This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
The election of Donald Trump came as such a shock to The New York Times that, a few days after it, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the paper’s publisher, and Dean Baquet, its executive editor, sent subscribers an apologetic note. Wondering if Trump’s “sheer unconventionality” had led the paper to “underestimate his support among American voters,” they promised to rededicate themselves to the Times’s “fundamental mission” of reporting on America and the world “without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences.”
The letter carried unmistakable echoes of an earlier note—the mea culpa that the Times published in May 2004 acknowledging its failure to more aggressively question the Bush administration’s case for invading Iraq. After the financial collapse of 2008, there was no note, but there was much discussion as to whether the paper had paid sufficient attention to the warning signs. Three times in 13 years, then, the Times has faltered badly on a story of critical importance.
And not just the Times. On all three of these key stories, the nation’s top news organizations have performed feebly. Clearly, something fundamental is amiss at the pinnacle of the profession. What is it? Is it being fixed? A close examination of the media’s performance since the election suggests that it is not. Unless far-reaching changes are made, a future mea culpa seems likely.
AFTER THE ELECTION, national news editors expressed a determination to get out of their coastal “bubble” and into Middle America. In September, HuffPost began a seven-week “listening tour” to hear the stories of ordinary Americans in 25 communities. The New York-based ProPublica set up a bureau in Chicago with a dozen editors, reporters, and technologists to do investigative work in the Midwest. The New Yorker sent Peter Hessler to report on Trump supporters in Colorado, Larissa MacFarquhar to describe a model rural community in Iowa, and Eliza Griswold to profile an environmental activist in Pennsylvania’s coal country.
The Washington Post, meanwhile, has worked hard to get outside Washington. A decade or so ago, the paper, looking inward, cast itself as being “for and about Washington,” and in 2009 it closed the last of its six national bureaus. This decision proved disastrous, both financially, by limiting the paper’s readership, and journalistically, by removing its eyes and ears on the ground. Since Marty Baron became its editor (in 2012) and Jeff Bezos bought it (in 2013), the Post has steadily sought to widen its scope. Even so, in the years leading up to the 2016 election, it did not report fully enough on “the depth of anxiety and grievance in large parts of the country,” Baron told me, and so the decision was made to spend more time outside Washington, “talking to people in all corners and walks of life and getting a sense of the issues important to them.”
While not reopening its bureaus, the Post added several reporters to its America desk, or “Team America,” as it is known in superhero style, bringing the total to about a dozen. The paper also has a “talent network” of several thousand writers and reporters around the country who can pitch stories to a team of editors and be called on when major stories like natural disasters or mass shootings break.
The fruits of these initiatives have periodically appeared in the paper. In “A Showdown over Sharia,” for instance, Robert Samuels reported on a meeting at a Dairy Queen in Ferris, Texas, between two gun-toting anti-Islamic white activists and two local Muslims who try to resolve their clash of civilizations over onion rings and jalapeño bacon burgers. In “Fear, Hope and Deportations,” Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan recounted the uneasy co-existence between Tamara Estes, a white school bus driver on the Texas prairie, and her neighbors, a family of Mexican immigrants trying to achieve their dream; though Estes likes the Mexican children she transports, she resents paying for their safety net while she has none. That piece was part of a series by Jordan and Sullivan (a husband-and-wife team) on “the forgotten”—ordinary Americans often overlooked by journalists on the coasts.
The Washington Post has steadily widened its scope since Marty Baron became its editor in 2012.
The Times has made an equally strong push. As Baquet told me, a few days after the election he organized a conference call with his national correspondents (based in 14 bureaus) to analyze how the paper could get “a better handle on what’s going on in the country.” The correspondents said that they did in fact have such a handle but that the editors did not fully grasp it. To help remedy that (as well as to cover the new administration), the paper has undertaken a thorough overhaul, posting job openings for hundreds of positions ranging from climate reporter and criminal justice correspondent to audio producer and audience engagement editor. An effort was launched to diversify the staff, with special priority given to people with military backgrounds. National correspondents were reassigned; Campbell Robertson, for instance, was moved from New Orleans to Pittsburgh to focus on Appalachia, and Jack Healy was assigned to cover rural America. In reporting on Trump’s supporters, correspondents were admonished not to turn them into “anthropological subjects,” as Baquet put it.
