Shell-shocked by Trump win, public radio’s politics all-stars share thoughts on election coverage

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“The set of voices the media missed the most during the election were ‘unenthusiastic Democrats,’” NPR Politics reporter Sam Sanders said at Third Coast. (Photos: Bill Healy/Third Coast Audio Festival)"

“The set of voices the media missed the most during the election were ‘unenthusiastic Democrats,’” NPR Politics reporter Sam Sanders said at Third Coast. (Photos: Bill Healy/Third Coast Audio Festival)"

CHICAGO — Only days after the presidential election, four of public radio’s most high-profile political journalists convened Saturday for a raucous, often contentious discussion of their election coverage strategies, trying to point to a way forward for public media in a divided country.

In piecing together the aftermath of the surprising election of Donald Trump, panel moderator Bob Garfield didn’t mince words: “The media share the blame,” the host of WNYC’s On the Media declared. Among other reasons, Garfield said, journalists writ large “failed to persuasively explain shit to folks.”

Garfield challenged his other panelists — NPR politics reporter Sam Sanders, Latino USA host and Futuro Media Group president Maria Hinojosa and This American Life reporter Zoe Chace — to figure out how to cover a country that suddenly looked very different from how it appeared before Tuesday. “How can we do the job of reporting truth without being dismissed as polemicists?” he said.

The panel, titled “Mudslide: The Election of 2016,” took place at the Third Coast International Audio Festival conference. (Listen to a full recording of the panel here.) It had been on Third Coast’s schedule before the election and was originally planned to examine “a year’s worth of stories from the campaign trail.”

But in the shadow of the week’s events, the 90-minute talk became more of a mea culpa and communal therapy session. “I am five things that the president-elect does not like,” Hinojosa said. “I’m Mexican. I’m an immigrant. I’m a woman. I’m a journalist. I’m flat-chested.”

Panelists admitted to being blindsided by the results. On election night, Chace appeared on another panel to discuss what Republicans would do after the campaign. “That became irrelevant 45 minutes later,” she said. Her boss, Ira Glass, had been scheduled to attend Third Coast but pulled out to overhaul the week’s TAL episode in the wake of the results.

Everyone had a list of diagnoses. “We did not understand the level of unenthusiasm that existed among traditionally Democratic voting blocs,” Sanders said, a sentiment the room generally agreed with. Chace noted that she had “outsourced” her gathering of predictive polls to outlets that focus on polling, such as FiveThirtyEight, and most of those polls ultimately framed a misleading narrative that showed Hillary Clinton with a comfortable lead.

And all of the panelists agreed that a continued lack of both racial and class diversity in newsrooms hindered outlets’ abilities to find broader, uncovered election stories.

“We don’t have the right people in the office, and I think that’s a big problem,” Chace said. “A lot of people in these offices went to the same college.”

Garfield took the diversity question a step further when he asked the room of more than 700 audio professionals to stand up if they self-identified as “liberal” or “progressive.” Almost the entire room stood. Some, once standing, walked out of the room.

In a country with such a polarized media scene, public media is “already not being heard by approximately 50 percent of the potential audience,” Garfield said. He returned several times to the question of how to reach the half of the country that has written off public radio because of what they perceive as bias.

When someone comes up to Sanders in the field and accuses NPR of being biased, “I ask them a question back,” Sanders said. “‘OK, thanks for the feedback. What did you hear that sounded biased?’… I never have an answer to the question that’s like, ‘You’re wrong.’ Because they feel that way, and it needs to be addressed.”

Sanders noted that the tone of the NPR Politics podcast conversations, in which reporters never raise their voices at each other, likely helped attract a large and ideologically diverse audience. He said the show — which released about two new episodes a week throughout campaign season and came out daily in the weeks leading up to Election Day — received letters from Republicans, evangelicals and atheists. One comment came from a Trump supporter who also supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

When discussion turned to what panelists could have done differently and how they should change future coverage, the tone became combative. When Sanders spoke to the necessity to both warn listeners of the unique threats posed by Trump’s presidency while simultaneously remaining open-hearted and compassionate to all voters, Garfield retorted, “How did that work out for you?”

