Perplexity, self-criticism, and the challenges facing the American press under the new president
At around seven p.m., the fourth floor of the building was lit up by beams of light that went from purple to silver and silver to pink, potentially disorienting those of the age group that still refers to clubs as discotheques.
Gargantuan TVs were distributed across the walls, tuned to news shows drowned out by the loud music and by the conversations many decibels higher than normal between people who had put in plenty of time in front of the bathroom mirror before leaving home. An army of waiters bearing trays of canapés and drinks wove through the crowd, leaving a slight scent of grease in their wake. It might have looked like a perfume launch, but this was the party put on by the Washington Post at the newspaper’s headquarters on the night of Tuesday, November 8th. Around a thousand people had been invited to watch the results of the presidential election that would define whether Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton or Donald John Trump would be the next occupant of the White House.
Unlike the New York Times, which charged $250 a head with the promise that guests would rub elbows with celebrities at concentrations nearing Oscar after-party levels – the celebrities in this case being executive editor Dean Baquet and the paper’s leading editors and reporters – the Post’s party was free, paid for by sponsors. The largest was MGM, which was about to launch a real estate venture. At a time when the largest media vehicles have been opening separate “events” departments, this was a strategy calculated to, as industry slang has it, “blow up the brand.” By the next day, selfies of pretty, influential people smiling in front of the Gothic letters of the paper’s logo would be swirling across social media.
In a glass room, a famous confectioner was pulling red, white, and blue taffy; in another, furnished with a miniature version of the Oval Office, guests were posing for photos; off in another corner, attendees could test out virtual reality headsets. Scattered throughout were stations where hip restaurants served up their best dishes – oysters, fried chicken, ceviche, shrimp cocktails – to people who exchanged platitudes as they waited in line. Among those invited were ambassadors, political strategists, legislators, famous chefs, and plenty of people from deep within the Washington bureaucracy. D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser stopped by, as did Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen.
The room was furnished with white leather couches, Philippe Starck-esque transparent chairs (the backrests decorated with portraits of long-dead presidents), poker tables, and roulette wheels. DJ PhilipZ was playing songs tailored to please the “discotheque” crowd. Around eight p.m., tweets with the hashtag #WPElectionNight gave a sense of the prevailing mood: “Should be an interesting night”; “@thewashingtonpost knows how to throw an #ElectionNight party!”
Washington Post editor-in-chief Martin Baron had advised the house journalists to stay away from the bash. And they obeyed. All signs seemed to indicate that their presence or absence wouldn’t have made the slightest difference for the guests.
Three floors up, the Post’s newsroom was full and quiet. Most of the journalists were writing, tweeting, or checking emails from their desks. There was a buffet with Asian food, and TVs were tuned into CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. The New York Times’s Upshot blog was predicting that Clinton had an 87% chance of winning. On social media and television, the Trump team seemed to give off an air of defeat. Campaign spokesperson Kellyanne Conway let it be known that Trump “didn’t have the full support of the Republican infrastructure.” Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son, had given an interview to CNN complaining that the Electoral College was an unfair system. Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that he’d just left Trump’s apartment, where the candidate was “calm” and drinking Diet Coke.
The first event of the night began at 7:45 p.m.: a debate with the Mexican and German ambassadors to the United States, mediated by one of the newspaper’s editors. The party was so lively that few paid attention; among the rare exceptions were the German diplomat’s family, sitting in the front row. The room was filling up. A woman with a hat in the shape of a three-tiered cake leaned over to guests, offering up sweets placed atop her head. Another walked around in a dress covered with paper napkins that partygoers could pluck from her bodice. Clinton was leading, although the Florida returns were showing some strange results.
At 8:30 p.m., as Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” came over the speakers, Clinton was leading in twelve states. When the electoral map came up on the massive central screen, it was met with a many-voiced “whoo!” from the crowd. The second attraction that night was a conversation between Obama’s former communications director and a Bush administration press secretary. The festive atmosphere had a clear effect on audience members’ concentration. An older man to my right was leaning forward and cupping a hand around his ear. After much effort, he gave up. “I’m leaving, there’s no use staying here,” he grumbled. Most of those present ignored the political discussion. The celebrities at this exclusive party seemed to be the guests themselves.
At 8:49 p.m., the map displayed the returns from Pennsylvania. Strangely enough, the state started turning red, indicating an unexpected upset for the Republicans. The prevailing commotion of the party meant that few people noticed. The man who had threatened to leave, however, who was still there, turned to his wife – a dead ringer for Meryl Streep – and said, shaking his head: “What the hell is that?”
At 9:05 p.m., CNN announced that Trump had won Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. To my left, a group of young people posed for a selfie, champagne glasses aloft. To my right, a woman staring at one of the television screens kept on repeating something. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” was all that I could make out, over the sound of “Don’t You Want Me,” by Human League, which was being played at top volume. As the electoral map reddened, Twitter blanched. “Trying to understand these numbers.” “The suspense is killing me.”
By 9:37 p.m., Trump had 137 electoral votes to Clinton’s 104.
By 9:55, half of the room had emptied out, and Madonna’s “Lucky Star” echoed off the walls. The Dow Jones index had fallen 500 points.
In the Post’s newsroom, Martin Baron could be seen going in and out of the editors’ offices. They had to come up with new pieces and analyses, tossing out the material they’d already written. Articles about the importance of having a woman in the presidency, explaining why the people had rejected Trumpist ideas, about how the Latino vote helped elect Clinton – at least two dozen pieces were thrown out. The journalists weren’t heard to lament, or to voice their shock as the electoral map began turning ketchup-colored. “There was an almost uncomfortable silence,” said one editor – who, not having talked to the paper’s public relations department prior to our conversation, asked to remain unnamed.
The editors began discussing why they had underestimated negative perceptions of Clinton and the surprising results in traditionally Democratic states. They’d have to write about that. And about the shocking amount of female support for Trump – a man whose campaign was punctuated by hair-raising misogynistic comments. It came out that the Democrats had planned to set off fireworks, and had put together a party for 400 people at the campaign headquarters in New York. A few reporters tried to get in touch with Clinton campaign officials, but many had stopped responding to text messages. Someone remembered that one of the stories set to be published in that Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine – which had been finished ahead of time – referred to Clinton as the president-elect.
At 10:15 p.m., the party came to an end before the final results, but after Trump’s victory was assured. A few guests lingered for a long while, as if they didn’t know where else to go. I was among them. I had arrived in Washington ten days earlier and filled up four notebooks with quotes from spin doctors, academics, campaign gurus, and polling experts – 19 in all – which were meant to confirm the obvious: just how “Madam President” (that was the headline that the New York Times had chosen) had made it. I had taken in dozens of theses about the challenges of being a woman in power, and I already knew how I was going to close out my piece. The end would go more or less like this: “And at XX:XX, [insert network] announced that Hillary Rodham Clinton had been elected the 45th president of the United States.” Standing there, in the event space that now resembled the detritus from a New Year’s Eve nightclub party, I now felt that all of my reporting was wrong-headed junk.
By around 11:30 p.m., I was heading down K Street, walking from the Post to the White House. The city was strangely quiet, although people were out walking, waiting for taxis or Ubers, and leaving restaurants. There was an air of dread and hesitancy, as if it were now forbidden to raise one’s voice or walk at a brisker pace. Nobody celebrated; no honking cars drove by. A group of teenagers crossed my path. When one of the girls laughed, the sound hung in the air for a while as if it were the only laughter in the city. At 2:30 a.m., the Associated Press announced that Donald Trump had been elected the 45th president of the United States.