In addition, the Times created a special “Fault Lines” team, freeing a half-dozen or so correspondents to write stories seeking “to explain the divisions in the country” and “show our readers what is going on in America in a deep and descriptive way,” as national editor Marc Lacey puts it. Amy Harmon traveled to Wellston, Ohio, a “proud, struggling, Trump-supporting town” in coal-mining country, to write about a high school science teacher who had come from Akron with a mission to teach, among other things, the realities of climate change; though many students were persuaded, one holdout bolts from the classroom, never to return. In “The Two Americans,” Sabrina Tavernise described the parallel lives of Abraham Davis, a troubled young white man in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Hisham Yasin, a Palestinian immigrant who had co-founded a local mosque. One night, Davis participated in the vandalizing of the mosque and was eventually arrested for it. Yasin was overwhelmed with offers of solidarity and help; Davis, overcome with remorse, wrote a letter of apology to the mosque, which forgave him.
No “Fault Lines” story, however, has delivered more of a jolt than Farah Stockman’s 7,000-word profile of Shannon Mulcahy, a 43-year-old worker at an Indianapolis steel bearings plant. In October 2016, the owner of the plant, the Rexnord Corporation, announced that it was moving it to Monterrey, Mexico. During her nearly 18 years there, Mulcahy had worked her way up to operate a furnace at $25 an hour; when offered a $5,000 bonus to train her Mexican replacements, she accepts. In addition to describing Shannon’s easy interaction with the Mexicans, the article offered many rich details about her personal life, including her electric-blue eyeliner, her custody battle over her daughter Nicole, and the constant medical needs of her disabled four-year-old granddaughter.
The article exemplifies the type of storytelling that is now much in favor in journalism. Beautifully written and deeply researched, it vividly captures the crushing impact the plant’s closing will have on Shannon and her family. In a separate “insider” account, Stockman described the eight trips she had made to Indianapolis over eight months to find and report on “my Rosie the Riveter.” “For those of us who are lucky enough to have graduated from good colleges,” she wrote, “globalization and unfettered trade have expanded our horizons and boosted our incomes, as the world opened up to our talent and capital. We rarely think about the downsides to our fellow Americans, the most vulnerable among us.”
To spring a journalist for eight months to report on a single factory worker shows the Times’s commitment to serious national reporting. Yet important elements seemed to be missing from the story. It offered just a few brief paragraphs on the owner of the plant, Rexnord, and its stated reason for the move to Mexico (reducing costs). A quick online search revealed that in November 2002, Rexnord had been bought by the Carlyle Group, the private equity giant, for about $900 million. Three and a half years later, Carlyle sold Rexnord’s corporate parent to Apollo Management, another private equity group, for $1.825 billion—a profit of more than $900 million. These companies specialize in leveraged buyouts, which, in the course of restructuring companies, greatly enrich their top executives. David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of Carlyle, has a fortune estimated at $2.8 billion; Leon Black, the head of Apollo, is worth more than $6 billion. Shannon Mulcahy, meanwhile, is out of a job.
In 2016, writer and professor Jack Shuler helped found Between Coasts, an online magazine offering a showcase for “stories from the flyover.”
What options are available to her? What effect did the factory’s closing have on the community? Did the closing result from the private equity owners’ pressures? What public policies could perhaps have prevented the plant’s move to Mexico or helped its workers better bear the impact? The Times article had little to say on such matters.
I mentioned to Marc Lacey, the Times’s national editor, what I had learned about the plant’s ownership and asked whether the piece could have offered more about it. That was not its mission, he said; rather, it was to explain “some of the frustrations that everyday Americans are feeling. It was designed to take you into people’s lives, not into the boardroom.” Lacey did not, however, think my question was unfair; some readers, he said, no doubt would have liked to hear less about Mulcahy and her daughter and more about the decision to relocate. He added, though, that the Times extensively covers business and economic policy through its business section and Washington bureau.