Chace leapt to Sanders’ defense. “That’s not Sam’s job to make the next president,” she said. “We’re covering America. We’re not deciding what America is.”

And when Garfield probed how journalists should respond to the country’s new “state of emergency,” the room pushed back, pointing to populations where that state has been a reality for a long time. Hinojosa noted that many immigrant families already face daily threats of deportation. Others pointed to similar climates of fear in other populations in America; when audience members asked questions of the panelists, a black public radio reporter “thanked” Trump for making other Americans understand the fear she already experienced every day.

Despite the dire mood, Garfield’s repeated calls for media “not to be calm” in the face of extraordinary circumstances were met with skepticism.

“I don’t have to scream to have a sense of urgency,” Sanders said. “I think we mistake loudness for effectiveness sometimes, or paranoia for urgency.” He received a round of applause for that comment and added, “I walk around every day as a six-foot-tall black guy with no hair on his head and a beard, and I can’t walk into every room and yell.”

“Maybe a lot of us should be using our white privilege to do the yelling that you don’t get to do,” Garfield said, to which Sanders yelled, “No!”

In an election of intense name-calling, terminology became a hot potato, as well. Futuro Media Group set its terms from the outset by banning the words “illegal” and “minority” from its broadcasts. “For us, this is core,” said Hinojosa.

During the audience questions, Andi McDaniel, senior director of content and news at Washington, D.C.’s WAMU, pleaded with her colleagues to “listen to the station like a ‘deplorable’.” Hinojosa broke in. “Please, do not use that word anymore, mamita.”

After the panel, McDaniel told Current she hadn’t intended to use the word pejoratively but was trying to show how people like her boyfriend, who grew up in rural Iowa and has firsthand knowledge of the kinds of concerns generally shared by voters who overwhelmingly supported Trump, tend to get painted with a broad brush by both Clinton supporters and the media.

With the election just barely in the rearview mirror, ultimately no one on the panel could offer much in the way of definitive prescriptions. But on a more granular level, the NPR Politics podcast will resume a frequency of one to two episodes per week going forward, and there will be some reshuffling of the core staff.

“Everyone was surprised by the results,” Sanders told Current after the panel. “But now it’s reaffirming the beauty and the necessity of the work that we do.”

  • TomKaz

    Garfield seems to have been the only honest person in the room.

    Public radio is predominately staffed with liberals/progressives who live in an echo chamber with other liberals/progressives. How else do you explain the “dire mood” at what was described as a “communal therapy session”? Their candidate lost.

    Funny how Hinojosa unwittingly (or uncaring) outed herself as a political propagandist by explaining it is “core” to ban terms such as “illegal” from her broadcasts, and NPR (and Sam Sanders) can’t understand why anyone would think NPR is biased. Maybe Sanders should take time to read the comment section on NPR.org sometime. Oh, wait a minute, there isn’t a comment section on NPR.org.

    Public radio doesn’t lack of “racial and class diversity”. They lack ideological diversity, but will never admit it, nor do anything about it.

    There’s one thing we won’t be surprised by over the next 4 years: NPR will relentlessly bash both Trump and the Republican-controlled congress.

    • Who’s biased here? You’re just reading into this what you want to read. The “dire mood” was more about failing to provide the coverage they wish they’d provided. Not that “their candidate lost.” And Sanders didn’t say he “can’t understand why anyone would think NPR is biased.” You are simply making that up.

      • Question: There’ve been some really good stories over the last week about what a Trump presidency will mean to all sorts of individuals, groups etc. Though I recognize that a LITTLE of that was sprinkled over the campaign, wouldn’t doing those before an election — for all candidates — have been valuable?

