The media's Trump fail

The media’s failure to report that Donald Trump might well win the 2016 election is a debacle for America’s intelligentsia on the order of the 2008 mortgage crisis and 2003 Iraq WMD “slam dunk.”  These fiascoes all stemmed from “knowledge management organizations” rotted with intellectual bias, groupthink, and perverse incentives.  All three featured decision-makers and intellectual cheerleaders from similar social and educational milieus.  Yet only the mainstream media have so far evaded tangible consequences, or real self-assessment, for their historic stumble.

The financial crisis cratered entire companies, cost many executives their jobs and wealth, and then saddled the industry with new regulations.  After WMD in Iraq went from “slam dunk” to, in military parlance, WTF, a reorg of the intelligence community soon followed.  Yet the television anchors, reporters, and pundits who missed the biggest political story in modern times remain happily in place, their tears from Election Night powdered over, now focused on exposing the “lies” of the very man they’d assured their audiences would never be president.

Rather than resign in embarrassment, the top producers and editors of the major media have actually doubled down, filling their platforms with stories so consistently inclined against Trump the president and his policies as to be essentially indistinguishable from editorials.  They (rightly) fulminate against “fake news” while spiking and slanting their Trump coverage with feverish intensity, never seeing the irony.  The journalism academy offers no corrective, instead cheering the status quo from the sidelines.  “The Goal Is Not to Fear Trump, But For Trump to Fear You,” reads a representative headline from the house organ of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (of which I’m an unlikely graduate).

So what’s the solution?  Unlike intelligence officers or investment bankers, journalists are not accountable to government officials or their regulatory proxies, a good thing for 1st Amendment absolutists such as myself.  But the media tradition of “holding power to account” – which drove such persistent demands for change in the finance and intelligence worlds after their respective train wrecks – apparently cannot be aimed at the mirror.  Even the media’s corporate overlords seem strangely indifferent to the market forces that come from insulting half their potential customers and seeing their product approval drop to the level of exploding cell phones.

From these unaccountable circumstances, one glimmer of hope does emerge.  It’s now essentially impossible for industry apologists to deny that the major media are biased in the strictest sense of the vast bulk of their employees being “prejudiced” in favor of ideas endorsed by the Democratic Party and the bien pensants of New York, D.C., Hollywood, and Silicon Valley.  Even Politico felt obliged to report that its 2016 poll of the White House press corps showed that not one respondent registered as a Republican, and just one reporter of 16 planned to vote for Trump. 

In tacit recognition of these facts, media leaders now insist that their organizations can be “balanced,” or at least “fair,” despite the systemic cognitive bias of their newsrooms.  We’re assured that the personal views of reporters – shared with coworkers, friends, spouses and especially bosses – don’t hamper their coverage one bit.  As the media reporter for one of America’s most influential papers tweeted me not long ago regarding the overwhelmingly Democratic voting record of journalists “[a]nd why would voting record be proof of journo bias one way or the other? You can't be fair if you vote?”

This deflection demonstrates the failure of journalism to keep up with the science and practice of other knowledge industries, the very processes to avoid confirmation bias and groupthink the media demanded be adopted by the intelligence community and Wall Street after their train wrecks.  The issue is not whether an individual reporter, or even an entire newsroom, who strongly holds one set of views can be “fair” to those who hold another.  The issue is whether a knowledge organization that has no concern about the known effects of groupthink, or related factors such as the one cognitive science calls “process losses,” can produce optimal analysis and forecasts.  It can’t.

It might be too much to expect media executives to plunge into newly emerging best practices of analysis and forecasting.  But there is a modest step that even a New York Times editor would be hard pressed to dismiss (at least outside his newsroom): add intellectual diversity to news media recruiting goals.  If the events of 2016 showed anything, it was how out of step the major media were with the nation they’re supposed to cover.  Focused on increasing the representation of women and racial, sexual and religious minorities on the assumption such folks would bring new perspectives to the newsroom media executives remain content with staffs that contain few if any employees who think anything like the half of the country that voted for Donald Trump.

Addressing the recruitment issue might allow media executives to demonstrate they have some idea of the inescapable lesson of 2016: for the major media, as for the intelligence community and Wall Street, systematic bias is dangerous malpractice.

Mark Sauter became a television and print reporter after serving in the U.S. Army.  He now works in the financial industry.  The views expressed here are entirely his and do not reflect those of his employer.