Missing the Biggest 2016 Story

The biggest political story of 2016 has been the rise of protest candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, but it was a phenomenon that the mainstream U.S. media largely missed or belittled, writes Neal Gabler.

By Neal Gabler

To their everlasting discredit, most of the MSM Big Feet, which is what the late journalist Richard Ben Cramer labeled the self-important, pontificating political reporters and pundits who dominate our press, got it all wrong about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

That is no small thing when you consider those two are the big stories this campaign season. It’s like a weatherman missing a Category Five hurricane. Of course, if a weatherman had blown that call, he probably would be fired. With pundits, getting it wrong never seems to matter.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in an MSNBC interview.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in an MSNBC interview.

To their credit, a few of those Big Feet have fessed up to their errors. New York Times columnist David Brooks, one of the most contrite, admitted that he realized he had been living in a bubble and had to get out in the country a bit more – “change the way I do my job,” is how he put it — to understand the American psyche.

Brooks is right that a huge disconnect exists between the people who report on our politics and the people who participate in them. My own sense is that by and large political journalists are a smug bunch, but they come by it naturally. If they seem to have contempt for us, it is because they really do have different experiences and inhabit a different world from the vast majority of their fellow Americans.

The most powerful of them – the ones you read, see and hear the most – constitute an elite so far removed that it could only understand us through the most aggressive sympathetic imagination. And that is not going to happen.

For one thing, journalists as a whole don’t look like the rest of America. “The typical U.S. journalist is a 41 year-old white male,” began a 2006 report by the Pew Research Center. When that report was updated in 2013, that typical journalist had become a 47 year-old white male, and the median age had risen not only at newspapers, where one might expect journalists to be aging along with their institution, but also at TV and radio stations and even online news sites.

David Brooks, conservative columnist at The New York Times.

David Brooks, conservative columnist at The New York Times.

As for the “white” part, journalists are overwhelmingly white in a nation that is increasingly diverse. Roughly 37 percent of Americans are minorities – a number that is growing rapidly. But by one study, minorities possessed only 22 percent of television journalism jobs, 13 percent of radio jobs and 13 percent of daily newspaper jobs.

Another study, by Indiana University, puts the percentage of minority-held journalism jobs much lower: 8.5 percent in 2013.

And as for the “male” part, while the number of women in journalism has been increasing ever so gradually, only one-third or so of full-time journalists are women – a fraction that has held more or less steady since the 1980s.

So here is the situation: A country that is increasingly younger, darker and half female is being reported on by a press corps that is older, whiter and more male. A gaping demographic gulf separates the press from the people – a gulf that undoubtedly affects the kinds of stories chosen and the way in which they are covered.

And there are other dredges that widen the gulf. Although journalists are obviously scattered throughout the country, they are not geographically apportioned equally. As one might expect, the news centers are New York, Washington and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles.

Of the 40,000 journalists in America, nearly a quarter live in these three areas, which is staggering when you think about it, and which certainly skews the news coverage. It also seems to confirm the familiar gripe of Middle America that media elites consider most of the country a fly-over from LA to NYC.

I love New York, and I am fond of Los Angeles and Washington, too, but I would hardly say that these three are microcosms of America. While all three rank highly among American cities in a rubric of racial and ethnic diversity, as determined in a study by Wallethub.com (NYC at #6; LA at #54 and DC at #78), all three are middling in income diversity (DC at #86; NYC at #157; LA at #183). That means most Big Feet reporters live in economically stratified cities, and many of them, almost by definition, live in the upper income strata.

The average reporter or correspondent doesn’t make very much money, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2015 – a little less than $50,000. By comparison, the mean household income in the U.S. generally is just about $52,000. But remember those BLS figures include all reporters and correspondents in the country, including folks in the boondocks where salaries are low. If you focus on the Big Three cities, the picture is somewhat different. The mean annual wage for a reporter in NY is $69,000, in the metro DC area $75,000, and in LA $48,000, actually under the general mean, which suggests how much the major news media outlets are really concentrated in the East.

MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews

MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews

Of course, those figures very likely underestimate what national correspondents earn, much less what the Big Feet – the reporters and pundits who wield the most influence – get. We don’t know exactly what their salaries are because they aren’t going to tell us, but we don’t have to exercise too much imagination to believe that they are extremely well paid, as in “one percent” well paid.

This matters because the widest gulf between the press and the people is probably not politics (over 50 percent of reporters call themselves independents, so they aren’t pitched at the political poles) or race or ethnicity or geography or even the culture that is forged by a combination of these – though all are important and all contribute to a press corps that neither resembles America nor, in many respects, thinks like most Americans.

Rather, the widest gulf may be economic. It is very possible that reporters – especially the Big Feet – dismissed Trump and Sanders because journalists couldn’t possibly fathom the deep, seething, often unspoken economic discontent that afflicts so many Americans and that has helped fuel both the Trump and Sanders movements. They couldn’t fathom it, perhaps, because they haven’t experienced it. I know because I have.