        In other words, couldn’t we peel back a bit from the food fight. There’s nothing that says just because the candidates wouldn’t talk specifics, that we couldn’t. We’ve done it this week without any specifics from the new administration.

        But this adherence to regurgitating what candidates say and maybe interview Pat Buchanan (which NPR did) or David Duke (which NPR did) as one of the Trump’s surrogates didn’t have the insight that some of the heft we’ve seen in the last week has had.

        On a larger question, how is NPR going to cover an administration like this when it worked so hard during the campaign to only go so far as to repeat what someone else was saying? I’m speaking specifically at the disagreement between NPR and the NYT over the reference to the term “lies”.

        • TomKaz

          You can’t peel back from a food fight when media organizations think it’s okay to ban words like “illegal”, or give credibility to pols and pundits who hurl charges of racism against people who think the government should control our borders and enforce immigration laws that are already on the books. You can’t peel back from a food fight when you play the guilt by association game on one side (interviewing David Duke), but don’t play it on the other side. Where was NPR’s interview of John Bachtell, the national chair of the Communist Party USA?

      • TomKaz

        Yep, I’m just “reading into this:

        – the country is in a new “state of emergency”
        – journalists writ large “failed to persuasively explain sh1t to folks.”
        – “I am five things that the president-elect does not like,”
        – “listen to the station like a ‘deplorable’.”
        – “set its terms from the outset by banning the words “illegal””
        – “a black public radio reporter “thanked” Trump for making other Americans understand the fear she already experienced every day.”
        – “asked the room of more than 700 audio professionals to stand up if they self-identified as “liberal” or “progressive.” Almost the entire room stood. Some, once standing, walked out of the room.”

        Why can’t NPR employees just admit it? They’re overwhelmingly liberal/progressive and they’re biased.

    • Nick Danger

      The RELENTLESS bias on NPR is ridiculous. I have recently deported myself from Liberal Island, and the bias is shocking to me. The interviews are filled with biased and loaded questions. The implication is that all Right-Minded People Support the Criminal Illegals. Well, I don’t, and Donald Trump doesn’t and the criminal illegals are why he got elected. Because a majority of the voters side with him, and want DEPORTATION.

      • MarkJeffries

        Anyone want to tell Nick Danger, Third Eye (Twitter handle @GeorgePTyrebyter) that the Firesign Theatre were a bunch of lefties who did most of their radio work on a Pacifica station in LA? Why haven’t you used as a pseud one of Jeff Dunham’s dummies?

        • Nick Danger

          And your point is what, exactly? Lefties in the 1970s are often not lefties today. When you become an adult, you leave behind childish things.

          • MarkJeffries

            And how exactly is being a racist, misogynist and homophobe becoming an adult?

          • Nick Danger

            Alt-left wacks see the world through a lens in which the racist quantity of every statement is carefully measured. That’s insane. There is very little in this world that is racist. But there are a lot of people who are insane enough to see it everywhere. That’s one big reason Trump won.

  • Andrew Lapin

    I will clarify Hinojosa’s editorial stance on the word “illegal.” She objects to using the word as both a noun (e.g. “illegals”) and an adjective to describe a person (e.g. “illegal immigrant”). Instead, she advocates the use of phrases like “an immigrant living illegally” or “an immigrant living without papers.”

    She’s articulated her reasoning behind this stance on TV news programs in the past: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/latina-journalist-breaks-down-why-saying-illegals-is-wrong-on-so-many-levels_us_5817347de4b0990edc32026e

    • TomKaz

      “Instead, she advocates the use of phrases like “an immigrant living illegally” or “an immigrant living without papers.”

      NPR and Hinojosa should stop with the word games. Many immigrants who’ve come to the U.S. hold legally obtained documents such as a driver’s license, while many others obtained fraudulent documents such as Social Security Carda, fake “green cards,” or phony birth certificates, which takes illegal behavior to another level. They are not merely “undocumented” as Hinojosa would her listeners believe.

