What accounts for the dip in the American people’s trust in the media? Perhaps it is because our media “watchdogs” have proven over and over again that they answer to one political master: the Democratic party.
Though it’s commonly ascribed to the viciousness of Ye Olde Orange Manne Badde, the state of public (lack of) respect for mainstream journalists these days is pretty low because of, well, the journalistic profession. Gallup started asking Americans about their trust in mass media in 1972, when a majority still had trust in the newspapers and television networks that dominated the landscape. This finding of a majority of those claiming trust continued until 2005 when the figure dipped to 47 percent and never hit 51% again. The latest iteration of the poll, conducted in September 2020, showed that only 9 percent of Americans trust mass media “a great deal” and 31 percent do so “a fair amount,” while 27 percent have “not very much trust” and 33 percent have “none at all” in media.[*]
The once-venerable Associated Press (AP) proposes some reasons for the declining trust in an April 14 article. Covering a new survey done by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, AP’s David Bauder recounts how asking ordinary Americans about the principles journalists claim to use to determine what is news and how it should be reported reveals a very different set of expectations on the side of readers. Journalistic principles were: “keep watch on the powerful, amplify voices that often go unheard; society works better with information out in the open; the more facts people have the closer they will get to the truth; and it’s necessary to spotlight a community’s problems to solve them.” The survey of nearly three thousand Americans revealed that only reporting facts had majority support (67%), while all the rest were at 50% (give voice to the less powerful) or considerably lower (spotlighting what’s not right at 29%).
Why would giving more facts be the only thing with solid support? The answer is pretty obvious. All the others involve political judgments. On which powerful people are journalists going to keep watch? Which voices will they amplify? Which information will be put out in the open? And deciding what the problems in a community to spotlight—this is a matter of judgment and not strictly reporting.
The Associated Press, in its “analysis” of the new polling, asserts that people want “more than watchdogs.” I think a fairer reading is that they don’t want watchdogs at all, because watchdogs usually answer to a master or mistress. What they want is reporting that actually gives people the facts and does not decide which facts are not important and should be covered over while others are screamed from the rooftop.
What could account for that dip in the polling about trust in media from 1972-2005 and beyond? For those on the progressive left, it is often argued that conservatives are simply against truth and thus against the news. Perhaps. The distrust is unevenly distributed. In the September 2020 study, only 10 percent of Republicans recorded any trust in the big media while Democrats had 73 percent showing trust. But are all Independent voters also against truth? Only 36 percent of Independents claimed any trust in the mass media (6 percent a great deal and 30 a fair amount). It would seem that trust in the media correlates with hearing your side of the story told.
One staff member in the Reagan administration told me recently that Reagan could not have survived today as a politician in the scorched-earth approach of the progressive media. He said that though there was gross unfairness afoot even in the 1970s and 1980s, at least then journalists who were largely politically liberal felt they had an obligation to report the bad stuff of their own political side. Not so today.
The last few weeks have been a cornucopia of revelations that fake news does indeed seem to plague the major outfits. The Hunter Biden laptop story was not only buried by big tech during the election, but it was treated as “Russian disinformation” by the major media outlets. Now that Mr. Biden is in office, there is a blasé approach—yeah, it’s his laptop, so what? No interest in what that laptop might reveal about possible corruption involving both Biden fils et pére. So too with the “Russian bounties” story cooked up by the New York Times last summer. A report that the Russians were paying Afghan militants to kill U. S. soldiers filled the papers starting last July. No confirmation of that by any independent source, but hey it was too good to check and it “kept watch on the powerful” Donald Trump. Now it’s revealed to be nothing. The same goes for the story of Officer Brian Sicknick, who was said to have been murdered on January 6 at the U. S. Capitol. First, it was claimed that he had been killed by a fire extinguisher, then we were told that he had been a victim of bear spray, and now it turns out he had health problems and his death actually had nothing to do with any alleged “insurrectionists.” Yet our media had “confirmed” this, too, though they have no interest in figuring out who the officer was who killed the unarmed Ashli Babbitt.
That “confirmation” word is an interesting one in and of itself, however. While most people think of confirmation as checking independent sources to find truth, it doesn’t seem to be the case that this is what it means anymore. What confirmation seems to mean to journalists today is only that you can go to the same sources and get the same stories. As long as the story benefits one’s own side, it must be the truth.
And even when reporting is accurate, that “keeping watch on the powerful” schtick is not what many people think it is. Jason Nguyen, a reporter at ABC-4 News in Utah, last week showed pictures of himself at the home of a paramedic who had donated ten dollars to the defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Wisconsin teenager who was being attacked by adults during last summer’s riots in Kenosha and shot two of them. That act of showing a person’s private residence is what is known as “doxing” because it allows people to figure out where the person lives and come and intimidate him. All for ten dollars donated by a private individual.
Take your watchdog and get him the heck out of here.
When “keeping watch on the powerful” actually involves someone powerful acting in a public capacity, the principle falters—even when all the major players are journalists. It’s absolutely fascinating that James O’Keefe of Project Veritas was permanently banned from Twitter this past week (he’s suing them) for posting undercover recordings of a CNN technical director named Charles Chester admitting that what they do at that agency is “propaganda” and giving examples of different ways in which they spin the news to get people to believe what they want them to. Shouldn’t the ban go to CNN?
Yet it doesn’t. And the people in the reporting business seem to think the general public will not notice, that we will trust journalists blindly when they say they are simply reporting straight. The Associated Press quotes former reporter Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute as saying that reporters “are not lying” about what they’re doing; instead they just “define their job a certain way.” “They really don’t think of themselves as secret agents of the Democratic Party.”
Alas, as Project Veritas has shown, there are some who do think of themselves that way. For too many other journalists, it doesn’t really matter what they think of themselves as—their actions bear out that whatever journalistic “principles” they have, they are flexible enough to bend when the demands of their own party are something different than truth. MSN reported last week on an internal memo from AP telling reporters not to call what is happening at the southern U. S. border a “crisis,” despite the fact that far smaller numbers of people in detention facilities during the Trump presidency made that term obligatory. Even President Biden has called it a “crisis.” We might say in this case, contra Tom Rosenstiel, that journalists are more direct advocates of the Democratic Party than the head of it.
Mark Twain famously talked about lies, damned lies, and statistics. “Journalism” is fast making itself a fine third term.
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