My feelings of nausea have subsided, but in their place come confusion and fear. The election has plunged journalists like myself into something close to an identity crisis, with good cause.
What good is the fourth estate, that essential pillar of democracy, if it leads to the election of a know-nothing and his posse of dangerous extremists?
Let’s not have amnesia about this: We’ve elected someone whom the vast plurality of leaders and institutions agreed just two weeks ago was unfit for the office of the presidency.
For months, the media exposed many aspects of Donald Trump. And into that black hole of chaos the electorate decided to march anyway.
Sure, the cable networks (especially CNN) gorged themselves on mindless Trump coverage during the primaries. But in the general election, the New York Times, David Farenthold at The Washington Post and many others did excellent journalism on behalf of an electorate seeking to be informed.
I am not alone in the media world wondering the utility of holding powerful people accountable, exposing uncomfortable realities, trying hard to tell the truth — if this is the result.
I am struggling, I confess. One bedrock of my world is the essentialness of a free press as the underpinning of a democracy. The power of information to lead reasonable people to consensus for the well-being of all.
So shall I conclude that the electorate heard what the media had to say about the Republican candidate — the vulgar “Access Hollywood” tapes, the tax return indicating that he’d paid no federal income tax in two decades, the billionaire’s lack of charitable donations, his stiffing of vendors, his multiple bankruptcies, his litany of insults, his childish Tweetstorms — and decided that they didn’t care?
Or did they see all those stories and decide that they didn’t believe them? Or that they were equivalent to Hillary Clinton’s sins, including that private email server?
Here’s another question: Did voters just not see these stories because their Facebook feed didn’t offer them up, and instead some algorithm reinforced their nativist suspicions? Did they just hang out on the Drudge Report and Breitbart and Fox News all day?
Or did the electorate just plain dislike that mainstream media told them what to think, with editorial boards across the country begging people not to put Trump in office?
It’s not enough just to say that “the people” don’t trust mainstream media, or hate the press. Having grown up as a child of Watergate, I know that it has always been thus in my lifetime. Journalists were overeducated snobs who never suffered a day with working class folks. Donald Trump only fed that discontent.
I also don’t have any evidence that journalists didn’t listen to the economic discontent among voters. We all knew that people were tired of politics as usual – evidenced in both the Bernie Sanders groundswell as well as the rise of Trump.
But we live in the age of information overload, and not all information is equal.
After three decades in journalism, I have observed a few things about human nature and political systems. The choices we make are not benign. It’s not chocolate or vanilla, and either is fine. Democratic institutions are extremely hard to establish and must be fiercely defended. Autocrats don’t like giving up power once they have it in their grasp.
I have no idea how Donald Trump will govern — none of us do. We don’t know if he’s a fake racist, or a real one. We don’t know if he means half of what he said during the campaign, or if the election means a clean slate and he’ll pick and choose his opinions as he goes.
Is Steve Bannon an anti-Semite? Is climate change policy dead? I’m going to presume the worst until I am shown otherwise.
In that context, the questions for journalists become practical. Is our job to lead or to follow? To shine the light of critical regard on our president-elect, or to encourage him to get back inside acceptable boundaries?
We have to get back to fundamentals, to our bedrock values.
We must continue to listen, but also to lead. I’ve always believed in the power of listening and observing, and then sharing what I’ve heard.
But my own faith in the power of knowledge — the core of the Enlightenment and democracy that flowed from its values — has been shaken. Vigilance, mindful vigilance, will be my byword.