism of The Washington Post, The Atlantic, the Times, the WSJ, etc. for my news, but many of my conservative compatriots, however, are not as patient as I am. Unfortunately, seeing so much negativity does not teach them a lesson; it simply encourages them to look elsewhere for their information. I will continue to use my “clicks as cash” and reward only the journalism that I perceive gives me the fullest coverage of any given issue and allows me to draw my own political conclusions. I hope you will, too.