What is the role of the press in U.S. politics? How did it do during the 2016 presidential election? How is it doing covering President Trump?
These are some of the questions that a panel of experienced reporters attempted to answer during The New Yorker Festival’s “All The President’s Reporters” panel.
The panel, which included Jo Becker, from The New York Times, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame and now at Vanity Fair and CNN, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, and Greg Miller, of the Washington Post, had a lively discussion with the moderation of David Rohde, the news director of the thenewyorker.com.
The discussion moved me to do something I rarely do at events like these, and that is get up and pose a question to the panel. In their conversation, they covered Russian interference in the election, the ideological divisions in the country, and the repeated assaults on the new media by Donald Trump, who nevertheless remains very concerned about his coverage.
David Rohde asked whether or not the media had somehow failed in its coverage of Donald Trump and of the presidential election as a whole.
Jo Becker said that the media had covered things about Donald Trump’s business dealings and personal scandals but that none of it seemed to matter very much. Greg Miller added that it seemed that the media had been used as a tool of the “Russian operation” and that there were limits to what the media could be expected to report in real time.
Carl Bernstein made an important point, which was that “I don’t think it is our job to keep Donald Trump from being president of the United States or to see that he has has a premature exit. Our job is to learn what the hell is going on.”
But in all of this, whether it is a Russian attempt to influence the election, a divided electorate that searches for news that reinforces its preconceived notions, the discussion continued as though Hillary Clinton had not won the popular vote by 3 million votes. The idea of Russian hacking or people not learning about the scandals of Donald Trump start to fail when you consider that most of the people in the United States did not vote for him. Half of the people didn’t vote, and of those, fewer than half voted for him. Even among the quarter of the population that voted for Donald Trump, there was a significant group that voted for him strictly as a protest vote, those that voted for him because they thought Clinton would win regardless, and those that voted for him because he was the Republican, not because of the candidate himself.
I feel there is a condemnation of the American people based on an electoral system glitch. To her credit, Jo Becker did point out that Obama had been elected twice and that one of the things historians would need to grapple with is how the country could go from voting for him twice to electing Donald Trump.
While I believe that Carl Bernstein was correct that cable news gave Trump too much free airtime and that Jo Becker was right that Trump was not taken seriously enough, I do believe that in a country where he got less than 25 per cent of the vote and where this week 64 percent of the country says the United States in on the wrong track in a USA Today poll, we should not be too quick to say that Trump won thanks to some combination of American racism and Russian meddling. Our country is far more complicated and sophisticated than that. Our panel, as accomplished and distinguished as they were, and the rest of the press, should adjust their reporting to account for that complicated picture.