How did the American media get it so wrong? Why were the U.S. papers, TV networks and polls so off in their near-unanimous forecasts that Hillary Clinton would win ― some believed by carrying almost every state? Those are questions about the latest U.S. presidential election that media people and just about everyone else will be debating forever.
First, let's be realistic. The media and polls did not get it all wrong. After all the ballots were counted, Clinton came out way ahead ― 64.4 million for her versus 62.3 million for Trump. Under the peculiar American system, however, Trump won the presidential election by carrying swing states that Democrats had almost assumed they would win ― Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the heart of the "rust belt" devastated by factory shutdowns.
By now everybody knows why these states counted for so much ― the election is decided by an Electoral College. The number of electoral votes for each state is computed by adding up its members in the House of Representatives, that is the lower house of the Congress, as determined by population, plus the two senators for every state in the Senate or upper house. It's winner-take-all ― a presidential candidate wins all the electoral votes of a state regardless of how narrow the margin. (Washington DC, the capital district, is an anomaly ― it's got three electoral votes though no senators and one representative ― a delegate with no voting rights in Congress. DC always goes Democratic by 9 to 1.)
Adding to the media defense, Clinton's margin in the popular vote was way ahead of that of the four other elections in which the victor has won fewer votes. The last time that happened, Al Gore got 500,000 more votes than the winner, George W. Bush, in 2000. Ok, so why the huge disparity in Clinton's case? The answer is she cleaned up in the northeast, notably New York State, and in the west, notably California. The justification for the electoral college is that the flyover states, seen mostly from the air as we fly over them, would be overwhelmed by the east and west coasts. By carrying most of the flyover states, albeit by narrow margins, Trump racked up at least 290 electoral votes with 270 needed to win a majority in the Electoral College.
Still, how or why did the media and pollsters so underestimate the popularity of Trumpism. For one thing, they view these flyover states as hinterlands that they avoid except when covering elections and disasters ― tornadoes, floods and fires. The New York Times may send reporters around to see what people are saying, but their reports are patronizing and episodic. The joke is that these states, to Times correspondents, are like foreign countries to which they need visas to gain entry. The networks might seem a little more broadly based, but they're headquartered in New York and heavily influenced by the liberal environment of New York and Washington with a bow toward the rest of the country.
The media was also biased by the nature of the commentary in the liberal media, notably The New York Times and Washington Post. It's fine to say reporters and opinion writers are different – the former reporting "just the facts," the latter sounding off, but the Times in particular specialized in stories dumping on Trump from just about every angle. Times' columnists for their part blew, strummed and banged away like an orchestra. Ok, they no doubt weren't coordinating with one another, but the din of their instruments was deafening. Often, you'd see three or four columns and editorials a day flaying Trump, often wittily and breezily.
Sold everywhere in print and digitally, the Times influenced conservative and centrist thinking as well as dedicated liberals. They may not have accepted all they read at face value, but who would have imagined Trump could round up the requisite electoral votes despite the cascade of criticism? And what Times reporter, getting "the mood" of the rust belt, would not be influenced by such a torrent of facts and opinions in his or her own paper A writer won points at the Times by showing Trump's failures and inconsistencies and stupidity, not by assessing what people were really thinking. The Washington Post, sold mainly in and around DC, followed a similar line – though maybe a little less blatantly.
It would be nice to believe, in future elections, American papers and networks will listen much more closely to the mood of the people of regions they rarely cover adequately. Don't count on it, though. Sure, they'll be out and about, talking to "ordinary people," but the nature of the invective against Trump in the Times and Post, even now, suggests that he and his team are in for a beating from day one of the Trump presidency. All of which should make for fun, reading ― if not always for fair journalism.
Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, has been covering the battles for power on the Korean Peninsula for decades. He's at email@example.com.