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The American media elite has learned nothing from 2016. It will only get worse

Jessa Crispin
Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The world has gotten weird, so it is natural to turn to the news to explain to us what is going on. But what is going on in the pages of the newspapers and in the studios of the 24-hour news networks is sometimes as confusing as the news they are reporting.

We have someone on television comparing the supporters of the Jewish presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to Nazi “brownshirts”. We have MSNBC hosts comparing Bernie Sanders’ Nevada win to the Nazi invasion of France. We have someone on television constructing elaborate fantasies about Bernie Sanders walking him into Central Park and shooting him in the back of the head for having too much money. We have people on television who see the hand of Russian agents in every mishap, and we have so many women and men in newspapers who insist that being criticized for their work is a violation of their constitutional rights.

Journalism was supposed to save us. They promised. After the election of Donald Trump, which the good gentlemen and ladies of journalism assisted in facilitating, much was made of the ability of the fourth estate to soften the blow, to shorten the reign of corruption, to protect the public from the madman in the White House. It hasn’t really worked out that way, and the increasingly unhinged rhetoric of the opinion-havers and the public faces of news networks does little to restore our faith.

Related: Media leaders agonize over amplifying Trump lies as 2020 election year begins

The media has come under fire for its role in helping President Trump make his way to the highest office in the land – from making too much of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, to giving Trump untold hours of free publicity by broadcasting his every word and deed, to fundamentally misunderstanding their own country and what the people who live between New York and Los Angeles might want or need.

Yet, for the most part, the media did not take its failure to foresee or prevent the results of the 2016 election as a cue to pause, assess what it has been doing wrong, and realign itself and its mission in response to the hard lessons it has learned.

Instead, the media rebranded, like an oil company recently discovered to be dumping toxic sludge down the throats of sea turtles. It announced it would be the bulwark against Trump and all of his cronies, the last line of protection between us and fascism. Ta-da. It created whole ad campaigns around Trump’s hatred for the press. If he hates us, that must mean we’re good, right? Right?

Like those companies, it never stopped its sludge dumping, just changed the name under which it committed its sea turtle murder. No one lost their job for assuring the country of the impossibility of Hillary Clinton losing the election. No pundits had to apologize for never once stepping inside a red state before pontificating about the state of things in Trump country. The New York Times relied on the same six “swing voters” to provide commentary whenever the paper of record decided it need to prove it was in touch with the common people.

Billionaires buying newspapers also became something of a trend, like fidget spinners or insulin rationing due to a lack of comprehensive health insurance – either because these billionaires seek to make themselves look philanthropic, or because they want to control the coverage of their financial goings-on, or both. (Democracy dies in darkness, Mr Bezos? Yeah, well, so do workers on your warehouse floors.)

Yes, the media made a few cosmetic changes to prove they understood the diversity of thought across this nation. The New York Times, for example, decided it lacked the conservative voices that could explain the populist rightward tilt the electorate took, so the paper hired man-of-the-people Bret Stephens – son of a corporate scion, graduate of the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics – as a columnist. You know, someone who could really give some insight into the kind of opinions circulating at the Beloit, Kansas, diner at harvest time. Other publications followed suit, fawning over anyone who might have accidentally found themselves briefly living in a conservative state before their inevitable elevation to the elite university system, like the Yale graduate/Appalachia expert/venture capitalist JD Vance, despite the multitude of critics who say his theories about the white working class are naive at best.

Journalism has become a well-gate-kept little bubble, if bubbles were created out of ignorance and contempt for what lay outside of them instead of just soap. And unlike soap bubbles, so easily pricked and burst, the walls of the ideological bubbles of our professional class are nearly impenetrable.

Related: The New York Times's success lays bare the media's disastrous state | Emily Bell

As local newspapers disappear due to the financial meddling of Facebook and venture capitalists, and as journalism becomes a career that requires advanced degrees rather than apprenticeships, it is harder and harder for anyone who does not come from an upper-middle-class background or elite education to find work and a voice in our media institutions. What gives you access to these realms is not a unique insight or an empathetic perspective or access to overlooked populations, but instead credentials only attainable by wealth or privilege. Vance went to Yale, so whatever he says about Appalachia must be right, because his editor also probably went to Yale and so did his editor’s boss and so on.

The biases of the professional classes replicate themselves, and we find figures as horrified and baffled by the progressive left as they are by the reactionary right. Often, as with Chuck Todd and Chris Matthews, they can’t even distinguish between the two groups. Anyone working as a collective must be essentially the same, even if one group is chanting white nationalist slogans and the other is asking for racial and economic justice. But who can tell the difference, watching the demonstration, as they do, through the glass of their building on Eighth Avenue?

  • Jessa Crispin is the host of the Public Intellectual podcast