    • Nick Danger

      They are illegals. And they are gonna be deported. It is time, way past time, for NPR to stop with the accessory after the fact, and accessory before the fact, for the illegals. These people are criminals. I don’t care if they are the brothers and sisters of Maria Hinojosa. They are criminals. And we are gonna deport them OUT of the US back to WHEREVER they are from.

      • Brad Deltan

        Unless you’re a Native American, I assume you’ll be consistent with your beliefs and immediately return to your country of origin, never to return?

    • blessdog

      that’s absurd – “illegal” is simply an accurate description of those who have entered the United States illegally. PERIOD. Using “undocumented”, is a blatant and transparent attempt to blur and deny this truth.

      • Brad Deltan

        I suggest you actually conduct even a cursory review of immigration law of the United States before making such a blanket statement.

        Many, many “undocumented” immigrants would not be “illegal” immigrants under your definition, because they entered the country perfectly legally under a tourist visa, educational visa, work visa, etc…but then overstayed the visa and became “undocumented”.

        Even then, they’re not necessarily “illegal” just because they stayed in the country longer than the visa allowed for. There are literally dozens of options for an immigrant to apply for another visa, even another kind of visa, and remain in the country…legally…while waiting weeks, if not months or years, for the new visa to be processed. All the while they are most definitely “undocumented” even if they’re not “illegal”.

  • Colin McEnroe

    Hard to see how Chace has anything to apologize for. Her TAL episode on Republicans in Minnesota and the town-wide freakout over Somalians was the kind of thing we all should have done more of.

  • Paul Cook

    700 audio professionals to stand up if they self-identified as “liberal” or “progressive.” Almost the entire room stood.

    NPR management doesn’t grock this.

    • Ryan Kailath

      I kinda couldn’t believe that myself, but then most in the room are not news reporters. I didn’t stand because I am, and won’t identify publicly one way or another.

    • Adam Ragusea

      Yeah, important to remember, Paul, that Third Coast isn’t a public radio conference. It’s an audio conference. Lots of public radio people attend, but they’re not the only people in the room, and in the calendar of conferences that people like me attend every year, this is probably the one that feels least NPRish. There’s lots of sound artists, community radio people, people from commercial podcasting, various indies, etc. If Bob had asked that question at PRNDI, many fewer people would have stood, and only some of them would have stayed seated out of a sense of discretion.

      • TomKaz

        “If Bob had asked that question at PRNDI, many fewer people would have stood, and only some of them would have stayed seated out of a sense of discretion.”

        We will never know, will we?

        Chace said “We don’t have the right people in the office”, “and all of the panelists agreed that a continued lack of both racial and class diversity in newsrooms hindered outlets’ abilities to find broader, uncovered election stories.”

        Do NPR staffers really think that’s the problem? That they don’t have enough people from different colleges, or they don’t have enough racial and class diversity in their newsrooms? Why does NPR and its employees continue to dance around the real issue? The sad truth is NPR’s staff overwhelming hold liberal/progressive views, and few if any have political views reflective of half the electorate.

  • Paul Cook

    public media is “already not being heard by approximately 50 percent of the potential audience,” Garfield said. He returned several times to the question of how to reach the half of the country that has written off public radio because of what they perceive as bias.

    Knock, knock! Anyone listening at NPR?

    • Nick Danger

      Ever listen to Ari Shapiro? The guy is the most biased “reporter” I have heard in years. NPR is becoming the alt-left alternative to Faux.

  • Brad Deltan

    I read the comments of articles like this and I understand why NPR killed off the comments.

    There is literally not one ounce of useful conversation happening anymore on this article or on ANY Current article that’s even remotely about politics. It’s all conservative trolls spouting off total nonsense and hapless contributors and editors vainly trying to use reality to rebut them…and failing at it.

    Just kill the damn comments off already, will you, Current? They make the rest of the articles look like crap.