Monday, February 04, 2019


I'm gobsmacked and overwhelmed by the news coming out of Virginia, so instead I'd like to address Jill Abramson's Washington Post op-ed "Will the Media Ever Figure Out How to Cover Trump?," because her critique suggests to me that she hasn't figured out how Trump -- or, more specifically, Trump's base -- should be covered.

Abramson writes:
The news media’s collective shock that Donald Trump won in 2016 was evidence of how out of touch most reporters were with the less affluent, less educated, rural parts of the country, where white voter rage galvanized into votes that made him the 45th president. In the days after the election, there was anguished self-examination in many newsrooms and vows to cover the parts of the United States that had been mistakenly overlooked.

But more than two years later, the same question bedevils journalism: Can our tribe cover their tribe?

The president does have his amen corner on right-wing talk radio, Fox News and Breitbart, megaphones that help keep his base rock solid and reticulate his warped version of the facts and truth. But in the rest of the news media, there is little evidence that reporters have fulfilled their pledge to report on and reflect the interests and values of the people who voted for him. There have been some good dispatches from the heartland, but too often what is published amounts to the proverbial “toe touch in Appalachia.”
She contrasts the standard journalistic practice with what a reportorial legend once did:
I was powerfully moved by a recent article in the New Yorker about journalism by LBJ biographer Robert Caro. He described how he couldn’t really understand President Lyndon B. Johnson’s native Texas Hill Country until he and his wife actually moved there from New York City for three years. The locals had a derisive name for the reporters who parachuted in and out: “portable journalists.” There are great reporters who defy this description.
But are those really the only alternatives -- ignore the heartlanders, parachute into their world and write inadequately about them, or live in their world for years until you've gone native?

I'm reminded of a probably apocryphal story about Dustin Hoffman, who's a devotee of the Method, and Laurence Olivier, who wasn't:
When Dustin Hoffman was on set for Marathon Man, one scene in particular called for his character to appear as if he suffered from extreme exhaustion. To simulate this, Hoffman stayed up for three days straight ... to which costar Laurence Olivier responded, “My dear boy, have you tried acting?”
Abramson suggests that it's impossible for an upscale, coast-based journalist to write about people from Middle America without a deep, prolonged immersion in their world. You can understand why shr might believe this. Abramson's old paper, The New York Times, arguably ignored the people of Trump country before the 2016 election. Since then, it has romanticized them, portraying them in story after story as raw, elemental Real Americans whose perspective on Trump is more valid than whatever cosseted elitists like us (and the reporters themselves) think.

Reporters shouldn't automatically feel contempt for people who aren't like them -- but they also shouldn't portray them as noble savages. Olivier, it's said, couldn't understand why Dustin Hoffman couldn't portray fatigue without immersing himself in it. I don't understand why it's necessary to embed in a Pennsylvania mining town for years in order to treat the residents with the respect they deserve -- no more and no less.

Respect means not rejecting them out of hand and not treating them as American oracles. They're just people. They're culturally different from the reporters covering them, but reporters ought to be capable of seeing them as people without establishing residence in their communities. Seeing them as people would mean honoring their struggles and frankly acknowledging their shortcomings.

Maybe it's not easy, but it shouldn't be impossible.

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