The Newseum is the largest journalism museum in the world, with 250,000 square feet spread out across seven floors in an imposing building on Pennsylvania Avenue. It receives around 800,000 visitors per year – most of which come in the form of large groups of public-school students who run and shout through the galleries, creating a din that can also rank the museum as one of the noisiest in the world. The large collection includes an 18th-century printing press, ID cards belonging to legendary journalists, front pages from all sorts of newspapers, and a considerable chunk of the Berlin Wall. Visitors can also see the tan suit worn by O.J. Simpson at his trial, and even the slippers favored by Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette.
Four days after the grimmest, most turbulent, cartoonish, aggressive, polarized, controversial, virulent, and vulgar election in the history of the United States, Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media critic, addressed an audience still shell-shocked by the results. In an auditorium on the 3rd floor of the Newseum, in a talk that was part mea culpa and part self-analysis, she tried to address the urgent question: how could the press have gotten it so wrong?
Like the majority of journalists working in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia – as well as any other being who happened to be passing by the Earth – she had also expected a Clinton victory. In the polls, the Democratic candidate had kept up an average lead of four points over Trump. When it came to the chance that she would take the election, the forecasts all hovered above 70%. Sullivan herself had already written up an article on the importance of the Latino vote in buoying Hillary (one of the pieces that fell victim to the delete key after the results came out). Around ten-thirty that night, when it had become clear that he was the winner, she wrote another piece lamenting the blindness of the media – and, even later that night, a third in which she urged journalists to be more combative than ever so as to recover their credibility.
“I think that the press had a year of magical thinking,” she said, referencing Joan Didion’s book on mourning. “That’s what it is: you see something before your eyes, but you think that it’s obvious that it won’t happen. A person who says what he says, who does what he does – it was obvious that he wouldn’t win. And that’s how we spent the year.”
The same perplexity could be seen in the news, editorials, roundtable discussions on TV, social media, and specialized blogs. The free associating emanating from the nationwide therapist’s couch called the press biased, elitist, and moneygrubbing. The media was accused of painting one’s minor trespasses with the same brush as the other’s outrages; of treating his candidacy as a joke, and not a reality; of turning the race into a circus; of trusting in graphs and statistics instead of stepping outside the newsroom and trying to understand what really drove the electorate in the farthest reaches of the country; of giving him free airtime because he brought in viewers; of having been swallowed up by social networks; of having been willingly manipulated. Or perhaps the press simply wasn’t able to understand, deal with, or write about a character so unlike anything in the world of conventional politics. “We’re going through a period of self-flagellation,” Sullivan said. “It’s time to reflect on what we did right and what we did wrong. Let’s not fool ourselves; we did some things right. Just look at the Post.”
Of the three major scoops published in the final stretch of the campaign, one was the New York Times’ investigation into how Trump took advantage of legal loopholes in order to avoid paying federal income tax for nearly 20 years. Another revealed that his much-vaunted philanthropy was nothing more than a front, since he used the money from donations to benefit himself. And the last was the leak of a video in which he, during the filming of a TV show, bragged about his sexual advances and practically recited the ABCs of misogyny. The last two articles, from the Washington Post, were written by the same reporter, David Fahrenthold.
Ever since its purchase by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, the Post has become somewhat of a phoenix. In just over three years, the paper was able to resume its ambitious reporting, reinvent itself online, and regain international relevance. This alchemy wouldn’t have been possible without the leadership of Martin Baron, considered one of the best editors in the world. His resume includes a staggering tenure at the Boston Globe, where he oversaw the investigation into pedophilia in the Catholic Church as portrayed in the movie Spotlight. With Bezos and Baron, the new incarnation of the Post fused old-school journalism with the agility of the tech world.
Money, journalistic instincts, and the prestige of a century-old brand made the Post an exception. Unlike the rest of the press, which saw mass firings and branch closings, the newspaper increased its staff by 30%. In 2015, it even came to outpace the New York Times in terms of web traffic. It was lauded as the most innovative media publication of the year by Fast Company, one of the most important sources of information on the digital market. The paper also racked up four Pulitzer Prizes – and Fahrenthold’s piece is a strong candidate to bring in a fifth. The article that piauí had planned to publish would have been about Clinton’s victory through the lens of the reporters working at the Post.
Just over a week before the elections, the big story was that the FBI had reopened investigations into Hillary Clinton’s use of her personal email as Obama’s secretary of state. The case had become the opposition’s favorite talking point for highlighting the candidate’s dishonesty and lack of trustworthiness; she also had to explain controversial donations to the foundation with her family’s name. On Twitter, Trump wrote that the scandal was “bigger than Watergate.”
The Post’s newsroom takes up six floors in an imposing building in downtown Washington. The approximately 700 people who work there (the New York Times has about 300 employees) are distributed across an open floor plan packed with white desks (only a few of which sport trinkets or family photos) and black office chairs. The place is quiet, spacious, and well-lit. In the hallways, there are kitchenettes with impeccable counters that seem to have never been touched by a foodstuff. Coffeemakers are at the ready, but employees have to bring in their own grounds if they want to make a drink. The armchairs and benches hew to a Scandinavian style. At least 250 televisions take up part of the walls, where they share space with panels emblazoned with quotes from journalists and the newspaper’s more than 50 Pulitzer Prizes. In the 1980s, one of those Pulitzers had to be returned when it came to light that reporter Janet Cooke had fabricated the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict. (The case is well documented in a wing at the Newseum.)
Ten days before the election: by around 3 p.m. that day, Steven Ginsberg, the senior politics editor at the Washington Post, had already been to three meetings on the paper’s approach to covering the FBI email investigation. He thought that nobody’s vote would be changed as a result of the incident – but, in any case, he’d tasked five reporters with following the story. The Post had 44 journalists working full-time on the campaign; the New York Times had 22.
At age 44 – with 22 years of experience at the Post – Ginsberg is bearded, with slightly reddish hair, and soft-spoken, with the air of a chemistry professor. From his small office in the newsroom, he spoke about the challenges of covering such a polarized election, plus the sui generis element that was Donald Trump. “In previous elections, candidates didn’t say so many things that weren’t true,” he said. “They’d normally be in a kind of gray area, and you’d just quote them without feeling like you had to fact-check them the very next sentence. That became obsolete in this election. You had to call lies out instantly, or become part of the propaganda.”
Ginsberg prides himself on the fact that the paper took Trump “seriously” from the start, which meant that they could investigate him before the competition did. “He said things that would destroy any other candidacy, and every time he said them, his polls went up.” All the press had to do to take him seriously, Ginsberg said, was believe in what they were seeing. Much of the press viewed him as little more than an opportunistic buffoon who had already threatened to run for the office on five other occasions. The Huffington Post, for example, published its coverage of him in the website’s Entertainment section. New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick went so far as to write that Trump was only running to boost his business, and that “the whole con might end” even before the primaries.
“A lot of people made fun of us,” Ginsberg said. He claimed that fellow journalists posted jokes on Twitter when the Post wrote – a year and two months before Trump announced his candidacy – that he was likely to run. Some of the jokes have since been deleted, he noted.
