Monday, February 22, 2021

What Trump could teach journalists about political reporting

Nine Lessons I Learned About Political Reporting While Covering Trump reports 538’s Perry Bacon Jr.

In the fall of 2015, I was having drinks in Washington with a colleague at the time, now-MSNBC host Joy Reid. (I was working at NBC News.) Donald Trump was leading in the polls of the 2016 Republican presidential primary. But I was confident he would not win the nomination.

Very confident.

I told Joy, who is a friend, that Trump was experiencing a sugar high in the polls, not unlike Herman Cain did four years earlier. I predicted the Republican establishment would organize against Trump and embrace the obvious candidate for the party’s future, a kind of a Barack Obama for the right: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

Joy was equally confident. Trump was speaking about racial issues in a way that would resonate with the GOP base, she said. She hinted that neither I nor the GOP party establishment really understood that base. And she laughed as I hyped Rubio. Joy had lived in Florida before moving to New York City to work at MSNBC. She had covered Rubio closely and was extremely confident that he did not have the skills to defeat Trump, particularly if Trump made race a central issue in the campaign.

I remember this conversation from more than five years ago so clearly because it encapsulates much of my experience as a political journalist in the Trump era. In June 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy, I had been covering national politics for 13 years, including three presidential campaigns. I had been savvy at times — describing Obama as the likely winner of the 2008 Democratic nomination in January 2007, before he even formally announced his candidacy. I assumed I knew a lot about how politics in America worked.

Then Trump came along.

Over the next five-plus years, I learned a lot about covering national politics. Some lessons came the hard way: By being really wrong. So now that we’re about a month into a new presidential administration, I’m trying to keep those lessons front and center. What are they? Here are nine:

I’ll list the titles. You will have to dig out the details.

  1. Listen more to Black people.
  2. Mix up my media diet.
  3. Don’t be too reliant on political insiders.
  4. Move on from both sides-ism.
  5. Read less access and insider journalism.
  6. Embrace uncertainty.
  7. Learn more about identity issues.
  8. Cover “government.”

Whew. So I learned a lot, but still have a lot to learn. And that’s OK. If nothing else, I am hoping this article itself is an illustration of the ninth, meta-lesson that I learned in covering Trump: Journalists covering elections and governments should be humble. Our sample size is tiny: There have been 117 Congresses, 59 presidential elections and 46 presidents in all of U.S. history. We live in a rapidly changing world. We as journalists have to adapt to these changes and still always assume that we aren’t getting the story completely right.

In my case, I’m already pretty nervous about bungling things. I just wrote a long essay about the lessons I learned covering Trump. But Joe Biden is president now. Some of those lessons might not apply — and surely there will be new lessons from the Biden years. But no matter what, you heard it here first, in 2024, Biden will … I have no idea. I will stay humble and you should stay tuned.

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