When Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign in June of 2015, the typically divergent worlds of political punditry and data journalism were united in offering an unambiguous message to their viewers and readers: Do not take this man seriously.
The self-assured media set in Washington and New York fell back on longstanding trends and assumptions about how elections are supposed to go. And they were bolstered by plenty of charts and algorithms from the data nerds, who joined in the conviction that Trump was more likely to give away his fortune and retire to a monastery than he was to win the 2016 Republican nomination, let alone the White House.
But while just about no one saw a path to victory back then, the journalists who took a more considered approach to Trump had one thing in common: they spent most of their time on the front lines of the campaign and outside of the elite opinion bubble.
Case in point: In a prescient dispatch that she filed from Manchester after Trump’s first visit as a candidate to New Hampshire, RealClearPolitics reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns wrote that “many in the crowd said they genuinely identified with him and his message—never mind that he is, by one measure, the least popular Republican in the field.”
“I watched him on TV yesterday and I thought, ‘Well, he’s just saying it like it is,’” one woman told Huey-Burns in an observation that would soon become a rallying cry for Trump supporters nationwide. “A lot of us are thinking the same exact thing.”
Huey-Burns’ early dispatch on Trump is just one example of how on-the-ground campaign reporting provided a much clearer picture of the durability and extent of the long-shot candidate’s support that summer than anything that was said in TV studios where he was largely regarded as a ratings-generating novelty, not a real threat to win.
In the general election, the pattern continued even late into the fall. While on-the-ground reporters like Matt Viser of The Boston Globe and Alec MacGillis of ProPublica were pointing to signs of Trump’s popularity with newcomers to the political process in exurban and rural communities, most of the pundit class was still comforting itself in a warm bath of polls, snark and green room back-slapping (I myself succumbed to this tendency to believe that everything would work out the way it always had before and that a Clinton victory was all-but inevitable.)
For far too long into the cycle, top media executives and senior editors remained painfully slow to react adequately to the movement that Trump was generating in large swaths of the country where campaign reporters were seeing first hand just how committed his supporters were.
Trump, meanwhile, was allowed to skate by without adequate media vetting for far too long, particularly over the airwaves. Why jeopardize all those ratings, anyway? They were “damn good for CBS,” as CEO Les Moonves memorably put it.
The conversation about how the press “got it so wrong” has consumed media navel-gazers since November, leading to a range of conclusions and blame-shifting.
But there’s another story that’s been lost: Plenty of journalists who covered the campaign far from the Acela Corridor and the televised rallies ― many of them young and less experienced than the big-name media personalities who rarely leave the Beltway Bubble ― got it right.
While print reporters for major newspapers led the way, young embedded broadcast journalists who did double duty shooting video and writing digital pieces for the national news networks also did plenty of great work, though it often went largely unnoticed.
Plenty of journalists who covered the campaign far from the Acela Corridor and the televised rallies ― many of them young and less experienced than the big-name media personalities who rarely leave the Beltway Bubble ― got it right.
These so-called “embeds” ― most of them still in their twenties — filed dispatches from the trail throughout the campaign that often did a far better job of contextualizing and explaining the environment that led to Trump’s victory than anything that was said on a Sunday Show roundtable. As just one example, take a look at this piece filed by CBS News embed Jackie Alemany from Ohio in September on working class Democrats who were flocking to Trump.
For a year-and-a-half leading up to Election Day, they also did the great service of documenting in minute detail every utterance made by every major candidate in a campaign that was stranger than fiction from start to finish.
I was once an embed myself, having worked for CBS News during the 2008 campaign. It sounds quaint in an era of data analysis and smart takes, but it was in that capacity that I came to learn that nothing in political journalism can compete with the insights gleaned from actually being there.
I spent the duration of Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy covering the firebrand governor and her staff from the road, with a seat on the back of her plane. Even as the movement that she came to represent was at the time largely dismissed as a fleeting anti-intellectual phenomenon, my young colleagues and I saw something else: the budding power of grassroots grievance aimed squarely at the newsroom elites. That fury gave rise to the tea party, and ultimately, to Donald Trump.
