Much ink has been spilled condemning the press’s failure to predict the election of President Donald Trump. But equally important, though much less discussed, is the media’s misreporting on how racism drove Trump’s victory and the national political agenda in 2016.
Which “-ism” is it?
According to a recent study by PRRI and The Atlantic, cultural anxiety fueled white working-class support for Trump more than economic distress.
The research found that “white working-class voters who say they often feel like a stranger in their own land and who believe the U.S. needs protecting against foreign influence were 3.5 times more likely to favor Trump than those who did not share these concerns.”
Overall, the investigators concluded that “fears about immigrants and cultural displacement were more powerful factors than economic concerns in predicting support for Trump among white working-class voters.”
This is important because, American politics typically has a rigid pecking order ― economic issues at the top, social issues at the bottom. The justification for this hierarchy cites the government’s limited political capital and politicians charge to help constituents where they’ll feel it the most ― in their jobs, wages, and housing. Or as James Carville, a former aide to Bill Clinton, famously summarized America’s chief policy concern: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
So last year, when the media reported that economic anxiety topped Trump supporters’ concerns, the Republican Party began to lend more legitimacy to the reality tv star’s campaign. And when critics decried the white working class coalition as xenophobic, nationalistic, and even deplorable, establishment Republican pundits dismissed the flaws as ancillary to Trump’s fundamental “economic populism.”
This narrative proved crucial. Typically, a campaign like Trump’s ― one that is led by a political novice and plagued by controversy ― would have no chance of winning the White House. But with the aid of strong, economic-themed coverage, Trump consolidated the Republican party and took the presidency.
In an article for the New York Times, David Brooks epitomized the type of favorable coverage Trump’s white working-class supporters received. “If you were stuck in a jobless town, watching your friends OD on opiates, scrambling every month to pay the electric bill, and then along came a guy who seemed able to fix your problems and hear your voice, maybe you would stomach some ugliness, too,” he wrote.
But what Brooks and many other journalists missed, and what a growing body of research suggests, is that Trump’s core supporters weren’t stomaching the ugliness — rather, they were delighted by it.
The Hidden Cost of Discrimination
Just as an economy-centric media narrative aided the white working class’ electoral victories, a lack of this type of coverage has hindered black voters’ political progress.
Over the last four years, the Black Lives Matter movement has identified police reform as a chief policy goal among black Americans. But unfortunately for the movement’s stakeholders, BLM has persistently been framed as a social issue of “identity politics” and not as a vital economic concern.
Many publications frame their BLM coverage around cultural competency, asking: “How can trust be rebuilt between police and communities of color?” And this same moralistic framework spills over into policy like former President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. In the Task Force’s final report, the president lamented that “when any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated fairly, that’s a problem for all of us.”
However, this emphasis on feelings and the tendency to frame racism in policing as if it is a matter of the heart and not about the allocation of resources, betrays the reality of the problem ― the reality that with police malpractice, a great deal of blood and treasure is at stake.
According to an ArchCity Defenders report published in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing, over half the courts in St. Louis County participated in the “illegal and harmful practices” of charging excessive court fines and fees for minor offenses like traffic violations ― and then arresting people when they did not pay.
These court fines and fees in Ferguson totaled $2.6 million in 2013 and was the city’s second-biggest source of income of the total $20 million it collected in revenues. Moreover, reports from the Justice Department find similar practices of racial bias across the country.
Yet, despite considerable evidence confirming the persistence of discrimination in policing and politics today, the American media has chosen to cover race with an exceedingly measured tone.
Reporting the Inconvenient Truth
Reporting on a radioactive topic like racism is hard ― but not impossible.
Using University of Texas at Austin and Thomson Reuters opinion polls, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chris Hayes, and Philip Klinkner were all able to independently identify Islamophobia as a driving force for Trump’s white working class voters before the election.
Likewise, New York Times investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones conducted immersive, in-person reporting finding strong cultural resentment among Trump voters. “They felt that our country had gotten too politically correct,” Hannah-Jones said at a forum at Columbia University. “They felt like black and brown folk were taking things from them that they weren’t supposed to have.”
When journalists consistently file credible reports like these, news organizations are duty bound to draw the conclusions that are supported by the facts, even if those facts make readers uncomfortable. Even if it means presidential campaigns are being driven by xenophobia. Even if they indicate that law officers are systematically robbing minorities’ neighborhoods. Even when it’s disheartening and disturbing; it’s the mission of the press to inform their audiences, not flatter them.
Of course, no one likes bad news. It is more palatable to report that Trump’s presidential campaign as driven by lack of jobs than an excess of racism. It’s more comforting to cover the police as reckless towards African Americans instead of robbing them. But as the nation learned last fall, there’s a steep cost to skewing towards convenient coverage. Because when journalists mislabel the driving agenda of political movements, they risk misinforming the public and diverting urgency and authority from the people who need it most.