That it does. Reporters such as Binyamin Appelbaum, Patricia Cohen, Peter Goodman, Natalie Kitroeff, and Nelson Schwartz, together with the “Upshot” team, have produced many excellent articles on the closing of plants, the changing nature of work, the stagnation of wages, and the uneven costs and benefits of trade. Thomas Edsall, in his weekly column, analyzes the political effects of these developments. Over the last five years, Schwartz says, he has spent so much time visiting plants in the Midwest that his wife wondered if he had a second family in Ohio.
It’s too bad the Times did not run follow-up pieces on Shannon and Rexnord, exploring the underlying structural reasons for the plant’s closure. Over the summer, the editor who helped create “Fault Lines,” David Halbfinger, was reassigned to Jerusalem, and the team has more or less faded away. That’s unfortunate, for, in my conversations with journalists outside the coastal bubble, I found a hunger for such deep reporting.
JACK SHULER IS A WRITER and an associate professor of English at Denison University in central Ohio. For months before the election, he pitched story ideas to East Coast editors about the surprisingly high levels of support for Trump he saw in the area. None was interested. In his frustration, he helped found Between Coasts, an online magazine offering a showcase for “stories from the flyover.” These have included pieces on a butcher in rural Pennsylvania who’s been cutting meat since he was 13, the increase in Confederate flag sales in Ohio, and a rural library’s struggles to survive in the face of declining population and uncertain funding. Asked how the national press has performed since the election, Shuler said much better, citing the Times and Post in particular. There was much more coverage of Ohio, especially of the opioid epidemic that was causing such distress.
Yet he had some strong reservations about that coverage: “Most stories about heroin in Ohio are about how this place has gone all to hell, with people walking around like zombies. But what are people trying to do to fix that? How is it going to be addressed? I’d like to see more of these types of stories.” In September, Between Coasts hosted a conference bringing together journalists from the Midwest and editors from the East Coast, and one of the panels discussed “What We’re Missing About the Opioid Epidemic.” It highlighted the need for more coverage of the acute shortages of detox facilities and rehab beds. In my own reading of the coverage of the epidemic, I’ve been dismayed by how little attention has been paid to the long waits for treatment in much of the country and the many people who relapse, overdose, and die as a result. (An exception is Margaret Talbot’s report in The New Yorker in June 2017 on the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, which dramatically captured the glaring gaps in the services available to the state’s addicted.)
Anna Clark, a writer in Michigan who is completing a book on the Flint water crisis, laments the lack of in-depth reporting on midsized Michigan cities and counties, such as Saginaw and Jackson, that have become so hollowed out that the normal mechanisms no longer work. Despite a surplus of housing, for instance, people have a hard time getting mortgages, thus perpetuating the downward spiral. Though encouraged by the increased flow of reporters to the region, Clark thinks they suffer from the usual problems of parachute journalism—the lack of sustained coverage by reporters with close knowledge of the local scene. “There’s no substitute for having people on the ground covering stories in an ongoing way and developing sources over time,” she says. Clark rued the ongoing collapse of local news organizations; the whole western part of Michigan has gone dark. The number of reporters covering the statehouse in Lansing has drastically declined as well.
The calamitous effects of the cutbacks in local news came up repeatedly in my conversations. The rise of the internet, the bottomless supply of free news, the difficulty local papers have in gaining subscribers, the takeover and stripping down of local papers by private equity firms, the devouring of ad revenues by Facebook and Google—all have led to massive layoffs and buyouts. “The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think,” declared a headline over an article by Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty in Politico in April 2017. As it observed, the number of reporters, designers, salespeople, and the like at daily and weekly newspaper publishers had declined from about 455,000 in 1990 to 173,900 at the start of 2017, while the number employed by digital publishing entities had risen from 77,900 in 2008 to 206,700 in 2017. Where newspaper jobs were by nature spread across the country, internet jobs—freed from geographic constraints—are clustered in the East and West Coast corridors, insulated from the rest of the country. The impact can be seen in the reduced coverage of political corruption and corporate malpractice, environmental degradation and social displacement.
