Older journalists of my generation (I am shortly 88) don’t know whether to gloat or groan at the dismal performances of so many of our younger colleagues over the American presidential election. Those of us who are optimists hope that it will change the direction of the modern scourge of “interpretative reporting” to less interpretation and more straight reporting. Back to the dictum of the great giant of journalism, C.P.Scott, a past editor of the Guardian:
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
Scott’s memorable essay should be re-read annually by everyone claiming to be a journalist.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only old-timer to predict the victory of Donald J Trump. In my case, the prediction rested on what I have always pronounced as the three key principles of political power:
Politics 101: Politics is the art of the possible.
Politics 102: If you can’t get what you want, take what you can get.
Politics 103: Politicians must learn to count.
How did these relate to USA 2016?
Politics 101: Political power can only be achieved by a majority of votes that actually count. To win those votes you have to convey to voters a message they want to hear, getting their attention by focusing on issues that are important to them, in language that attracts and motivates them. Trump did that in spades! The voters heard and were motivated. Apart from “Make America Great Again,” no high-flying policy principles, but down-to-earth issues like immigration and jobs.
Politics 102: History tells us that, in the electoral system unique to the US presidency, total votes count for very little, and there are states within America that seem perpetually wed to being either Republican or Democrat. For a Republican it would be nice to have big counting states like California or New York, but essentially a waste of time and effort. Better to concentrate on possible “swing” states, such as those in the so-called Rust Belt, which Trump did, and thus took what he could get. Among the people, Trump wasted little time on white collar “liberals”, and focused on the discontented blue collars he thought he could get.
Politics 103: Accurate counting was the key to Trump’s victory. Trump’s popular vote was about on par with Romney’s four years earlier, but the deciding factor was that Hillary Clinton polled some 6.5 million votes less than Barack Obama in 2012. Polls didn’t pick that up. Lop-sided polling figures in states like California and New York could not and did not affect their respective tallies of electoral votes. But careful country-by-county and state-by-state counting in areas like the Rust Belt should have had closer attention from media commentators who were so confident in their advance proclamations of a handsome Clinton winning margin.
So Trump won, but the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth within the commentariat continues (although more so in New Zealand than in the US where it is relevant). What the weepers and wailers seem unable to recognise, let alone acknowledge, is the difference between what a candidate must do and say to win office, as compared with what the same candidate will put into practice having won office. Those of us who analyse the expressed views of journos and commentators in both New Zealand and America have noted the continuing negativity toward Trump of our own print and electronic media compared with the calm, reasoned utterances of their US colleagues, whose acceptance of the result almost glows with positivity. (One notably positive exception: expatriate Kiwi businessman, Chris Liddell, on TV One’s Q+A last Sunday, but then, he was talking from in situ knowledge rather than parroting the groans of noisy US street protestors). Plus we are already seeing signs of Trump moderating many of his more controversial campaign pronouncements.
If our news media had paid more attention to what has actually been happening around the world, in the wake of Brexit, and the Australian election closer to home, they would have reported on the rising tide of anti-establishment that was clearly visible in America, and is now evident in western European countries looking toward national elections. In the US, there was evident discontent among what they call their middle classes, that same section of the population we in New Zealand call “the centre” where our elections are won or lost.
For our National-led Government looking next year to winning a rare fourth term, this has significant repercussions, not the least in greater Auckland, an area so decisive in National’s past three victories. There is some similarity between the defining issues in the US and Auckland: certainly immigration, as well as dissatisfaction with the dictatorship of the ruling bureaucracy, in Washington, the perceived unaccountable “elites”; in Auckland, the officious City Council staff and the unaccountability of the unelected CCO’s.
If National’s leadership cannot improve on its Auckland Future disaster, and offer practical encouragement to new Mayor Phil Goff in his announced campaign to bring the bureaucracy to heel, they may face the possibility of Auckland middle classes turning more to our own home-grown Trump, Winston Peters.
Terry Dunleavy, MBE, JP, a retired journalist of Hauraki, North Shore, and the wine correspondent for INCITE: Politics