Did Americans vote out the media, too, in this election?

The fact that no major U.S. media outlet predicted Donald Trump’s election victory suggests the issues journalists covered throughout the campaign were not the ones that mattered most to voters. The CBC's Diana Swain spoke with former Toronto Star and Chicago Sun-Times publisher John Cruickshank about the widening gulf between journalists and the public.

Former Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times publisher John Cruickshank talks about why the media got it wrong

The U.S. election exposed a deep divide between journalists and the public. Diana speaks with former newspaper publisher John Cruickshank about why Donald Trump's victory caught journalists by surprise. 4:07

As the Democratic Party ponders its fate in the wake of Tuesday's sobering election results, there's another group trying to figure out what went wrong. Not the Greens or the Libertarians but the news media.

Not only did virtually none of the major media outlets in the U.S. properly predict Trump's victory, but it turned out that the issues that had preoccupied journalists over the past few months were not the ones that mattered to voters.

Trump's rallies, in particular, seemed to highlight the contempt some of his supporters feel for journalists. Many of them made it clear they didn't think the media were fair or objective and had, in fact, picked a side against them.

"Let's face it, we (the media), in many ways, were also on the ballot," said NBC News anchor Lester Holt to the millions watching the U.S. election coverage Tuesday night.​

CBC's program The Investigators spoke to John Cruickshank, former chief news editor of CBC News and recently retired publisher of the Toronto Star, about why the divide between journalists and the public has become so wide.

Here is some of that conversation:

DIANA SWAIN: John, you've worked in newsrooms on both sides of the border — led the Chicago Sun-Times, the Toronto Star. So, how did we get to a point where people think of journalists as "them" and not part of their lives?

JOHN CRUICKSHANK: I think we're part of the lives of about half of the population, and that was really proved out in the election in the United States. And we've seen it here, too, in Canada, where there is tremendous dissatisfaction among people who are of a more conservative bent, or more from the rural part of Canada, with the media.

DIANA SWAIN: Journalists like to think of themselves as people who hold power to account, that we're acting on behalf of the public. And yet, now we're in this space where half of the public doesn't think we have any clue what they care about.

The campaign was covered as if it were a plebiscite on the character of Donald Trump, but it wasn't, really.- John Cruickshank , former publisher of the Toronto Star

JOHN CRUICKSHANK: And I think, in fact, that when you look at the coverage of this past election, it's a fair criticism. Journalism got the context wrong for why people voted the way that they did. The campaign was covered as if it were a plebiscite on the character of Donald Trump, but it wasn't, really. It had a lot more to do with the fact that for almost half of the American population, they haven't had a raise in 40 years.

Social mobility, but especially employment mobility, is almost zero in the United States now. It's the lowest in the Western world. It's far worse in the States than it is here. So, you have in the States, a new kind of segregation, too, among white people. Which is really interesting and really disturbing for them. That is to say, we're in a world now where powerful people marry powerful people. Lawyers marry lawyers. We're no longer in a world where one family lifts another family up, where there is change. There is a class of creative people, and then there are those who, frankly, are not part of this globalized world.

Donald Trump, pictured with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office two days after the election, has had an antagonistic relationship with the media. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

DIANA SWAIN: But journalists think that they talk to people all the time. How did they miss an entire conversation? Is it because there's been a change in the media landscape, that newsrooms have gotten smaller — especially in places like middle America, parts of Canada, as well? That we're all living on the coast now and having conversations that take place there?

JOHN CRUICKSHANK: Absolutely right, Diana. I think that's a big deal in the United States, and even here. In Canada, we have a situation where there are some provincial legislatures that are virtually uncovered by permanent staff. And certainly, we're not doing the kind of coverage of public corporations, of government committees — the kind of thing that we used to do to be a real watchdog.

So, what's happening in the States, of course, is because … there continues to be staffing and budget and reporting on the coasts — coasts that are very Democratic and not Republican. They don't have a sense of the heartland, and they don't have a sense of the struggles that some Americans have.

DIANA SWAIN: If there is half the population — and we use this number a bit loosely — who thinks that we understand what they're interested in, how do journalists win back the public trust of the other 50 per cent?

Trump supporters cheer as they watch election returns in New York early Wednesday. The results of Tuesday's vote suggest that the issues covered in the news media throughout the campaign were not the ones that mattered most to voters. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

JOHN CRUICKSHANK: I think they've got to. One of the things we really have to do is go out and have a look at how life is lived. The reality in Canada is, in fact, different from that of the United States. We've done better in this country at giving people a sense of opportunity. There's still struggles; globalization has still been difficult for people. But there isn't the same sense of being left behind as there is in the United States. However, we do have this problem … where, in fact, the ability to finance coverage is now in Toronto, in Vancouver, in Montreal. But it's getting tougher and tougher everywhere else.

DIANA SWAIN: Thanks for your thoughts on this.


For more on the challenges the media will face under Trump administration, watch The Investigators tonight at 5:30 p.m. ET and 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network. This week's episode also includes interviews with Politico reporter Hadas Gold, a target of some vicious online attacks for her election reporting, and Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who will discuss his new book chronicling his experience in an Egyptian jail.

About the Author

Diana Swain

Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.