Anne Trubek, a writer and editor in Cleveland, became so disheartened by the declining coverage of the Rust Belt that in 2013 she helped found Belt, an online magazine and publishing house that specializes in regional voices; it has published a dozen urban anthologies on places like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Akron. Trubek was harshly critical of the post-election coverage. “There is so much going on that no one knows about,” she said. With the cutbacks in manufacturing, fields like retail, health care, and higher education have become more important sources of jobs. The largest employer in Cleveland is the Cleveland Clinic—an enormous economic engine whose relationship with its neighboring communities (mostly poor and African American) has been tense. (Last July, Politico ran an illuminating article about “how the Cleveland Clinic grows healthier while its neighbors stay sick.”) Trubek expressed impatience over “the whole genre of the white working class staring out into the distance with an occupied look. It’s a joke.” She was one of several people who complained about the attention given to J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. How, they wonder, did this one individual who managed to make it to Yale Law School and who remains highly critical of the idea of public investment in needy communities become the great media oracle for such a large, diverse, and underserved region?
Stephen Henderson feels that reporting on the white working class is important but needs to be placed in a broader context. The long-time editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press and the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for commentary on the city’s financial crisis, Henderson told me that during the election nobody did a good job of reporting on the disaffection among workers in the Midwest. He felt bad that he had not spent more time in Macomb County, located just north of Detroit. The country carries special symbolic value as the original home of the “Reagan Democrat” (a term arising from a study by Stanley Greenberg of the 1984 election). Since Macomb had twice gone for Obama, Henderson had assumed it would go for Clinton, but instead it went decisively for Trump. After the election, he began traveling to Macomb more frequently, often to hold sessions of the daily talk show he hosts on WDET, a public station. An African American, Henderson said that he did not think race was a central factor in the way Macomb had voted, given its past support for Obama, but even if it were, it was critical to talk to people there. “They are really eager to be heard. Their relation with the media is defined by the sense of being ignored and that their opinions don’t matter much. We have to make sure they’re not hidden.”
According to Henderson, the Free Press, which had 100 to 200 reporters when he first worked for it in the 1990s, now has fewer than 60. The Washington Post, which has 25 correspondents in 18 bureaus around the world, has no bureau in the Midwest. It’s not surprising, then, that a county like Macomb gets overlooked.
In Henderson’s conversations with Macomb residents, the subject that most often comes up is immigration. Demographically, the county is changing, with many people with Middle Eastern backgrounds moving in. To long-time residents, these newcomers often seem to be doing better than they are, stoking resentment. “A lot of people who don’t think of themselves as racist might qualify as that,” Henderson said, but, he added, many African American residents feel similarly. The “commonalities” between working-class whites and blacks “never get discussed.” His comments reinforced my own sense that the press, in its commendable effort to interview white workers overlooked during the election, may be overcompensating and neglecting other important groups, such as black workers, who share similar concerns about pay, benefits, and upward mobility. As the Times’s Nelson Schwartz observes, “The media sometimes reports on manufacturing like it’s just white guys walking through the mill or factory gate with lunch pails” when, in fact, many of the workers at large Midwestern plants are African Americans and women. “It’s not The Deer Hunter anymore.”
(Seven weeks after I spoke with Henderson, he was dismissed by the Free Press for “inappropriate behavior” toward female employees; he has retained his position at WDET.)
Of all the analyses of the 2016 election that I read, the most authoritative was “Revenge of the Forgotten Class,” by Alec MacGillis of ProPublica. Drawing on his reporting in southwestern Ohio, MacGillis noted that many of the people he spoke with lacked strong party affiliations and had “profound contempt for a dysfunctional, hyper-prosperous Washington that they saw as utterly removed from their lives.” That class continues to be forgotten, he told me. It’s important to send out reporters to find out not only how people feel politically but to chronicle “the actual lived experience of people”—to show how “messed up people’s lives are” and to describe the underlying political and economic causes. While the Times and Post are “head and shoulders above everyone else,” MacGillis says, they operate inside the same bubble as the rest of the national media. “If you’re in Washington, it’s going to be reflected in your perspective. Things there are so hunky-dory that it’s easy to slip into thinking that everything is OK when it’s not.” MacGillis says he is grateful that ProPublica allows him to live and work in Baltimore, which, though only 40 miles from Washington, is outside the bubble. “It really helps my journalism to not be part of the insane prosperity of Washington.” (Four of the top five richest counties in America are Washington suburbs.)