When you put their geographical proximity together with their class solidarity, it is entirely likely that MSM reporters will huddle, the way most geographic and economic cohorts do. They are more likely to see the same things, attend the same parties and events, mingle with the same people, draw on the same sources and send their children to the same schools, which adds up to their seeing the world in similar ways and reporting the same stories in the same ways.

In short, the MSM is not only an elite, it is a kind of economic and cultural clique. And that clique is not us.

So David Brooks can leave his bubble and attempt to find the soul of America. It is an admirable objective. But like all Big Feet, he would have to do more than change the way he does his job. To do it right, he would have to give up his home, his salary, his friends, his comfort, his inevitable sense of privilege. That is the only way he might truly feel, and thus fully comprehend, the pain and anger that is at the heart of this strange campaign year.

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA TImes Book Prizes, Time magazine‘s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today‘s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy. [This article originally appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/the-mainstream-medias-big-disconnect-why-they-dont-get-middle-america/ ]

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20 comments for “Missing the Biggest 2016 Story

  1. Annie
    April 25, 2016 at 11:08 am

    I certainly don’t think that journalists who belong to mainstream media get it wrong because they live in a cultural bubble different from the average Joe. They know what’s going on, but spin things the way the corporate world would like to have them spun, the way the corporate media would like things to be said, or not said. In other words they have chosen to enrich themselves at the expense of truth, and don’t give a good God damn about what journalism is suppose to be about, seeking truth.

    • Cheryl
      April 25, 2016 at 11:30 am

      Amen Annie

    • alexander
      April 25, 2016 at 3:25 pm

      Bingo , Annie.

      Well put.

    • Abbybwood
      April 25, 2016 at 6:04 pm

      You are absolutely right.

      In the case of Cenk Uygur who is with The Young Turks, recall he had a very popular slot at MSNBC and when he got called in to basically be fired (they DID offer him a very early Saturday morning slot for lots of money when no one would be watching), they told him, “We work for the Establishment and the Establishment in D.C. don’t like your TONE.”

      Cenk and Co. can no be seen daily on their own YouTube channel where he has an audience in the millions every day.

      Good for Cenk.

      • Cal
        April 27, 2016 at 1:28 pm

        ” “We work for the Establishment and the Establishment in D.C. don’t like your TONE.”

        For the establishment —and the special interest of the executives ( and their friends) who control the network programming.
        Consider the Orwellian portrayal of Israel in the MSM——that is Not from ‘ not knowing’ the real facts about I/P—-its their deliberate lying (propaganda) to the US public.

    • Gud
      April 26, 2016 at 8:52 pm

      “The best liar is the one who beleives his own lies.” I am sure there is a wide variety of self-awareness among journalists. Those, who are too attached to the truth, suffer from cognitive dissonance and are less likely to aspire, leave alone make it, to the top positions.

      Nothing in news media model says anything about seeking truth. Nor had it ever in the past. There was certainly more diversity of opinions however in the days of less concentration, wider geographic distribution, lower economy of scale reaching large audiences, and less understood propaganda techniques.

      The old journalism model is now collapsing in the age of the Internet. Thus far, this has only resulted in more pressure on journalists competing for reducing pool of reasonably-paid jobs.

      I appreciate ease of access to alternative sources, including consortsiumnews. Helps to form a more balanced picture of the world. Yet, despite lots of qualitty issues reporting, there seems to be a general dearth of constructive agenda. People get stuck on the current sordid state of affairs, implisitly contrasted again the illusionarry history of the “good old times.” The truth is, there never were those good old times. Some things might have been better, but certainly others were worse.

      The constructive question is can there be a new reporting industry constructed in such a way that truth reporting is systematically rewarded with profits and audiences?

    • Cal
      April 27, 2016 at 1:39 pm

      ” In other words they have chosen to enrich themselves at the expense of truth, and don’t give a good God damn about what journalism is suppose to be about, seeking truth.”

      That—–and their stupidity and when I say stupidity, I mean stupidity. Or maybe I should call it their ‘primitive mentality’.
      There is a reason the cannibal tribes disappeared –they were so primitively stupid they couldn’t figure out if they ate all their neighbors and didn’t allow for the replenishment of the non cannibal tribes they ate they would eventually run out of their food source.

      The US is run by cannibals.

  2. David Smith
    April 25, 2016 at 11:45 am

    Condoleeza Rice. Susan Rice. Margaret Thatcher. Hillary Clinton. Victoria Nudelman.

  3. Jeremy
    April 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    I agree that while the analysis is relevant, and true, it is incomplete without a discussion about the bigger picture. I am less concerned about the culture/income of David Brooks than I am about his boss’s boss, and the club he/she is in. It is clear that the MSM is just an “arm of the ruling class,” as Bernie Sanders recently said on The Young Turks. He goes on to point out that Comcast and Time Warner (who hold the debates) are big contributors to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, . So it is not so much that the MSM, the political class, and the other 1% are out of touch (although they are), they are merely all just working to satisfy the strongest instinct that drives each one of us…”self-preservation.” Just all trying to do what’s best for themselves and their family and make sure that what ever they have continues to be there for their grandchildren. When you look at it like this, there is no conspiracy necessary. Everyone just acting in their own best interest. If you are a winner in the status quo why would you ever want to question it or God forbid change it?

