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The media didn't change after 2016 — will they make the same mistake after 2020?

The media didn't change after 2016 — will they make the same mistake after 2020?
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As 2020 comes to a merciful end, it’s important to take stock of the state of the political media as a new administration prepares to enter the White House. And while the conversation will quickly shift to the incoming Biden administration, the media would serve the public better if they didn’t dismiss the voters who turned out for President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE in 2020.

After Trump was elected in 2016, many media outlets – having acted as if it was a near impossibility for Trump to emerge victorious over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonProgressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC Hillary Clinton backs Manhattan DA candidate in first endorsement of year NSA leaker Reality Winner released from federal prison MOREpledged to do a better job of covering “Trump’s America.” The effort began by talking to various groups of Trump voters who they were surprised had turned out for Trump — including two-time Obama-turned-Trump voters and so-called “lost voters,” rural and white working-class whites who had never voted before showing up for Trump. What was it about Donald Trump that made them vote the way they did?

Inevitably, there was a backlash among many progressives, who said, in essence, “Why are you trying to understand these people? They’re just racists.”

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Although Trump wasn't reelected in 2020, he over-performed among some categories of voters. President-elect Biden won back slim majorities in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But there are new storylines to explore. Stories like Trump’s dominance among Cuban American voters in Florida, which helped him win the state by a higher percentage than he did in 2016. Or Trump’s enormous strides with a subset of the Hispanic vote in Texas.  

LGBT voters appear to have nearly doubled their support for Trump over the past four years, from 15 percent in 2016 to 28 percent in 2020. (All of this is based on early exit poll data that may change as we learn more.) Trump even gained support in New York City, with much of the increase coming thanks to minority voters; in fact many immigrant neighborhoods voted for Trump in larger numbers than they did in 2016.

This time around, much of the media seem to be fixated on a specific subset of the population: white women. Lyz Lenz wrote a recent Washington Post op-ed titled, “White women vote Republican. Get used to it, Democrats.”

“White women benefit from the status quo, while change would require burning down that system and building a new one — one where they and their children might lose the shared superiority and protection they get by being attached to powerful White men,” Lenz wrote, painting with an absurdly broad brushstroke while misunderstanding what got Trump into the White House in the first place (it sure wasn’t that he represented the status quo!). 

But Lenz’s take is not unique. The media continue to depict Trump voters as if they are ignorant racists who cling to a shameful version of America’s past. This worldview is popular among elites in the Acela Media (based in NYC and D.C.) but is laughably irrelevant to much of the rest of the country, on the left and right. It’s only going to grow in irrelevance if the media continue to show no interest in actually learning what motivates these voters to vote the way they do. 

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It hasn’t all been bad, and there have been excellent pieces that shouldn’t be ignored, including Matthew Yglesias’s recent piece on gun control. Yglesias points out that an issue that seems simple to the national media, gun rights and gun ownership, is actually quite complicated. What’s more, gun control efforts may end up alienating left-leaning gun owners. (Note: they already have.)  

By continuing to dismiss Trump voters, their values, priorities and, yes, their grievances, the media risk continuing to erode trust in their work.

Does the national, establishment media want to be curious, to be humble, introspective and to present a fuller picture of what we learned about the country through the results of the 2020 election? Or do they want to dig in their heels and cast aside those who they feel are not worthy of a platform because they voted for Donald Trump?

That would only create a media that’s even more out of touch and further deepen the political divide. It may also spur a response that would surprise many in New York City and D.C. newsrooms — the realization that the erosion of trust is a result not of the reality TV host in the White House but of the media’s own performance and continued refusal to understand the country they are supposed to serve.

Steve Krakauer is the founder and editor of Fourth Watch, a media watchdog newsletter.