The par­ti­san me­dia still doesn’t grasp ‘Trump Coun­try’

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - By GARY ABER­NATHY

Spe­cial To The Wash­ing­ton Post

HILLSBORO, Ohio — When Don­ald Trump won the pres­i­dency in Novem­ber 2016, it was a shock to poll­sters and most of the me­dia. Many of the na­tion’s most in­flu­en­tial news out­lets quickly ac­knowl­edged they had missed some­thing and pledged to re­con­fig­ure their ap­proach.

Some news­pa­pers, such as The Wash­ing­ton Post, ex­panded the voices on their ed­i­to­rial pages (thank you) and, for a while, cable news pro­duc­ers were reg­u­larly scour­ing the heart­land for a dif­fer­ent point of view. But by and large, the self-re­flec­tion and mid­dle Amer­ica out­reach from a re­port­ing stand­point di­min­ished, of­ten re­vert­ing to oc­ca­sional drop-ins and spe­cial as­sign­ments.

Two years into Trump’s pres­i­dency, the stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure of most of the me­dia has rep­re­sented a re­treat to pre-2016 bub­bles. Re­port­ing and anal­y­sis con­tinue to re­flect the lim­ited per­spec­tive of the left while the other half of Amer­ica is ig­nored or, worse, sub­jected to ridicule and lec­tur­ing. Amer­i­cans – left, right and mid­dle – re­main in des­per­ate need of a more com­pre­hen­sive and bal­anced in­for­ma­tional nar­ra­tive across the me­dia spec­trum.

Be­fore the sad pass­ing of for­mer pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush last week, the probe of spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller - os­ten­si­bly into al­leged Trump-Rus­sian col­lu­sion - again dom­i­nated the head­lines. A flurry of ac­tiv­ity and smoke sig­nals from the Mueller camp led to cries in the me­dia that the Trump pres­i­dency was about to re­ceive a dev­as­tat­ing, pos­si­bly ru­inous, blow.

In Trump strongholds across the na­tion, how­ever, the lat­est de­vel­op­ments were re­garded with no more alarm than the first al­le­ga­tions of col­lu­sion more than two years ago. As far as the pres­i­dent’s mil­lions of sup­port­ers are con­cerned, al­le­ga­tions of col­lu­sion with Rus­sia be­gan as po­lit­i­cal re­venge by the left for Trump’s im­po­lite in­ter­rup­tion of the as­cen­sion of the first fe­male pres­i­dent, and will end as po­lit­i­cal re­venge. They will see what­ever Mueller al­leges and doc­u­ments through the prism of the sus­pect way it be­gan.

The me­dia, out­side of Fox News, gives short shrift to Amer­i­cans who hold such views, or fo­cus their sto­ries on what they see as the on­go­ing ig­no­rance of Trump vot­ers, such as ex­am­i­na­tions of how the pres­i­dent’s poli­cies are harm­ful to the parts of the coun­try that sup­port him. It’s an­other way of call­ing them stupid, such as the fre­quent re­minders that vot­ers with col­lege de­grees sup­ported Hil­lary Clin­ton, while the less ed­u­cated voted for Trump.

Mean­while, over the week­end in south­ern Ohio, one of Trump’s strong­est re­gions, his sup­pos­edly duped sup­port­ers have no­ticed that gas prices hover just north of $2 a gal­lon (and, in my town, dip­ping a few cents south of that bench­mark), the un­em­ploy­ment rate re­mains his­tor­i­cally low, and eco­nomic fore­cast­ers “ex­pect Ohio shop­pers to in­crease hol­i­day spend­ing by 3.2 per­cent over last year, as con­sumer con­fi­dence con­tin­ues to soar,” ac­cord­ing to a Univer­sity of Cincin­nati Eco­nomics Cen­ter fore­cast.

The sim­ple in­hab­i­tants of Trump Coun­try see a pres­i­dent who keeps cam­paign prom­ises on court ap­point­ments, trade rene­go­ti­a­tions, il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion and dereg­u­la­tion. But they don’t know what’s good for them, ac­cord­ing to many re­porters and pun­dits. They even vote against their own in­ter­ests, the me­dia crit­ics claim, as though they can un­der­stand the in­ter­ests of Trump vot­ers from afar.

It is likely the me­dia dis­con­nect is about to get worse, with breath­less wall-to-wall cov­er­age of Mueller’s fi­nal re­port and Democrats tak­ing con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Jan­uary, re­plete with end­less hear­ings and even moves to­ward im­peach­ment. Ed­i­to­ri­als and col­umns will sug­gest or de­mand that Trump re­sign. But the at­tacks will merely so­lid­ify the pres­i­dent’s base against com­mon, long-stand­ing op­po­nents, and our po­lit­i­cal gulf will grow.

For his part, Trump is con­duct­ing a unique ex­per­i­ment in na­tional pol­i­tics, not nec­es­sar­ily a healthy one, but one that worked in 2016 and was ar­guably ef­fec­tive in his first midterm, when a pres­i­dent’s party typ­i­cally gets pum­meled.

Ear­lier this year, some an­a­lysts said a “blue wave” could re­sult in Democrats not only cap­tur­ing the House, but pos­si­bly the Se­nate, too. In­deed, Democrats picked up 40 seats to gain con­trol in the House, but the GOP ac­tu­ally gained two seats to ex­pand its Se­nate ma­jor­ity. Com­pare this to a real “red wave” in Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s first midterm in 2010, when the GOP picked up 63 seats in the House and six in the Se­nate, and it’s hard to ar­gue Trump’s 2018 strat­egy wasn’t ef­fec­tive – aided by neg­a­tive me­dia cov­er­age that un­wit­tingly helped Trump achieve his ob­jec­tive.

In a more per­fect me­dia world, straight re­port­ing from our most es­teemed news out­lets wouldn’t – couldn’t – be used to en­er­gize any­one’s base, Re­pub­li­can or Demo­crat. To­day, the me­dia too of­ten be­comes the story in­stead of merely re­port­ing the story. A less par­ti­san news me­dia could do much to help unify and heal Amer­ica.

Jour­nal­ists would be wellserved to re-en­gage over the next two years on the mis­sion they briefly pur­sued after the 2016 elec­tion, dis­cov­er­ing and cov­er­ing all of Amer­ica - ev­ery day, ev­ery week, with­out bias or judg­ment. If noth­ing else, such an en­deavor might help mit­i­gate in Novem­ber 2020 the shock that was on dis­play from re­porters and com­men­ta­tors when the re­sults trick­led in on Nov. 8, 2016 - an out­come they couldn’t com­pre­hend, and still, for the most part, don’t.

Aber­nathy, a con­tribut­ing colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Post, is a free­lance writer and for­mer news­pa­per ed­i­tor based in Hillsboro, Ohio. THE TIMES — Satur­day, De­cem­ber 8, 2018

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