In 2013, writer Anne Trubek helped found Belt, an online magazine and publishing house that specializes in regional voices; it has published a dozen urban anthologies on places like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Akron. Here, the Mittal Steel mills are pictured, south of downtown Cleveland.
During his time in Ohio, MacGillis grew despondent over the cutbacks in local news and the vacuum they have left in many communities, which was often filled by Fox News and “angry stuff on Facebook. If you don’t have local news, it’s going to make you feel isolated and adrift.” (The impact of the decline of local papers on how people get their news is a subject in urgent need of more reporting.) Most national journalists, MacGillis says, “are in places that are blue, and that feeds the general perception that the media is against Trump” and, in fact, “the media have been very tough on him.” Among the papers that have been eviscerated is The Baltimore Sun; once boasting bureaus around the world and in Washington, it is now as thin as a shopper. With so much going on in Baltimore that never comes to national attention, MacGillis acknowledges that he has become “a pain in the neck of reporters” at the Times and the Post who have the city in their territory, “asking them to please come and dig into X and Y.”
MacGillis sent me a memo listing the many stories about Baltimore that he felt the Post has neglected. They included a massive police corruption scandal, revelations of Russian meddling via social media to stir racial discord in the city, and Governor Larry Hogan’s decision to kill a new transit line that would have traversed the city and better served the poor. With MacGillis’s permission, I sent the memo to Marty Baron. Within hours, Baron sent back an equally detailed email with some two dozen links to stories about the subjects MacGillis had mentioned as well as to several others, including the demolition of a block in East Baltimore, the city’s horrific homicide rate, and a profile of a student who had managed to make it through the city’s troubled school system. Reading them, I was impressed by how much the Post has done on a city outside its immediate market. But I could also understand MacGillis’s frustration. As much as the Post has written about Baltimore’s many problems—transportation, violence, drugs, education, housing—it has not generally explored the connections between them nor offered the type of deeper political analysis MacGillis considers essential. “Why does Baltimore continue to face such seemingly intractable problems?” I wrote back to Baron. “What are their root causes, and what are possible solutions?” It would be interesting, I wrote, for the Post to adopt Baltimore or another similarly distressed city and report on it for a year or two, using it as a laboratory to figure out how to address the nation’s urban ills, much as the Times’s Jason DeParle did for welfare reform in Wisconsin in the late 1990s.
Baron was unmoved. “Would I love to have people in bureaus all over the country?” he said. “Sure, that would be great.” But, he added, the paper can’t afford it. (In 2016, the Post made a profit for the first time in years.) In the meantime, it must rely on Team America and its parachuting reporters. With the paper so anchored in Washington, however, ideas for that team are mostly generated from there rather than in the field, guaranteeing that it will remain a step behind.
Chris Arnade sees a deeper problem. Five years ago, he left his job as a Wall Street bond trader to document the lives of drug addicts and sex workers in the South Bronx. A good place to meet people, he found, is McDonald’s. In addition to offering decent coffee and clean restrooms, it lets people linger for long periods, and communities take shape there. Traveling around the Midwest for a book project, Arnade began writing for The Guardian. During the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland, he spent time in its poorer white and black neighborhoods. There were 3,000 journalists in the city, “but I never saw any of them,” he told me. Since the election, he thinks the press has been doing better, singling out the Times for praise. Even so, he perceives “institutional biases and structural rigidities” in news organizations that prevent them from making the types of changes needed after missing “the biggest story of the last three decades.” Newsrooms, he says, remain too focused on what’s going on in Washington and who did what to whom. “The media is focused on the power centers, but the story is outside those centers.”
