How Donald Trump became the president-elect and how most reporters didn’t see it coming were central to a discussion of presidential campaign coverage at Duke University featuring some of the nation’s top political reporters.
Peter Hamby, head of news for Snapchat, criticized television networks for letting Trump on air unchecked in exchange for ratings. Karen Tumulty, a Washington Post reporter, talked of covering “a candidate unlike anything we’ve ever seen.” Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker, talked about white nationalists’ support for Trump and his plans for the presidency. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post described breaking the news of the Access Hollywood tape and using Twitter to report on Trump’s charitable giving. “Trump does a good job in keeping information about himself secret,” Fahrenthold said, noting as examples Trump’s taxes and debts.
They spoke Saturday at the John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Colloquium on Politics and the Press at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
The jumping off point for the discussion was how Trump’s victory surprised journalists. Most polls showed Democrat Hillary Clinton ahead in most battleground states, and political news sites that relied on polls showed her winning.
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“We were wrong, and we were wrong, and we were wrong,” said Osnos.
Journalists are inclined to look for signs of a well-run campaign – professional behavior, a good organization and polls, Hamby said. But “state polls are shoddy or infrequent,” he said, and journalists need to get outside the “echo chamber” of Twitter and polling sites.
He said he deleted Twitter from his phone Friday, but admitted he reloaded it Saturday morning.
“We can get immersed in politics,” he said, but “it prevents us from getting outside our bubble, our comfort zone.”
Some of twists and turns in Trump’s campaign would have been fatal to another candidates, said Tumulty, mentioning Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter and saying in reference to Sen. John McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Tumulty interviewed lifelong Democrat Teresa Sikorski of Ohio, who is liberal former Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s sister, about her support for Trump.
“I think Trump supporters were hearing what he had to say and hearing (it) in a different way than we were,” she said.
The Access Hollywood tape where Trump was heard making lewd comments about women was thought to be a fatal blow.
“I thought, now it’s over,” said Osnos. “Now, it’s really over. People will finally see the Trump that we see.”
Then Osnos called suburban women he’s met while reporting and found that their support for Trump had not diminished.
“Nobody was defecting,” he said. People told him, “ ‘There’s a lot I will never agree with, but I will never support that woman.’ I heard a version of that over and over.”
Osnos wrote before the election about a Trump first term and described what the campaign called the First Day Project.
Using executive authority, they “could begin to erase the Obama presidency,” Osnos said.
In covering the Trump presidency, TV news needs to be committed to fact checking in real time and reporting real stories, Hamby said. Trump is settling a fraud lawsuit over Trump University, but tweets about the musical Hamilton “and that’s what everybody is talking about,” Hamby said.