The campaign trail is a world unlike any other ― a traveling micro-society not entirely unlike that of the one that surrounds a band on tour. The campaign is full of drudgery, exhaustion, alcohol, strong bonds between friends and a neverending dose of drama. This is the world that offered endless fodder for “Embeds” ― a new scripted series I co-created about young political journalists that is currently airing on go90 (watch the first episode below).
More than sex, booze and comedy, the campaign trail is a relentless, ball-busting firehose of work, both for the embeds themselves and the news organizations that train and support them editorially (and financially). It’s also populated largely by Type A personalities who graduated from top-tier universities, rather than the head-in-the-clouds dreamers that Cameron Crowe introduced us to.
And just about all of them are motivated primarily by the simple goal of doing their jobs well and informing their viewers and readers.
You can often learn a lot as a reporter from making a phone call to a source, reading a poll, or conducting a remote interview. But there is no substitute for being on the ground in close proximity to the candidate, while experiencing all of the intangible atmospherics of a campaign firsthand. Even more powerful: The simple act of leaving the pack and listening to voters away from where the campaign apparatus happens to be on any given day.
The most effective reporters during this election cycle did just that: They listened.
And for newsroom bosses: It’s time to start listening to the less seasoned reporters in your newsrooms, in addition to the expensive pundits in your stable. Younger journalists have a better understanding of how information travels in 2017: through social media and mobile phones, rather than daytime cable news. They speak the language of millennials, now the largest generation in the country. They might not know everything, but the 20-somethings on your payroll know more than you think.
Here’s one idea how to do that: instead of pouring more money into polling and prediction-based analysis, why not extend a dialed-down version of the campaign embed program to non-campaign years like this one?
Don’t hire more pundits. Send young reporters to Madison and Las Vegas and Des Moines and Raleigh.
I’m confident that broadcast news viewers can learn a lot more from dispatches on issues and trends, filed from places like the Rust Belt and the New South―than they can from the predictable talking points doled out by the new administration’s White House spin machine, which has already proven itself adept at exploiting political journalism’s process-obsessed tendencies.
Editors and bureau chiefs: Instead of adding another body to the already overcrowded White House press corps, why not send that eager young journalist off to live in Ohio or Florida for a year, wielding a small video camera and keeping tabs on how the lives the people who elected Trump are being affected by his presidency?
My “Embeds” co-creator Peter Hamby recommended this step after the 2012 election in a widely circulated paper about the fractures in political journalism.
Two good recent examples of how to do this well comes from the Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson and Yahoo! News’ Holly Bailey, who spent time in towns and cities that were crucial to Trump’s victory in the lead-up to the inauguration.
To really get to know the America that they are trying to reach and inform, TV news divisions should take the unexpected revenue they reaped from 2016’s can’t-miss reality show and reinvest it. Don’t hire more pundits. Send young reporters to Madison and Las Vegas and Des Moines and Raleigh. Have them find the next generation of political leaders. Give them a real opportunity to tell stories about addiction or housing or poverty or criminal justice in Trump’s America. All they need is a wifi connection and gas money to make some inroads toward filling the gaping void that was in large part created by the collapse of local newspapers nationwide over the last couple of decades.
Journalism is in a frightful state, and it’s not going to get better under President Trump unless news executives make tough editorial choices that value good storytelling over dumb clickbait and mindless punditry.
Ultimately, consumers want good, distinctive, fresh content, not more of the same. And the person best equipped to make it might just be that hungry 25-year old sitting down the hall.
Scott Conroy is the co-creator and executive producer of ‘Embeds’ on Verizon’s go90 platform. He is the author of Vote First Or Die (PublicAffairs, April 2017), coauthor of Sarah From Alaska, and creator of New Hampshire—a seven-part Huffington Post original documentary series about life on the 2016 campaign trail in the first-in-the-nation primary state. He was national political reporter for The Huffington Post and RealClearPolitics and a campaign embed reporter for CBS News.