Journalist Jeff Sharlet on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Jeff Sharlet. Photo: Greg Martin

Why did the media have such a hard time figuring out how to handle Trump?
The media crisis of Trump makes visible what has long been a problem — because the stakes are higher. Yeah, of course the media failed. But they’ve failed with conservatism all along. Now it’s reached a full boil, where suddenly you can’t ignore the failure. You can’t keep ignoring this thing that you call the fringe. The whole fringe narrative, of course, is a strange thing. The fringe was never a fringe. We talk about a ten percent factor of American society; that’s not a fringe, it’s 30 million people. And if we know American history, we know that given the right circumstances, smaller groups than that can drive the circumstances for everybody. But beyond all that, it’s the idea of the journalist measuring a story’s importance by the scale of the stage on which it occurs, rather than by the depth of meaning it reveals. So we take an issue and say, “What does this mean for America?” There’s all sorts of interesting stories that maybe don’t mean anything for America, but they mean a great deal for how we understand how people make sense of their lives, right?

How far back do you think this problem goes — of screwing up on the coverage of conservatism?
At least since 1925. You go back to the Scopes monkey trial — the famous evolution trial. Every paper in America sort of declared fundamentalism dead. “This is it. It was defeated.” Good call on that one. And if you go back, in fact, you can find that declaration about every five years. I mean, someone should just take Time magazine alone and see how many times it’s declared the Christian right dead. Again and again and again. And the reason they keep getting it wrong is that they’re guided by the idea of trends, as opposed to … we’re talking about millions and millions of people. And if their candidate is not in office, then they don’t stop existing. They’re still there, and they’ll have kids, and they’ll raise their kids to believe these things, and the much more interesting question is how these things change — what is fundamentalism and what it values, and how we’re in this really interesting moment now of fundamentalists — not all of them, but a significant enough number — moving over toward Trump. And picking up on strands that were always there, and that theology that allowed them to do that.

But that goes back a long way, and not because the press is so left, but because the press, and I think we would probably all agree, is so relentlessly center … If you have left, center, and right, the center is a position, no more, no less than any other, right? And that tends to skew things. I think that same effect, unfortunately, ripples out from the political realm into other aspects of life.

Why do you think the press keeps returning to that narrative of the right disappearing?
It’s a progress narrative. We want to imagine progress, and we want to imagine what progress is, and we want to imagine a kind of a triumph of reason. If you’re in the business of finding out facts and reporting on things … you still have, especially in the American press, a kind of pseudo-religious commitment to this as the best way of knowing. And you’re also not in a position to understand that there are people who reject it, not because they’re stupid, but because they understand it and very consciously reject that as the best way of knowing.

Do you think there’s something about the format of daily news coverage itself that makes it ill equipped to explain, say, the psyche of Trump voters? Or is it a failure of will? Why doesn’t most news coverage help us understand people who think differently from us?
I think it’s fair to say that the format of news coverage is distinctly ill suited to grasping the sort of experiential politics, the lived experience, of Trump supporters. It is pretty good at covering presidential politics, and those machines sort of grow together organically; they depend on each other. The ability to report on Democratic/Republican, mainstream politics — that’s what that machine is for.

In the same way that we can see the Christian right declared dead every so many years, we can find a piece about some leftist movement invoking this reenactment of the ’60s. That was one of the first things the Times did with Occupy Wall Street: It talked about the ’60s. And it drove people nuts. And the Times responded by shifting reporters — good, really smart reporters — to the story. But the machine was not made to understand things like Occupy Wall Street or Trump. The machine was not made to understand — I don’t know, whatever the hell you want to call it — the sort of Bernie Sanders world. It’s making a very strong effort at it, but even so, you see the machine stumbling … If you’re assuming that people make decisions based on a certain set of rational values and that inasmuch as they don’t it’s only because of their inability to do so, rather than, in fact, their active choice of another way of knowing, you’re going to be ill disposed to grasp that, even as you think you are going out of your way. We all know about the snarky coverage of conservatism, right? That’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the overly kind coverage of conservatism. And I’m not saying that from a knee-jerk lefty position. I can think of big magazine stories about megachurches that I knew that remade them over in the image of a Republican voter. “I know that church. That’s a spiritual-war church; that’s their main concern. I know that they do tons of exorcisms every week, which is deliverance ministry. I know that they talk all the time about demons and the problems of demons. And that’s who they are.” And somewhere, someone made the assumption, “I don’t want to make them look stupid, so I won’t put that in.” That that’s being respectful. And there was a moment where the New York Times declared that we need to be more respectful. Yes, we do, and you respect that by not thinking that they want to be seen like you.

How do you think that affects or impoverishes readers?
Not knowing how things really are! … Take a megachurch that’s deeply invested in deliverance ministries and has major political power in its region. It can swing state elections in the state or region that it’s in. If you think, “I don’t want to impose a story that those guys are insane, so I’m going to bend over to the opposite direction so that I can be fair.” Well, now you’ve erased the possibility that what you think of as wacky and serious coexist. That the deliverance ministry and the strategic political thinking coexist, and always have. And that’s sort of dangerous, right? Basically the rise of Trump is … that stuff is going to simmer, simmer, simmer, simmer, because you can’t see it. You’re only dealing with conservatives who seem serious. You wouldn’t want to look at those conservatives who support Trump, because you feel like that would be disrespectful to conservatism. And you’ll find plenty of allies at the National Review — which, Trump is right, is a deeply irrelevant magazine. And you’ll find allies like Nicholas Kristof … But it hurts on every level. It hurts us in terms of dealing with people.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

Jeff Sharlet on the Media