Linda Leonhart is an evangelical Christian from Texas who is mulling the pros and cons of being a Donald Trump supporter. “Certainly we are all embarrassed,” she acknowledges to The New York Times, while discussing the president’s personal behavior. “But for the most part, he represents what we stand for.”
Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa is “a pro-life feminist” organizer, rape survivor, and political independent who wanted to bring her views on abortion into the feminist movement. Now, after a year of President Trump, she tells PBS her role has changed; today she is intent on bringing a “very woman-centered element in the pro-life movement.”
For news organizations covering the Trump presidency, it is impossible to avert your eyes from the drama at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where barely a day passes without breathless news of tweets, turnover, and turmoil.
And while some media and Trump critics argue that journalists should tune out the daily White House churn—arguing that it plays into a deliberate strategy to distract—what happens there is obviously newsworthy and potentially decisive. (Although the president appears to be rewriting the rulebook on the political ramifications of what would traditionally be considered damaging news.)
But as the Times and PBS interviews suggest, there is another way to cover the Trump presidency. It may not have the virtue of instant, explosive headlines, but it avoids a dangerous pitfall that the political press, by its own admission, stumbled into while covering the 2016 election. That was the mistake of misreading, or at least not understanding, the mood of the country.
That’s a pretty compelling reason for news organizations to make a habit of fanning out from the Beltway to learn from the Leonharts and De La Rosas about what is happening in the nation under an unprecedented presidency. And while much of Washington-centric coverage paints a picture of intractable polarization and unshakeable ideologies, the view from the rest of America can add some valuable nuance and ambiguity to the political narrative.
Reporting from Main Street also helps in the search for the answer to one question that many, inside and outside of journalism, are grappling with. Asserting that the most crucial elements in deciding the course of this presidency—other than Trump himself—are Republicans in Congress and the president’s base of loyal supporters, Jeff Greenfield asked recently on CNN’s Reliable Sources: “What could Trump do that would make his base say, ‘maybe not’?”
That’s the context for this month’s New York Times story—dateline Grapevine, Texas—talking to the evangelical women who still generally support Trump, but increasingly find him testing the limits of that support. That includes Carol Rains, who says she doesn’t regret her vote for Trump, but adds, “I would like for someone to challenge him,” in the 2020 Republican presidential contest.
Bloomberg News has been in touch with eight Trump voters from four crucial Rust Belt states, checking in periodically at various points during Trump’s tenure in the White House. In this group, there is occasional evidence of some frustration with the president. Kim Woodrosky, a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania real estate investor, says his tweeting “drives me out of my mind… All it does is infuriate people.”
But it’s important to see that in this cohort, where support for Trump has remained quite strong, his problems are largely attributed to an unfortunate array of enemies and obstructionists.
The citizens who shared their thoughts on the Trump administration with PBS represent a wider array of political beliefs, and some of them defy easy stereotypes.
That includes Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, the purple-haired “pro-life feminist,” trying to find her way in the Trump era. It also includes Brandice Nelson, an African-American curator of museum maps who didn’t vote in 2016, but now praises Trump and his immigration policies, saying the travel ban on Muslim counties wasn’t “executed well,” but isn’t “intended to be racist.”
None of these stories are journalistically extraordinary nor do they require extraordinary resources or time. But they do, in a meaningful way, shift the spotlight from the insular, pundit-driven Washington, D.C. media culture to where much of the rest of the country lives.
From time to time, the news business makes very self-conscious efforts to refresh the reporter’s Rolodex and focus more on, as trite as it sounds, ordinary Americans. Such was the case with the ultimately ill-fated civic journalism initiative of the 1990s which has now been resurrected and updated with the growing “community engagement” movement in journalism.
This isn’t to say that political reporters don’t talk to regular folks or don’t see the value in it. But in many cases, they’re not using the best tools. Focus groups, person-on-the street snapshots, and opinion polls aren’t suitable substitutes for ongoing organic conversations curated by journalists.
It is undeniably true that, on any given day, something that happens in or around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could be a game changer. And rest assured, the media won’t miss it. But as most of us learned in November 2016, finding the real story generally requires more shoe-leather.