When something as shocking and anguishing as Tuesday night’s election happens, it’s sure to be felt as a massive failure of communications. Why didn’t the ignorant know better? we wonder. How could they refuse to know better? Could it have been all those “false equivalencies” the media were peddling—the ones we saw through in a second yet were so impenetrable to anybody who wasn’t us?
When others act in ways we can’t comprehend, we tell ourselves they didn’t get it. It wasn’t communicated clearly enough or maybe the media didn’t communicate it at all. Someone’s to blame
Just before the election, I spent a couple days exchanging emails with a high school classmate I was once nuts about who believed Trump would shake things up nicely and Hillary belonged in jail. I was diplomatic in tone, spot-on in analysis, and I tore her equivalencies to shreds. My communications skills were beyond reproach. She didn’t buy a word I said.
Then again, why didn’t we know better? Surely there were signs we should have seen and picked up on and who do we blame for not seeing them? There always are signs, obvious later. Someone on MSNBC kept coming back to a sea of Trump yard signs that had showed up across rural America, a clear portent to any reporter with eyes to see—meaning any reporter who actually left the campaign trail for the hinterlands, discovered the signs, and talked to the people who put them there, finding out from voters instead of polls what voters were thinking.
Someone else said she thought the last week of the Clinton campaign was most odd, a series of quiet rallies in small settings leading up to the ultimate blowout in Philadelphia. In retrospect that seemed delusional to her, a fatal misreading of what the race should have been telling Clinton about how at-risk it was. But Clinton didn’t see it then and the reporter didn’t quite see it either.
There’s something endlessly fascinating about how blind we can be. It’s impossible even today to read about Germany in the 1930s and not marvel, Why didn’t they see what was coming? Late Tuesday night—make that early Wednesday morning—I read two superb laments posted online by David Remnick of the New Yorker and Eric Zorn of the Tribune. If I hadn’t known the authors I’d have wondered, why didn’t they say these things a long time ago, when it would have mattered? But of course they had said these things, and it hadn’t mattered enough.
The astonishing thing about these laments is that Remnick and Zorn were composed enough to write them, at a time I couldn’t have strung five words together. “I have serious doubts that the American experiment will survive [Trump’s] reign,” wrote Zorn. Remnick, whose piece was called “An American Tragedy,” got into what he sees as a national crisis of communications. “On Facebook, articles in the traditional, fact-based press look the same as articles from the conspiratorial alt-right media. Spokesmen for the unspeakable now have access to huge audiences,” he wrote, “This was the cauldron, with so much misogynistic language, that helped to demean and destroy Clinton. The alt-right press was the purveyor of constant lies, propaganda, and conspiracy theories that Trump used as the oxygen of his campaign.”
No one’s more likely to fear journalism is doing everything wrong than a journalist. We are strange people at the edge of great events who lean forward into them with a sixth sense they can be altered by our regard. If they are we’ve failed; if they aren’t—the conclusion of a lot of journalists after the defeat of Hillary Clinton—we’ve also failed. In Wednesday’s New York Times, new media columnist John Herrman thought about that failure. He argued that the election caught the media at the worst possible moment—a time when the mainstream media no longer commanded the attention and trust of their old audiences, but new media hadn’t grown up yet. The result—”an election experienced from the bottom of a media trough,” with “fake news” running wild.
But Herrman thinks the media industry is already figuring things out: “The proliferation of fake news links on Facebook, in other words, is probably a problem that will be forgotten before it is fixed.”
Reading this I entertained the sweet thought that four years from now no one will be planting wacky ideas in my old friend’s head—like those techies who program android hosts to shoot up the saloon in Westworld. So she’ll succumb to reason. Yet Herrman’s prognostication doesn’t make me particularly hopeful. Failure to communicate is an ancient and inevitable regret the morning after: if only whatever divided us had been better reported. Or discussed. Or repudiated. But I don’t think our divides divide us simply because the media let us down or we don’t talk something through. I blame the implacable human attitude that I don’t want to agree with you so I won’t.