Drive-by journalism in Trumplandia

SALENA ZITO NEEDS A NEW JEEP. Her current model is slowly dying after 14 years and more than 300,000 miles on the road, much of it crisscrossing the Rust Belt to chronicle socioeconomic decay and deep-seated political disenchantment. But giving up her car would feel like losing an appendage. “I never fly; doesn’t matter how far away it is,” she says, adding that she also tries to avoid interstates. It helps keep her out of chain hotels.

“I always stay right in the heart of the towns wherever I go and spend days there—not hours,” Zito says. “You get to know the pace of life. You get to understand who the business and community leaders are.”

The Pittsburgh-based columnist’s work on the rise of American populism has put her at the center of a dispute that has roiled the journalism world for the better part of a year. The dust may have settled since President Trump’s victory shocked much of the media establishment in November. But the debate over how to cover the people who catapulted him into office has only grown more complicated as investigative reporters in Washington have smelled blood in the first chaotic months of his administration.

If the immediate critique after the election was that political reporters didn’t get out into the heartland and listen to people drawn to Trump, the pendulum has since swung in the opposite direction. Virtually all national outlets have run some version, and likely multiple versions, of a story taking the temperature of Trump country, be it a hard-on-its-luck coaltown in Appalachia or a hollowed-out manufacturing hub in the upper Midwest. Regional newspapers have more recently jumped on the bandwagon as well. The pieces focus heavily on the white working class, a group portrayed as struggling to come to grips with its dimming economic fortunes and diminished social dominance in a multicultural and post-industrial America. They’ll support Trump, the narrative goes, until the factory jobs come back–which is to say, forever.

While some stories have offered insight into these communities’ affinity for a billionaire with authoritarian tendencies, much of the coverage feels like checking a box: We sent a reporter to explore the heart of American darkness. Such drive-by attempts signal that national media isn’t grappling with its mistakes in any sustained way. The fear is we may miss something just as big again.

Campaign reporting is an attempt to pinpoint changes from one election to the next, in part to highlight those slivers of the voting public that, in elections like this, have an outsized effect on the result. Zito and a few others arguably came out on top by focusing on these Real-American communities when it mattered, but media outlets’ frame of reference has been slow to change since November 8. To ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis, whose profile of political change in Dayton, Ohio, was perhaps the defining story of the 2016 race, the flood of Trump country stories since then amounts to an oversimplified and ultimately unfulfilling attempt at atonement.

“Now that we’re beyond the election,” he says, “it does behoove us to broaden out the lens again. Now there are in fact other groups that really matter a lot.” Take communities affected by federal policy changes, or the growing number of supposedly immovable Trump voters who are souring on him, as outlined by FiveThirtyEight election guru Nate Silver.

Read the full coverage HERE.

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