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Opinion: How did the media miss Trump's majority?

It’s Brexit all over again as the Trump victory takes mainstream media publications by surprise, writes Ciaran McCullagh.

Ciaran McCullagh

ONE OF THE most striking aspects of the Trump victory is the response of the mainstream media. Whether it is the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Irish Times, the response has been much the same: shock and astonishment.

So why are the elite media surprised by his victory? They misread the election and the American electorate in a serious fashion, yet it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise.

Hillary – a bad candidate?

Hillary Clinton was simply a bad candidate. She embodied so many of the qualities that people are fed up with in politics and in politicians. Clinton was hypocritical. She told voters one thing, Wall Street and Goldman Sachs another. She was militarist. Clinton supported all of the wars that the US has either started or been involved over the past twenty years.

She was economically illiterate. Clinton was present for the free trade agreements and weak regulation of Wall Street that made the recession possible. She was a consummate political insider; Clinton has never had any other job other than politics.

Journalists too cosy with political elite

There is, however, a deeper reason for their surprise, and it is an indication of the direction that the media has taken in recent years. The independent search for news has declined, and has been replaced by a closeness to the political establishment and the political elite. Increasingly journalists occupy the same world and share the same mindset as the politicians they report on.

Britain 2016 US Election Mainstream media shock at Trump victory. Source: Kirsty Wigglesworth

It is hard to adequately characterise this mindset but it could perhaps be described as economically conservative, but broadly liberal on certain social issues like sexuality and economic disadvantage, which they have managed to define as the squeezed middle rather than the real poor.

It is the kind of mindset that sees the recent responses to the economic crisis – socialising private debt and getting the public paying for it through austerity policies that target the least well off – as unfortunate, but a “good” thing nonetheless. It was also something that “worked.” And the working assumption of journalists and politicians was that even though all the “people” were not happy, they accepted the wisdom of it.

In the process the news has become something that politicians talk about. From within this mindset the result of this American election was unthinkable and hence a “shock” and a “surprise.” They even have a ready-made phrase to describe it. It is a “backlash.” Have you ever heard of a good backlash?

The social isolation of the media elite is a process that is probably most developed in the United States, but we are not immune from it in Ireland. We can see it exemplified in the Irish media. Every issue has its cast of characters from the “safe” political correspondents who think they are reporting when they tell you what the talk is in Leinster House.

The cast ranges from the standard liberal (hello Fintan O’Toole) to the odd contrarian (get Eamon Dunphy on the phone). It is a media play predictable in its characters and unsurprising in its ending. The recent soft focus “documentary” on Enda Kenny is the epitome of this. No wonder audiences are falling.

Irish media didn’t understand water charge outrage

The consequences of this media mindset are an inability to deal adequately with issues that do not reach them through the political elite, or to deal with the people who exemplify these issues. So the media and the political class have been taken by surprise for example, by the depth of public feeling about the water charges and by the level of protest.

water protest Demo against water charges, Dublin. Source: Shutterstock/Simon McLoughlin

The media were unable to count the numbers who attended the marches. RTE, for example, hide behind the figure of “tens of thousands”, a pretty broad range that could be ten thousand or a hundred thousand. They are also unable to report on issues that are fronted by people who are not traditional politicians as the water protests initially were before politicians jumped on the bandwagon. Can you name any of the initial founders of the anti-water charge movement?

Against this backdrop the move of reporting and opinion to the social media is understandable and the crisis of the traditional media isn’t just an economic one or one of concentration of ownership – though that does not help. It is a crisis of legitimacy. They have become, in that great phrase the “cheerleaders of the establishment” and so reflect how isolated that establishment has become from the lives of the people in all their variety, communality and difference.

So as journalists and commentators sit around over a good chardonnay to reflect on the “awfulness” of the US election result, on the “unparliamentary” politics of the anti-water charge movement or the rise to power of the Healy-Raes, they would do well to think about what the Chinese press said about Trump’s victory.

That’s what you get when you have democracy.

Dr Ciaran McCullagh was a lecturer in sociology in University College Cork and is the author of books on Crime in Ireland and on the power of the media.

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Ciaran McCullagh

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