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Reporters watch the second debate last month in St. Louis
Reporters watch the second debate last month in St. Louis
Margaret Sullivan

WASHINGTON — To put it bluntly, the media missed the story. In the end, a huge number of American voters wanted something different. And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren't listening. They didn't get it.

They didn't get that the huge, enthusiastic crowds at Donald Trump's rallies would really translate into that many votes. They couldn't believe that the America they knew could embrace someone who mocked a disabled man, bragged about sexually assaulting women, and spouted misogyny, racism and anti-Semitism.

It would be too horrible. So, therefore, according to some kind of magical thinking, it couldn't happen.

Journalists — college-educated, urban and, for the most part, liberal — are more likely than ever before to live and work in New York City and Washington, D.C., or on the West Coast. And although we touched down in the big red states for a few days, or interviewed some coal miners or unemployed auto workers in the Rust Belt, we didn't take them seriously. Or not seriously enough.

And Trump — who called journalists scum and corrupt — alienated us so much that we couldn't see what was before our eyes. We just kept checking our favorite prognosticating sites and feeling reassured, even though everyone knows that poll results are not votes.

After all, you never know who'll show up to vote, especially when votes are being suppressed as never before. And even the most Clinton-leaning prognosticators allowed for some chance of a Trump win.

But no one seemed to believe it in their bones. We would have President Clinton, went the journalistic conventional wisdom, and although she would be flawed, she would be a known quantity. There was a kind of comfort there.

Make no mistake. This is an epic fail. And although eating crow is never appealing, we'll be digesting feathers and beaks in the next weeks and months — and maybe years.

The strange thing, of course, is that the media helped to give Trump his chance.

Did journalists create Trump? Of course not — they don't have that kind of power. But they helped him tremendously, with huge amounts of early, unfiltered exposure in the months leading up to the Republican primary season. With ridiculous emphasis put on every development about Hillary Clinton's email practices, including the waffling of FBI Director James B. Comey.

I'm no fan of Peter Thiel, the billionaire who put Gawker out of business by bankrolling a lawsuit by Hulk Hogan, the professional wrestler. In fact, I find him appalling.

But when he spoke recently at the National Press Club, he said something that struck me as quite perceptive about Donald Trump.

"The media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally," Thiel said. Journalists wanted to know exactly how he would deport that many undocumented immigrants, or exactly how Trump would rid the world of ISIS. We wanted details.

But a lot of voters think the opposite way: They take Trump seriously but not literally.

They realize, Thiel said, that Trump doesn't really plan to build a wall. "What they hear is, ‘We're going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.'"

Trump, quite apparently, captured the anger that Americans were feeling about issues such as trade and immigration.

And although many journalists and many news organizations did stories about the frustration and disenfranchisement of these Americans, we did not take them seriously enough.

And although we journalists try to portray ourselves as cynical sometimes, or hard-bitten, we can also be idealistic, even naive.

We wanted to believe in a country where decency and civility still mattered, and where someone so crude, spiteful and intemperate could never be elected — because America was better than that.

I can fault journalists for a lot of things, but I can't fault us for that.

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