In addition to inaugurating the so-called “post-truth” era in the world of electoral politics – where reality is less important in shaping public opinion than emotion and personal beliefs – Trump also broke with the established conventions of political coverage. He had a 27-year-old press secretary who didn’t return reporters’ calls; nobody knew who was running his campaign; like a teenager, he used Twitter to call out journalists, call them names, and complain about stories; he forbade reporters from traveling on his plane during the campaign; he confiscated credentials from those he didn’t like (going so far as to ban the Post entirely); and said that he’d make libel laws more flexible so as to be able to sue the press more easily. At his rallies, he called reporters out by name in order to publicly criticize them. He often pointed towards the press pen, calling them “dishonest” and “scum.” “We had the resources and the structure to react to that,” Ginsberg said. When Trump banned the Post from his campaign rallies – and there were sometimes three in a day, in different states – the paper sent out more reporters. Even without credentials, a staff member could always wait in line, to get in as part of the audience.
Negative perceptions of the press became an important part of Trump’s campaign strategy, Ginsberg said. And the tack hit home. According to a recent Gallup poll, just one in three Americans said they had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the mass media. This was the worst showing since the start of the survey in 1972. The Gallup report attributes part of the result to “Trump’s sharp criticisms of the press,” “the prevalence of social media,” and “lower standards for journalism.”
This crisis of credibility coincided with the paring down of newsrooms and the growing importance of social networks, which stand today as the main distributors of news across the world. One Pew study showed that 62% of American adults accessed news on social media, especially Facebook. Meanwhile, the number of journalists in the United States fell off drastically. In 1990, there were 56,900 journalists working in the country, according to the American Society of News Editors. Last year, there were just 32,900. Local publications with modest circulation were hit hard, as were the outposts of major newspapers which had worked for decades to connect what was happening in the far-flung Capitol to the lives of everyday citizens. It was thanks to the experience of their local correspondents that the big papers could keep a finger on the pulse of what was happening in middle America.
Ginsberg said grimly that he was worried about the rise of sites featuring fake or sensationalistic news stories, which had destabilized the race. Pope Francis was said to have announced his support for Trump (960,000 shares); an investigator looking into Clinton’s emails was said to have been found dead (567,000 shares). A BuzzFeed study revealed that out of every 20 false articles shared on Facebook during the elections, 17 were pro-Trump or anti-Hillary. And there were aggravating circumstances. The campaign itself, as well as the candidate’s family members, were also spreading the rumors. Eric Trump, for instance, retweeted a piece falsely claiming that Clinton was paying protesters $3500 to disrupt his father’s rallies. “Finally, the truth comes out!” he wrote.
“How do you deal with this? It’s a very serious thing, with unpredictable consequences in the long term,” said Ginsberg. The Washington Post had just published a piece on how Facebook had become a repository for lies on the Internet. He was afraid that, based on the events of this election season, other politicians might guide their supporters to sham outfits like the conservative InfoWars, which claims to be an “alternative news” source but publishes fake, pro-Trump content. “People have come to distrust the traditional press. Is this how things are going to be from now on?” he wondered. Ginsberg believes that vehicles like the Post have to be relentless in unmasking these farces, day by day. I asked him whether he thought it was possible to return to a pre-Trump state of journalism. “The election results will set the tone for whatever’s going to happen.”
I left Ginsberg’s office and went to speak with Dana Milbank, one of the Post’s long-standing columnists, who had just given a TV interview in a corner of the newsroom. He’s an energetic figure, with a probing gaze and the cadence of a television host. Three days earlier, about two weeks out from Election Day, he’d written a scorched-earth column on another subject related to the press: false equivalence. In their eagerness to show impartiality, he said, journalists had tried to balance things out by giving equal space to Trump and Clinton’s scandals. “And the end result was that they treated this idiotic email issue with the same gravity and depth with which they dealt with Trump’s outrages,” said Milbank. He was killing time before a doctor’s appointment. We walked along the empty hallways of the Post building. “My column on Tuesday came out partial, didn’t it? So what? I should’ve gotten partial much longer ago,” he said. He argued that the press had to figure out quickly and definitively how to deal with a lying and/or racist demagogue in newsprint. For Milbank, when it came to a certain type of person – a candidate, say – there can be no political partiality. “It’s a matter of democracy,” he said. The paper could justify dedicating a whole issue to criticizing Trump. There’d be no lack of things to write about: his plan to expel 11 million illegal immigrants; to build a wall on the border between Mexico and the United States; to ban Muslims from entering the country; to scrap environmental legislation, the Iran nuclear deal, and Obamacare. To say nothing of his open disrespect for women, accusations of sexual harassment, anti-Semitism, and an incestuous relationship with Russia. “Nothing he says is democratic. How can someone think that that’s the same as using an email, which the FBI already said doesn’t have anything, and nobody really knows what’s in it?” he wanted to know.
At the same time, whenever more critical stories on him were published, Trump accused the press of bias. When the Center for Public Integrity wrote that 430 journalists had donated nearly $400,000 to Clinton, he – who had received $14,000 from just 50 – got even by stirring up the notion that he was the victim of a conspiracy. The press, powerful people in Washington, polling institutes, banks – they were all against him.
The topic made Milbank visibly uncomfortable. “That’s banana republic stuff,” he said. I laughed. “Not alluding to Brazil. That doesn’t happen there, does it?” I laughed again. As he saw it, the press had been intimidated. “You’ve got a threat, a guy who wants to be a dictator, and you just publish a piece saying, ‘Thanks for your point of view, Mr. Hitler. Now, let’s hear the other side.’ It’s not ‘he said, she said.’ It’s about right and wrong.”
Milbank was adamantly skeptical about Trump’s success. Back during the primaries, he wrote a column saying that if Trump became the Republican candidate, he would eat his own words – literally. In May, he did just that The Post published a video in which Milbank, flanked by the paper’s food critic and a chef, nibbled on ceviche accompanied by a purée of newsprint and a taco bowl filled with grilled newspaper guacamole, among other dishes. They toasted with Trump Sauvignon Blanc (from his vineyard in Virginia). The video has been seen thousands of times.
When we said goodbye, Milbank confessed that he was fed up with the election. Early in the year, he’d gone so far as to ask his editor to let him write about something else. “It’s grotesque. The vulgarity of this campaign is soul-killing,” he said. His boss, evidently, said no. “If he wins, don’t blame me. I was on the right side of history.”
Trump has always had an incestuous, tumultuous relationship with the press, and it dates back a long way: nearly four decades ago, he was already making tabloid front pages, and could be seen on TV for a number of reasons. A reality TV star, a monument to tackiness, and a luxury developer with a machine-gun for a mouth, he was a natural ratings magnet. When he started talking politics – especially on air – things could hardly be different. Back in the primaries he was a staple on interview shows, especially Sunday morning programs. Networks would even interview him over the phone, an uncommon practice, allowing him to say whatever he wanted. The debates became a variety show watched by thousands. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” said then-network president Les Moonves. A Pew study showed that cable channels gave twice as much airtime to Trump as to Clinton – and sixteen times as much coverage as they devoted to Bernie Sanders.
Estimates indicate that CNN may have made an extra $100 million on election coverage alone. Nielsen reported that Fox News was able to raise the price for a 30-second commercial during the presidential debates by 1,000%. And the networks weren’t alone. According to comScore, in October, the Post’s site saw 99.6 million unique visitors – 49% more than the previous year (while the New York Times received 101.4 million such visitors). The analytics firm mediaQuant, meanwhile, reported that Trump benefited from the equivalent of $5.2 billion in free media coverage over the course of the campaign.
Most surprisingly of all: while Clinton had spent hundreds of millions on advertising, Trump had spent a relative pittance. By acting on instinct and feeling out the electorate without any political strategy whatsoever, the candidate had contradicted the prevailing wisdom of a small army of analysts and revealed just how little was known about electoral advertising.