In addition to McDonald’s, Arnade likes to visit churches. The experience has convinced him that the biggest divide in the country is between those who have faith and those who don’t, and that religion remains one of the most under-covered precincts of American life. That’s especially true of American evangelicals, who make up a quarter of the population. Gary Abernathy, who is the publisher and editor of the Hillsboro, Ohio, Times-Gazette (and who writes a twice-monthly column for The Washington Post), says that reporters tend “to go to high-profile evangelical leaders—the Franklin Grahams, Jerry Falwells, and Ralph Reeds. But most evangelicals don’t follow people like that.” Rather, they follow ministers such as Tim Keller and Beth Moore, who tend to be less overtly political. Because journalists too rarely speak with people in the pews, they are generally unfamiliar with such figures.
National journalists’ aloofness from this community became painfully clear during the 2016 campaign, when much was written about the “decline of white Christian America” (as a widely read article in The Atlantic put it) and about how the traditional evangelical bloc was splintering, with many young people and women abandoning Trump. In fact, Trump ultimately took 81 percent of the white evangelical vote—more than even the born-again George W. Bush got.
Dean Baquet has frequently spoken of the need to boost the Times’s coverage of religion, and in January 2017 the paper posted a job opening for a “faith and values correspondent.” Fourteen months later, it was finally filled. “The Times has not paid enough attention or devoted enough resources to religion coverage for a long time,” says Laurie Goodstein, for years the paper’s lone religion reporter. “They’ve talked about doing more, but it hasn’t been a priority.” The Washington Post, with three religion reporters, has done better, but even so, says Marty Baron, “we could do more. News organizations need to spend more time with people of faith—of all faiths.”
OVERALL, I'VE BEEN DISMAYED at how the national press, after an initial spurt in the coverage of Middle America, has generally lost interest. Though good stories still do appear—a piece in the Post about the effects of an immigration raid on the town of Cactus, Texas, for instance, and another in the Times about low-paid workers at Disneyland struggling to make ends meet—news organizations have become so absorbed in covering all things Trump (as well as hurricanes, wildfires, and mass shootings) that more mundane happenings between the coasts can disappear from the news pages for days at a time.
How to fix things? There are two main challenges. One is bolstering local news. This is essential not only to keep citizens informed but also to uncover stories that can be picked up by national organizations. (The exposing of Larry Nassar owed much to the investigative work of The Indianapolis Star.) For years, local publishers have struggled to find a commercial business model to support quality journalism in the digital age—without success. And the prognosis is gloomy. As Joshua Benton observed in Nieman Lab in March 2016, “There’s little reason to believe news jobs will ever again be distributed as evenly around the country as they were a decade ago—the market forces are too strong.” It will “increasingly be up to non-market forces—nonprofits and public media—to fill local voids.”
On that front, many promising initiatives are afoot. ProPublica, in addition to the bureau it has opened in Illinois, has set aside $3 million to support six full-time investigative reporters over three years in communities with under one million people. The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, launched by Barbara Ehrenreich in 2012, provides grants to reporters to write about poverty and inequality and to “put a human face on financial instability,” as its site puts it. And the Poynter Institute has selected 21 news organizations to improve their digital operations so as to better serve their communities.
Most ambitious of all is Report for America. It arose out of a 2011 FCC report that concluded that the commercial model isn’t going to resolve the crisis in local news. Modeled on Teach for America and the Peace Corps, it aims to support 1,000 reporters in poorly served communities over five years. So far, three reporters have been assigned to the Lexington Herald-Leader, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting (all in Appalachia), with nine more to be deployed to newsrooms in other parts of the country by June. Reaching the full complement will require a tremendous expenditure of effort and money. Yet even that number would represent but a small fraction of the jobs that have been lost.
Such realities have placed even greater pressure on a small number of national news organizations—the Times and the Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, NPR, Politico, and The Atlantic—to expand their coverage of the country. One obvious course would be to open more national bureaus. But the bureau system may be obsolete. Even the Times, with its 14 bureaus, missed the level of disruption and alienation in the land during the presidential election. As one reporter told me, “You can’t cover the Midwest from Chicago.”
