This excellent Swiss take on the American presidential election was published last week in the Basler Zeitung. The author examines the reasons why virtually every media outlet, every pundit, every journalist, every expert — on both sides of the Atlantic — got it so wrong in the weeks leading up to the election.
Many thanks to JLH for the translation:
A Profession Abolishes Itself
by Markus Somm
November 12, 2016
Trump and the consequences. Why didn’t the journalists see it coming?
As it is in a cult — The reporters didn’t detect it, because they didn’t want to.
If there are losers from this insane election in America, who do not live in America, but in London, Paris, Zurich, Berlin or Munich, and who populate the appropriate cafés, where the familiar vintage scent can be savored, where bearded young men usually sit and are busy searching their I-Phones, although they really have nothing to do, where there are no books to be seen — just laptops — If there are losers, it is these people (predominantly men) of whom I am speaking, who are also sitting here — mostly without beards, in suits but no tie, pursuing the same profession as I: the international community of journalists. Seldom have the interpreters and opinion-makers suffered such a defeat as in the election of Donald J. Trump to be president of the United States — the man who from the start refused to be afraid of the media.
According to a study by the Center for Public Integrity — an independent think-tank, American journalists donated $396,000 in the presidential election. $382,000 or 96% went to Hillary Clinton. Almost all of the newspapers and news websites in America declared for the Democratic candidate. Almost all television sources followed suit even if not officially, and even conservative Fox News was split. And of course in Europe, where the media are even more in agreement on almost every subject, Hillary was the choice.
If only that were all. A mistake was made, someone was wrong. You’re allowed to make a mistake. Harsher and more unpleasant is the admission no journalist can make. We have no influence — or rather, we do have influence — everybody hears us, but no one believes what we say.
In the Cult
The international cult of journalists could console themselves that it was just about opinions that did not apply; that opinions were less important than facts and reports. But the media also distorted, ignored, suppressed, invented or falsely presented the facts. For example, the polls, which most journalists did not merely believe, but bore aloft before them like a monstrance. Anyone who doubted these prognoses was regarded as a member of the Flat Earth Society. There was a memorable exchange between Brianna Keilar, a CNN reporter, and Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s lawyer.
Keilar said, almost cheerfully: “You guys are down.”
“Says who?” answered Cohen, and his face was as readable as a steel plate — as only American lawyers can do it.
“Polls. Most of them. All of them!”
Cohen was quiet for a long time, then: “Says who?”
“Polls. I just answered your question,” and now she sounded a little desperate.
“All of them.”
This sequence spread like lightning in the internet. Countless variations popped up, making fun of Cohen — the supposed idiot. But who was right? Who is laughing best? The same is true of the fact-checkers — a new profession in America, in which people claim to be testing facts for their truth content. A closer look reveals that these people, too, are not neutral or objective, Many of their judgments — delivered with the serious mien of a physicist — are based on their preferences, and these are almost always in favor of Hillary Clinton.
The Normative Power of the Factual?
If this election has made anything clear, it is the undependability of the media. It happened to me, too. Often, when some statement of Trump had brought every editorial office on the East Coast into vibration, the only thing I could do was to listen to the original interview. Almost invariably, Trump’s words had been repeated inexactly, if not incorrectly, or exaggerated maliciously. When there was any doubt, the most negative possible interpretation was chosen. In short, whatever it took to stop this man — no holds barred. Editorials, opinions, pictures, quotations, reports, facts — much too much was bent, manipulated, twisted and squeezed, until reality appeared as it was predicted that it should be. The normative power of the factual? Rather, it was the factual effect of the normative. Not what is, but what ought to be, had become what was.
Having been swamped by structural changes as if by a mudslide, losing them thousands of readers, the American media are now on the verge of being inundated and charred as if by a lava flow. It is the lava of total irrelevance. Whatever journalists advised, the voters did not care. Whatever they reported, many Americans disbelieved.
We Are All So Nice
Why did it get so far, not just in America, but also in Europe? We are familiar with it, right here in Switzerland. For decades, all our media journalists (with few exceptions, me too for a long time) have approvingly commented and reported on joining the EU. The voters have never gone that far. In the end, no one believed us journalists [when we said] that joining the Union would be better for our country. Since then, many journalists have been limping along. They don’t comment on the EU anymore.
A tentative explanation. The 96% for Hillary Clinton in America indicates the answer. We journalists are too unanimous. The competition of opinions and the struggle for the best argument, philosophic differences — including genuine, deep things that cause pain when mentioned, as well as partisan sensitivities — they are almost non-existent in our milieu. With specific reference to Switzerland: There are hardly any journalists who vote SVP [Swiss People’s Party], a few of the undaunted for FDP [Free Democratic Party], almost no one for CVP [Christian Democratic People’s Party], while most of them are for SP [Social Democratic Party], although they may often vote Green or GreenLiberal because that seems more original. In short: They are almost all Middle-Left, if not actually on the leftist fringe. Their opinions are like those in a cult. Prophet-less, they pray to the same god.
The consequence — and this, not the preference itself, is the problem — is that we no longer recognize the world as it is. Anyone who takes refuge in a cult is constantly reassured by like-minded people, that two plus two is five. It is the blind asking the blind if the sun is shining.
The Great Consensus
Certainly it is possible to object: But Donald Trump is, objectively seen, a disaster. Perhaps. But in every trial there is an accuser and a defender. The Romans long ago assumed that the truth is best recognized when things are observed from two diametrically opposite directions. Have we ever seen 96 accusers versus four defenders? Would we think it fair, but also consider it epistemologically useful, if the accuser were given 96 minutes to speak and the defender only four minutes?
Because we journalists, whether here or in America, are unanimous in all questions, especially those which concern the broad segments of the population, and which those “forgotten people” often answer differently than we, many of us are incapable of seeing what is happening before our eyes. Journalists from New York flew to Ohio, to investigate the natives, but they found nothing. They returned with the same pre-judgments they had set off with. The reporters did not intuit that a majority of the people in Ohio leaned toward Trump, because they didn’t want to know it.
I repeat. Everywhere in the West, there are more and more people for whom the amount of immigration has become too much. Almost all journalists are of the opposite opinion and like to report that those who are worried are basing their opinion on false numbers, are afflicted by false emotions, are driven by hatred, are molded by prejudices or are just plain stupid. And anyway, immigration is good. Wasn’t the BBC founded by foreigners? And Nestlé and Maggi?
As in a cult, the milieu of journalists develops recognizable opinions whose function is less as an interesting opinion, than as a social one. These are signs of membership in the milieu of journalists. A journalist is not someone who writes and researches, but someone who believes that the immigration is good.
Do not misunderstand me. It is not about immigration in and of itself, and also not about Trump or Brexit, or about the EU, or the question of to what extent climate change is destroying us. There can be divided opinion on all these things. No, it is about a profession that is so one-sided that it is doing away with itself, because journalists can no longer report on what is moving the world and what is happening in it, but only on what is affecting them themselves. And that is a small world.