“Part of the press consented to being manipulated because it made for good stories,” said Robert Entman a week before Election Day, in his office at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, where he is a professor. “They saw the theater of the absurd and they asked for more. The networks in particular.” This attitude, he said, allowed Trump to dictate the tone of media coverage. The result was that the press was unable to clearly explain the difference between the candidates, and habitually failed to delve into serious issues. “He’s got hundreds of suits for tax evasion, fraud, and failing to pay employees. And the most corrupt candidate, according to surveys, is Clinton? Of course that’s the fault of bad media coverage.”
Even with Clinton leading in the polls, Entman saw journalists as having failed on several counts. One of their biggest mistakes was treating Trump the politician as if he were Trump the celebrity. “By controlling the press,” Entman said, “he paved his path to the White House.” Since the candidate came up with a new story every day – some new controversial or ridiculous statement – the press jumped from topic to topic without going into depth on any of them. This wasn’t an accident; Trump was following a script. In the 1987 book Trump: The Art of the Deal – part autobiography, part self-help for entrepreneurs – Trump revealed how he manipulated journalists towards his own ends and benefited from negative stories, advising readers on how to guide conversations with reporters to produce the desired narrative. Here, we have a preview of how he behaved during the campaign.
- One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better. It’s the nature of the job, and I understand that. The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you. […]
- If I take out a full-page ad in the New York Times to publicize a project, it might cost $40,000, and in any case, people tend to be skeptical about advertising. But if the New York Times writes even a moderately positive one-column story about one of my deals, it doesn’t cost me anything and it’s worth a lot more than $40,000.
- The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business. Television City is a perfect example. When I bought the land in 1985, many people, even those on the West Side, didn’t realize that those one hundred acres existed. Then I announced I was going to build the world’s tallest building on the site. Instantly it became a media event. […] Every architecture critic had an opinion, and so did a lot of editorial writers. Not all of them liked the idea of the world’s tallest building. But the point is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value. […]
- For example, if someone asks me what negative effects the world’s tallest building might have on the West Side, I turn the tables and talk about how New Yorkers deserve the world’s tallest building, and what a boost it will give the city to have that honor again. When a reporter asks why I build only for the rich, I note that the rich aren’t the only ones who benefit from my buildings. I explain that I put thousands of people to work who might otherwise be collecting unemployment, and that I add to the city’s tax base every time I build a new project. […]
- I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.
Eugene Meyer, a billionaire financier, and his wife, the writer Agnes Ernst, a friend to artists, celebrities, and politicians, were enjoying a Gatsbyesque lifestyle in the first decades of the 20th century. In 1933, Meyer decided to expand his business. At a bankruptcy auction, he bought a newspaper founded in 1877, which was four pages long and went for 3 cents an issue: the Washington Post.
After 13 years at the head of the paper, Meyer passed the job on to his son-in-law, the lawyer Philip Graham. Sunk in depression and alcoholism, Graham committed suicide in 1963. That was when his wife Katherine, Meyer’s daughter, who harbored a real interest in journalism, took over the family business. She hired an intrepid Newsweek reporter named Ben Bradlee. They were opposites: she was hesitant, with a light touch, while he was a loose cannon. At the helm of the Post, Bradlee – having gotten a financial green light from the paper’s owner – revolutionized its coverage model. He spread correspondents across multiple countries, opened up offices in a number of cities, and created new specialized sections within the newspaper.
Graham and Bradlee worked in lockstep, a partnership that shone in extreme situations – such as when the Post got access to the Pentagon Papers, or when reporters Bob Woodward (who works at the paper to this day) and Carl Bernstein (a prolific political analyst and writer) began investigating a strange break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. What looked like a run-of-the-mill crime revealed itself to be a scandalous case of political espionage, culminating in the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.
The Post carved out a place for itself in the history of journalism with fame and prestige. Donald Graham, Katherine’s son, took over for his mother. He was universally loved – generous, ethical, well-mannered, and even-handed – but lacked a strategic vision for the newspaper. Although the Post published major pieces, they had less and less impact. For decades, conventional wisdom had it that the New York Times was the best newspaper in the country; the Wall Street Journal had the best economic coverage; and USA Today was slid under hotel doors. The Post was seen as a first-rate local paper, focusing on educational issues, metropolitan news, sports, and advertisements for local supermarkets and stores. It was read by the White House, but also by the city’s taxi drivers.
Things kept on that way until the financial crisis of 2008, when the Post’s finances collapsed. Many offices at home and abroad were shut down, employees were fired en masse, subscriptions were in freefall and talented reporters began fleeing to other vehicles. At one point, it was announced that Graham’s niece, Katharine Weymouth (then publisher of the newspaper) was planning to charge $250,000 to lobbyists for access to dinners at her house with off-the-record chats with politicians and journalists, in an ill-fated attempt at fundraising. The idea never came to be; there was no such dinner. Over the next four years, the paper’s reporters would feel the full effects of the decline.
In early 2013, Martin Baron, the legendary editor-in-chief of the Boston Globe, took over at the Post. He has a reputation for being determined, ethical, intelligent, and painstaking. “He makes my work better,” one hears from former employees. With Baron, there’s no small talk or cracking jokes. Four reporters told me that they always leave his office with the impression that he hates them – even without a raised voice or a rude word.
As Baron sees it, journalism doesn’t mean saying that a house is on fire. It means understanding why the house is on fire. It means denouncing pedophilia in the Catholic Church, but even more importantly, understanding why the authorities are covering it up. If something bad has happened, someone must be behind it. Baron wants to know who did it, whose fault it is, and why.
In his first weeks on the job, Baron rose to the occasion. He was the only American editor to agree to look into a former CIA contractor called Edward Snowden who was saying that the National Security Agency had invaded servers like Yahoo and Google in order to spy on users. Reporter Barton Gellman had offered the story to a number of newspapers and magazines; they turned it down, saying that the topic was controversial and risky to cover. With Baron’s seal of approval, the piece won a Pulitzer months later.
In August 2013, the Post’s editors were called in for a meeting, even those who were on vacation. In front of a hundred employees, a choked-up Donald Graham announced that he was selling the newspaper for $250 million to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, whose net worth is estimated at around 72 billion dollars. (In a polite email, Graham turned down an interview with piauí, claiming that he doesn’t talk publicly about journalism now that he’s off the job.) Bezos was a carefully considered pick to take over the company that the Graham family had run for four generations. Graham saw him as dedicated, intelligent, impartial, and, above all, someone who understood the importance of journalistic diversity for democracy. Moreover, he was sure that Bezos wouldn’t interfere with the Post’s editorial line.
In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Bezos confirmed Graham’s impressions. His getting involved in the newsroom would be “like walking into a surgical theater while my son was having brain surgery and meddling with the brain surgeon,” he argued. “It is a very difficult business that needs to be done by professionals.” He also said that his plan at the Post was to spend less money and reach more people. That would be possible thanks to a massive digital operation, an approach much cheaper than print. Content is produced, put online, and it multiplies for free. In one early meeting, Bezos said that one of his favorite recent articles had been “Nine questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask,” because it presented serious content in an easy-to-absorb format. Amazon’s guiding business principles – “Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient” – were put into practice at the newspaper. Bezos likes to say that to understand his approach, just replace “customer” with “reader.” Another principle has to do with total confidentiality when it comes to the company’s numbers. The Post doesn’t publicize the number of subscriptions, its profit margin, losses, or spending.
