Reporting the Future

Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise, Nov. 16, 2016

On Saturday, I received a joint email from the Publisher and Editor of the New York Times.

It read, in part: “When the biggest political story of the year reached a dramatic and unexpected climax late Tuesday night, our newsroom turned on a dime and did what it has done for nearly two years — cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity.”

Turned on a dime? More like pulled up its pants and scrambled to recover its dignity.

Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger and Editor Dean Baquet seemed to want to admit to subscribers like me that the Times’ coverage of the presidential election was selective, speculative and spectacularly wrong. But they couldn’t quite get there, assuring us instead that, “As we reflect on this week’s momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you.”

 You may not read the Times, but it is a bellwether and an agenda-setter and its news coverage influences the national news you see and read in the Susquehanna Valley. Its unsatisfying explanation for how it got the election so wrong reflects the attitudes of many other news organizations. 

We deserve a fuller accounting – and better performance from our news media. The Times and most other mainstream news organizations insisted for months that Hillary Clinton had the election in the bag. Even the day after the election, The Times’ “Upshot” site, which crunched poll numbers to predict the probability of a victory by Mrs. Clinton, had her leading Donald Trump 86%-14%. The site assured readers that “Mrs. Clinton’s chance of losing is about the same as the probability that an N.F.L. kicker misses a 38-yard field goal.” Oops — wide right!

In the aftermath, you’d think the Times and other news outlets would have learned an admittedly bitter lesson from President-elect Trump, who, love him or hate him, was assuredly right about two things: Journalists and pollsters cannot predict the future. And the world is full of surprises.

Not a chance. Some people can’t let go of the past. Many journalists can’t let go of the future. The election brought not so much as a pause in their prognostications.

The palm-reading last week covered every facet of the Trump administration — which will not commence until January 20, 2017. Reporters and their expert sources, along with columnists and commentators, are naming Trump’s probable cabinet. And predicting what he’ll do with, or to, Obama-care (probably just change the name to Trumpcare; it’ll suddenly be hugely popular). Will he or won’t he launch a probe of Mrs. Clinton? Will Melania’s soft-porn provenance finish the White House as a citadel of taste and fashion? (These are all real stories. You can look them up.)

So if you are a citizen and consumer of news — right, left or center — who aspires to be a part of the reality-based community, here are some tips to separate facts from futurism as we stagger into tomorrow:

  • If you see the words could, should, might, likely, probably or if in a headline – run.
  • To paraphrase Dickens, beware this word most of all: Undoubtedly.
  • Read any headline that ends with a question mark as We have no idea.
  • Watch for code words: “A knowledgeable source” or “a source familiar with the situation,” usually means one of two things: The source requested anonymity (for reasons worth pondering), or the reporter is quoting himself because he is, let’s face it, both knowledgeable and familiar with the situation. Technically.
  • Keep in mind that reporters and editors choose what to write about and whom to interview. Want to raise the specter of a Trump impeachment? Ask five left-leaning eggheads (and one conservative whose views will be buried in the 19th paragraph): “Can you imagine a scenario in which Trump could be impeached?” Oh, they most certainly can! And then you can print a headline like this one in the Washington Post: “‘Prediction professor’ who called Trump’s big win also made another forecast: Trump will be impeached.” This story rather fantastically speculates the GOP’s real endgame is to let Trump get them to the altar and then dump him for the far more palatable Mike Pence.

It doesn’t stop there. Once the seemingly factual inevitability of a Trump-Pence switcheroo is established, the fairy tale can be continued on the editorial pages, where Times columnist David Brooks blithely asserted, just days after the election, mind you, that “Trump will probably resign or be impeached within a year.” The guy’s not even in and he’s already out.

I read to be informed, not affirmed. I’m truly hoping The Times and other news outlets that value credibility will conduct a searching post-mortem of Election 2016 coverage and reckon with its flaws. And then vow to evaluate each story in this unfolding political opera with a simple credibility test: Did this happen? Is this verifiable? Do we know? If a story cannot meet those tests, it should not run.

Every ink-stained wretch knows explaining what just happened is plenty difficult without the added burden of explaining what is presumably going to happen. Because as we’ve just seen, there’s a pretty good chance it won’t.

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