Four of the nation’s leading political reporters spoke to an overflowing crowd at the John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Colloquium on Politics and the Press on Saturday.
Titled “What Just Happened? Making Sense of the 2016 Election,” the talk featured reporters from The Washington Post, The New Yorker and Snapchat addressing the question of how Donald Trump won the election and how so many news readers—and writers—were blindsided by his victory.
Phil Bennett, Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Studies and Journalism moderated the discussion. Bennett is former Managing Editor of the Washington Post.
Peter Hamby, Head of News at Snapchat, said that many journalists live in a media echo chamber, making it difficult to realize that voters may not care about the things the media deemed important.
“The reason a lot of people don’t watch, appreciate, or respect the news is because you turn it on and it’s either irrelevant or not about the issues,” he said. “There’s never been access to more information than there is now. The problem is, the conversation on TV and on Twitter was about Donald Trump, Jr. tweeting a picture of Skittles.”
He also argued that television media outlets played a role in Trump’s rise, eschewing many of the norms that govern political coverage.
“As a former TV guy, TV was complicit and deeply guilty and made serious, grievous errors in putting Trump on TV without appropriate checks and questions,” he said. “They agreed to things they’d have never agreed to in previous campaigns.”
Citing a February comment from CBS Chairman Les Moonves that Donald Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s good for CBS,” Hamby claimed that the economic realities of journalism drove television news outlets to act in ways that benefitted their ratings.
Hamby said that while television was hugely influential in the election, executives have yet to come to terms with how new technologies have shaped political conversation.
“They no longer control the flow of information,” he said. “Conversations about the race were happening so far away: in subreddits, on Facebook, on Twitter, on GroupMe. They were happening in ways that we don’t comprehend because we’re on Twitter everyday and watching the same shows.”
Karen Tumulty, a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, also spoke about this disconnect.
She said that because no one had seen anything like Trump’s candidacy before, people didn’t know what to make of it.
“It seemed like every week he’d say or do something that would have been fatal,” she said. “Even the other 16 Republicans who were running for president thought he would implode at some point.”
One of Trump’s potential fatal missteps was the October release of a 2005 audio tape in which Trump could be heard making lewd comments about women.
David Fahrenthold, the Washington Post reporter who broke the Access Hollywood story, spoke about the process of uncovering and vetting the news.
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The DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy
The Zeidman Colloquium is sponsored by The DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. The DeWitt Wallace Center is Duke's hub for the study of journalism. The center is housed at Sanford, and they study the interaction between news media and policy. They also support watchdog and accountability reporting in the U.S. and around the world; and teach about the media’s role in democracy. Founded in 1973, the DeWitt Wallace Center (DWC) shares the Sanford School’s mission of teaching, research, and policy engagement, with the goal of putting knowledge in service to society. The DeWitt Wallace Center offers over 20 undergraduate and graduate courses designed to give students a thorough understanding of the principles and the practice of journalism.
“I did not go to work that day planning to write about Access Hollywood,” he said. “I got a call from a source about 11am, saw a video right away, and knew it was different.”
Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker, said he thought the Access Hollywood tape would end Trump’s chances of being elected.
As he began to talk to voters, though, he learned that Trump’s support was not fading.
“People told me, ‘There’s a lot I don’t agree with, but I will never support that woman,’” he said. “You generate enough bad feeling and doubt and uncertainty and fear around Hillary Clinton’s candidacy that you suppress that side.”
Osnos said that said that he thinks Trump’s voters will be enraged if he fails to fulfill his campaign promises.
“Nobody is more angry and bitter than when they are found to worship a false idol,” he said. “I think they’re going to end up incredibly furious. This guy promised a set of ideas that were utterly implausible.”
Peter Hamby said that the fact that so many pundits predicted the race incorrectly showed that reporters had more work to do.
“We talk a lot about how Hillary Clinton didn’t spend enough time in Wisconsin or Michigan,” he said. “You know who else didn’t? Pollsters. Reporters.”
Evan Osnos of The New Yorker agreed.
“We were wrong, and we were wrong, and we were wrong,” he said.