In the old Post, the photo department, for example, had a space all its own. Now, each department has dedicated photo, audio, social media, video, and programming staff working alongside reporters and editors. There are 80 IT engineers alone. Many came over from Amazon. Every day, 1,200 new pieces of content are published online.
There are three television studios and two radio studios. In the main atrium, a gargantuan LED screen shows colored lines that look like an EKG and horizontal blue blocks. They are a real-time measure of how the news stories are being read – which are drawing the most or the least interest, how much time is spent on each, where readers tend to give up on a story, what time of day visitors access the site most, what the most common search terms are on the site, what are the most popular hashtags associated with the newspaper, and which videos are going viral on social media. In addition to longer pieces, such as in-depth coverage of ISIS, the Post also publishes videos of cute kittens and pieces like “Surviving Thanksgiving when you hate how your family voted,” which bring in huge numbers. They’re not afraid of seeming frivolous or sales-focused, and the strategy has paid off. In October 2015, the Post leapfrogged the New York Times in web traffic. Lately, the Times has taken its lead back.
One afternoon this October, reporter David Fahrenthold was answering emails from his desk – which, surprisingly, was almost completely free of papers or clutter. He was writing up versions of articles to be run on Election Night: in case he won, in case she won, in case he contested the results, how the votes in each state would be weighed. At age 38 – 16 of which he’s spent at the Post, the only employer he’s ever had – Fahrenthold had written about Congress, the federal government, and environmental issues before being put on the team covering the presidential race. He’s tall and thin, with blondish hair and a face speckled with tiny freckles; he wears glasses with dark, rectangular frames, has close-cropped hair, and talks without stopping to take a breath. Fahrenthold, in short, might remind you of one of those Silicon Valley types: focused, methodical, organized, and apparently not dependent on sleep for survival.
Fahrenthold’s article on Trump’s philanthropic activity and how the candidate used a reputation of generosity for personal gain is a brilliant piece of journalism. Not only did it present the background reporting in an innovative way, but it was also able to lay bare the way that Trump deals with money, ethics, laws, business, and the world.
Trump had always bragged about having donated over $100 million out of his own pocket to charitable institutions. In January, he skipped out on a Fox News debate in order to attend a Trump Foundation event that raised $6 million for veterans – with $1 million having allegedly come from the candidate himself. This seemed like a trivial incident, but Fahrenthold found it odd. Although private-sector donations weren’t his forte, he knew that there was something off about this mixture of politics and charity. That night, as he was leaving the office, he ran into Martin Baron in the elevator. His boss was as laconic as always. “I think that you should focus just on the Trump Foundation.”
For several weeks, Fahrenthold requested information from Trump’s team, until then-campaign coordinator Corey Lewandowski called to say that the donations were real, but that he wouldn’t be getting any more information. Fahrenthold had to follow the money, but he was stuck: how to confirm the donations, since there were thousands of charities serving veterans across the country? That’s when he had an idea that an old-school journalist would probably blanch at, for fear of revealing his or her angle. Fahrenthold would publish step-by-step updates on his reporting on Twitter, publicly requesting information about the institutions that had allegedly received support. “It was almost out of desperation. It would be impossible to call all of them,” he said.
On the first day, he sent around 40 Tweets tagging the Trump Foundation, Trump himself (@realDonaldTrump), and other journalists. “Trump’s on Twitter all the time. I wanted him to see that I was doing it,” he said. He asked if anyone had heard of organization X, where Y was headquartered, and who was responsible for Z. When he got home, still with nothing to show for his efforts, he complained to his wife that he’d wasted his time on a meaningless effort. But around eight o’clock that night, Trump himself tweeted critically about the press’s efforts to look into the donations. “Amazingly, with all of the money I have raised for the vets, I have got nothing but bad publicity from the dishonest and disgusting media,” he wrote.
By the next day, Fahrenthold’s inbox was full. He’d gotten a dozen leads – some non-starters, others unverifiable, but plenty of valuable information coming from people he’d never met in his life. This was a fascinating new dynamic. At one point, he came across a donation from Trump of just $7, made in 1989. Unable to make sense of it, he posted about it online. Ten minutes later, he got a message from a group which, after an extensive email back-and-forth, had discovered that $7 was the fee for a year’s membership in the Boy Scouts. Trump had paid the fee for his 11-year-old son and declared it as a donation. Bingo.
On another occasion, he was looking into the largest donation – $264,631, to the Central Park Conservancy. After days in the dark, he tweeted from a taxi: “Here’s something I need help on, folks…” By the time he arrived at home, an anonymous source had sent him copies of documents that matched the date and the sum. One of the park’s fountains needed maintenance, the city wasn’t going to pay up, and so the Conservancy decided to request funds from all of the buildings overlooking the park. The largest of them was Trump Tower. Instead of using company money, Trump paid the bill with foundation resources. In May, Fahrenthold tracked down the only verified donation made by Trump to date: $5,000-$10,000 to the Police Athletic League of New York in 2009. He also discovered that Trump had paid $12,000 for a football helmet signed by Tim Tebow, and another $20,000 for a full-body portrait of himself – all declared as charity, but kept in Trump’s properties, far from the eyes of the public.
Fahrenthold’s investigation brought to light that Trump hadn’t donated a cent between 2009 and May of 2016 (he only started again once the investigation had begun). It also revealed that, while the foundation received money from other donors, it didn’t pass it on to the institutions it promised to support – as was the case with the January event. Moreover, the organization had run afoul of laws on “self-dealing” – using the foundation’s money to benefit his own private businesses. An investigation is ongoing.
Fahrenthold was never afraid of being scooped by his rivals. “I don’t think people were paying much attention to it. Trump was saying so many different things every day that it kept everyone else busy,” he said. His articles were read over by lawyers before being published. According to Fahrenthold, they tend to push for more details and sources. Since Trump never returns his calls, conversations with the legal team are something of an exercise in imagination. “We’d ask each other: ‘If you were Trump, what would you deny?’”
In September, having contacted 420 entities with some connection to Trump (he had either mentioned them publicly, taken part in events, or they were mentioned in Trump Foundation filings) and having put together a wealth of material, organized in dozens of Excel spreadsheets and Google documents, Fahrenthold met with the Post’s digital team, which was already working on graphs and interactive tables to illustrate the piece. He came in with a very 20th-century idea: what if I wrote everything out on paper, using three different colors of pen make it stand out, photographed the paper and used that as the only illustration? The designer wasn’t enthused. Fahrenthold insisted on it, and got his way. The next day, the photos went viral on social media. It was a striking experience to scroll down the fifteen pages of handwritten notations, with the names of the companies supposedly benefited by Trump and the status of each donation. The most common designation was “Never.” Up until then, the most popular article on the Post’s website had been about a woman in Africa who had faked her death and gone to her own funeral. Fahrenthold’s scoop outstripped it by thousands of views.
In the wake of the repercussion of the Trump investigation, Fahrenthold had another surprise. In early October, two days before the second presidential debate, he got a phone call from a person offering him some “very interesting” material. It was a video with behind-the-scenes footage from NBC’s Access Hollywood, recorded in 2005. Trump could be heard to say that, since he was famous, he could go to bed with whomever he wanted, and described in crude terms how he went about it. At first, Farenthold couldn’t believe that the video was real. The material was potentially explosive.
The newsroom sent Trump’s advisors a copy of the file, warning that the piece would be published in five hours, with or without comment from the candidate. Two minutes before the deadline, a spokesperson called, playing down the episode – “Locker-room talk” – but saying that Trump apologized if anyone had been offended. “He didn’t know how big it was going to be,” Fahrenthold said. When the Post published the video on social media, the impact was apocalyptic. From then on, Fahrenthold was on TV every day for two weeks. He’d become a celebrity. To date, Fahrenthold has not revealed the identity of his “Deep Throat.”
