America selected Donald Trump to be the 45th president of the United States on Tuesday. While of a piece with the Republican Party's rapidly deteriorating character, he is a candidate who also plumbed new depths of racism and thuggery during his campaign. It's an astonishing upset, in the grimmest fashion; one that huge portions of the media and political establishment never saw coming.
The question many liberals will be asking now is, what happened? And one culprit that's already getting a lot of attention is the media — journalists, news outlets, the chattering class.
The charge comes in two flavors. The first says "all publicity is good publicity," and that Trump was artificially aided by a flood of coverage. The second version of the argument is more subtle: That while plenty of Trump's coverage was negative, the media often packaged that coverage in a larger context — particularly the obsessive coverage of Clinton's email scandal — that effectively "normalized" Trump's candidacy.
There are big problems with both versions.
The first is that both arguments simply assume a priori the media's power to shape public perceptions, and even voting behavior, on a mass scale. The second version of the argument in particular ascribes enormous power to extremely subtle decisions, like the relative distribution of coverage for different stories, the wording of headlines, and more.
But the existence of the media's great power is never actually demonstrated. To the extent that we can analyze actual data to answer the question, skepticism of the media's influence seems to be the best conclusion: While every candidates' polling in 2016 closely tracked their share of coverage, looking at the polls and coverage over time makes it exceedingly difficult to tease out any causal relationship — in Trump's case, his rise in the polls and his rise in coverage tracked almost perfectly. Which leaves a big question mark as to which came first, or gave rise to the other.
It's also worth noting that audiences for the major newspapers, TV shows, and magazines that focus on national-level coverage also tilt towards the affluent. A lot of media coverage is much more a matter of members of the upper class talking to the other members of the upper class than it is a matter of "the media" talking to voters as a whole.
Rather than assuming the media wields serious influence over voters, it seems more likely that the media is largely powerless over them.
Of course, pointing that out isn't the same thing as defending the media's behavior on the merits. And I don't think any such defense is really possible: Lots of media coverage is frivolous and amoral, chasing clicks at the expense of real journalism.
But saying this frivolousness gave us Trump also implicitly says that his voters only supported him out of ignorance.
This speaks to a key dispute that's emerged this election cycle, one that presents two different interpretations for Trump's rise. Is he purely the product of voter ignorance, incipient racism and misogyny, and a backlash against the recent gains of long-oppressed groups like women, immigrants, and African-Americans? Or is he also a backlash against very real failures in our social fabric; increasing inequality, dying towns, social dislocation, alienation, and a chronic lack of jobs, all overseen by a sclerotic elite amassing ever more power?
Assigning the media the majority of the blame for Trump's victory say it's option one. It attributes his rise to a failure to properly put down a set of toxic cultural trends, rather than to any set of material problems in our society that require some radical changes in who gets resources and support.
In so doing, the argument actually rubber-stamps an elitist understanding of the media's place and purpose, even as it critiques the media's behavior. It endorses the idea that reporters, journalists, and commentators are the parents, and voters are their children. It says reporters' only mistake was not taking seriously enough their duty to guide and mold their charges.
Assuming that is and should be the relationship between the media and the people is the first and most basic mistake here.