Politics, media and the lost art of big-tent building

Politics, media and the lost art of big-tent building
© Greg Nash

Mainstream news media share an urgent dilemma with America’s political parties: It seems nobody knows how to build a big tent anymore.

The latest Pew Research study shows yet another decline in media trust, now half of what it was in 2016. The main culprit this time is a widening partisan gap: While most Democrats have at least some confidence in national news outlets, very few Republicans do.

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE’s “fake news” mantra has a lot to do with that. But so does this: The parties are increasingly dividing themselves along educational and class lines. And too often the press seems tailored to the concerns of only one voter category, leaving others outside the tent, feeling ignored or dismissed.

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Advocates for broader-based politics have been focused this month on Ezra Klein’s New York Times essay, detailing the views of election data analyst David Shor. According to Shor, the Democratic party is no longer a big-tent enterprise — it has lost touch with a once-solid bloc of working-class voters while courting the professional class.

Over the past several years, Democrats have gained among white college graduates while losing non-college whites to the Republicans. In 2020, that trend expanded: Democrats also lost ground with non-college Black and Latino voters.

As the affluent and educated became a larger share of the party’s base, Shor argues they shifted the political focus away from bread-and-butter blue-collar issues. The Democrats’ big tent got smaller. Polarization, much of it along class lines, increased.

National journalism faces a similar predicament. A 2018 study found that 44 percent of the editorial staff at the New York Times went to an elite university; at the Wall Street Journal, that number was nearly half. According to the survey, reporters and editors at these two outlets are likely to have the same educational background as Forbes billionaires and attendees of the famously exclusive Davos conference. They’re more likely to have gone to an elite college than most judges and members of Congress.

And, as journalism has been forced to rely on expensive subscription fees for financial health, the target news consumer has come to mirror the educational and economic background of most national journalists.

This doesn’t affect the quality of reporting, but it can skew just which stories get covered. Many leading news outlets too often feature more than their fair share of articles and segments about Harvard’s endowment or a controversy at Yale. Elite secondary schools in major media hubs like New York seem to merit as much attention as local crime and infrastructure. This material sometimes reads less like a general-interest media product and more like a newsletter published by an exclusive club for members only.

At the same time, the real-life concerns of the working-class electorate can go under-reported or misunderstood, whether in small towns or blue-collar inner-city neighborhoods. During Trump’s administration, journalists struggled to figure out his appeal and repeatedly fell back on a predictable feature of political coverage: helicoptering into heartland diners like anthropologists, to examine his supporters in their natural habitats. 

Some of that same approach emerged in New York’s Democratic mayoral primary. Eric Adams, a Black tough-on-crime former police captain, defeated progressive candidates thanks to diverse blue-collar voters in every borough of the city. National news outlets seemed at loss to explain it, with headlines like: “What Does Eric Adams, Working Class Champion, Mean for Democrats?”

For a lot of working-class news consumers, it’s easy to read or view all of the above and decide mainstream media is not really aimed at them.

This would be less troubling if most cities and towns still had at least one vibrant newspaper, let alone several. Or if local television newsrooms were expanding, not contracting. Consumers in general trust their local news more than national outlets, because they do speak to everyday issues more clearly.

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But the sharp decline in local outlets means journalism — like politics — has become nationalized. Just as the Democratic party’s focus on higher socio-economic voters is arguably driving the working-class away, so too the points-of-view at most mainstream national news outlets may push these same people into news bubbles that stoke media mistrust.

The New York Times — standard-bearer of elite journalism ­— is now actually searching for ways to combat this trend and build a bigger news tent. The paper last month set up a team to look into and address the erosion of trust in media. A Times insider told Vanity Fair the team’s mission is to “broaden the Times’ readership … Broader means all kinds of readers, including politically … more who are middle class and lower class and so on.”

The Times’ effort is worth keeping an eye on — and rooting for.

Easing class polarization in news consumption may not end the political divide. But that deepening disconnect certainly won’t get any better unless mainstream journalism can re-establish itself as the central source of reliable information — no matter your politics, education or income.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.