Just over a week before the elections, Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, was working, standing in front of two computer screens placed atop a bookcase. Back problems mean that he can’t spend too long seated. He was wearing a light green shirt and khaki pants. At age 62, the soft-spoken (very soft-spoken) Baron wears glasses with transparent frames, has a full head of gray hair, and a close-cut white beard.
Baron’s office is cramped. There’s room for a bookcase, his desk, and a table with four chairs. Leaning against the back wall is a life-size cutout of the Oscar statuette (in Spotlight, Baron was played by Liev Schreiber). He was flipping through an issue of piauí with a cover illustration of a naked President Michel Temer, alluding to the fable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” “As long as you don’t put me on the cover like this,” he said in a friendly tone, on one of the two occasions in which he cracked the hint of a smile. The other was when I mentioned that a mutual friend, who was 70 years old, had just been to Rio and loved the city – Baron jokingly spoke about requesting political asylum in Brazil. And Trump hadn’t even won the election yet.
On that day, Matthew Yglesias at Vox – his downstairs neighbor – had written that the “real scandal here is the way a story that was at best of modest significance came to dominate the US presidential election.” Baron disagreed, pointing out that FBI James Comey had called Clinton careless. “Nobody wants a secretary of state who deals with classified material in a reckless fashion. That said, there were many other issues during this campaign. We don’t think in terms of giving both equal space. We don’t even measure it.”
The danger posed to the freedom of the press was a worrisome topic – the Republican candidate’s vendetta against journalists, the growth of the conservative movement baptized the “alt-right,” and the mushrooming of lies online. “Trump has called us the enemy, scum, lowlifes. In fact, he called us the ‘lowest form of life.’ Do you see how serious that is?” he asked.
Then there was the precedent set by Peter Thiel, the eccentric Silicon Valley billionaire who had founded PayPal. Feeling himself wronged by Gawker, he’d financed a massive suit against it, forcing the news site to shut down. Before Thiel came out, Gawker had written that he was “totally gay.” Thiel was one of the names being waved around for posts in the Trump administration.
When asked to weigh the Post’s election coverage, Baron said that, if he could have done anything differently, he’d have sent more reporters across the country to better understand the desires and concerns of the working class. He also had the feeling that they could have dealt better with Bernie Sanders. The same phenomenon that had catapulted the 75-year-old socialist Democrat to the top of the primaries, mobilizing millions of young people, was the same force buoying Trump: a general dissatisfaction felt by a swathe of the population, and the use of a completely different sort of discourse. Both were covered poorly, and insufficiently, by the press.
As we spoke about the election, Baron chose his words carefully. When I mentioned the polls that had Clinton in the lead, he said that she was within the margin of error. When I asked if he had a headline ready to describe her victory, Baron said that he didn’t have a headline ready in case Trump won, either. At one point, I had the impression that he might be seriously contemplating a Trump victory. “Of course I am,” he said. “We in this business are not very good forecasters. We can do a lot of smart work, but we’re not smart enough to predict the future. And there are a lot of variables.”
Baron recalled that all of the previous predictions about Trump had missed the mark. The press thought that he would fall apart after he talked about the wall. When he made fun of a reporter with a disability. When he said that Senator John McCain – held for five and a half years in a POW camp during the Vietnam War – was no hero. “Nothing happened. In addition to being very bad forecasters, we make a lot of assumptions, and we have to be careful about that,” Baron observed. He got up to get a drink of water. “We need to be more impressed with what we don’t know than with what we do know. The antidote to bad predictions is to go out and report. Ask questions and answer those questions. Don’t assume everything.”
Every week, he talks with Bezos about the state of the newspaper. The last time had been the week before, when they spoke about how they would update the results on Election Night. They didn’t discuss strategies in the case of a Trump or Clinton victory, Baron said.
When I asked how long he thought that Bezos would put up with losing money, his answer was brusque. “Who said he was losing money? I haven’t said one way or the other. You made an assumption in the question.” I noted that journalism wasn’t a lucrative business these days. “You made an assumption, and you don’t know. You haven’t seen our financials, and I’m not inclined to share them with you. There are journalistic institutions that make a profit. I can tell you that he’s very happy with how things are going.” While he refused to comment, the same couldn’t be said for others at the Post: word has it that the operation is indeed already in the black.
Four days before the election, Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, was scanning a menu at a dark bar near CNN, where he also works as an analyst. He had just recorded a segment looking ahead to the election. The sound of the wall-mounted TVs made it impossible to keep up any sort of conversation. “Let’s get out of here,” he suggested. As we crossed the street, Wolf Blitzer was walking in the opposite direction. “It’s almost over!” he called out to his colleague, who waved in response. A car almost ran us over, and a girl stuck her head out of the window: “Oh my God, Ryan Lizza!” He saw my look of surprise. “She does makeup at the network, I’m not that famous.”
Lizza is tall, wears black-framed glasses, and has a wholesome air – the ideal son-in-law type. We went into a teahouse and took a seat close to the window. During the campaign, Lizza, who is one of the most respected political reporters in the country, profiled Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush but didn’t spend much time on Donald Trump. “I didn’t think he’d grow,” he said, pouring himself a cup of black tea. “It didn’t make sense. Just another joke fated to irrelevance.” He took out his cell phone and opened up RealClearPolitics – the site was showing Clinton with a five-point lead that day.
Lizza showed me a series of graphs tracking Republican performance in the 2012, 2008, and 2004 primaries. “All of the jokes dropped out in the middle of the campaign. Nobody made it to the end,” he said, eyes glued to the screen. “Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain…” He took another sip of his tea, which had cooled. And he explained that there was a common pattern: they started out well, then the press started looking into them and they sank in the polls. “But Trump isn’t like the others.”
Since he likes statistics, Lizza quoted Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, who had put forth an interesting hypothesis. In all of American history, with only five exceptions, 38 presidents had been elected within 14 years of having served as senators, governors, or vice-presidents. The rule was bad news for Clinton, who had been elected the junior senator for New York 16 years earlier. “She’s been on the road a long time,” he said as he checked his phone again. “Hillary may have passed her expiration date, but that’s not what we’re seeing here.”
On the day after the election, the Post’s headline was “Trump Triumphs” – exactly the same wording as the New York Times. Hillary Clinton had received over 2 million votes more than he did, but the American electoral system stipulates that the winner is determined by whoever obtains an absolute majority in the Electoral College – which supported Trump by a healthy margin. To an extent, the polls were right. She had indeed won, but the question of the moment was whether pollsters should have spent their time talking to electoral delegates, rather than the population. The Republicans also held onto their majorities in the House and Senate.
Analysts began trying to explain the numerical discrepancy that had tripped up an entire nation: “shy” voters who didn’t declare their preference to pollsters; Trump’s advantage among wealthier white voters in Florida; negative views of Clinton, especially amongst women. In the end, however, three unprecedented phenomena set the stage and upset the final results. Compared with the previous election, more people came out to vote for Trump, while turnout for Clinton was lower. Another was the thin margin between the candidates. And then there was the fact that he had brought out new voters – those who were either voting for the first time, who hadn’t voted in a long time, or lived in rural areas or small towns. Since the vote is not mandatory and these sectors of the population don’t normally mobilize for elections, they weren’t adequately represented in polls – and that affected probability calculations from top to bottom.