It’s time for a radical rethinking of how to report on the country. Dean Baquet told me of a favorite saying of Gene Roberts, an esteemed editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of The New York Times. The biggest stories, Roberts said, don’t break, they ooze, seeping up gradually from the ground. His prime example was the movement of African Americans from the South to the urban North, which gradually transformed the country—a story that had to be told over time. The widespread economic anxiety in the country after the 2007-2008 financial collapse and the resulting dissatisfaction with established institutions was another such story, says Baquet—one that the Times by its own admission largely missed.
National journalists’ aloofness from this community became painfully clear during the 2016 campaign. Here, a Trump supporter listens during a campaign rally in Oklahoma City.
In October 2008, I traveled to northwestern Ohio to report on the presidential election. I went out of frustration with the national coverage, which seemed so focused on the candidates and their campaigns that the concerns and views of ordinary voters were being overlooked. For five days I traveled along a 40-mile stretch of I-75 between Toledo and Findlay, talking to people at a high school football game, a farmer’s market, a megachurch, a bowling alley, and a vintage car sale, as well as in bars, restaurants, and parking lots. The groundswell developing for Barack Obama quickly became apparent to me. What most struck me was the tide of popular anger over the region’s economic decline. People decried the endless march of mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, and plant closings. They denounced NAFTA, cursed the flow of jobs to Mexico and China, and inveighed against the corporations that were so pitilessly turning their back on their communities. This fury was shattering traditional allegiances and creating support for dramatic change. I concluded that if Obama were able to create good jobs in the Midwest through, say, a large-scale public works program, the Democrats might be able to win the Rust Belt for years to come.
Over the next eight years, however, factories continued to close, wages remained stagnant, and the resentment over trade and NAFTA grew. Yet press coverage of these developments was fleeting. During the 2016 campaign I felt the same frustration as I had in 2008, with the realities on the ground lost amid the crush of stories about primaries and caucuses, polls and political strategies.
How to avoid a repeat in 2020? Rather than rely on bureaus, news organizations could form a corps of roving correspondents who would take to the road to interview people in towns and factories, union halls and chambers of commerce, community colleges and public libraries, churches and synagogues, McDonald’s and Waffle Houses, looking for stories that ooze. Some of these correspondents could have a geographic beat, like Appalachia, Texas, the Rockies, the Plains. Others could be topical—blue-collar America and small-business America, urban America and evangelical America. Reporters would try to show how ordinary people live their lives, lay bare the structural factors that shape them, and propose solutions.
The Times currently has three special desks with a dedicated group of editors and reporters: race, gender, and climate. In all three areas, the paper has done admirable work that has had an impact. Perhaps the Times could convert its “Fault Lines” unit into a “Life in America” desk whose mission would be to uncover emerging trends in this diverse, fractured, combustible, and often crazy land of ours. The Times has three Styles sections, a Food section, a Travel section, a Real Estate section, a Home section, and T magazine. Last spring, the paper opened a new bureau in Australia. Maybe it could add a weekly “On the Ground” section, featuring dispatches from the nation’s four corners. (The Guardian currently runs a sporadic series about America under that slug.) A good model is “Divided Nation,” a 13-part series by Michael Kranish that—appearing in The Boston Globe over nine months in 2015—combined narrative with analysis to describe in dramatic fashion how decisions taken on Wall Street affect lives on Main Street.
I’m not optimistic, however. The coverage of fashion, interior decor, and art galleries generates ads; stories about Iowa, Missouri, and Idaho do not. With subscribers becoming an increasingly important source of revenue at papers like the Times and the Post, they are doing more to shape what gets into the paper; stories on red-state America simply can’t compete with red-meat stories about Trump. Even more important than financial considerations, however, are attitudinal ones. To many journalists in New York and Washington, Middle America remains a strange and alien place—full of Rosie the Riveters who are easily overlooked by the winners in the global economy.