Trump, voting and the media: Lessons from the midterms

BOSTON – One week after an historic midterm election with the highest turnout since 1966,, four veteran journalists  gathered at WGBH headquarters in Boston to draw the first lessons from the results and to examine an election that in several key states, including Georgia and Florida, is still too close to call.

Callie Crossley, host of Under the Radar with Callie Crossley on WGBH, Ben Bradlee Jr., journalist and author of The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America, and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk of PBS FRONTLINE, sat down with The GroundTruth Project founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief Charles Sennott to discuss the history behind and greater meaning of this election. The event, titled “The Ground Truth on the Midterms: Media and Lessons Learned in the Election,”  was hosted by WGBH and the New England chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization, a global network of young executives and business owners.

Bradlee, who was the editor for special projects and the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, highlighted the importance of understanding the perspective of Trump voters as a way to frame both the 2016 and 2018 elections:

Bradlee, whose recent book focused in on Luzerne County, PA, a district that historically voted Democratic but flipped to Trump in 2016, told the audience,  “It was important to analyze the ground truths of these people’s lives, because I think, writ large, they tell much of the story of why Trump got elected. And basically, they felt ignored, condescended to by the Democratic party, forgotten, when Trump used the phrase ‘the forgotten people’… that really resonated with them,”

“They say you fall in love with your therapist because he listens to you, and his voters felt that Trump listened to them whereas they felt Hillary did not,” he said.

The midterms were also marked by efforts of voter suppression in several states, including Florida, Georgia and North Dakota, which may tip the balance of several bitterly disputed gubernatorial and senate races. Restrictive voter identification laws are rolling back some of the gains the civil rights movement fought for in the 1960’s. Crossley contextualized these efforts by reminding the audience of the history of the battle for voting rights, pointing to the similarities to today’s disenfranchisement initiatives and how the political environment has allowed them to thrive:

“From ’65 on, even though there were partisan feelings about it as time went forward, there was never really a time where that both parties didn’t come together to support the re-issuing of it, the Voting Rights Act, because everybody believed voting rights was important for everyone. That started to change around 2016 or 2017, and now we are seeing a partisan divide,” said Crossley.

President Trump sits in the middle of all these political storylines. Kirk, who has followed Trump since his presidential campaign started, and who has directed eight films that take a deep look at the way the White House and those close to the president operate, painted a picture of why the midterms were such a priority:

“Why? Because he wants to get rid of of Bob Mueller. The fundamental, existential fear that drives Donald Trump every single day as he watches first Fox News and then on TiVo all the other morning news broadcasts, is Mueller and what Mueller knows, and whether they are coming for him,” he said.

Because Trump is a president who courts the spotlight and revels in shaping news, Sennott, who moderated the panel discussion, asked how the media failed in its coverage of him.

“We did not get out of our offices in Boston, New York, Washington, and LA to visit what is derisively called flyover country,” explained Bradlee. “And they know it, people out there know it.”

Part of Trump’s success in shaping the dialogue has been his ability to muddle facts and paint journalists as the enemy, according to Kirk. “There was a media report in the Washington Post asking ‘Who’s to blame for the hate in America’ they asked people. An equal number of people said Donald Trump, and an equal number of people said the press,” he said.

The animosity towards the press casts an immediate layer of doubt over anything that gets reported from a source they don’t like, even if its verifiable. “The Washington Post runs their fact checker column on Trump, and the’ve come up now on over six thousand false or misleading statements… When you point this out to the Trump constituency, they dismiss it. ‘Liberal bias!’,” said Bradlee. “This is where we are now in the country. We can’t even agree on what a fact is.”

For Crossley, the lack of representation of minorities in media also reinforces the bubbles which produced the narratives that shaped the coverage of the elections.

“Large swaths of our tribe [journalists] are not going to get that there is a whole look that they are missing… and if you drill down and look at the ranks of who’s covering, for I should say that I just did a report for the Ford Foundation on how many folks of color were actually covering these campaigns. Not many. Finally, on Beat the Press here a week a week ago I just highlighted a story that was done by a white reporter, headlined ‘Black Journalists Tried to Tell Us, We Should Have Listened.’”

The dysfunctional dynamics between the press and the White House, and the way journalistic institutions cover power also contribute to the press’ failures, according to Kirk.

“Big media, mass media, the Times, the Post, the Wall Street Journal, maybe the LA Times, the networks, don’t matter they way they used to matter even four years ago… If you think Donald Trump would like to put the ‘failing New York Times’ out of business, or the Washington Post out of business, that’s the last thing Donald Trump wants to do. He loves having them to wail on. He needs it as part of his deal,” Kirk added.

Kirk believes Trump knows exactly how to deal with the media to appeal to his base and rile up his critics, in a way no other president has done before. By bypassing the filters and distorting the traditional role of journalists, he is able to set the narrative.

“He has gone over us. We don’t really count, we are the whipping boys and girls, we are the punching bag, we are the thing he likes to complain about. He has this thing called Twitter. He’s his own publisher, he’s his own headline writer, he’s his own columnist, he’s his own everything. He has forty four million subscribers, but half of them are bots, but the other half are reporters.”