Wilkes-Barre, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, is one of those places that we’re used to seeing in American films: wooden houses with flags hanging off the porch, folks cooking hot dogs in their backyards, and bland shopping malls surrounded by massive parking lots. The schools close on the first day of the hunting season, the St. Patrick’s Day parade is the biggest local attraction, and even the best restaurants in town have chicken and French fries on the menu. With a population of 41,000, largely conservative, white, Catholic, older than the national average and with lower levels of education, the town is a portrait of the America that elected Donald Trump. In this year’s election, Wilkes-Barre supported a Republican over a Democrat for the first time in 24 years. Luzerne County alone gave Trump nearly 40% of the votes that flipped Pennsylvania from blue to red. The so-called swing states, which don’t tend to vote for a single party, include Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida.
The story of Wilkes-Barre tells something of the saga of American industrial decadence. Dystopia is felt differently here than in Detroit, for example. The streets of Wilkes-Barre are clean, the university is good, and the city isn’t dangerous. The magnificent art deco buildings with dark bricks, colorful stained glass, and marble interiors are well preserved. This isn’t a ghost town, nor is it an up-and-coming hipster destination. In Wilkes-Barre, the future is a thing of the past. The city is quiet, hollow, and impersonal. Young people look for opportunities elsewhere; the population trends toward middle age. The unemployment rate is 7%, far above the national average. Faith is flagging. Of the city’s four Lutheran churches, one has closed and two can’t find a pastor. Most jobs are at hospitals, schools, chain restaurants, and stores – solidly in the category of underemployment.
In the 1920s, the triangle formed by Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton was a major hub of middle-class workers in America. These cities, located in the Rust Belt, stood as the epicenter of mining and the textile industry in the Appalachians – an important enclave for Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants, whose descendants are still the majority of the population.
The debacle began just after World War II, with the flight of industry and a disaster that flooded the coal mines, leaving them permanently unusable. Jobs dried up, the population waned, and the outlook for the next generation grew grim. The region was worsening slowly and steadily, but residents started began feeling a significant decline during the 2008 financial crisis. That was when Wilkes-Barre saw an influx of Latinos from the outskirts of New York (Manhattan is just two and a half hours away by car), in search of cheap housing. To this day, many commute to the city on a daily basis.
“And with them came more drugs and more crime, that’s undeniable,” said Professor Tom Baldino of the political science department at Wilkes University. We were speaking in his office, with a view of an autumn-hued leafy tree. “It’s easy to understand the phenomenon here.” Trump honed in on the fear, anger, values, prejudices, and resentment of a group that had found itself on the margins of the system for years. “People here don’t know a Latino from a Muslim. They’ve never seen them and they don’t know them,” said Baldino. “They just had a clear feeling that everything had gotten worse. And when Trump comes along and says that these immigrants stole their jobs and are bad for these people’s lives, if someone’s life is already going downhill, how are they not going to believe that?”
Every time Trump visited the region, he promised to bring back jobs that had vanished decades earlier. “That’s the biggest concern for the older population, which are the majority here. What’s going to happen to my children, my grandchildren?” He thought it was odd that Trump had never said how, where, and when he was going to bring jobs back. “And, apparently, nobody asked.” Baldino spent the night of Trump’s election awake in front of the television. When the results came out, his wife cried.
Twenty minutes away from Wilkes-Barre, Scranton is best known as the setting for the show The Office, as well as the hometown of Vice President Joe Biden and the place where Hillary Clinton spent her childhood vacations (her father is buried there). There, Clinton won by a slim margin – around 5,000 votes – but some locals were still stunned by the results. At the headquarters of the electrician’s union, Paul Casparro, the organization’s president, painted a dire portrait of a Trump administration. “How could union members vote for him? He was clear right from the start, saying that he was going to make labor laws more flexible, and he conned folks who worked for him,” he said in an office overflowing with papers and books. “This is going to be a nightmare.”
Casparro was worried about the rise of violence in public schools, driven by Trump’s hate speech. In the week after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked over 400 episodes of intimidation or harassment against students. In most cases, children cursed out their classmates or repeated campaign promises to build a border wall and expel immigrants. “That’s the anger that he spread around. That’s here to stay, that’s not going away anytime soon,” Casparro said. No violent incidents had been recorded in Scranton, but he said it was only a matter of time.
As Casparro sees it, a key factor in the narrow margin was the essential conservatism of the population. “Abortion, gun rights, all of that is really strong here,” he said. We heard someone in the hallway and he recognized the voice of Daniel Poirier, one of the union members who had voted for Trump. “He’s an example of what we’re talking about,” Casparro said. Poirier, who had been out of work for months, had come to get a letter of recommendation for a job in New Jersey. Married, with three children, he is 49 but looked at least a decade older. Poirier is portly, tall, and was wearing a blue cap and track jacket. He has a defeated look, as if he didn’t expect much more out of life. How could Trump make his life better? “Jobs,” he said, monosyllabically. Poirier couldn’t remember who he’d voted for in the last election, but he said that at least Trump was a good administrator, unlike Obama and Clinton. “If he knew what to do with his companies, he’ll know what to do as president,” he argued. When I mentioned that Trump was accused of tax evasion, pocketing charitable donations and refusing to pay employees, Poirier pursed his lips. “If he creates more jobs, the rest’ll follow,” he said enigmatically. Didn’t Trump’s racist and misogynist comments bother him? “No. Besides, we don’t even know if he really said that stuff.” He gets his news from television, but says he doesn’t have much patience for politics. The job in New Jersey would pay him $11/hour. “There’s no living this way. He says he’s going to bring jobs back, give people opportunities. Why wouldn’t I vote for him?”
Founded in 1870, the Scranton Times-Tribune is the largest newspaper in the region, with circulation of 38,000 during the week and 60,000 on Sundays. In 1946, it won a Pulitzer for public service. In past elections the paper endorsed George W. Bush and Barack Obama; this year, it supported Clinton. A visit to the elevator recalls a trip through a black-and-white movie starring Jimmy Stewart. The elevator with dark wood panels and worn gold buttons; oak-lined walls hung with oil portraits of the publisher; high ceilings with elaborate wood carvings; white-haired secretaries who’ve been on the job for three decades; and journalists sporting gray mustaches and cufflinks. On the ground floor, visitors can see the giant presses retired twenty years ago.
On a recent afternoon after Trump’s victory, Chris Kelly, the paper’s main political columnist, with 20 years of experience at the paper, was sketching out an article on the virulence of the campaign. Kelly, with bristly hair parted in the middle and 50s-style glasses, cracks jokes constantly as if he were perennially onstage; he could easily be Peter Parker’s boss at the Daily Bugle. We talked about the unexpected support for Trump. “The mainstream press says that they failed because they lost touch with voters in places like Scranton, for example. We know our readers who voted for Trump, and we write for them. But that’s not the point. What matters is that these voters don’t care what the press writes,” he said.
On that morning, the front page of the Times-Tribune featured stories about local business, health, and sports. There was only one piece mentioning the president-elect, on the right side of the page.
Pat McKenna, the executive editor who curates the reader correspondence section, has been at the paper for 38 years. He says that most of the letters they get aren’t related to published articles: they’re insults and complaints in response to rumors and fake news online. “We’ve lost our connection to a part of the population.” If it happened to them, then the coastal press was in a far worse predicament.
