American media is part of the Rust Belt.
So why didn’t it see Trump coming?
There’s so much deconstruction of what went wrong with media coverage over the campaigns that it’s almost impossible to move. The self-immolation is broad and vocal—whether you believe (like Heather Bryant) that newsrooms didn’t listen to Middle America, or you agree with Jeff Jarvis that the media, having made Donald Trump, didn’t go far enough in exposing him. It’s there even if you are taking a step back and looking at some of the proposed solutions, like those that Melody Kramer put forward, and it’s there even if you argue — as Gene Demby does—that the margins of winning and losing an election are actually so tight that it’s easy to over-read.
Whichever way you think, the question is basically the same:
“How did the media miss it? What didn’t we see? Why?”
And you know, the craziest thing to me is that it’s there, right there, in everybody’s face.
All the talk post-Trump has been about an ignored section of anxious, angry, group of workers who feel abandoned and cheated by globalization, betrayed by the elite. You know the story: the steel workers in Pennsylvania who are worried about their futures; the coal miners in Kentucky; the power plant staff in Ohio. You know, the much-discussed white working class.
This all seems true, and could explain plenty about how the media fucked up. That is except for the fact that, by most measures, journalists—particularly news journalists—have been living this same nightmare.
There are various counts of how many jobs have been lost in journalism over the past decade, but wherever you get your numbers from, the victims are legion: around 20% of the workforce was lost in 2007–2009 alone, and the in a decade the number of working reporters in America was slashed by 40% from 55,000 in 2005 to 33,000 in 2015. Barely a day goes by without the news of some newspaper closure, some bankruptcy or firesale, or some takeover bid by one of the few remaining mega-corporations in the news business.
Compare this to figures that suggest that around 8,000 coal miners have lost their jobs since 2008, or that 29% percent of power plant jobs were lost in the first five years of the Obama administration. Compare this to the auto industry collapse that hollowed out middle America but has rebounded (somewhat) since the financial crisis.
The industrial demise of the news industry suggests that the journalists are the Rust Belt.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few other similarities you can tick off one by one. Jobs that have diminishing levels of respect among the population at large; low-cost international competition that’s devalued the core product; new technologies that have up-ended inefficient old business models; older heartland workers being pushed out by younger, hungrier newcomers elsewhere who are willing to do a lot more for a lot less.
And remember too that journalism, for most of its history, hasn’t been a profession — it’s been a trade; a blue collar job that managed to elevate itself to white collar by attaching itself to the vestiges of the professional class.
American newspaper journalists are a predominantly white group that has been attacked by the forces of globalism, left behind by the march of technology, and abandoned by its core supporters. They are in the same predicament as the Rust Belt workers they couldn’t empathize with.
So why didn’t they see it?
I’m not sure what the real answer is, but there was one idea stuck in my mind. Perhaps (perhaps) it’s that the people who are left are happy they’ve survived?
Maybe the gutting of the news industry has been so broad that those who are left behind are either those who have benefitted from the expansion of new technologies—the nimble, the young, the lifelong learners—or those who have been isolated from its worst excesses—the newscasters or radio personalities who have moved away from the perils of newsprint, or moved into one of the diminishing number of managerial jobs. Maybe they’re suffering a kind of imbalance because they’re on the right side of the line (for now.)
Or maybe it’s something else: Pure ideology? Optimism? Youth? Naivety?
I don’t think any of these explain it all, but they’re places to explore. But I just can’t help wondering why an industry that’s been so devastated over the past decade couldn’t look in the mirror and see what the rest of America was feeling.