    • Annie
      April 25, 2016 at 7:00 pm

      Just imagine how many lives, how many families in the middle east would have been saved if the media didn’t provide the US government with a propaganda arm, and did some honest reporting.

      • Gud
        April 26, 2016 at 9:12 pm

        Somehow dobtful that more honest reporting alone would have done the trick. They would simply have to spend more effort fabricating a better pretext. The truth is ever since oil was discovered in the middle east it became of strategic importance to the West. This includes the middle class quality of life among other things. Just pull up the history of economic stagflashion of the 70s. Even with shale oil, due to “petrodollars” and Europe/Asia demand this continues to be so.

        It is hard to dispute the execution of the last wars was an incompetent corrupt unmitigated disaster. Yet, there is no simple instanteneous formula for Western disengagement either. Real solutions require patience and persistence in executing consistent agenda over many years. Something incredibly hard to master for short-term oriented and not particularly (officially) well-paid politicians.

  4. Bob Van Noy
    April 25, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    For me this so clearly goes back to WWII and the Federal Government combining unconventional warfare so seamlessly with conventional warring, and then the almost Natural coopting of the latter into the military industrial complex that exists today. When one adds Finance, Drugs, and the international Weapons business, and evermore limited natural resources; you have a very good description of our contemporary American Situation. Politicize all of this and you have, all war all of the time. It cannot continue however, and it won’t… Since a democratic decision to pursue this course was never spoken of, or voted on; the public is confused about how this aberration came to pass. We’re in much deeper trouble than we can know with no obviously easy exit.

    The press is a thinly disguised propaganda operation, with the notable exception of a very few individuals with real journalistic integrity and no microphone.

    • Ol' Hippy
      April 26, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      One of the better assessments of the big picture. The overall problem is so big it’s hard to find the best way to address it. Wars, economics, global warming, these are all parts of the problem and the press just tows their corporate line. We are all in a mess and the press still has to survive themselves which leaves a conundrum on what to report without pissing off their boss. There has to be a way to find solutions but the press most likely won’t be the ones to do it.

  5. April 25, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    What has been so disappointing is that the so called liberal blogosphere more or less repeated the fauts of the dying MSM.

    I mean when you see Howard Fineman over at Huffpo, and some of the people Josh Marshall hired, well, the Internet revolution was stillborn.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    April 25, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    If one picture is worth a thousand words, then watch the White House Correspondents’ DInner. Don’t get me wrong I throughly enjoy how industries can celebrate their accomplishments, but when I see these reporters rubbing elbows up against movie celebrities, and politician elitist, it makes me feel left out. When I use the word ‘me’ I don’t necessarily mean me as in myself. I mean the regular people. The problem with the executive class of today, is they only know how to employ the executive class. Real executive leaders would not just work hard to employ their peers of their own class, but work even extra harder at employing and engaging with the not so fortunate lower class people. The 1% class who are currently being abused the most in our country at this time are our men and women in uniform. While everyone is thanking these fine people for their service, I also feel that they are being ignored for their wearisome duties for the most part, and that is the sad part that keeps them going on one deployment after another. I don’t believe civilians mean for it to be this way, but then again we all live inside of some kind of bubble. Maybe on a given day, we should all take a walk in our neighbors shoes…what do you think?

  7. J Bookly
    April 25, 2016 at 10:40 pm

    Joe Tedesky: Yes, and empathy is a function of imagination. You have to see and feel yourself in that neighbor’s situation, even if it is drastically different from your own. So if your child or spouse is not in the military, imagine that he or she is in uniform and about to deploy for the second or third time. What if empathy became popular, like yoga? Imagine that!

  8. Call A Spade
    April 26, 2016 at 6:39 am

    Of all those few that come from the minority groups did they get it right or are the same as the middle aged white guy just doing what the boss wants?

  9. Call A Spade
    April 26, 2016 at 6:45 am

    Yet the big story is how can the most powerful country in the world be left with these sociopaths to choose between. This cannot be real Trump or Clinton? You may as well have an Orangutan all be it a stupid one.

  10. Secret agent
    April 27, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    Oh please, the MSM didn’t miss this story, they buried it. That’s what they do. They exist for the purpose of disseminating propaganda to the masses. But there’s a problem. People just don’t believe the bullshit anymore. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union. The brainwashing wore off.

    I’d also like to point out that Brooks is not a conservative. He is a bullshit artist posing as a conservative.

  11. May 1, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    I am worried about equating Bernie with Trump and you saying the biggest story rather than the two biggest stories. Some progressives like his comments on Bush and criticizing imperialism. However war can be caused by a desire for more power even though Trump is already the most rapid wealth gaining US billionaire, with more edifices with his name on it then Napoleon I hope Hillary together with Bernie can stop Trump, Trump suggesting Bernie run third party is good reason not to.

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