Journalist Lee Siegel analyzed the problem in the Columbia Journalism Review. As he saw it, there was an abyss between “the ones who cover and the ones who are covered.” A lack of socioeconomic diversity among journalists was affecting the way in which the country was portrayed by the press. “Journalists who have traveled the straight and narrow path from prep school to the Ivy League to exclusive clubs and fancy dinner parties are instinctively averse to anyone, whatever her politics, who steps out of line,” he wrote. Reporting work wouldn’t lead this journalistic aristocracy – which saw itself as sophisticated and urbane, with a monopoly on the truth – to understand or connect with the working class or Trump voters. The problem, as he put it, was a vast inability to tolerate those outside one’s social spheres. These journalists don’t know what they don’t know, he wrote; and, what’s more, they don’t want to know about it.
“Most of the journalists who came here during the campaign came in, covered a rally, wrote about what was said and left. Nobody stuck around to listen to people afterwards,” said columnist Chris Kelly. “But it’s true, I don’t know if it’d make a difference.” He observed that the press had spent months and plenty of ink on topics like Trump’s connections to Vladimir Putin, for example. The issue was a serious one, but it didn’t have any resonance for the lives of everyday citizens. That’s why it was so shocking when someone like Trump – who, far from being a man of the people, is an arrogant, flip billionaire – could speak “straight to the hearts” of those who felt they’d been left on the sidelines.
At the end of our conversation, Kelly wanted to show me something that a teenager today would never imagine even exists. At the back of the newsroom, hundreds of thousands of brown envelopes packed with back issues of the newspaper were piled up in iron shelves. The place smelled of cellulose. “Isn’t it incredible? How long’s it been since you smelled that?” he asked. As we were leaving the building, we ran into the general manager, who shook my hand. “He voted at Trump, just look at him,” said Kelly, lighting a cigarette. “He hates me! He’s just waiting for the Internet to do away with the paper so he can fire me,” he added, with a laugh.
One Sunday night at the Backyard Ale House – one of the best-known bars in Scranton – two muted televisions were showing a football game. The men were wearing baseball caps, drank beer out of tall glasses and bellowed at every botched play. Another three screens were showing President-Elect Donald Trump being interviewed on 60 Minutes. At one end of the bar, retiree Bob Guidalini was having a beer with a friend who lives in Los Angeles. Guidalini is short, with thinning hair and a build like Popeye’s. At age 58, he’d voted for a Republican for the first time. “I don’t think Trump’s the best thing there is, but Hillary is a professional politician. Everything about her is fake and premeditated.” Guidalini isn’t unemployed, he’s not uneducated, and he’s not in hard financial straits. He’s just fed up. “Those Washington folks come here and think they’ve got to teach us how to eat with a knife and fork,” he said, eyes fixed on the screen, which was showing a close-up shot of the orange face of the nation’s next president. “I wanted to see what’d happen.” In his view, the media had made Trump out to be much worse than he actually was. And he pointed out that in the victory speech, Trump had said he was going to “bring America together.” “He’s got the will and the power to change things, but they keep riding him for some of the bullshit he says.” Guidalini doesn’t believe in the news he reads online, but he likes Fox News and NPR, which seems “realer” to him. He was impressed with Trump in person. “He came here five times. Five! He really understood the situation, he said he’s going to change things. He’ll get something done here, that’s for sure.”
With Clinton it was different, Guidalini said. The press protected her. “When she said that Trump’s voters were a ‘basket of deplorables,’ nobody thought that was crazy.” And was he offended by her comment? “Yeah, I was offended,” he said, adding that the press had also taken an offensive approach to Trump supporters. Photos taken at the candidate’s rallies, he said, always showed “fat folks looking like Nazis, drunks, or felons.” “Do 61 million Americans look like that? Is that possible?” he asked, looking me in the eye. “She’s the deplorable one.” His friend, who had been living in California for the past 20 years, said that he was also bothered by stereotypes. “People only talk about Scranton because of The Office and because the population’s fucked, in a fucked-up place,” he stammered.
Guidalini thinks that Trump is “a little radical” when it comes to the border wall, but agrees with him that immigration needs to be controlled. “Those people want to come here without contributing to the economy. If you’re illegal, you don’t contribute, but you take advantage of what the working population produces,” he said. The interview with Trump had ended, and the next show was The Simpsons. Clasping his beer bottle, with both elbows propped on the bar, he spoke with a distant air. “Here, if you don’t have a job, you’ve got more benefits than those who do. That’s just crazy.”
The son of Italians who immigrated during the First World War, Guidalini has a very strong opinion on the topic. “Did you know that there was no immigration to this country for 40 years? You know why? Because people needed to ass-im-il-ate,” he said, sounding out each syllable. “They needed to take time after they arrived to learn the language, learn what you eat, how you live, how you work here,” he went on, seeming agitated.
The figure about immigration wasn’t true. Guidalini was reproducing precisely what we can expect of the post-truth era: he repeated a false piece of information with no evidence whatsoever to prove a point. At no point in American history – not during the Depression, not during the World Wars – was immigration halted. The rumor had emerged with Rush Limbaugh, the patriarch of reactionary talk radio, and gained strength on social media and conservative websites.
One of the bar’s employees, who looked Latino, crossed the room carrying a trash can. “Why do we have to have signs in Spanish? Want to live in the United States? Then learn English. We speak English here, that’s the language of this country.” Guidalini’s friend listened in silence. “If things go on like this, what’s this country’s culture going to be in 20 years? Tacos? Tamales? Covering your head with a veil? That’s not the United States.”
One week after the election, I had lunch with David Fahrenthold at a restaurant specializing in hamburgers, near the Post. I had asked to meet with him because I needed an “end” for my story. “Everything we thought would happen didn’t, huh,” he said. As fate would have it, he was also writing the end of his story – working on a first-person piece about the experience of reporting on Trump’s philanthropy, to be published in January in the Washington Post Magazine.
“I wrote the most important pieces of my life, and they had an incredible impact when they were published, but he won the election.” And he went on, holding a massive sandwich in the air: “And you ask yourself: now what?” The upside, he said, was that he’d learned how Trump’s mind works – giving him an advantage in covering the new president over the next four years. “Now I know exactly how he acts, how he thinks, how he manipulates. He keeps on tossing the ball for you to go after it, giving you the runaround, thinking he’s controlling you. The secret, with him, is to just go ahead, do your reporting. Don’t expect an answer or an apology from him. Just do it.”
Two days earlier, the Post’s politics team had met for an election postmortem. Martin Baron thanked all of them for their work, said that they would undertake rigorous coverage of the Trump administration, and that it was a historic moment for those at the paper. Fahrenthold believed that it would be easier to write about Trump now than when he was campaigning. There’s no more Clinton to share the headlines, and Trump can’t just keep on tweeting and making controversial statements at rallies – he’ll have to make good on his promises. “From now on, his actions will be more important than his words,” he said.
I noted to Fahrenthold that he was leading an online poll amongst journalists to determine the best political reporting of the year. “Before the election, I was,” he laughed. “Now, who knows.” He was also seen as a favorite to take home a Pulitzer. “It’d be really great to win. I wish that other people could see through my example what it’s like to cover someone like him.” The fifteen pieces of paper with his remarkable reporting – certainly worthy of a future Newseum exhibit – were tucked away in a drawer in his desk. He’d be going on vacation soon, for the first time in months, to visit his in-laws and spend time with his children in Boston.
After the elections, subscriptions to newspapers and magazines took off in the United States. The New Yorker got 10,000 new readers in three days; the New York Times saw 41,000 in six days; and the Wall Street Journal recorded a 300% increase in sales. ProPublica, which tends to receive ten donations a day, got three per minute for two days straight. The Post’s numbers, as is customary, were not released.